News and views
Diving into Lives with Brave New Reads: A Guest Blog from Sam Ruddock
Sam Ruddock, who is currently on sabbatical completing a prestigious Clore Fellowship, blogs on Brave New Reads and his love of reading. Having worked on Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads) for six years, Sam reflects on the past, present and future of the Brave New Reads programme.
Reading is quite probably the best thing I do. I love nothing better than opening the pages of a new book and diving into lives I’ve never lived. For me, reading is utterly social, it is a conversation with the world around me. When we founded Summer Reads six years ago, it was with this principal in mind: that even when reading alone in your favourite chair, reading is a social activity. So it was no shock that book clubs and shared reading endeavours were at the heart of the programme, or that three years in we decided that readers like you were the best people to select the books we feature. The Brave New Reads
you see today is the product of conversation, collaboration, and shared reading.
This is no more the case than with the change in our name this year. I’ve been dreaming of a new name for the programme for a while, and wracking my brain for good alternatives. But to no avail. The ideas I came up with – Reading Adventures, Discoveries, Great Reading for Everyone – were all universally rubbish. So we got together a group of excellent library staff and spent the day talking about how to make Summer Reads better. At one point I glanced to my right and spotted a post it note with a phrase on it: Brave New Reads. I was smitten. So smitten in fact that I interrupted the conversation to call out a hallelujah! Fortunately my enthusiasm was matched in the room and pretty much there and then our new identity was born.
Brave New Reads: it’s all there. The discovery of exciting new books that has always been at the heart of Summer Reads, the adventures we will share throughout the summer, the bravery of our Readers Circle who read more than 150 books to select these final six, and the worlds that open up when we read, the way reading changes us on the inside and shifts our views of the world. These six books will do that for you, and entertain, enthral, and excite in equal measure. From the sweltering heat of rural Mexico where young girls are disguised as boys to escape the drug cartels (Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
), to a nuclear test ravaged desert in Kazakhstan (The Dead Lake, by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield
You’ll encounter characters like Gretchen, reckless, wild, charming and heartbreaking narrator of Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
. And Louise, Paul, and Nathanial, main protagonists of the gripping and terrifying Fallen Land
, as America struggles in the grips of financial crisis and the trauma of land haunted by ghosts. In the midst of a stunning debut poetry collection by Liz Berry, you’ll find lost accents conjured to life in sharp explorations of work and love and flight (Black Country
). And in Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham
, you’ll meet people who love and hate badgers, all with a tale to tell about rural life alongside one of Britain’s most mysterious animals.
Each has been tried and tested by readers just like you. They were picked because they are the books we fell in love with; that we wanted to put eagerly into your hand and say, ‘here, this is brilliant.’
Friends, your Brave New Reads starts here.
Find out more about Brave New Reads and all the selected titles
Brave New Reads Authors Patrick Flanery, Patrick Barkham, Liz Berry and Anneliese Mackintosh will be joining us for special Brave New Reads events in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - see all the author events
Did you join us at the Norwich Launch of Brave New Reads? Take a look at some photos from the evening.
What's Wrong With Amazon? By Isabelle Grey
An article by writer Isabelle Grey in anticipation of the National Conversation event Amazon and the Civil War for Books at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival this Sunday 17th May.
Amazon has unquestionably shaken up the way in which readers choose and buy books. It has also opened up the publishing arena to anyone who wants to edit and market their own work. Has this really provoked a civil war? I am old enough to have written my first book on a manual typewriter; as a journalist, I am a veteran of the Wapping dispute. I have seen before how bitterly two sides can fight over new technology.
As a writer, I am neither for nor against Amazon, any more than I am for or against radio, film, television or books (print or digital) as a delivery platform for the stories I want to tell. What I don’t want to do is to write something that will never find an audience.
As a citizen, I have issues with Amazon around employment practices and fair taxation. As a reader, Amazon is too easy to resist. As a writer, Amazon is no more or less interested in making money out of me than my publisher or an independent bookshop. But what Amazon and other e-book sellers do far better than either of them is to find readers for me – over 120,000 of them so far.
The 'thing' about e-books that publishers (and, to be fair, most large corporations, including the BBC) have been woefully slow to get is the value of data. They are catching up – HarperCollins now has a director of audience development while Hachette have developed data visualization and social listening tools. These things aren’t mere Silicon Valley hipster jargon: they really matter.
Shakespeare wrote for the stage because some of his audience were illiterate. Dickens wrote his novels as part-works because cheaper and faster printing techniques made that a popular and exciting way to go. There’s a generation of authors coming along who will write for the mobile phone, because that’s the first place they go to find what they want. Where hardware leads, the style and form of content follows.
The big difference is that today’s hardware comes packed with the potential for data-gathering. It’s not only marketing and sales strategies that are based on data analytics. So are the stories we tell. Here’s an example: Netflix are currently spending $100m (out of a predicted annual spend of £3.5bn) on a TV series called The Crown, a bio-pic of Queen Elizabeth II, that is being show-run by Peter Morgan and Stephen Daldry, a writer and director with multiple Oscar nominations. Why? Because the data that Netflix gathers and analyses tells them that their subscribers’ favourite shows are about royalty, marriage and parenthood.
Their data tells them a whole lot more, too – not only what people search for, but also how, when and where they watch, for how long at a single sitting, at precisely what point they get bored and click out, and what they then say about it, and to whom, on social media.
As a writer, I find that knowledge exciting. I don’t want to be a slave to it, but why would I not want to know the precise effect my work – almost line by line – is having on a reader or viewer? For me, that is the huge creative debate that is to come – and, trust me, it is coming. What is the value of that kind of knowledge? How will it, and should it, be shared? And how far should writers and other creative artists either wish or be asked to respond to it?
It’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution.
Isabelle Grey is a former freelance journalist and reviewer, magazine editor and (as Isabelle Anscombe) author of five non-fiction books. For the past twenty years she has written television drama, including the BBC docu-drama Genghis Khan and an episode of the Bafta-winning series Accused with Jimmy McGovern. She also writes for film and radio and for five years taught screenwriting at Central St Martin's. She is currently finishing her fourth novel for Quercus, a follow-up to Good Girls Don't Die.
Follow Isabelle on Twitter: @IsabelleGrey
Find out more on Isabelle's website
Find out more about the event Amazon and the Civil War for Books. Tweeting? Use #NatConv to debate online with us this Sunday evening.
The National Conversation: Enduring Stories by Erica Wagner
An original provocation piece by writer and editor Erica Wagner, delivered at the National Conversation event 'Amazon and the Civil War for Books' on Sunday 17th May as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
Just about one hundred and fifteen years ago, a young American anthropologist named John Reed Swanton travelled to a group of islands which were called, in his day, the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwest coast of Canada. He was in the employ of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington D.C., but he worked under the guidance of the influential anthropologist Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History, a place just a few blocks from where I grew up, on the Upper West Side of New York City. He had been sent to collect objects from the people who lived there: argillite carvings, wooden boxes, the kinds of objects you find in museums. But in the time he spent with the island inhabitants, he didn’t collect objects, not really. He listened to stories. And he took down the names of the men who told him those stories: one was called Ghandl; the other, Skaay. He transcribed their words in their own language, as they were spoken.
Acknowledging their authorship and language was a radical act. Almost every other anthropologist working in his day believed that stories collected from indigenous people could be compressed and flattened into a so-called ‘universal’ version of that story. As Robert Bringhurst, the scholar who, nearly a century later, would translate these stories into striking, erudite English versions, notes, this is like walking into the Uffizi and saying: but why do we need all these paintings of the Crucifixion? Surely one is enough? I reckon not. Not a few of the stories Swanton heard these men tell are some of the greatest I have encountered in any language, from any culture. By giving these poets their names Swanton allowed them to be authors. The rights of authors, as it happens, remain a lively topic for debate here in the 21st century.
I’m going to talk to you about discovery, and about what literature and art truly are, and the potential that they have to change our lives. Because lately I’ve been thinking that it’s too easy to slip into a mindset in which we believe we are talking about art and literature – when what we’re really talking about is business. Commerce. Not that it’s wrong to talk about business. It’s important to talk about business. But it’s also important to consider how we can separate these two conversations.
