News and views
Readers' Circle Member Ken Reviews Badgerlands
Badgerlands is one of our Brave New Reads titles, from Norfolk writer Patrick Barkham. Get a taster of the book from Readers' Circle Member Ken:
Three years ago my eye was caught by the Summer Reads display in the Millennium Library. I decided to read each of the choices, of which my favourite was Evie Wyld's After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
. I subsequently filled in a questionnaire about my experience and was contacted by Sam from the Writers' Centre Norwich, who wished to include me in a survey of reading habits. During my discussion with Sam he told me that the Readers' Circle
would be involved in choosing each year's Summer Reads [now Brave New Reads] selection. Would I like to be part of this? To which the answer was, I certainly would.
I have always been a voracious reader and Brave New Reads has exposed me to new writing, both good and bad, and helped me to study books more closely. Having to review each book you read really focuses the mind. It has also led me to meet other readers just as passionate about literature as I am- if not always sharing my impeccable taste! The discussions at Readers' Circle meetings, though always friendly, can be quite robust.
I am currently re-reading Badgerlands
, having been asked to do this blog, and am happy to say I am finding it just as engrossing second time round. Barkham writes with a very easy going, free flowing style, which betrays his background as an experienced journalist with the Guardian. This accessibility, however, in no way indicates any trivialisation or sensationalising of the subject matter. Facts, figures and anecdotes come thick and fast without the reader ever feeling bombarded or overwhelmed, as can sometimes be the case with fact based books.
is a social history of the badger in Britain. The author brings to life this enigmatic animal, its multifaceted characteristics and its complex and emblematic relationship with the British landscape and its people. The human aspect is important here because though the badger is central to this book it is as much about human relationships with nature, the countryside and each other as it is about badgers.
So this readable, informative, intelligent and engaging book stands highly recommended on its own merits but for me there is an added satisfaction in that the author is Norfolk born and has returned to live in the county. It's always good to be able to promote books by Norfolk authors and now that Brave New Reads encompasses Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, too let's hope for some strong East Anglian contenders next year.
Listen to a recording from Patrick's event at Huntingdon library below.
The Invisible Women by Kamila Shamsie
An original provocation by Kamila Shamsie for our National Conversation event on women and publishing at the Hay Festival, 29th May
Several years ago at the Jaipur festival, Martin Amis chaired a panel on ‘The Crisis of American Fiction’ with Richard Ford, Jay Mcinnerney and Junot Diaz. I was in the audience, and halfway through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said, ‘clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it’. It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary woman writer. A single reference to Eudora Welty was in fact the only acknowledgement that women in America have ever had anything to do with the world of letters. Junot Diaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on White American males, but it was much too little, much too late.
I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing, literary prizes etc. I know the reason I had been struck by it was that it seemed to me less an anomaly than an extreme version of a too–prevalent attitude by men – including male writers – towards women writers. To clarify the matter, I thought it might be useful to do the very unwriterly thing of turning from narrative to statistics. Over the last five years, the Guardian
has asked 252 cultural figures, almost all of them writers, for their year–end book recommendations. 162 among them listed one or more works of fiction. Of those, 56% of the men chose books written by men only as opposed to 32% of women who chose books by women only. And 15% of men chose books by women only, while 29% of women chose books by men only. If male writers are so much more likely than women writers to value books by their own gender, what does that mean for judging panels, for book blurbs, for the championing of lesser known writers by better–known writers? What, in short, does it mean for the literary culture in which we live?
While considering these matters, there’s one more set of figures that’s significant. Of the 252 people who picked their books of the year, only 37% were women. In the past when the issue of women’s representation in literary pages gets has been brought up it’s very often women editors who, while voicing their frustration with the situation, mention how much more likely men are than women to agree to review or judge or make lists of favourites. Suzi Feay, writing on the issue in 2011, discussed her own attempts to get writers to submit choices for a books of the year feature: ‘You’d think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having.’ I asked Ginny Hooker from the Review whether the comparative reticence of women writers was the reason the Books of the Year contributors were mostly men. She said ‘We always try to get a balance, and although I don't have accurate records, my sense was always that more women said no to contributing than men did. So I would definitely ask a lot more women than would eventually end up contributing. But I suspect that if you looked at the number of people I've approached, it would probably be more than 50% men – something to do with who is in the public eye.’ It’s a double bind then. More men than women get asked to judge, nominate, recommend – and of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so, and those more men are more likely to recommend yet more men.
This is not to say that any experience within publishing can be broken down into a story of fair–minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex, and involves all parties. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes – which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success in the world. As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker prize over the last five years. Ever since the Women’s Prize for Fiction – formerly the Orange, now the Bailey’s – was set up 20 years ago in response to an all–male Booker shortlist, this has been the prize to which the most attention is paid in gender terms. If you were to look at the longlists, shortlists, and winners of the last 5 years there’s an easy conclusion: it’s gender biased. More men than women make up these lists. The casual observer might conclude that the judges have their patriarchal hats firmly on their heads when making their decisions. Except, the primary problem may not lie with the judges.
The question of the Man Booker prize judges and gender came up last year when only 3 women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges Sarah Churchwell said, ‘We read what publishers submit to us. . . [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.’ So I asked the Man Booker administrators how many of the submitted books in the last 5 years have been written by women. The answer was, slightly under 40%. I should add, this isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve more than once been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging. Because publisher submissions remain confidential this part of the equation remains uncommented on when judges are held to account for the gender imbalance of the long and short lists they produce.
In the 5 years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women to win the prize has been exactly 40%. In this period, although 4 out of 5 of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there’s been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by polishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. In 2013, in a Guardian
article, Debbie Taylor of Mslexia
magazine pointed out that ‘of the last 10 books to win the Booker prize, eight had male protagonists, one a female protagonist, and one both male and female protagonists … If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected, and read as universal.’ It’s worth mentioning that the two books that have won the Man Booker since that interview was published – The Luminaries
and The Narrow Road to the Deep North
– both have male protagonists. Of course we don’t know how many of the submitted books had female protagonists, but it remains instructive to look, by contrast, at the books that have won the Baileys Women’s Prize – formerly the Orange, now the Baileys . In the last 12 years, 4 of the books have centred on a male protagonist, 3 on a female protagonist, and 5 on a mix of male and female protagonists. This, I would argue, is a consequence not only of having women-only submissions, but also of having women-only judges.
