lundi, juillet 24, 2006

Belle de Jour was a blog conceived by a coterie of young women who saw it as an appropriate vehicle to vent their frustrations with various aspects of their personal and professional lives: Highly educated and attractive they were trapped in an environment where intellect was undervalued (particularly female intellect) (they're young, they're erudite...) and where professional poverty beckoned for but a chosen few (LadyAF). Yes sex sells, but writing about sex is seen as either trivial (JC style) middlebrow, (chicklit) or a total sell-out (women's magazines etc.). The audience is seen to be male and middle aged (possibly erroneously) and is the target market of the ER, the publication with which the coterie is associated. The done thing is to marry a bit of money then write for art's sake...

But things are changing. It starts with Catherine M whose memoir is released in France in 2001, reviewed by LH in the original in 2002 in the TLS, then released in the UK to universal shock, horror, astonishment and, wait for it, unexpectedly high sales. The book is frankly a bore, but it breaks ground in establishing that a female author can succeed by writing on a purely sexual theme. In parallel, the light, charming and highly identifiable Bridget Jones has also made its mark, bringing an everyday voice with whom thousands of women identify to the top of the best-seller lists, and eventually the big screen. Why not, says the coterie, put the two concepts together? There is a little dishonesty involved, but it is for the greater good and there is indeed the historical precedent set by Fanny Hill, inter alia.

The idea of the prostitute's column was a joint one. To be truly successful the column must wear its sexuality on its sleeve. It is not the pure physical description of sex which will get the readers in (otherwise the could read internet porn or buy Millet) but sex in a context which provokes curiosity yet familiarity and is believable and distant and always controversy. The whore.
But not any old whore. This must be high class. It is not to be a feminist diatribe (with which the coterie would anyway feel thoroughly uncomfortable even if they selectively quote Naomi Wolf in their articles) and should not try to insert too much of a social message. A column about the social life a Kings X crackie just wouldn't cut it. And it must fit the vehicle they have available, the ER, whose tweedy readers may well have contemplated the thought of a writhing hottie in their dusty clubs from time to time. The concept is born.

The second stage of the project is the delivery. The ER's circulation has peaked at 25,000 a month and is declining. Why not, says RP, harness the power of the internet to show how thoroughly modern our heroine is, and as an adjunct reach out to an entirely new readership in the evolving blogosphere, reach out to the future tweed wearers while they still have beards and sandals or even better, Ipods. The blog must be simple (Blogger, basic template) not be based on exact events (too easy to check, identify, and must be anonymous, to show that necessary element of guilt, naughtiness and suspense to complete the formula.

The authors, although excited by the project, do not want this experiment to damage their budding careers. There is the complicating factor that LH , for one, is known have brushed with the milieu a little too closely than required for pure research, and the difference between accepting a Prada coat or cash for a trick would not be seen as a major issue by the Sun. And she had put herself in a rather hypocritical position already by condemning Miss AF the previous year for appearing topless in Tatler, whilst doing something quite similar herself for the current ER issue, in which she also reviews Belle de Jour.

Belle de jour. Belle de jour. BELLE DE JOUR!!

Eureka. An icon of the 60's of Catherine Deneuve, every girl's goddess, of Bunuel, whom we all pretended to love and worship at Uni., and that element of Frenchness which stylises naughtiness and allows us to further show off our education.

She is blonde of course which is a little tiresome and perhaps a bit hackneyed. Our Belle will not be a long-legged dumb blond. She will be the Christine Keeler model rather than the Mandy Rice-Davies, elegant, not busty, well spoken, but not too home counties, with a tomboy streak to give us real chance to mix up our language. Pints and flutes. Oh, and Jewish. That should spice up the debate. And none of the authors are Jewish, which will, of course, distance us.

The blog would be explicit in description and must ring true, otherwise why would the author remain anonymous. It would work to a formula, like a hardcore video, whereby each perceived male fantasy could be worked into storyline over time, from group sex to S&M, oral and anal, foot fetishes and rimming, right through to and inevitable as the money shot...all this interspersed with moments of bitingly cynical asides, heart rending personal episodes, shopping trips, visits to the parents and pints with friends. Who could not fail to be enchanted by such a creature?