We’re told that we are in the midst of a civil war on which the fate of our reading habits will depend. In the world of the old stories the name ‘Amazon’ conjured a fierce, glorious image of a bold woman warrior: no more. Now the ferocity of an Amazon brings a new kind of terror: of a monopoly that will devour literature. We seem to be entering in a period of truce, it’s true. Last month HarperCollins agreed a deal with Amazon over e-books; this followed on from the settling of the lengthy dispute over pricing between Amazon and Hachette, resolved before the end of last year. These are arguments and transactions that take place in a time of unprecedented flux: or so it would seem. But is that really the case? Are we really in a brave new world?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that modern humans have existed in roughly their present form for 100,000 years. Those early people led lives which were very different from ours, but their brains were like ours. The astonishing art on the walls of the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche valley of southern France was made about 30,000 years ago; some indigenous art in Australia is much older. Beowulf’s 3,000 lines – which survive in a single manuscript – were written down around the 10th century CE. Now: the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg came into commercial use about 500 years after that, around 1450.
What am I doing by throwing these numbers at you?
I’m demonstrating that the book is only a very, very small part of the human literary story. From Gutenberg to widely available commercial printing, another couple of hundred years intervened. But literature, I’m quite certain, has existed since humanity has existed. My great-grandmother was born in the East End of London in 1888. When I discovered her birth certificate in the Public Record Office at Kew, I also discovered that her mother had put a rough cross in the box for her signature – and so I learned that my great-great grandmother could neither read nor write; not so uncommon, in those days. But for all I know, my great-great grandmother could have been a storyteller, a singer, her mind could have held a treasure-vault of history and art. But it’s gone. Because books, of course, have a job to do too.
The name of the islands John Swanton visited has changed since he arrived in 1900. Thanks to the efforts of the indigenous people who still live there, and who only narrowly survived the arrival of Europeans into their territory, these islands are now called Haida Gwaii, ‘The Islands of the People’ – and it was the Haida people Swanton had come to study. If you have been to the Great Court of the British Museum, you will have seen a Haida house pole, acquired three years after Swanton travelled there. The house in front of which it would have stood had been abandoned; as had the whole village. Many Haida villages had been abandoned by then. Smallpox and other European diseases had ravaged the population. ‘The island population is now shrunk to not over seven hundred,’ Swanton wrote in a letter. ‘...The missionary has suppressed all the dances and has been instrumental in having all the old houses destroyed – everything in short that makes life worth living.’
Do not mistake me. I am not comparing the destruction of an indigenous culture – of many indigenous cultures – to business arguments in the publishing world. What I want to demonstrate is that the human need to hear stories and to tell stories is something which I believe to be so ingrained in us (in our brains, in our hearts, in our souls) that it will survive no matter what; it will find new forms and flourish in different ways. For the past few hundred years the novel has been the dominant form of storytelling in Western culture; but as I’ve tried to show, that’s a drop in the ocean of time. And what is a ‘novel’, anyway? It’s a way to tell a story. Well, there are other ways to tell stories too. When I watched Breaking Bad, I discovered I was thinking about its plot and its characters with the same seriousness I’ve devoted to many novels. Perhaps not coincidentally, that series emerged in an industry which is also in flux: the old television networks no longer dominate the scene, and newcomers like AMC and Netflix are shaking up the industry. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Amazon is coming into this market too.
But books are a hugely significant part of our culture. I know about John Swanton, you won’t be surprised to hear, thanks to a book; I came to consider the great span of human culture I’ve just described thanks to a book. That is Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as A Knife, first published in 1999; translations from Swanton’s transcriptions which were taken down nearly a hundred years before. There are two companion volumes, which are really not companions, but the central texts of Bringhurst’s great work: they are Nine Visits to the Mythworld, devoted to the works of Ghandl, and Being in Being, which is devoted to the works of Skaay. Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and polymath, a scholar of Ancient Greek and typography, too. Bringhurst took many years to teach himself Haida in order to make these magnificent translations.
Publishers, booksellers and writers find themselves in an industry in transition: some of the changes that transition brings are inarguably troubling. Independent bookshops continue to close. There are fewer than 1,000 on British high streets now, the Guardian has reported; one-third fewer than the decade before. Fifty-seven independent bookshops in this country closed just last year. I’ve worked with the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Foundation to distribute grants to writers struggling to make ends meet – I know that things are tough out there; not least because I’m an author myself. The results of a survey conducted on behalf of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society released last month make sobering reading. Since 2007, the last time authors were surveyed, there has been a 29% fall in writers’ incomes in real terms. And yet, while I have no wish to be a perceived as a Pollyanna, I wonder if there was ever a time when things weren’t tough for the people we now call ‘authors’? Sometimes, it’s useful to take a step back – a really, really big, step back, as far back as 100,000 years – to get a different angle on things.
Swanton’s work didn’t find much of an audience when he came back east. And Bringhurst’s work with the words of Ghandl and Skaay has, so far, found a smaller audience than it deserves. The edition I have was published in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre, a fine house; they went bust, however, a few years ago, a not-unusual fate for a publisher these days. But they were taken under the wing of another Canadian publisher, Harbour, and so have lived to fight – or publish – another day, at least for the time being. I have spent over a decade wondering why no British publisher would take on these texts, which deserve to be recognized as classics; I’m delighted to be able to say that the Folio Society is now preparing an edition, to be published in the autumn, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and illustrations by the Haida artist Don Yeomans.
Atwood’s association with these works goes back a long way – it’s one of the things that brought us together as friends. Not long after I discovered the works of Ghandl and Skaay through the translations of Robert Bringhurst – by way of a series of chance conversations, for such is the way of these things, and it is by these conversations that our human future is made – I commissioned a piece from her on this epic trilogy; it was published in The Times a dozen years ago. Of what Bringhurst had done, she wrote that: ‘It’s one of those works that rearranges the inside of your head — a profound meditation on the nature of oral poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them. It restores to life two exceptional poets we ought to know. It gives us some insight into their world – in Bringhurst’s words, “the old-growth forest of the human mind” – and, by comparison, into our own.’
So we see that these stories can still come to us from the most surprising places; we see that they can find a way through. I am sure that – whatever the future of the industry holds – this will continue to happen. So – can we say where publishing is headed? Where the industry will go? Will Amazon devour everyone and everything? I don’t know. What I do know is that stories and storytellers will survive.
As the world changes – as it always has – and information passes between us in different ways – as it always has – good books, important books, get through. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, was one of the highlights of 2014 to my mind (and indeed, I was one of the judges who put it on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize). This book, written in what the author has called a ‘shadow tongue’ of Old English, was published by the crowd-funded imprint Unbound; just the other day, I’m thrilled to say, it was named the inaugural Book of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards 2015. And Preparation for the Next Life, a gripping debut by Atticus Lish, was published first in the US by Tyrant Books, a small-press publisher; the book has been widely and warmly reviewed, both in the United States and in this country, where it has just been published by Oneworld; last month it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction We find the stories we need to hear.
I am not denying the state of the landscape. But by speaking here less of commerce than of art, I hope to remind you of why we all bother in the first place. Human culture is ancient and durable. Perhaps when it seems at its most elusive – in the way it can pass from voice to ear to voice – it’s the most durable artifact there is. Books may vanish: but if we keep listening, literature will survive. Ghandl and Skaay were poets who had survived the wreck of their civilization. And yet Ghandl and Skaay held on to their art; and John Reed Swanton – who was, incidentally, just 27 years old when he met them – was wise enough to recognize it. It’s up to us to keep our ears to the ground. To speak to each other. To listen. In Skaay’s epic which Bringhurst calls ‘Raven Traveling’, Raven goes hunting. And then he stops, and dives into the water.
He rammed his beak into the rock
out on the point at the edge of town.
He cried as he struck it.
It was solid, that rock,
and yet he splintered it by speaking.
A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst
Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst
Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst (Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers); Douglas & McIntyre, Canada.
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is published by Unbound, £18
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish is published by Oneworld, £14.99
We'd love to know your thoughts on this topic, please do comment below or on twitter #NatConv
International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School
April 2015 marked the beginning of an exciting new collaboration between BCLT and Writers’ Centre Norwich. As part of our ambitious plans to develop a National Centre for Writing, WCN has taken over the public programmes in literary translation funded by Arts Council England which were previously located with BCLT. This includes all international projects with a public focus, an annual mentorship programme for emerging translators and co-programming the Literary Translation Centre at London Book Fair. The annual UK Summer School will be jointly organised between WCN & BCLT.
Kate Griffin, Associate Programme Director, gives us a preview of the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School...