I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last 5 years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the VIDA statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic. But at this that [‘this’?] point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that more men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and improve yourself by reading some Toni Morrison.
The question isn’t ‘Is there a problem?’; it’s, ‘Are we recognising how deep it runs, and do we know what to do about it?’ The easy response is to always blame someone else. Prize judges can blame publishers who can blame the kinds of books that cut across male and female reading tastes. Literary editors can blame the women writers who don’t take up chances that are offered to them and the women writers can blame the editors who shift the blame rather than acknowledging they don’t ask as many women to begin with. We can all say, men don’t just have more confidence about picking their books of the year, they also have more confidence about writing big, bold novels – and then we can work out that ‘big and bold’ are only more appealing than ‘subtle and with emotional depth’ because literary cultures have historically been formed by men which allows a patriarchal view to look like a universal truth.
Well, enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend to a world of equality? Or should we step outside that fictional narrative and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I should add, I speak as someone whose great–aunt, Attia Hosein, was brought back into print after 3 decades by Virago Modern Classics, and also as someone who has been twice shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and seen precisely how great an effect that has on a book. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male–dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere. But they also brought questions of female exclusion or marginalisation into the conversation. VIDA, the literary organization which focuses on women in the literary arts, is doing the same with its annual gender breakdown of literary publications. And VIDA has also recognised that power privilege on either side of the Atlantic is not merely about gender but also about race – they now have an Annual Women of Colour Count too. That I’ve failed to mention race until now doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it as an even more lopsided and neglected matter than gender. What we need is more. Not more special privileges for women, but more ways of countering the special privileges doled out to white men.
Now that the problem has been recognised, analysed, translated into graphs and charts and statistics it is time for everyone, male and female, in our literary culture to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality for which we all sectors of the culture bear responsibility. Last year readers, critics and at least one literary journal signed up to a ’Year of Reading Women’ - or in the case of the journal ‘The Critical Flame’, a year of reading women writers and writers of colour. Let’s take it a step further - let’s have a Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour. 2018 , the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, seems both near enough and distant enough to be feasible. Of course there will be many details to work out - including, what happens to paperback of books published the prior year and can we find a more catchy name than Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour (YPWWWC) - but the basic premise is precisely what it says on the tin. Of course the knock of effect of a Year of Publishing Women and Writers of Colour will be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front of store displays, in literary festival line-ups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refuse to sign up, then it’s for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and literary festivals to say their commitment to YPWWWC means they won’t be able to give space to the white male writers who are being published that year. I’m not discounting the fact that many white male writers will, I’m sure, also back YPWWWC and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that are published.
What will it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what will happen in 2019? Will we revert to status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our pre-conceptions of which is unchangeable? I suggest we find out.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of six novels, including the 2015 Bailey’s Prize long-listed A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Three of her other novels (In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Broken Verses) have received awards from the Pakistan Academy of Letters. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists’, she grew up in Karachi, and now lives in London.
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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
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.
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.
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.
East Anglian Book Awards 2014 – shortlist announced!
Today we can reveal the shortlists for this year’s East Anglian Book Awards, the annual celebration of the best new writing from our region – with qualifying work being set largely in East Anglia or being written by an author living in the region.
After spending the summer reading over eighty entries our judges have selected 19 books of outstanding quality across six categories, and now the final judging process is underway to decide the winners.
The six finalists and the overall winner of East Anglian Book of the Year will be chosen by a panel of experts from the partner organisations (chaired by Chris Rushby, Bookseller at Jarrold) and will be announced on November 20 at an awards dinner at Jarrold.
The first prize in each category and the overall £1,000 cash prize will be awarded by Eimear McBride, whose acclaimed novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (published in 2013 by Galley Beggar Books of Norwich) has triumphed in the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Kerry Group Best Irish Novel of the Year Award and the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, and been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Folio Prize.
So, without further ado, we can reveal that the shortlisted books are:
Fiction, judged by novelist and poet Sophie Hannah, whose The Monogram Murders, a new Hercule Poirot novel, was recently launched at the Norwich Playhouse:
The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
Black Sheep by Susan Hill (Chatto & Windus)
After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Profile Books)
Poetry, judged by George Szirtes, recently retired as Professor of Poetry at UEA:
At The Time of Partition by Moniza Alvi (Bloodaxe Books)
Ink’s Wish by Sarah Law (Gatehouse Press)
What I Saw by Laura Scott (Rialto)
Yoga by Tom Warner (Egg Box)
History and Tradition, judged by Trevor Heaton (Features Editor, EDP/Eastern News):
The Revolt and Taming of the 'Ignorant' by David Adams (Larks Press)
East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, edited by David Bates and Robert Liddiard (Boydell Press)
We Were Eagles (Vol 1, July 42 to November 43) by Martin Bowman (Amberley)
Biography and Memoir, judged by Diana Souhami, the award-winning biographer of Edith Cavell:
Diana Poulton: The Lady With The Lute by Thea Abbott (Smokehouse Press)
A Twilight Landscape: The Hidden Art of George James Rowe of Woodbridge (1804-1883) by Chloe Bennett (DK & MN Sanford)
Two Turtle Doves by Alex Monroe (Bloomsbury)
General Non-Fiction, judged by Sam Ruddock, Programme Manager at WCN:
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books)
Birds & People by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape)
Children’s Books, judged by Joyce Dunbar, a prolific author of books for young people:
Paupers by Mary Chapman (Ransom Publishing) – age range 9-12
Rupert the Dinosaur by Douglas Vallgren, illustrated by Karl Newson (self-published) – age range 3-6
Everyone A Stranger by Victor Watson (Catnip Publishing) – age range 9-12
There will also be a prize for the Best Cover Art, chosen from the shortlist, with the cash prize donated by the East Anglian Writers.
Come and join us to celebrate the best of East Anglia's books from the past 12 months, and to congratulate those deserving winners.
Tickets for the ceremony are available from Jarrold priced £20, which includes a meal and a glass of Adnams' wine on arrival.
Call 01603 660661, click here
, or visit customer services in the Norwich store.