The weblog kicks off quietly in October, after LH's honeymoon. At this point the coterie has not established commercial aims (they are not those kinds of girl, or they would have been accountants). The agency is contacted, the whore is established, and a couple of alert bloggers stumble across the site, and like what they see. Indeed the blog is no chore to write. It is kept low volume- a couple of hundred words maximum on alternate days, the sort of volume that could be expected from one of their peers with a busy professional, social and shopping schedule. The girls with Firsts from Oxford giggle at their regular lunchtime progress meeting at some of the naive, gullible but rather sweet e-mail that is starting to hit the site. They innocently mention the site to other friends, writers, agents, personalities until it becomes a minor talking point in both the blog world (who has claimed her as one of theirs) and the literary scene, which is charmed by seeing even mention of the names Coe and Amis on the screens at the office.

The Guardian changes all of this. As the coterie are also occasional columnists with major newspapers it was not difficult to plug the site and the tweedy (and not so tweedy) judges frankly have the pants charmed off them by such a refreshing new product. Here is no razzle dazzle photoblog, hard hitting world changing political commentary, sneering at the powers that be. No here is the real thing, a girl writing from the heart, with all the right literary references, a mystery. Its obviously the best written blog.

The news stuns many. The blogging world is sharply divided. There are those for whom any prize, smacking of elitism is clearly anathema. There are many bloggers who simply didn't win and who resented the winner, especially one who had blogged for all of two months. But the initial cattiness subsided and the blog continued is now highly popular way until PW arrived.

He arrived by e-mail, introducing himself with an offer which astonished the coterie. Although already published there were unprepared for the size of the advance which PW said could be achieved and even more uncertain how to react. RP, less money driven, voted to reject him. LH, on the other hand, had just married a starving artist, an Italian musician, and felt a wad of cash this size could come in very handy. But selling out directly to an agent was not seen as advisable. And it would not, thought the girls, be very Belle. A compromise was reached whereby an advisor/adjudicator was consulted. Although LH pushed for (and even contacted) her old friend TY for advice, RP preferred to approach MM, an internet personality in his own right who had been through this experience before and whom the girls found quite cute (except for his German girlfriend). However MM didn't help very much, suggesting Belle speak to HG at Faber before finally Belle was pushed back into the hands of PW.

The next stage of the project suddenly became very serious, even a bit scary. Neither RP nor LH wanted to front for the project. The committee hesitated. To present a frontperson, a Belle-substitute, to PW would probably not work. This contact point would be the nexus of the project, the intellectual interface the financial hub. PW had to be told the truth. He was, and remained unfazed, but he knew that a Belle had to be found for the next stage of the process; finding a publisher. The solution ended being relatively simple. An old friend of LH, D, volunteered to help out. A part-time writer herself, she was at ease in the initial discussions with PW and the coterie, and certainly looked the part. She had been an avid follower of the blog from the beginning and knew of LH's involvement in the Belle project. After all its hard to hide something from your best friend on whose floor you slept for months after your second wedding collapsed.

But the next stage did not progress as smoothly as expected. Respected, successful and pushy, PW was slightly out of his element with a new concept and a fake author. PA at Serpent's Tail was not convinced, and frankly said so. He didn't doubt the veracity of the author and blog, but couldn't see how he could package and sell a product which was in parallel, freely available on the internet. Indeed the reverse of the original concept of the coterie. He was expected to return the unleashed cyber-Belle into its dusty print womb, slimming the 15,000 daily hits to the few hundred middle-aged, middle class men who had driven RP's balance sheet to despair.

Fortunately for the Belle conspirators. HGW was far more obliging. As a young woman of a similar age and upbringing she quickly identified with the concept. She saw it was the sort of exciting project which could make her career, and certainly change the hidebound partners of W&N, which she had joined the previous year. Certainly more exciting than books like the tiresome Mistress Peachum which the charming MA had foisted on her the previous year, after it had been rejected by Little Brown. Indeed the irony of the subject matter struck her one evening as looked at some proposed cover proofs for Peachum. The attributes an unprincipled woman could use for success, even in the modern liberated age. The hiding behind pseudonyms, the search for those elusive 15 minutes of fame. The thought idly occurred to her that indeed there were even occasional similarities in writing styles...but let's not go there.

The negotiations were complex. Everyone involved claimed to have a reputation to protect, which made one wonder how they all had maintained them until now. The main difficulties surrounded money transfers and ongoing rights. W&N did not want to participate in a scheme which, had it been set up for the benefit of a disclosed author, would have been condemned as a blatant tax dodge. The Luxembourg bank would not accept a trustee without the beneficiary being clearly identified, and the original directors of Bizrealm were greatly concerned at their potential liability for fraud should the Belle project be exposed as a scam. It was only thanks to PW taking on a large and documented degree of personal risk that the transaction was finally signed. And announced.