The summer school at BCLT
has long been a highlight of the literary translation year. This year looks to be even more fun than usual, with exciting additions to the programme reflecting the new partnership between BCLT and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
At the heart of the week are the literary translation workshops, during which participants work on a consensus translation of one particular text. Throughout the week the author of that text
is with them in the workshop to talk about his or her work, answer questions and contribute to the translation process. This year the languages are Dutch with Jeroen Thijssen, German with Kristof Magnusson, Italian with Andrea Tarabbia, Korean with Han Kang and Norwegian with Brit Bildøen.
We wanted to open up opportunities for translators working from languages other than the five on offer, so we’ve introduced two multilingual workshops, one for poetry and one for prose. These are specially designed for translators working from any language into English.
The poetry workshop, led by George Szirtes
, will explore a range of issues connected with translating poetry into English. Should poetry in translation be rendered as poetry and, if so, what are the essential aspects of the poetry we are trying to translate? Can we divorce some elements of a poem from others in order to focus on the essential? Is there an essential at all? If poetry is, as Robert Frost claimed, what is lost in the translation, what do we sacrifice – or gain – by attempting it?
The prose workshop, led by Arunava Sinha
, will focus on the exploration of different strategies for translating into English, using Bengali texts as examples. No knowledge of Bengali will be needed, though Bengali speakers will of course be welcome!
Another addition to the programme is a series of daily creative writing sessions for literary translators. Throughout the week we will explore the different idioms of English around the world, in practical, exercise-based workshops led by poets and novelists working in the English of Canada (Eliza Robertson
) South Africa (Henrietta Rose-Innes
), Singapore (Sharlene Teo
), Argentina (Cecilia Rossi
) and England (Sarah Bower
The week will end with readings and performances in WCN’s stunning new home, Dragon Hall.
We’re open for applications now – see the BCLT website
Books Need Readers
Hello, hello, welcome! How nice to see you. Please come in, take a seat. I'm Rowan, the new Communications Coordinator at WCN Towers.
Oh, the bookshelves? They are full, aren’t they? You’re looking for something to read? Say no more, I know just the shelf for you!
Now that you’re settled, with a stack of books next to your arm, shall I tell you a bit more? Great, I’ll begin.
These six books, with their eye-catching covers, are part of a shared reading programme called Brave New Reads
. Formerly known as Summer Reads—oh yes, Summer Reads was brilliant, thank you— Brave New Reads is in its sixth successful year.
This year Brave New Reads will take place in libraries across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire
. Don’t worry that you don’t live nearby- you can find lots of details about all the books online,
as well as extra resources. We’ll be reporting back from lots of the events too!
What sort of events? Oh, all sorts – there’ll be book clubs, author readings, tea parties and book quizzes. (You can take a look at our Timetable
, or pop into your local library to see what’s on.) And on the 11th of May we’ll be welcoming Hamid Ismailov, author of The Dead Lake
to the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library for the Norfolk Launch of Brave New Reads
Yes, that is going to be treat! Hamid has promised to read from The Dead Lake
in both Russian and English, and answer your questions. He’s had a fascinating life – he’s worked as Writer in Residence for the BBC World Service and his work is banned in his home country. The book is absolutely enchanting, too. You can buy your ticket here
, if you’d like to join me. (It’s cheaper and far better value than a coffee, only £2!)
Shall I tell you a bit more about the books? I think this year’s selection
is stronger than ever before, with a really fantastic mix of writing: poetry, non-fiction, short stories – there really is something for everybody. The six books were chosen from a longlist of over 150 titles by the Readers’ Circle – a friendly community of over 100 readers based in East Anglia - who spent months arguing over which books should make the final pick!
Let me give you the run-down:Fallen Land (by Patrick Flanery) tells the story of Poplar Farm and those who live on the acres. A chillingly tense novel, this gothic drama charts the downfall of the landowners: Louise, whose slave ancestors ploughed their blood into the earth, Paul Krovik, whose life fell apart when his property business caused bankruptcy, and the Noailles family, whose fresh start only magnifies the fault lines inherent in their clan.
Badgerlands (by Patrick Barkham) is a fascinating examination of the badger, exploring the history and future of the distinctive striped creature. Barkham investigates the badger with a fair but gentle eye, speaking to farmers and wildlife campaigners alike to create an intriguing piece of nature writing.
Prayers for the Stolen (by Jennifer Clement) tells the tale of Ladydi (no, not that Lady Di), a fierce young girl who lives in rural Mexico with her mother. Ladydi and her mother struggle to survive in the isolated region, plagued by drug cartels and toxic herbicides. You’re sure to find yourself immersed in Ladydi’s thrilling existence.
Black Country (by Liz Berry) is a soaring collection of poetry, swooping from the joy of childhood triumphs to deeper sensual pleasures. Berry’s distinct voice is characterised by her use of West midlands dialogue, creating fresh and magical language.
Any Other Mouth (by Annelise Mackintosh) is not quite a novel, and not quite a short story collection- this book can be read as either, depending on your inclination! Brutal, raw and wickedly funny, Any Other Mouth tells the compelling story of Gretchen as she stumbles through bereavement, growing up, and explicit sexual encounters.
The Dead Lake (by Hamid Ismailov, translate by Andrew Bromfield) is an enchanting novella. Fable-like, this book introduces you to Yerzhan; a seemingly-ordinary young boy who will introduce you to the world of the Kazakhstan steppes, and reveal the truth of his blighted youth: from the nuclear testing ground of his homeland to his lost love.
Heard enough? Well, you can buy all of these titles from all good bookshops, and if you pop into Norwich's Waterstones, Jarrolds and the Book Hive, they're stocking all the Brave New Reads books. Or, head to your local library and borrow the titles from there.
I’d love to know what you think of all the books! If you’re on Twitter
you can join in the chat with other book lovers under #BraveNewReads
. (Keep an eye out for competitions on there too.)
Well, thanks for stopping by. I hope you like what you saw, and that you’ll be back again soon.
Don’t forget we’ll be adding lots of extra Brave New Reads material to the website as time goes on, including a list of recommended reading, so you’ll never run out of books!
Find out more about Brave New Reads.
Find out more about the Norfolk Launch of Brave New Reads, featuring author Hamid Ismailov.
One is the Loneliest Number: Why Writers Need Each Other by Lynsey White
Two years ago I was one of the lucky ones. The lovely folks at Writers’ Centre Norwich plucked my novel proposal from a fat pile of applications and, one chilly morning a month or so later, I found myself sharing tea and cake with nine like-minded souls: my fellow Escalator Literature winners.
We were already short story writers, and playwrights, and poets, with non-fiction under our belts, but we’d never, not one of us, written a novel before. There was only the tiniest shard of ice to be broken by then – tea and cake tends to get writers chatting – but round we all went, taking turns, quickly thawing that last shard of ice by describing our novels.
Describing them made them seem real. We went home with fires in our bellies and started to write.
And then… cue Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’, if you will.
Self-doubt, as Sylvia Plath wrote, is the enemy of creativity. You might feel a splash of self-doubt while you’re writing a poem, a story. But poems and stories are usually measured in days, or weeks, with the gem of your final draft to look forward to. Novels are written chin-deep in an ocean of doubt, and at times you’ll be sailing so far from the shoreline that doubt becomes certainty: your novel is the worst thing ever written since time immemorial. If anyone read it, they’d bellow with laughter. It ought to be pitched overboard, and you might as well jump in after it, into the wet dark of oblivion, because really you’re not a writer and you never were. You’re a fraud, a sham, a charlatan…
But, wait. What’s that? The thin hum of an engine, the paddling of oars, the warm sweep of a lighthouse beam. It’s the friends you made on Escalator, your fellow sailors, steering you back to shore with a hot cup of tea and a blanket; a large wedge of cake. ‘Me too,’ they say. ‘We know just how you feel. Join the club.’
A boatload of rescuing writers will never say: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’ or ‘Just write the damn thing!’ or assign you the hash-tag #firstworldproblems for saying you’re lost, or stuck, or sinking. Writing isn’t rocket science, of course. It isn’t coal mining. But the shocking aloneness of sitting in front of a keyboard all day with your own brain for company needs to be countered with tea, cake, and community as often as possible.
That’s exactly what my time on Escalator gave me. And it’s why I’m launching Write Club at the Maddermarket Theatre: a space for writers, whether old or new, to meet, and write, and talk. There’ll be plenty of prompts to get you started, or time and space to keep going with something you’re writing already, whether prose or poetry. Tons of feedback, of course, and even more importantly there’ll be free tea and cake.
If you’re drifting, or drowning, or dipping a first shy toe in the ocean of writing, then why not come along and join us?