The Awards are organised annually by Writers’ Centre Norwich, the EDP and Jarrold, with support from the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Previous overall winners include Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami (Quercus) and The Last Hunters, Candy Whittome’s nostalgic evocation of the hard lives of the Cromer crab-fishermen (Full Circle Editions).
Will Self: On Writers, Readers, and Losing Our Minds
This piece is an original provocation by Will Self, delivered in person at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday 4th October 2014, as part of the National Conversation. (Prefer PDF? Click here.)
Let’s think about reading – about what it’s like to read. And after we’ve thought about reading for a while, let’s consider writing – and what it means to write. There are many ways of reading: we scan, we dip, we skip and we speed through texts we know to be intrinsically dull, searching out the nuggets of information we desire as a bent-backed prospector pans for gold. In contradistinction: we are lost, abandoned, absorbed – tossed from wave-to-wave of language we relapse into the wordsea. All serious readers of serious literature have had this experience: time, space, and all the workaday contingencies of their identity – sex, age, class, heritage – are forgotten; the mind cleaves to the page, matching it point-for-point; the mind is the text, and in the act of reading it is you who are revealed to the impersonal writer, quite as much as her imaginings and inventions are rendered unto you. In the course of my literary career I’ve read various accounts of the reading process, ones that analyse it phenomenologically, neurologically and psychologically – ones that site it in a given social or cultural context, but none of them have captured the peculiar quiddity of reading as I experience it. In particular, no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we read deeply; we don’t picture a woman in a red dress when we decipher the marks that mean ‘she wore a red dress’ – and by extension, we do not hold within our mind’s eye the floor plan of Mansfield Park or the street map of Dublin when we read the novels of Jane Austen and James Joyce respectively.
Yet, somehow, we know these places. The clearest possible example of the strange telepathy implicit in deep reading that I’ve arrived at is one that every reader I’ve ever explained it to understands intuitively: when we read a description of a place we intuit whether or not the writer truly knows that place, whether we have any familiarity with it or not ourselves. In a world made up of printed codices, and all the worlds they in turn describe, the reader strives to see in them, see through them, and to discern the connections between them. Because the codices are physical objects, the reader conceives of their connections in spatial and temporal terms; as she builds up her canonical knowledge she continually plots and re-plots the plan of her own memory palace, enlarging a room here, building an extension over there. When she experiences difficulties with a text – the meaning is obscure, the syntax confused and the allusions unknown to her – she either struggles to extend the reticulation of her own comprehension, and so net fleeting meaning, or, if she is utterly stumped, she consults another book. This process of elucidation itself has a physical correlate: she rises from her chair, she reaches a book down from a shelf, she leafs through it and in the process acquires further information and understanding that, while it may not relate to the problem at hand, still provides additional space and furnishing for her own memory.
This way of going about the business of reading is so well-established and so completely inhabited by those of us who have grown up with what Marshall McLuhan termed ‘Gutenberg minds’, that we barely give it any thought. By extension, we are scarcely able to apprehend what it might be like to not have to read deeply at all; if, indeed, it were possible to gain all the required information necessary to understand a passage simply by skimming it, and, where an obscurity is highlighted, clicking on this to follow a hypertext link. There has been a lot of research on digital as against analogue reading and the results are decidedly mixed. On the one hand sceptics and Cassandras point to the fracturing of attention and the attenuation of memory they see lying behind the screen; they also point out that precisely the kind of reading I’ve described above becomes impossible once text is displayed on an internet-enabled device – unless, that is, readers are self-disciplined enough to not use the web. But web-boosters and info-geeks take quite another tack, finding in digital reading new forms of stimulus and engagement. I haven’t the space here to weigh up the competing claims, but one thing is absolutely clear in all of this: reading on screen is fundamentally different to reading on paper, and just as solitary, silent, focussed reading is a function of the physical codex, so the digital text will bring with new forms of reading, learning, memory and even consciousness.
I think this so self-evident as to scarcely require elucidation; the unwillingness of the literary community – in its broadest sense – to accept the inevitability of this transformation, can only be ascribed to their being blinkered by the boards of their codices. The majority of the text currently read in the technologically advanced world is already digitised – and most of that text is accessed via internet-enabled devices; all the valorisation of the printed word – its fusty scent, its silk, its heft – is a rearguard action: the book is already in desperate, riffling retreat. And with the book goes all the paper engineering that was folded into its origami economy. For now, the relationship between words and revenue has become a debatable one – we can wax all we like about the importance of the traditional gatekeepers; the perspicacity of editors and critics in separating out the literary wheat from the pulpy chaff, but the fact is that these professions depend on the physical book as a commodity. It is the sad bleat of the book world that we’ll be sorry once they’re gone – and with them all the bookshops, literary reviews, libraries and publishing houses that supported their endeavours – but it was their mistake to assume their acumen to be inelastic. I mean by this, that a certain kind of expertise was understood to have a value to its consumers that was both constant and capable of being monetised at a fixed rate. The web has grabbed hold of this inelasticity and stretched it until it’s snapped back in the myopic faces of the literati.
Whatever portion of our contemporary culture you survey, you can witness this snap-back happening: Whether its university students receiving inflated grades for essays plagiarised from the web; or the commissioning practices of editors at the big publishing houses, who, fighting to keep their footing in the cataract of literary production, sucking up new titles by the fathom, in the hope that they may have thereby secured a few golden nuggets – then there’s the remorseless and unholy miscegenation of advertising and editorial that continues on the web apace, and has now infiltrated even the august pages of the New York Times, so that you can be reading what looks like the news that’s fit to print, and only belatedly discover that it’s in fact ‘sponsored content’. This elision of monetary and cultural value is to be found everywhere in the printed realm: Back when I began publishing novels not only did the reviews in the quality press mean something – in terms of sales, yes, but also a genuine assay of literary worth – but as a writer, you knew that there was a community of readers who paid attention to them. No longer. The rise of reading groups and on line readers’ reviews represents the concomitant phenomenon to the political parties’ use of focus groups to formulate policy: literary worth is accorded to what the generality want; under such terms of endearment what is loved is what has always been loved, and the black swan of innovation flies unseen and unheralded.