The book deal announcement met howls of protest. A scandal. A blogger has sold out. And anyway she wasn't even a blogger, so W&N must have sold out, dusty publishing house, what was it trying to prove? And she can't be real, this bitch, using sex to get money in an entirely unexpected manner, just like the whore she couldn't possibly be, oh, where was I? The press limbered up for the usual hunt for the anonymous culprit to be followed by the inevitable outing of this sheer impertinence.

The Times was quickly off the mark, employing Don Foster's demonstrated skills to read though googled sections of various writers' works and compare them with the Belle de Jour blog. A match was found, in that parts of Sarah Champion's work did indeed seem to resemble Belle's style. As the news spread Champion was contacted in San Francisco. For a day the Press seemed to have its man, until Sarah denied the story, Don Foster backed down and the Times' triumphant exposé faded to a lame bleat. The bloggers were divided, between the camps of:

It doesn't matter who Belle is. Leave her alone
We must find his/her identity, this fraud
We must protect this poor blogger against the tabloids

TY, CH, MA and various other middle aged male writers were promptly named as potential Belles, which they just as promptly denied.

There was some consternation at the ER, firstly as some friends were being put through unwanted and unpleasant media pressure, but also because these very same people were in a position to potentially blow the plot. Nice as HGW and PW were, would they stand up to the Yellow Dogs in the face of wiretaps, keyloggers and bribed office clerks?

Belle acted quickly: By denying that any of the named suspects were "her" she was immediately seen to be "in control" of her identity. One or two more astute (or pedantic) onlookers noted the impossibility of a fictional character making any credible statement but by and large the statement was accepted, everyone had a good laugh at the Times and the fracas gradually dissolved into gentle musings from the weekend papers.

They had been one casualty on the blog front however. LH's name appeared more and more often in Google as several blog commentators and chat groups noted some suspicious, albeit circumstantial, evidence of her involvement. The similarity of her writing style to that of Belle, her Northern roots, her looks and colourful past, her educated parents, her language skills, the nature of her previously published book and articles. On closer examination the case looked even stronger: LH was almost the only "qualified" commentator not to have commented on the Belle phenomenon. She was notable in being the only named suspect not to have expressly denied involvement in the project, which gave the impression that she was not trying very hard to escape suspicion.

And she had a history of letting herself be the vehicle of rather low publicity to sell a book, as she had written an article on her own experience as a twice-divorced mistress to help sell her first book Athenais. She was currently writing "Mistress Peachum's Pleasure", her thesis being that Lavinia Fenton had been maligned in history, that the actress (and presumed tart) who had played Polly Peachum in John Gay's "Beggars' Opera" was in fact a paragon of virtue for most of her life. By extension it was almost as if she wanted to get caught and roughed up by the press, only to have her innocence proclaimed with great fanfare just before the launch party for "Mistress Peachum". The parallels with her heroine were rather convenient.

The rest of the coterie did not know quite how to react. For a start, they were intensely distracted with the financial difficulties of the ER, culminating in the sale of the company to the Dennis group. Rather than move to Surrey to edit the "new look" ER, RP decided to call it quits. Since her baby in April she'd anyway not been able to give the project the time it deserved. LH was moving to America, SF had other projects, the draft book version of Belle had anyway been completed (several marathon weekend sessions over the summer - it had been like being up at uni all over again).

It was time to kill the blog, which had languished since the book deal - Belle's non-professional life did not seem as much of a crowd puller as the professional part and PW had complained that book sales would be affected. The storyline had also been irreparably damaged by the revelation of the size of the advance - why would anyone continue to work as a prostitute with such a wad of cash in her pocket?

So after a mere 11 months the high profile blog had come to an end. The reaction was muted, with many commentators expressing regret that one of the more entertaining characters of the blogosphere had departed. Others, especially those who had noted the slow decline in the quality of the blog and some of the more manipulated efforts to maintain a storyline (what sort of name is Showerhead anyway) were relieved to see her pass. There seemed a consensus in the printed media that Belle had "got away with it", had got her book deal, written the book, taken her money and disappeared. The suspects had dispersed, and were generally maintaining a low profile.

Then in January the blog briefly restarted. Not with any startling new story or even insight but to blatantly plug the book, which was to be released the following week. Speculation mounted as to whether Belle would appear at her own book launch party. And LH with her usual nonchalant timing produced yet another Observer article in full-on Belle-mode, this time on dirty weekends in Brighton. By now even the Guardian was becoming suspicious of LH, the newsblog finally giving way to dogged pressure to link to the rumours, the blog which had tracked the Belle story from the outset and which was coming to the conclusion that LH was in fact Belle, so to speak...

à suivre...

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