Write Club at the Maddermarket will run for eight weeks every Saturday morning, 11.30 to 1.30, from April 11th 2015.
More about Lynsey and sign up online go to the Maddermarket Theatre.
Lynsey White is a writer and teacher based in Norwich. Her short fiction has won the Bridport Prize and a Canongate Prize for New Writing. In 2013 she was one of WCN’s Escalator Literature writers, and has just completed her first novel with a grant from Arts Council England. She teaches creative writing for Norfolk County Council and the Norwich University of the Arts, and has recently joined the editorial board of The Lighthouse Literary Journal.
The Civil War for Books: Where’s the Money Going? by Philip Gwyn Jones
Philip Gwyn Jones' provocation on the civil war for books for our National Conversation event at the London Book Fair on 16th April. Do let us know your thoughts on this piece in the comments section below.
Over the course of the last few years, it has come to feel that we bookish types are stuck in our very own World War One re-enactment, in trench warfare over where the money lines are drawn. The skirmishes in the global book industry are internecine and unrelenting: the independent authors bombard the traditional publishers; the traditional authors bombard the literary festival directors; the traditional publishers bombard the retailers; academics denounce those who would defend copyright as traitors to the public good; and the retailers take the publishers to courts martial. With the new armaments of disruption and disintermediation whirring nicely, the ‘creative destruction’ of techno-capitalism is at full tilt in the business of writing. But who will taste defeat first? Will it be the publishers? Or the booksellers? Agents? Or, dread thought, might it be the writers? Mounted on my high horse, surveying the scene, I fear it is another regiment on this clamorous battlefield which is most in peril. The Readers.
How can that be? The Reader has never had it so good. In the UK, the Reader has enjoyed a decade of improved access to ever cheaper books, more efficiently distributed and more elegantly designed than before. Entering the doors of one of our grander old-world bookshops, a handsome branch of Waterstones or the glorious new flagship Foyles or Blackwell’s in Edinburgh or Oxford, and surveying the lustrous array of beautifully packaged new titles, it would take a positively curmudgeonly, perverse book-lover not to bask on those sunlit uplands of choice and simply be thrilled to be alive at such a moment in British bookselling history. I am of course that pervert. Yes, I too have been lifted aloft by the sense that We Readers have never had it so good – that the profusion and the excellence and the value before us is unprecedented. And yet I find myself bumping back down to earth all too often. As with raising children, where every moment of joy has an elegiac cloud shadowing it – oh, this is a wondrous moment, but, lo, it is already passing – so it feels that we are at the apex of British bookselling, and the only way now is Down.
Books are like stars. By the time they reach the New Titles shelves, their birth is a fact of the distant past. The books displayed at the front of today’s bookshop were created, contractually or cosmologically, in a big bang of acquisition two, three, ten years prior. So, there is something of an optical lag in place – in the space and time in between, there have been some interesting developments in the business. Yes there are still occasional new shooting stars, lighting up the firmament all of a sudden, a Jessie Burton or a Paula Hawkins, as there have always been. But increasingly rather large patches of the galaxy have gone black. Now, this is where the amateur publishing astronomer can only be speculative: deciding that something might have existed that isn’t readily apparent is mind-twisting work. And it’s hard to offer up the hard stones of evidence. But as a commissioning editor and publisher of some 25 years standing, I hope I have some authority to make the claim that certain stars are missing. They are just not being born. It seems to me that there is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye. We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines.
A big change in how The Reader finds their next book to read only exacerbates this development, even if it is not the primordial cause. Readers have always valued personal recommendation. Every book market research survey ever done has told us this. This is why the best bookstores always, in the end, return to the power of their booksellers’ advocacy – those bays festooned with Tim’s Reading Tips or Chloe’s Kids’ Books to Cherish. Now that two out of every three books in the UK are not bought at a till in a bookshop, it is how books rise to visibility online that matters. Metadata-driven discoverability, to use the jargon, is the key to modern book-buying. Online, if you are looking for a book about German grammar or Cantonese cookery or Filipino forestry, algorithms will lead you by the hand to your rightful destination in a nanosecond. If, however, you are just idly looking for your next novel to read, open to suggestion, then it is stumbling across a plausible recommendation that is crucial. And that works online in a very different way from Tim and Chloe’s methods of diffidently but passionately – and above all personally – persuading you to read this not that while you chat at the till with them. The happy few self-published authors who are making good money by skillfully and incessantly promoting their works online have long ago realized that generating talk around a book can be almost infinitely amplified in cyberspace to lucrative effect. Social reading is the coming thing, we are told, where our reading devices and apps will allow us to communicate with others who are reading the same book we are, share notes and queries with them, correct and conject, exult and excoriate together as if we online readers were round a digital dining table, and even involve the writer in that conversation if they are willing. But for such Social Reading to work, everyone has to be reading the same thing, so it tends to favour the popular, the shared, the already-known. Hence the ubiquity of Most Read and Most Liked lists. There is a lot of barked coercion out there in cyberspace. So the online sharing book economy will coalesce around, well, winners. But what happens to the losers: the unshared, the jagged, inimitable, harder-to-chat books? Lest I sound altogether too tweedy, I ought quickly to align myself with techno-utopian Clay Shirky, the Voltaire of the ebook revolution, who says ‘While I disapprove of what other people read, I will defend to the death their right to read it.’ I second that emotion. However, selfish reader that I am, it’s the kind of books I like to read most that I’m most worried about. Their authors are increasingly hard-up, feel unloved and unrewarded, and some of my acquaintance are even turning away from writing books altogether. ‘But, twas ever thus’, you cry. And you are of course at least half-right.
Many of the greatest writers struggled to earn enough in their lifetime; they had to do non-literary work to survive, or lean on others, or come into family wealth. It’s worth saying for the avoidance of a false historicity that writers have always been hovering at the threshold, cap in hand. And also that it can be in the tension between the contradictory urges to unleash creativity and to make money that culture is made.
But the facts are that, as of last summer, according to the most comprehensive survey we have of British professional writers, conducted once a decade by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, less than 12% of British writers were able to earn a living wage from writing alone, down from 40% of those surveyed in 2005. Moreover, the median income of a professional writer in the UK has fallen to just £11K p.a. So, it’s fair to say it’s not the long-serving professional writer who is making all the headway in the struggle for economic security in the book industry. For many of them, with book contracts halving in average value over the last ten years, journalism tending to be unpaid, and no rise in state or philanthropic support for the literary arts in the UK, it is to teaching, and specifically the teaching of creative writing, that so many have turned for essential income to pay for their food, energy and shelter. They teach in order to write but often find teaching impedes their writing. And even with teaching income, very few are making significant sums of money.
So let’s look elsewhere for the cash, and get back to the ‘hysterical narcissists’ as good old Clay Shirky calls them: the big traditional corporate publishing houses. Last month, Hachette’s parent Lagardère announced its financials for 2014, a year during which their key US division had been at loggerheads for months with its biggest customer, Amazon, and that customer had strategically impeded Hachette’s sales by altering discounts and availability onsite. So, revenues were down a little on the previous year’s as were net profits, but those profits, at €197 million, remained a good sharp 10% of their overall publishing revenues of €2.04 billion. Meanwhile, the newlyweds at Penguin Random House managed to make profits of €363million, a margin of 13% in 2014, their first year under the marital roof. HarperCollins managed an identical profit margin in their 2014 accounts, and Simon & Schuster managed, yes, 13%. Spooky. When I was growing up as an editor in trade publishing, a house was perceived to have done exceptionally well if it made double-digit profitability in a given year. The biggest houses seem to have secured that golden performance year in year out of late. For the time being at least. Because of course this newer profitability is entirely underpinned by two key shifts: the higher profit margins on ebook sales over print book sales, which is in turn founded on the prevailing orthodox royalty rate of 25% of net receipts for authors on ebooks; and the immense profitability of their Amazon account – Amazon having eliminated returns and vastly reduced the cost of servicing that account for printed books and quite simply having created a whole new efficient book market – for ebooks – from scratch. So there's plenty of money to be made in corporate publishing at present. But how much longer the corporates can hold that 25% royalty line against the battering of the big guns of literary agenting is a major tactical question in the civil war for books. Likewise, Amazon’s repeated raids on publishers’ discounts, which see them attempting to seize ever more of the publishers’ most profitable territory, aren’t likely to cease anytime soon. Meanwhile, in another corner of the battlefield, that same large standing army lashes at itself with mace and broadsword, in order to avoid becoming profitable.