Follow the money is always the maxim when it comes to understanding the complex processes that it mediates. Since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in the 1980s, all the money in publishing has been funnelled into pipes that have a wider and a shorter bore; nowadays one big, thick pipeline carrying half the revenue from British retail book sales disappears deep into Jeff Bezos’s pockets. The Net Book Agreement itself was part of a government subsidy system that included preferential tax rates for newsprint, public libraries, and even the grants awarded university students from poorer backgrounds – all of it was based on the assumption that the cultural value of reading and writing wasn’t reducible to its economic worth. Nowadays all we can say about the production and consumption of the written word is that it’s subject to exactly the same iron laws of supply and demand as every other widget or pixel.
Under such parlous circumstances, with all cultural value being colossally devalued in order to achieve parity with the pound, the traditional gatekeepers are precisely who we look to for the preservation of the logos. In the past, the Church was a repository of scholarship for its own sake – but nowadays we are a resolutely secular society, unless, that is, you subscribe to fundamentalist revealed religion. The academy is now a profit centre all its own, with academics publishing on-line in order to secure professional advancement, rather than because their scholarship is meaningful or valuable; and university administrators encouraging the development of courses of ‘study’ – such as creative writing – that are no such thing, but rather steady revenue streams for institutions dependent on fee income.
I’ve written in the past about the creative writing movement – if we can characterise it in this way – being a set-aside scheme for writers who cannot earn a living from their own words. In a devastating enactment of professional closure – breathtaking in its elegance and simplicity – they now teach other would-be writers to become precisely like them. But it’s also worth considering what the ‘novel’ these everyones have inside them represents: in a world in which the price of words has become highly elastic, and the value of words has come to be determined by consumer demand, such literary endeavours can either be only avowedly commercial, or a sort of finishing school for the moneyed, with young women and men undertaking novel-writing in the same spirit that they might once have done needlepoint, or gone deer stalking.
My personal motto is ‘I just want to be misunderstood’; and I’ve been gratified by just how misunderstood my sallies into the vexed terrain of the epochal technological transformation that’s being enacted right before our line-scanning eyes have been. I am not in the least bit pessimistic about these developments – I don’t think the telephone, the radio, film or television made our culture in any sense more ‘stupid’ nor ‘ignorant’. I believe that our society – and others – will both preserve its storehouse of knowledge and use these bi-directional digital media to develop new forms of understanding, including what it means to be literate. The losers in all of this will be traditional cultural forms that were dependent on the technology of the codex: the extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already underway; people no longer depend on their own, personal and canonical memory to analyse and validate new information – they have outsourced such mental operations to algorithms owned by Sergey Brin et al. As to whether such dependence on what is, effectively, a monetised intellectual prosthesis will impact negatively on our culture, the answer has to be an emphatic ‘yes’ – unless, that is, the new web-dependent generations seek their own liberation from the shackles of late capitalism, just as their foremothers and fathers won concessions from those who owned the mechanical means of production.
But, I hear you cavil; this is the realm of politics rather than culture – really? And since when have the two been remotely separable? The argument about whether the web is value neutral is simply addressed: Were this resource to be truly incapable of being owned then yes, the tweeting Arab Spring might have culminated in a warm summer of blooming democracy; but the fact is that the commanding heights of the web are already occupied by those who view it as cash cow grazing in a global field. None of this, however, counts for anything when it comes to the future of our literary culture – its fate is already sealed, and there’s no going back. I began this provocation by describing what I think of deep reading – the kind of reading that serious books demand; and I promised that I would also discuss writing, the kind of writing that’s intended to be read deeply. But really, there’s no point in this, because such writing depends for its existence on deep readers, and in the very near future – as I hope I’ve amply demonstrated – such deep readers will be in very short supply indeed.
© Will Self
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Share your thoughts below, or on Twitter via the #NatConv tag.
Delve into darkness with a preview of Noirwich Crime and Noir Festival
I've always loved the word “noir,” it has a curiously decadent quality which lends the subject a strange luxurious and exclusive air. Along with adding a smoky sultriness to the film and literary genre that it describes, it has also allowed me to couch my life-long obsession with Humphrey Bogart in far more impressive terms – “I'm into Film Noir” sounds so much cooler.
In contrast, “crime” really is a no-nonsense sort of genre, with the mention of it serving to accelerate the pulse, and quicken the breath. Both genres though, however different on first impressions, share a pleasing darkness, and an offer of an exploration into the strange and shadowy side of the human psyche. Through crime and Noir we are offered the opportunity to dice with death, and take a voyeuristic adventurous journey into the dark places of the society, although almost always with that sidelong wink at the comedy lurking just beneath the surface.
I'm not the only person who enjoys such things though, along with our partners, the Crime Writers' Association, the UEA, and Waterstones we at WCN are about to embark upon Noirwich, a deliciously dark festival of crime and noir writing, and it looks as though it’s going to be a blood-curdlingly good!
The events during the festival offer a pleasing range to suit all manner of tastes, which means I can get stuck into all sorts of different readings, talks, screenings and sessions with no fear of overlap. So where might we bump into one another? Well, I suspect I’ll be at Frank’s Bar on 14th Sept at 5pm for the (free) screening of The Killer Inside Me, and I’ll certainly be taking the opportunity to go and see Sophie Hannah. A crime writer of much renown, and an international bestseller,Hannah has written a new Poirot novel, returning Agatha Christie’s popular moustachioed detective to the page. With the full backing of the Christie family, and a huge amount of excitement bubbling up online about the first chapter of The Monogram Murders which has been released as a taster (download here) the chance to hear from the lady herself, as she discusses the pressures and pleasures of writing Poirot, is too fantastic an opportunity to miss!
Meanwhile Val McDermid will be talking about the challenges and pleasures of writing books of murderous mystery, and how best to depict brutal serial killers (amongst other things!) Plus, hot off the press, she will be launching her new book The Skeleton Road that will have been published by Little, Brown only the day before! I'm very excited to have the opportunity of hearing a best-selling, critically acclaimed, author read from her new work, and I'm considering whether I'll muster the courage to stick up my hand at the end, and ask a question, too.
These are just my personal highlights of Noirwich though, there are a whole host of other exciting events ready to chill the blood, including a celebration of the CWA Diamond Dagger, an exploration of new writers on the scene, writing masterclasses, a Nordic Noir Workshop, and even an exploration into the works of a forgotten, but absurdly talented local crime writer, S.T. Haymon. So do go and conduct your own investigation into the exciting selection of events on offer – it’s going to be a festival to die for!