It is one of the great mysteries of technocapitalism. Amazon, that most gnomic, inaccessible, efficient and omni-competent of businesses, the Wizard of Oz of the retail world, has for twenty years made very little money, in the specific sense that it makes proportionately tiny profits. And yet it is adored by Wall Street and the post-bubble new tech evangelists in the world of finance. It is not an old business, but it has been with us now for over two decades, and can just about be counted as mature on most peoples’ scales. So it is surprising that over the last five years, according to the figures on Reuters Markets database, despite in each of those years producing worldwide revenues in excess of US$30 billion p.a., rising most recently to US$88 billion, i.e. 88 thousand million dollars (always worth spinning that out, I find), its average annual profit margin across the period 2009—2014 is a whopping 0.64%. Less than 1%. Now admittedly that is less than 1% of a very large sum, so it’s still in absolute terms a handsome stack of cash. But it is not the kind of ratio that the Stock Exchange normally permits to go unchallenged for so long. Unless they are convinced that far, far greater profits lie ahead, which is what some analysts evidently believe – that Amazon’s data mining of all its customers’ buying habits, movements and preferences will permit them ever-more-targeted, ever-more-seductive marketing. They will know our desires before we do. In their current position, even more perplexing to financial half-wits like me, is the fact that with each of the last five years Amazon’s overall revenues have ascended steadily as their reach and range increases, from $34bn in sales in 2010, to 48 to 61 to 74 to $89bn in 2014, while their operating profits have declined inversely steadily, from $862m in 2011 to $178m last year. Of course, if you earn less, one happy consequence is that you pay less tax – but that is a whole other conversation.
Meanwhile, back in the author’s study, the world bifurcates: there is the increasingly casino-like traditional publishing option, where the bets are big getting bigger, and the winners are big getting bigger too as are the losers. Or, for those not allowed to approach the corporates’ gaming tables, there is the option of being among the happy poor at the fringes who are just grateful to get published, thank’ee kindly guv’nor. This state of affairs of course permits, demands and accelerates the rise of crowd-funded publications and autonomous publications. So, a writer wanting to enter the fray can hire a gang of experienced mercenaries from among the vast pool of wise old former publishing professionals now swelling the ranks of the self-employed. These experts will help get an autonomous author’s typescript into its best shape. The author then puts on the self-publicist’s armour (and stays in it 24/7) and heads out to be their own battalion. Or an author can look to microsourcing, spreading the load of a publication’s start-up costs lightly across many shoulders via online crowdfunding sites, before, again, having to don the self-publicist’s armour and go into combat with rival writers for the attentions of The Reader. The swordplay starts on Twitter and Facebook, continues on GoodReads and YouTube, and climaxes on Amazon and then Google, where it will be indexed forever. It’s all about visibility, publicity, penetration, SEO. But there’s the rub, as while travelling assiduously through those six mighty digital kingdoms, the writer and their work will in passing give up for free their most precious attribute – at least as contemporary economics, and indeed The Stock Market, defines it – their metadata. And Facebook and Google and the rest will continue to slice tiny slivers of income off all those who cross their borders, while also amassing a passport profile of the passers-by that can be parceled up, sliced any which way, shuffled and sold and sold and sold again to all those who would profit from knowing consumer habits and movements. Now, the question of whether it is at all right that the data monopolist companies continue to amass ever greater wealth from their tracking of the desires and dreams of individual citizen-consumers amid the financialization of everyday life is beyond the precincts of this provocation, but how states and citizens choose to marshal or not to marshal the data companies is perhaps the second biggest issue of our time after the climate crisis. Were they cannier, the large publishing corporations would perhaps be more actively advocating that national governments and supra-national bodies like the EU intervene to protect consumers’ data or better still to give copyright control of that data back to those consumers, to The Reader. To be fair they do so in Germany and France but fall short of doing so in the Anglo-Saxon world.
For, it all comes back to copyright, who controls the right to make copies, and the tension between creator and consumer. Increasingly the work that used to be copied for a cash price, the book itself, will become less commercially valuable than the details around its sales transaction – when it was done, where it was done, amongst what other activities, alongside what other purchases. As the cost of copying approaches absolute zero in the digital space, and the belief hardens that ‘sharing’ writing on the Internet by hyperlinking is not the theft it would be deemed to be were it to take place in print, our traditional copyright payment structure will come under ever greater pressure, and Publisher and Author book revenues may suffer further. Which is why the income to be had from live events might become crucial to writers. Readers increasingly want intimacy: access to writers, online and in person. They seek proximity, to share an experience with writers, conversation, observation, questioning, at literary festivals and at the new salons like Damian Barr’s, Pin Drop, Local Transport, Intelligence Squared et al, and beyond that in other initiatives where writers sell their unique wisdom in person rather on paper, to individuals or to institutions and companies. All this unprinted activity might come to displace the income from the books themselves as the major source of revenue for writers in the future. Some would argue that such a change favours the confident self-publicist rather than the better writer per se. I believe it favours those who have something substantial to say, which is no bad thing.
Ultimately, the coming shift to Social Reading is liable to consign the traditional Publisher and many a writer to decline and defeat in the Civil War for Books... which of course saddens me. Economically it will be the Reader who is the prize, the territory to be captured, the Alsace-Lorraine or the Poland of the Civil War. Winning the Reader’s attention – and the natural monopolies of Google and Facebook will be far better at this than the publishers – then chopping that attention into tiny little morsels for never-ending re-sale and re-cycling seems, in a way that might even be beyond the imaginings of a Borges or a Ballard, likely to be the humming machinery at the heart of the twenty-first-century book business. Reader, you ain’t seen nothing yet: they will be all over your every move like a rash.
Philip Gwyn Jones is an editor, publisher, lecturer and commentator, and a Trustee of both English PEN and the Royal Literary Fund.
One of our International Literature Showcase delegates reflects on 3 whirlwind days in Norwich.
International Literature Showcase & other stories
Peggy Hughes, Programme Manager of Literary Dundee shares a Peggy-eye view of three days of literature...
To my delight I discovered, from Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams
on the train south, that the Spanish word encuentro ‘means something between “festival” and “conference”’. She continues: ‘there’s no word in English that does justice to encuentro. It coaxes the word for “story” (cuento) out of the word for “encounter” (encontrar) and hints at what will happen at this upheaval of debauchery and roundtables…’ I had been wondering what I would find at an International Literature Showcase
, what it might look like, and encuentro comes close to explaining the inspiring people, thought-provoking discussions, the opportunity to be still and listen to world-class authors and startling debut voices read their work, the conversations and the conversations and the conversations, in the breaks, in the pub, between the cracks. Here are just a few of my favourite stories.
Helen Macdonald and Jeanette Winterson who ‘fancied having a night about animals’; a perfect piece of programming. Mrs Winterson’s sage advice: ‘The trouble with a book is, you never know what's in it until it's too late'. A lunchtime dash to magisterial purveyors of tea and coffee, Wilkinsons of Norwich. Eimear McBride in general. Eimear McBride reading with her own voice from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in particular. Literature professionals surveying the overcast sky for the eclipse; literature professionals looking at the wrong side of the sky. Hannah Silva’s frankly astonishing Shlock!. A panel on digital literatures that fed my brain and a panel on building meaningful relationships with communities that fed my imagination. Ali Smith, always and forever. Palestinian delegate Sameh Khader saying 'Literature puts you outside yourself and allows you to look at yourself through other people's eyes'. Anna Selby suggesting that we had before us the makings of the Greatest World Book Club of all time. Intensive geek-in about books with Sam Ruddock. A last hurrah in Dragon Hall - a unique Grade 1 listed medieval trading hall, former butcher's, former brothel, once a pub, itself crammed to the beams with stories - bringing a triumphant #ILShowcase to a fitting conclusion right where Writers' Centre Norwich will soon make a bold new beginning.
One chapter closes and another unfurls.
The people I met are now part of my future chapters. When I’m oxter deep in spreadsheets and invoices, lugging chairs and tables, when deadlines are weighing on my head, I will imagine these people, friends, doing their inspiring things all over the world, and I’ll feel a glow again. Scottish writer Kirsty Logan, during her panel touched upon the idea of feeling ‘too big or small in the world’. It’s easy to feel big in our own worlds, working within our own networks, in our cities, our countries. These wonderful days in Norwich City of Literature reminded us that the world is big and exciting and full of possibilities: being with peers from all over the world doing wonderful, creative things, made me feel like a tiny cog whirring away in a magnificent machine. A festival hidden inside a conference, teeming with fantastic people and their stories that joins you to the world – that, I discovered, is what an #ILShowcase
A Wild Evening with Jeanette Winterson and Helen Macdonald
“I’m not going to be reading from Why Be Happy,” says Jeanette Winterson. “I can’t be doing with that. Instead, in honour of Helen, I’m going to be reading you a story about a dog.”
So begins our evening with Jeanette Winterson and Helen Macdonald at Norwich Playhouse, a sold-out event as part of the International Literature Showcase
that brings row after row of excited faces and then an expectant hush as the house lights go down.
Winterson is an H is for Hawk fan – "if you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat," she says. Macdonald smiles, settling back on the sofa, the rapport between the two writers clear as we relax into a conversational atmosphere, a discussion between two like-minded enthusiasts.
Winterson sips her whisky as the lecturn is removed, then stands up to read, pacing and gesticulating as she tells us a short tale about love and doggishness. “Dogs are on the side of life; they love life and they love you...” The story bounds along, is always just slightly ahead of us like the dog, pulling us on with insistent enthusiasm. Dogs make you say yes to life and “yes is chaos, no is control...” then “love is chaos because it is bigger than any of the boxes it came in.”
The audience clearly adore the story, are an active part of its deceptively simple gamble through resistance, adoption and bounding love. There is silence when finally the dog does not come back, when the story takes us to the ultimate end. At the close Macdonald says that when she read it earlier in the day she was in floods of tears, saying also that this is a raw day, the eighth anniversary of her father’s death. "It’s a long time," says Helen. "Well not so long really," says Jeanette. We feel privileged to be witnessing this conversation, one of trust and openness, and so finely tuned, mirroring the precision of expression that is so effective and engaging in both writers’ work.
Helen and Jeanette talk about the non-human thing that comes into the room when you write – that takes over, the other. “Is it animal,” asks Jeanette? “It has more legs than a human.”Animals have always existed in culture as spirit guides, shamanic totems that can help us through. It’s because they’re so utterly different, they are not human, the two agree. Similarly there is a ruthlessness, a wildness in writing, says Jeanette. This thing, it is not tame, it ruptures writer and the world; it is wild, it has to be. That’s the power.
This otherness concerning animals is important. We can learn from them, says Helen – they can show us how to live if we let them. The Origin of Species shows it, how animals exist through interdependency, connectedness. How layered it is. Yes, we get these layers through reading too, and interdependency between people, connection, says Jeanette.
They discuss the zeitgeist’s move towards the wild and our untamed spaces, Jeanette saying that we need to connect to something wilder for our mental health. All around the evening, the overly tamed nature of our daily world circles, the desire to escape it, the need.
What’s important about the Goshawk is its utter difference says Helen. That it's not human. She talks about how animals are appropriated by humans for their features, how this is insidious. How the Goshawk was loved by the Nazis because it killed things weaker than itself.
Then Helen stands up and reads from H for a Hawk and we live her visceral fascination for Mabel’s daily existence, the escape into the bird of prey’s pursuits, feeling the brush of the earth and the stumble through land not adapted for humans.
Afterwards, Jeanette asks Helen about Mabel, about why Helen needed her. Helen tells of her lifelong fascination with hawks, but how she suddenly needed to escape fully into Mabel’s world after her father’s death, the release of it. "It’s important to connect to the wild we have left," says Helen. "And to learn from these other beings, these animals."
This is a theme, that continues when the house lights go up and questions are taken. A concern for our modern world and the way we are living. What we can do about it. Whether it’s too late. "Do we look to nature to acknowledge that we’re part of it," somebody asks? "Yes," says Jeanette, "I think we do – think of a world without hierarchy, imagine how it could be." The message is stark. "No planet, no people." These are worrying times.
We all have power, agree the writers, we mustn’t give up, there is plenty that all of us can do. Start about thinking about what you buy. Think about what you eat – the food on your plate is the most political thing you’ll deal in every day. Then empathy, back to that: once again the conversation restates – animals are not us, and that is what we look for in them perhaps; we are looking to value difference.
Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Chris Gribble walks slowly out of the wings. “Here comes the grim reaper,” says Jeanette, and Chris smiles, reluctantly closing the event. Then the crowd files out, forms two long lines to get books signed, searching special final moments with two very special writers.
Anna Scrafield Reflects on Day 1 of the International Literature Showcase.
Yesterday's events began bright and early as our delegates, still reeling with jet lag and clutching coffees, each introduced themselves with a 2.5 minute presentation. A 3 hour endeavour, it sounded as though it could be an event that would drag, however with so many enthusiastic delegates sharing enticing tit-bits of their work, time truly did fly! Cruelly halted at the end of their 2.5 minutes by our Programme Manager, Ed Cottrell, who was gleefully wielding a klaxon, even those who hadn't had enough coffee were sure of being woken up!
Emerging from the quick-fire introductions, we took a well-deserved break, the room abuzz with the ideas and excitement of opportunities and connections that had come out of the introductions.
Following these presentations, we moved into two fantastic readings, as Eimear McBride and Stella Duffy took to the stage. Both were spellbinding and left me desperate to read Duffy's From the River's Mouth, and McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing as soon as humanly possible!
After lunch, we went straight into a panel debate on Digital Literatures, led by Bill Thompson and featuring Steven Fowler, Annette Mees and Tom Abba, things became heated as we delved into the role of digital on our literary world. Is it restricting creativity, encouraging laziness and propagating bad art, or is it allowing new audiences to find work they would otherwise have missed, opening doors to new ways of expressing thoughts and building bridges between artists? There are always two sides to every coin and I found myself swayed by both sides of the argument. The debate is available to view again, online, so do give it a watch and let us know your thoughts!
The day rounded off with a quartet of poets, as Patience Agbabi, Luke Kennard, Rebecca Goss and Zaffar Kunial each read from their work. All, in various ways, explored themes of identity, and dipped into the autobiographical at times. We were moved to tears and to laughter, and forced to ask ourselves questions about the way we see the world, and the people in it.
As dark began to settle, our delegates gathered their bags and made their way to an evening of readings, good pub food and chatter at the Lamb Inn. Heads buzzing with a day of literature, networking and debate I can't help but suspect that our delegates slept well last night. Let's hope so, because today is going to be filled with even more exciting events!
If you'd like to see the events, you can view the livestream on our website,
and get involved in debate via twitter using #ILShowcase
Rachel Stevens, on co-curating the International Literature Showcase
This week marks the beginning of the first International Literature Showcase, at which leading writers and some of the most talented people working in literature from across the globe come together for three days of public events, readings and discussions. Here, Rachel Stevens, Senior Literature Programme Manager at British Council, reflects on the pleasures and challenges of co-curating a programme that is representative of the UK’s thriving literary community.
Having lived and breathed the Showcase for the past six months, I’m in a state of nervous as we make our final preparations ahead of the launch today. I’m preparing myself for three days of little sleep; I can’t wait for the events to get underway. Three days of space for thinking about nothing but literature is a bit of a treat – even as one of the organisers!
Putting together the Showcase is one of the best things about my job, but it’s also one of the most challenging. After all, how do we curate a programme to showcase the full range of British writing to a crowd of literary experts, festival organisers and the general public from around the world when there is so much to choose from? We have twenty four delegates coming from overseas – from all the different regions of the world. Even as I write, people are arriving from all corners of the globe. All our delegates have been recommended as talented individuals in the field and have come through a competitive process to take part. They’re all keen to find out about new British writing and meet new people to collaborate with and our aim is to offer them a totally unique programme to meet their rightly high expectations.
Working in tandem with our friends and partners at Writers' Centre Norwich, we’ve spent hours debating the writers we think ought to take part. These conversations range from the general to the particular, with a colleague making the impassioned case for an individual writer, perhaps because they are doing something new with their work, or they demonstrate a particular strength of contemporary British Literature, or they haven’t yet had as much international exposure as we think they deserve. This is not a ‘best of’ or exclusive list, but a group representing the talent and strength of contemporary British writing. It’s totally impossible, of course, to capture in a three-day snapshot all that we want to say about British literature to the world, let alone do justice to the many literature development professionals who are constantly coming up with innovative ways of working and strengthening our sector. I do, however, hope that in our small selection you will discover writers, ideas and concepts that provide a source for inspiration.