Noirwich is sponsored by Norwich BID
An evening with Val McDermid is sponsored by Right Angle Events
An Evening with Megan Abbott is sponsored by Dardan Security.
House of a Thousand Doors
William Galinsky, the Artistic Director of Norfolk and Norwich Festival
emailed one day and said ‘take a look at Walk With Me
it’s a piece from a guy called Rob Van Riskwick who I met recently. It’s wonderful. It’s an app that responds to location, light, other people and a lot more besides. The potential for story-telling is really exciting. I’m not sure how well I’m explaining this. Let’s talk.’
William has lots of ideas. It’s his job. They sometimes scare me, his ideas. Mostly they intrigue me, as this one did. I took a look. I saw what he meant: stories that respond to individual ‘participants/readers’ depending on where they are physically, socially, climatically and more - a real life adventure driven and supported by locative technologies and powered by great writing…
I’d recently introduced William to a friend of mine, the writer Naomi Alderman
. She’s that rare sort of writer who can produce critically acclaimed novels (Disobedience, The Liars’ Gospel
) and short stories at the same time as being an innovator in the world of gaming (Zombies Run! Perplex City
) and being a naturally collaborative and inquisitive early adopter of technologies of all sorts.
‘Do you think Naomi would be interested?’ said William.
‘Let’s find out,’ I said.
‘Good idea,’ he said.
Introductions were made. An application to the Without Walls
R&D fund was made. A positive
decision was received – hip hip!
So what are we doing? Well, we’re bringing together composer-technologists Strijbos and Vanrijswijk
to explore how the iPhone app technology they continue to develop can be used as the basis for an outdoor gaming experience that maps a fully responsive, interactive virtual environment onto a range of real-life cities.
The finished app will be available to download in participating cities (Norwich will be one – we can’t reveal the others yet…) and could run simultaneously at multiple festivals. The story will develop based on choices made by the festival audience member in real physical space. For example, users are given a choice to turn left or right or pass through one door or another in a real environment and depending on that choice, the virtual story moves in a different direction.
The game will build on Naomi Alderman’s passion for gaming and story-telling and Strijbos and Vanrijswijk’s digital composition work using an app which manipulates sound in response to location, crowd/place density and other factors on smart-phone devices.
As an audience member/player, you’ll become immersed in a real-time story with music, digital content and social interaction in a live environment. Will the people around you be actors? Some of them might be. Will you know how the story ends? No. It’s partly down to you. Will you experience a place, its buildings, its people and its history in a new way? Oh yes. Yes indeed…
About Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. In 2006 she won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones' 25 Writers for the Future. Her first novel, Disobedience
, was published in ten languages; like her second novel, The Lessons
, it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime
. Penguin published her third novel, The Liars' Gospel
, in August 2012. Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Prospect,
on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the BAFTA-shortlisted alternate reality game Perplex City
. She's written online games for Penguin, the BBC, and other clients. In 2011 she wrote the Doctor Who
tie-in novel Borrowed Time
. In 2012, she co-created the top-selling fitness game and audio adventure Zombies, Run! Naomi broadcasts regularly, has guest-presented Front Row
on BBC Radio 4 and writes regularly for Prospect
and the Guardian
. In 2012 and 2013, Naomi has been mentored by Margaret Atwood as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and in April 2013 she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in their once-a-decade list.
About Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos
Dutch composers Rob van Rijswijk (1971) and Jeroen Strijbos (1970) both graduated with honors from the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, specializing in Electronic & Computer Composition. The hallmark of Strijbos and Van Rijswijk's collective body of work is a combination of electro-acoustic composition and spatial elements, design and innovative music technology. The composers seek out zones where different disciplines meet and intersect.
Their work has been awarded an honorary mention for the PRIX Ton Bruynèl 2010 and First Music prize by The Prins Bernhard Cultural Foundation Netherlands 2012, and is performed and exhibited in among others Amsterdam, London, Glasgow, Berlin, Zürich, Istanbul, Shanghai, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Montreal.
Concerts & installations:
• FuChair 2014 - installation with ensemble of 5 Swiss made rockin' chairs
• 360° | Seascapes 2013 - installation / expanded sound cinema
• SoundSpots GraphicScore 2013 - architectural graphic score of SoundSpots
• Cells 2012 - concert for cello & e-cello, electric guitar & live electronics
• Cross Avenue 2012 - concert for NY string-quartet Ethel & live electronics
• Walk With Me 2011 - composer app for iphone, tool to write topographical compositions
• Vox 2010 - concert with live electronics, 2 sopranos & architectural acoustics
• Dadoc 2010 - an interactive sound installation and design object
• Whispers 2009 - ceramic sound sculpture
• Air Sensible 2008 - concert for duo-accordion and live electronics
• Muss Mann Erleben 2007 - constallation for one SoundSpot
• SoundSpots 2007 - a directional multi-speaker sound installation
• "Composition, Time & Space", oeuvre publication (2013)
• "Whispers", graphic score booklet with historical background (2010)
• "Air Sensible", graphic score booklet with historical background (2008)
• "SoundSpots", graphic score booklet with historical background (2007)
A Criminal Celebration: Announcing Noirwich Crime Writing Festival
The two men are skulking in the shadows of the cloisters. They talk in muffled voices.
“Have you heard the news?”
The short man adjusts his trench coat and pulls out a slip of paper. The paper is embossed with a black scrawl, the sleek lettering marred by a blotch of heavy red.
“You mean this?”
The tall man spits onto the floor. “This city ain’t in need of any more criminals.”
“I say we watch and wait. You got the low-down?”
“A five day criminal celebration, that’s what it is. They think they’re being so clever, doing it right under our noses. We know this ain’t no literary festival.”
They walk away from the Cathedral, the spire a dark dagger in the sky.
Noirwich Crime Writing Festival
Taking place from the 10th-14th September, Noirwich Crime Writing Festival brings the best criminal masterminds to Norwich City of Literature
for readings, events, masterclasses and more. Organised by The Crime Writers' Association
, University of East Anglia
, Writers' Centre Norwich and Waterstones
wich promises a series of brutally brilliant events for you to enjoy.