Our programme includes a mix of debut, emerging and established authors. There are writers testing the limits of the novel, with Ali Smith kicking off proceedings with a talk about her latest novel while later in the programme, Eimear McBride will talk about the elastic possibilities of prose in her novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
The theme of reinvention cuts across the programme – Patience Agbabi will perform an extract from her hilarious latest book and show, Telling Tales a remix of the Canterbury tales set in south London today, and Daljit Nagra gives us his lyrical and wry reimaging of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Powerful narratives of loss and transformation feature in the work of Emma Healey, Rebecca Goss, and Helen MacDonald. MacDonald’s H is for Hawk is one of the many works in the programme in which British wildlife darts across the page. From foxes and badgers, to garden birds and goshawks, several writers in the programme lead us into closer intimacies with the landscape around us and its many unforgettable characters.
We’ve always tried to have a balance of genre, but this year in particular short stories and non-fiction have really come to the fore and feature heavily across the programme. That said, of course the boundaries between the profiles of our guests are as blurred as they always have been with individuals wearing many hats simultaneously as journalists, poets, playwrights, publishers, producers and academics. Such multiplicity connects the challenges and opportunities presented by our sectors in the UK and overseas and is something we’ll be exploring with Sarah Thelwall in her session The Networked World which examines sustainability in a creative context.
One of our delegates from the pilot edition in 2012 famously described the Showcase as the ’Davos of the literary world’ – I’m not sure if we have quite the same power to put the world to rights, but the next few days with this fantastic group of people will be a good place to start.
Our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase
Jeanette Winterson, Cynan Jones, Helen MacDonald; our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase, 18 - 21 March 2015
On my first day at WCN - just over two weeks ago - I was handed a mammoth document to proofread; the International Literature Showcase brochure. It quickly transpired that this was a big event. Representatives will be coming from Armenia, Brazil, China, (nobody from a country beginning with D), Egypt, France, Georgia - the list goes on. What’s more Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson are headlining the big public events, three 2014 Costa Book Award winners are reading and the entire programme is being live streamed
so everyone can take part.
Writers and literature professionals from over twenty countries will arrive in Norwich tomorrow for the first International Literature Showcase - a partnership between Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN) and British Council - supported by Arts Council England. It will introduce emerging UK writers to cultural organisations around the world to spark future collaborations.
On the first day of the showcase I’m particularly looking forward to ‘Digital Literatures’ with Bill Thompson. ‘If James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google’ Tom McCarthy recently wrote in The Guardian
. And as part of WCN’s National Conversation
Will Self said ‘deep serious reading - and serious writing - is under threat from the digital revolution’. I’m hoping for a lively discussion on the most pressing issue facing writers today - with input from a global audience. Watch live at 2pm, Thursday 19 March.
On Friday 20th March I’ve got my eye on the New Fiction readings with Cynan Jones and Emma Healey at 4.45pm. ‘Every bit as compelling as the frenzied hype suggests’ is how The Observer described Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, and I can’t wait to hear her read. I picked up a copy of Jones’ The Dig in the excellent Millennium Library. Reviewers have compared his style to Cormac McCarthy’s and it’s obvious why. Stripped back, unflinching and powerful writing that leaves you in awe. Patrick Barkham (also reading at the showcase) said ‘The Dig is a tender and sensuous depiction of the deep connections both good and bad people have with the earth and its animals’. Watch Jones and Healey read via the live stream at 4.45pm on Friday 20 March.
Continuing with the theme of connections with the animal world, Friday evening’s public event features Jeanette Winterson and Helen MacDonald discussing nature and memoir at Norwich Playhouse. It’s sold out but a podcast will be available on the WCN website soon. MacDonald’s H is for Hawk won the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. It’s just out in paperback and as the Literary Review says it’s ‘an incredible achievement’. I can’t wait to her in conversation and with such an icon…
…Jeanette Winterson is a writer for whom I developed what Geoff Dyer calls a ‘literary crush’ - where you read them to the exclusion of everyone else for a short period in your life. You can spot a literary crush on your bookshelf where there is a big block of spines all the same colour and style by the same publisher. My Winterson crush occurred during my first year of university somehow nearly twenty years ago. I shall be carrying around my much underlined copy of The Passion on Friday in the hope that, giggling like a teenager, I’ll get a chance to ask her to sign it.
Join us in your pajamas at 9am on Saturday morning for the live stream of Daljit Nagra’s retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Described by The Independent as ‘rollicking, often rude and riveting’ – it’s going to be well worth getting up for! Later in the morning don’t miss readings from Charlotte Higgins, Patrick Barkham and Bidisha and a discussion on nonfiction and memoir hosted by WCN’s Programme Director Jonathan Morely.
If you enjoy Barkham’s work you might be interested to know you can spend a day with him on the beautiful Holkham beach as one of WCN’s Writing Rambles masterclasses
- part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Where he’ll help you ‘harness moments of inspiration with the practical business of getting words onto the page’. I sound like I’m up-selling! And I suppose I am but only because I’m sure for many writers this sounds like a magical way to spend a day.
This is really just a taster of all the readings, conversations and performances which will take place during the International Literature Showcase. So do check out the full programme
and join viewers around the world for the live stream from 12.30pm on Thursday 19 March. #ILShowcase
IdeasTap Inspires Winner Lindsey Fairweather, Looks Back on the Programme
A lot can happen in six months. I applied for the Inspires scheme on a whim, when I was heavily pregnant with my second child; he was just a couple of weeks old when I went to the writing workshop all semifinalists were invited to attend. When I found out I'd made it through that round, too, and won a place on the scheme, I was delighted but anxious. The timing seemed terrible, but there was no 'pause' button, for the scheme or for my personal life, so I decided to see if I could justify my mentor's faith in me.
Under writer-translator Daniel Hahn's expert guidance (and with my baby strapped to my chest or sleeping in his pram or babbling in my arms), I started to produce new work. More than anything else, Danny gave me confidence. His thoughtful editorial brain coupled with his belief in me and my work helped me to refine my first novel, On Earth, As It Is, and send it out once more, to various literary agents here in the UK and in my native US. Meanwhile, while my two-year-old was at nursery and my newborn was napping, I started writing something new - scenes about my childhood, about a loved one who was ill, about motherhood - and trusted that the shape of the work would surface. And it has.
The scheme didn't teach me how to write - instead, it taught me how to be a writer. The practical advice, straight from agents and published writers, proved invaluable. Writing can be lonely, and luckily my experience with Inspires was anything but. My colleagues and I went on a lovely weekend together in Norwich; I hadn't been back since completing my MA and I found it even more enchanting than I'd remembered. I am not used to being wined, dined, and housed because of words I've written, so the whole weekend felt surreal (not least because it included a lunch with one of my literary heroes, Ali Smith, who had read work from all of us and had detailed, supportive thoughts to share). Crucially, we also learned about the business side of writing, and about how to seek representation - all useful, I thought, for the lucky ones who make it that far.
And now I'm one of the lucky ones. Toward the end of the scheme, I moved to Spain with my family, and while I was finding my way around Madrid, the marketing wizards at Writers' Centre Norwich were contacting literary agents on our behalf. Several agents wrote to me after reading the start of my novel, asking to read the rest, and soon I found myself with four offers of representation. After speaking with all of them, I'm delighted to have signed with a fantastic agent, Andrew Gordon at David Higham Associates.
Recently, I flew back to London for our showcase event, where agents and friends came to hear us read. I loved seeing my colleagues again - their work is funny, moving, fresh, dark, deep. I know they will find success and I can't wait to read their stories and books. As for me, I'm hopeful that my novel will find a good home; if and when it does, I will owe a great deal to the scheme for giving me the tools, the contacts, and the confidence I needed, just when it seemed impossible to write, let alone publish. It has made all the difference.
Take a look at the extracts from the IdeasTap Inspires Winners here.
Fuelling Creative Minds by Meg Rosoff
LET’S BEGIN WITH YOUR FUNERAL
Let’s talk about what makes a ‘successful’ life.
Did anyone love you? Did you contribute to someone else’s happiness? Did you help someone in trouble? Did you love someone over a long period of time, even when it was difficult to sustain that love? Did you question injustice? Did you give away some of your money – no matter how little of it there was – to someone who needed it more than you did? Did you have a passion? Did you think about your time on earth? Did you ease suffering, enlighten someone’s mind, do a job with honesty and integrity? Did you appreciate nature, stand up for what was joyous and what was morally right?
Let’s talk about what makes a successful life.
One of my few really interesting professors at Harvard was a psychiatrist called George Vaillant, who took over a seventy-five year assessment (begun in the early 1940s) of a group of Harvard undergraduates. The Grant Study was set up to trace the sources of and influences on success (or lack of success) in every arena of life.