Read on for details of all the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival events:
Wednesday 10th SeptemberA Forgotten Mystery: The Life and Works of S.T. Haymon with Dr. John Curran6pm, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, Free
The opening Noirwich event celebrates the life of S.T. Haymon; an unjustly forgotten crime writer. S.T. Haymon lived in Norwich for most of her life and wrote childrens’ fiction before turning her hand to murder. Dr John Curran, who describes Haymon as one of his favourite writers, will lead this event exploring her life and work. Book your free ticket | More information
New Voices, Old Places with Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris7.30pm, Waterstones Castle Street, £6 / £4 conc with £3 redeemable against the price of a book at the event and a free glass of wine.
Meet Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris; the next generation of crime novelists, and get a guided tour around the mean streets of crime writing. These up and coming writers will discuss how setting has influenced their writing, and their burgeoning careers. The conversation will be expertly guided by Waterstones Manager Ben Richardson. Book your ticket
| More information
Thursday 11th SeptemberThe New Hercule Poirot Mystery with Sophie Hannah and Dr. John Curran8pm, Norwich Playhouse, £12/£10 conc
Join us for the launch of the first Agatha Christie novel in almost forty years. Sophie Hannah, who is best known for her twisted psychological thrillers, will discuss the challenges and delights of resuscitating the cultural institution of Poirot and give a short reading from The Monogram Murders
. She’ll be joined on stage by Christie expert John Curran, and together they’ll discuss the life, legacy and writing of Christie, Queen of Crime.Book your ticket
| More information
Friday 12th SeptemberThe Skeleton Road: An Evening with Val McDermid 8pm, Norwich Playhouse, £12/£10 conc
Val McDermid, an icon in the contemporary crime world, joins us to launch her latest book The Skeleton Road
. McDermid, an award-winning novelist known for her chilling psychological thrillers and cutting edge procedurals, will discuss the challenges and delights of writing murderous mysteries with Henry Sutton. Book your ticket
| More information
Saturday 13th September
The Golden Age of Nordic NoirA Crime Thriller Masterclass with Henry Sutton10am-1pm, Writers’ Centre Norwich, £40 or £60 with Simon Brett Masterclass.
10.30am-4.30pm, Cinema City Education Space, £40/£30 conc
Enjoy a day dedicated to the art of Nordic Noir. Trish Sheil, film academic, and Barry Forshaw, a leading expert on crime fiction and film, will help you to explore the all-pervading influence of the Scandinavian wave. Using short clips, iconic moments in film history and their personal knowledge, the tutors will guide you through the history of Noir, focussing on the Nordic classics and then exploring French crime film and television, and the blossoming of UK crime drama.
Book your ticket | More information
Hoping to turn your hand to murder? Get to grips with your crime novel under the expert tutelage of Henry Sutton, co-director of UEA’s Creative Masters and accomplished author. You’ll work on enhancing characterisation and cementing motivations, making sure your characters are believable and well-rounded. Henry will also advise you on writing innovatively within the crime thriller genre.Book your ticket
| More information
A Detective Fiction Masterclass with Simon Brett2-5pm, Writers’ Centre Norwich, £40 or £60 with Henry Sutton Masterclass
Get your detective novel up to scratch with expert crime writer Simon Brett, author of over 90 books. Simon will guide you through the traditions of the detective novel, using classic examples to illuminate your successes and failures, and helping you to strengthen and polish your novel.
Sponsored by CWA Diamond DaggerBook your ticket
| More informationCelebrating the CWA Diamond Dagger with Simon Brett and John Harvey7.30pm, Waterstones, Norwich, £6/£4 concessions with £3 redeemable from Simon’s latest book at the event and a free glass of wine
Simon Brett and John Harvey, CWA Diamond Dagger winners, will reveal the secrets to a long and successful crime writing career, offering you an intriguing glimpse into the mind of an experienced novelist. Book your ticket | More information
Sunday 14th SeptemberNoirwich Crime Writing Festival Presents Megan Abbott2.30pm, Norwich Cathedral Hostry, £6/£4 concessions with £3 redeemable off the price of the book at the event
Megan Abbott is known for pushing the crime genre into new and compelling places, and is already being compared to Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. In this rare UK appearance Magena will be joined by Henry Sutton for a discussion around the art of crime fiction, including suspense, secrets and desire. Book your ticket
| More information
The Killer Inside Me: A Noirwich Frank’s Bar Film ScreeningSunday 14th September 2014, 5pm, Free
Top off the week with a Bloody Mary and a screening of The Killer Inside Me at Frank’s Bar in Norwich. Based on Jim Thompson’s bestselling novel, The Killer Inside Me tells the tale of meek and mild-mannered deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Lou’s got problems- with women, with his job, with the corpses which just keep piling up. And then there’s his own unsavoury habits; from sadistic sex to sociopathic rages. This 2010 adaptation stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, and has garnered critical acclaim and controversial commentary - there’s no need to book, just turn up!More informationAs part of Noirwich Crime Writing Festival you can buy a reduced price Festival group ticket – more details below:
If you’re attending all five of our paid-for author events, you can get a 15% discount
on the total cost. Simply add the below five events to your online shopping basket. Once all five have been selected, add the code Noirwich5
in the ‘promotion code’ box and click ‘proceed’. Your discount will then be applied.
New Voices, Old Places with Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris
The New Hercule Poirot Mystery with Sophie Hannah and Dr. John Curran
The Skeleton Road: An Evening with Val McDermid
Celebrating the CWA Diamond Dagger with Simon Brett and John Harvey
Noirwich Crime Writing Festival Presents Megan Abbott
Noirwich is sponsored by Norwich BID and Right Angle Events.
Noirwich is brought to you by The Crime Writers' Association, University of East Anglia, Waterstones and Writers' Centre Norwich.
Writers' Centre Norwich Announces ACE NPO Award
Writers’ Centre Norwich is delighted to be awarded National Portfolio Organisation funding to the amount of £466,405 today as part of the Arts Council England National Portfolio settlement.
The decision to award WCN these funds is justification of the exciting plans that WCN has developed to become a National Centre for Writing from April 2015.