The subjects still alive are now in their nineties and still being studied.
By means of questionnaires and interviews, 268 men were followed closely, year after year, looking for correlations between geography, IQ, family life, emotional intelligence, diet, marital status … and success.
Here are a few of the things they found.
- Above a certain basic level of intelligence, more is not necessarily better.
- Career success depended on warmth of relationships and, above a certain base level, not on intelligence.
- Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers earned more than men whose mothers were uncaring.
- Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
Vaillant’s key takeaway, in his own words: ‘The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”?’
So (despite many of the Grant Study’s results being presented in terms of income) in the end, it seems, happiness comes down to the quality of your relationships – friendships, sexual relationships, family relationships, working relationships, relationships between parents and children.
And success, I believe most people would agree, comes down to happiness. If you live a happy and fulfilled life, then you die successful.
So why do we persist in measuring success in terms of salaries, job titles and assets? Why do we measure the success of executives by the size of their bonuses? Doctors and lawyers by their hundred hour weeks? Writers by how many books they sell? Children by their number of A*s? Why do we (currently) determine success based on media exposure, fame, number of Twitter followers? Why are we endlessly trying to quantify life experiences, as if the person with the greatest number of followers on Facebook, the biggest bank balance or the greatest number of A*s somehow wins?
According to George Vaillant, none of these things contributes markedly to happiness.
Perhaps we need to go back to the very beginning – to the very definition of success, and to how we educate our children to think about success, in order to get to the bottom of our thinking on the subject.
So let's go back to school.
In the twenty-first century, educational success is largely determined by the government. The government puts in place a series of goals that evaluate children as young as three against measures of socialisation, reading proficiency, an understanding of numbers, the ability to answer questions in an acceptable, established manner, and later – during GCSEs and A levels – the ability to pass exams in up to twelve subjects and write essays in a strictly approved fashion.
Success in school requires hard work and a competitive approach to study on the part of students – but more to the point, a successful student is one capable of achieving goals as defined by the exam graders, as defined by the government.
A successful student is one capable of matching learning to this very specific series of goals.
In other words, a child who reads all day is not a successful student. A child who writes brilliantly and with a distinctive voice but can’t spell, is a failure. A child who loves history but can’t write an essay in the approved manner, is doomed. A child who loves stories, who loves to dream, who makes unusual connections, whose brain works in unconventional, peculiar ways – but who can’t multiply 11 x12 – is not a successful student.
Successful students must sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, temporarily memorise large amounts of information, understand and achieve received goals, think inside the box. A desire to please and a willingness to conform are key.
The least successful children in this sausage factory will be branded from the age of five. Children with parents or carers who don’t talk or read to them enough are most likely to fall into this category of early failures. As are dyslexic children. Or eccentric thinkers. An irregular schedule, disorderly home life and financial instability all interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
Less support at home, fewer books, a less regular schedule, a less orderly home life, less healthy meals, less consistent love – all these economic or emotional disadvantages further condemn the five year old to failure. Food banks, immigration problems, substance abuse problems, unemployment, parental absence or mental illness – all of these elements interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
I see them when I visit secondary schools – the children branded failures because they can’t get on in school. Because they’re bored, or not very verbal, or not very good at sitting still and taking information in as required in a classroom situation – or the ones who just don’t see why thirteen years of their lives should be spent taking exams they’re not good at, absorbing information in a manner that hasn’t changed much in two hundred years. ‘Not a student’ is a label that has condemned decades of children to a diminished sense of what they’re capable of in life. When in fact all it means is, ‘does not thrive within government parameters’.
Do I buy into the idea that these students are without value? Of course not. Put them in a different sort of learning environment or teach them something that stimulates their imaginations and they’ll be fine. But sit them in a classroom for thirteen years with a series of targets chosen by a government that knows nothing at all about education and they’re doomed.
In contrast, the most successful children in this whole process of learning and taking exams will get all A*s and go to Oxford or Cambridge, after which they will go on to have what most people consider to be the most successful lives – the best jobs, the highest salaries, large and comfortable and expensive houses and cars.
In a 2014 book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, award winning American essayist and educator William Deresiewicz concerned himself with what’s going at the top level of American education.
‘Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose … great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.’
This was written about Harvard and Yale but applies just as well to elite British universities. Like the highest rated state primary and secondary schools, these institutions take few risks – they admit top performing, highly driven teenagers and turn out graduates with no motive to question the status quo, no motive to question the structure of society or the weight that society puts on a certain kind of success.
If you win a beauty contest, you don’t dedicate your life to challenging society’s perceptions of beauty.
William Deresiewicz continues:
‘So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.’
All of this is happening at exactly the moment at which the world most needs risk takers: individuals willing and able to retell the story of society in a more positive way. People willing to take risks with meaningful social and political change. Hardly anyone would disagree that our political system needs changing – free market capitalism has led to terrifying extremes of wealth and poverty. The pharmaceutical industry needs meaningful change along with the system of drug patents that price simple, inexpensive drugs out of the reach of entire populations whose lives they might save. The legal system favours those with money, as does education, as does housing. In the meantime, there is little financial motive to stem – or even acknowledge – the devastating effects of global warming. It is difficult to think of a single aspect of life on earth today that couldn’t do with rigorous deconstruction and rethinking.
If schools are going to train a better class of political leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, parents, and social policy-makers, they’re going to have to ask themselves which qualities to promote. If we require a more compassionate, more radical, less class-riven and self-centered definition of success, where does it begin?
I would like success to be redefined. I would like a successful man or woman to be defined as one who thinks creatively and laterally, who questions authority and accepted wisdom, who lives thoughtfully, generously and not entirely for personal gain. To be successful, I believe, it is important to leave the world a little bit better than you found it.
How do we do this? By listening to the wise and enduring voices of our civilization – by encouraging each new generation to read history and philosophy and to think big thoughts – about religion, politics, ethics, love, passion, life and death and the origins of the universe. The extraordinary imagination of our species – as expressed in poetry and fiction, music, art, dance – might someday spill over into cures for cancer and war and inequality. This will happen not by thinking about what we are, but what we might be.
A further striving after knowledge and meaning is the proper goal for education. Everyone doesn’t need to achieve A*s. But everyone needs to learn how to live a good, creative, questioning life.
What we don’t need are more five-year-old failures and more excellent sheep.
Helping Children Connect by Kevin Jones
Headteacher Kevin Jones writes on creativity in schools in advance of our National Conversation event Fuelling Creative Minds at Bath Literature Festival on Monday 2nd March.
We should never underestimate what a child may think or feel.
One of my six-year-olds recently wrote the following:
The sea is rough when it hits the rocks
It goes mad like lightning
He is so angry that he tries to drown me
I run as fast as I can
The sea is so angry he bursts out of his vest
When it comes to night he looks up and cries with happiness
He bursts into a furious ball going mad
All he really wants is for someone to teach him how to behave.
It is a wonderful child’s eye view of big feelings that are difficult to control. Children feel deeply.
There was a loud crack of thunder over our playground in a clear sky last summer, as you sometimes get, and most of my children thought it was a bomb. I could not have thought that thought as a child. This is a post 9/11 childhood.
A nine-year-old tells me of his heartfelt worries about war, deforestation and global warming. I had no such fears as a child.
Children think deeply.
We are told that one third of children have never climbed a tree, a quarter have never rolled down a hill, a third have no idea how to build a den and almost half have never made a daisy chain. The world of childhood has changed and its landscape has shrunk. This is certainly the most shut in generation of children. And yet, shut into their homes and their bedrooms, they are often left free to roam through killing fields in video games or amble into brothels on the internet. Assaulted by images of perfection, false wants and fashions, Snapchatting their way through virtual relationships with friends known and not so known, or glued to their game boys, it is easy for children to lose touch with themselves, to become unsure of who they are and what they are meant to be. To be overwhelmed.
More than ever, we need to help our children to connect feelingly with themselves and their world. More than ever, we need to make the case for children as writers, as makers. In a poem or a painting or a performance, children shape their experience, make the world they communicate. And this shaping and making is empowering.
We sent the little boy home with his ‘Sea’ poem. His father wrote to thank me:
‘Joe has really struggled to control his anger at home, at times – nothing major, but enough to make two loving parents concerned. Anyway, the poem allowed us the opportunity to see things a little differently, his way, and to talk and listen to him…’
There are many powerful arguments for placing creativity at the heart of education.
And none is more powerful than that a creative education connects us and our children to the depth of thought and feeling at the beating heart of childhood.