The total award also marks an exciting collaboration between WCN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (with the support of University of East Anglia) whereby the previously ACE funded public programmes of BCLT will be transferred to the National Centre for Writing from April 2015.
This collaboration responds to both the ever closer working relationships between the two organisations, and the need to deliver outstanding work in the most efficient way possible.
As such, today’s funding award is not an increase in funding for WCN in real terms. Instead, the settlement offers great value for money as the combination between BCLT’s public programme of work and WCN’s programme offers a small reduction in overall costs, achieved through cost savings in office administration and other efficiencies.
As well as a chance to work more efficiently, it was a shared belief in the centrality of literary translation, creative writing and reading, and the desire to put those beliefs at the heart of our culture that prompted the partners at WCN, BCLT and UEA to explore new ways of developing and delivering programmes focusing on talent development, engagement, innovation, access for young people and international exchange.
Whilst the public programme of BCLT’s work is taken on by the National Centre for Writing, the non-public programmes will remain at BCLT’s vibrant academic hub at UEA. The close working relationship that this will foster between UEA, BCLT academic and the National Centre for Writing will be reflected in ambitious new programmes and activities nationally and internationally.
Chris Gribble, CEO of Writers’ Centre Norwich says:
“We are absolutely delighted that Arts Council England has recognised our expertise, track record and capacity in these areas. WCN and our key partners are developing a new organisation as well as a new physical space for the National Centre for Writing in the heart of Norwich, England’s UNESCO World City of Literature. This award is a great endorsement of that aim.”
Dr Duncan Large, Academic Director of BCLT says:
“The BCLT welcomes this wonderful news. It crowns our many successful collaborations with the Writers' Centre Norwich, and marks a new era in our partnership. We are immensely excited at the prospect of helping to shape the new National Centre for Writing as a centre of excellence in literary translation.”
Prof Peter Womack, Head of the School of Literature Drama and Creative Writing (UEA) says:
“We welcome this decision very warmly, not only because of the joint initiatives the funding will make possible, but also because it marks and recognises a new kind of creative co-operation between the university and the public realm.”
‘The Unexpected Professor’. John Carey in Conversation with D.J.Taylor.
‘Reading makes you see that the ordinary is never ordinary’.
As part of the 2014 Worlds Literature Festival, literary critic and Professor of literature John Carey was joined in conversation by local writer D.J. Taylor at Norwich Playhouse. Full of tales of grammar school, Oxford colleges and a historic London, the evening was very fitting to the festival’s theme of nostalgia; a very English nostalgia.
The evening began with both John Carey and D.J. Taylor reminiscing about their respective days as an Oxford student. Taylor recalled his fellow students’ impersonations of their excited literature professor as he spoke of the work of Charles Dickens- that lecturer was John Carey.
The theme of nostalgia continued as Carey spoke of his
childhood in 1930s London and how his reading in this time developed his feelings towards literature. Carey stated that his childhood was especially middle class using the example of his regular browsing of huge bound copies of turn of the century Figaro Illustre in his father’s drawing room. It was noted, however, that middle class childhood generally receives less exposure in art and literature than that of the working classes. Perhaps then, this type of nostalgia may be seen as relatively scarce and slightly unusual.
Carey explained how his childhood shaped him through his upbringing, education and reading. He attended a London grammar school where a teacher recommended Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. This book in which humans were only the hunters and the enemies, opened his mind to a new way of feeling and thinking, specifically towards literature. Carey claims that he is who he is today because of his grammar school education, that without it he would not have been able to achieve what he has. Carey was quite defensive of the grammar school system, but sees its disadvantages. He believes that he would not have been able to thrive at other schools and that even today he can see many middle class children feel they must hide their backgrounds from their peers, a view which members of the evening’s audience certainly agreed with.
After receiving a scholarship for Oxford University and later a Congratulatory First in his degree, Carey began to teach at Christ Church College, Oxford where his class consciousness developed. Describing this period as ‘Brideshead Revisited in the 1950s’ and ‘incredibly aristocratic,’ Carey spoke about being referred to as a ‘no-one’ and the attitude of entitlement which many of the students there held. An unusual environment for a former grammar school boy.
As a lecturer at Oxford, Carey campaigned for a change in the Literature syllabus, a move away from the previous reforms of J.R.R Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. Until Carey’s intervention (alongside others) little literature produced after 1832 was taught at Oxford. Carey called for a need to keep up with current literature and it was through this that his interest in Victorian literature continued to grow.
D.J. Taylor used this moment to describe Carey as ‘an anti-academic academic,’ a label which Carey approved of. Perhaps this term appears so apt due to Carey’s views on the opinion of art. According to Carey, when it comes to art, whether that be an extravagant painting or a short story, there is not an absolute judgement. He asks how one person’s opinion can be more valuable, or even more correct than another’s and suggests that if he is unable to persuade a person to his own opinion of a piece of art, ‘they are not inferior, they are just different’. Indeed, all art is subjective. If something is classed as great art it is not, as Carey proposes, ‘written in the sky’.
Interestingly, Carey described how we, as a people, have always strived to place value on art. He first gave the example of theological art; it is God who chooses what is good and bad art. He also spoke of neuro-aestheticians who research the reactions of the brain when viewing art during a scan. Ultimately, positive reactions to art in these scans would determine what can be classed as ‘good’.
To conclude the evening’s conversation, Carey expressed his views on reading and the benefits and advantages it undoubtedly brings. He stated that by reading, one is inviting self-doubt and showing willingness to challenge one’s own perceptions. ‘Book burners,’ stated Carey ‘try to destroy ideas different from their own, readers do the opposite’.
By the end of the evening, audience members were full of feelings of self-belief and felt that their opinion mattered equally as much as the next person’s. The conversation between John Carey and D.J. Taylor proved to be insightful and inspiring, leaving the audience with a long reading list, many of which are Carey’s own titles.
Find out more about the 2014 Worlds Literature Festival.
Find out more about John Carey.
Tarka the Otter- Henry Williamson
Lord of the Flies- William Golding
The Hanging- George Orwell
What Good are the Arts?- John Carey
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life- John Carey
Thackeray: Prodigal Genius- John Carey
NUA Needs Writers!
NUA Needs Writers!
Writers, Norwich University of the Arts Illustration students are offering you the chance to participate in their Final Degree Show, where you’ll participate in a unique workshop, have your writing showcased, and have the opportunity to network.
Norwich is home to a great number of prolific writers. This is the reason why we, the NUA's third year Illustration Course, would like to collaborate with local writers for our final show.
The Degree Show is an annual event which provides an opportunity for the public to see the work of over 500 new graduates.
This year, the illustration course decided to incorporate a series of four consecutive creative workshops into their Degree Show. These workshops will be modelled on an illustrative interpretation of Graham Wallas’ Four Stages of Creativity - preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.
Each day will directly inform the next, holistically following the illustrative journey. The illustrative process is often fed by narratives, which is why we are looking for talented writers to participate in this unique experience. Throughout the process, writers will be on site to provide the workshops with a narrative, facilitating the public’s response to the workshop exercises.
The first day of the workshop will be ‘Preparation’. We will provide a selection of found objects, and participants will be invited to create tools which will produce printed and textured material, which can also act as sculptural pieces.
The second day of the workshop will focus on nurturing ideas or ‘Incubation’. Schoolchildren will be invited for a day of mask making, using materials created during the previous day.
These masks will then be used in ‘Illumination’, a reflective process that will collate and explore ideas to create an illuminated sculptural outcome. This workshop will be focused on light, shape and composition.
The workshop will culminate in a day of ‘Verification’; an exercise in editing, consolidating and curating the previous outcomes to produce a zine which will showcase the work created during the series of workshops.
Writers will benefit from this experience by having the opportunity to showcase their work to the local community in a very interesting and unique way. They will also have the opportunity to do some networking. This is a one of a kind opportunity to see how people respond to their narratives and a great way to exercise their creativity by producing work on the spot.
Ideally, we would like to have writers on site, but if writers can’t make it to the workshop we will also consider existing pieces of writing that they might like to contribute. All genres are well received and narratives will be suited to each workshop (narratives for children will be used on the second day of the workshop since children will be attending on that day, for example).
The Degree Show will run from the 2nd until the 5th of July, and it will take place at The Norwich University of the Arts.
If you would like to contribute and be part of this event, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
. We will get in touch to provide a more detailed description of the workshop and how the day will be structured. Please feel free to ask any kind of question - we will be happy to hear from you.
NUA Third Year Illustration Course
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Choose the Heroines You Need: the Literary Festival in a Day
Our festival in a day took place on a idyllic summer’s afternoon at Norwich Cathedral, the spire in perfect relief against a wide blue sky, the pair of peregrine falcons taking turns around the turret.
We were lucky to have writer and tutor Rachel Hore presiding over events, a thoughtful interlocutor who fully engaged with all of the writers and the texts, drawing out the stories with aplomb.
The Lives of Great Women Writers started at pace as Hermione Lee gave a fascinating talk on Penelope Fitzgerald. Best known for The Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s story is an encouraging one for any writer who may feel like it’s too late– she started publishing at 60, and got through 12 books by 80.
Her life story is also inspiring as a feat of endurance; after a promising start Fitzgerald went on to find hard times, starting with the scattering of her life with the coming of the war. Her beloved husband Desmond came home from war changed and struggled to ever get back on his feet. Penelope and her three children struggled financially, facing destitution when Desmond had to leave his job, and desperation when the houseboat that they were living on sank.
When her husband died, Fitzgerald finally took to writing and the experiences she’d stored up over the years formed the subjects of her first novels. But interestingly, it was when she turned away from these personal experiences that, according to Lee, Fitzgerald created her greatest work.
What was special about Fitzgerald as a writer? The clash between reason and emotion is foremost; her writing has violent troubling stuff in it (a theme throughout the day). As with the other writers present this day, Fitzgerald believed that it is the unexplored that can destroy. The dark power of the buried is what she fought with.
As such Fitzgerald was drawn to obsessives and compulsives. Her world was full of ‘exterminators’ and ‘exterminatees’ and she felt herself to be one of the latter. The world was not necessarily a kind place for Fitzgerald and this is conveyed in her work, however she valued kindness, truthfulness and fortitude. She was interested in hope.
Lee talks of the incredible condescension Fitzgerald faced in the literary world, her slightly bumbling older lady persona a foil that it was up to those around her to work out. Similarly, in her work Fitzgerald never gave everything away, she held back, leaving a great deal of mystery in there. She researched heavily but conveyed this research lightly in her perfectly formed worlds; ‘storing up knowledge and leaving it to ripen’. She said she was interested in writing fragments; a dream like series of events that shouldn’t have to cohere.
The talk flew by, Hermione Lee’s luminous phrasing leaving me inspired and wanting more, just as Fitzgerald did. Her biography is surely a work of art in itself, and highly recommended.
Unfortunately there isn’t time or space to give each event its due, so leaping through, here are some of the highlights:
Samantha Ellis talked warmly and engagingly about the genesis of her book How To Be A Heroine
; a re-evaluation of the heroines she adopted as a child.
Her story is one of self discovery through the characters she identified with when growing up, characters who offered different ways of being; alternatives to the projected life her Iraqi-Jewish family expected for her.
Reading here was fundamental, life-changing, and the audience was fully engaged when talking of their own relationships with Anne of Avonlea (interesting reading of Anne on Jezebel here
), Posy from Ballet Shoes
, Katy Carr from What Katy Did
(close to my own heart!) and of course Catherine Earnshaw v Jane Eyre.
Growing up Ellis identified with Catherine. Why? Because at the time she needed Catherine’s intensity, her selfish passion.
Interesting idea – that we choose the heroines we need at the time. There aren’t enough spinster heroines, and too often fictional girls as they grow up become boring, pale, according to Ellis. Think of Anne of Green Gables, the demise of the sisters from Little Women as soon as they settle down. And what of today’s heroines?
The choral accompaniment of evensong faded as Brian and Mary Talbot took to the stage to talk about their collaborative graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
The novel came out of Mary’s desire to learn about the Suffragettes more fully; and this is a theme – writers following their instinct for a story, knowing that it’ll deliver if they follow their nose.
In this case the story unearthed a rather unflattering side to the famous Mrs Pankhurst as well as many divisions in the movement. It also high-lights the very real suffering the suffragettes underwent through hunger strike and force-feeding.
Mary, who also wrote the prize-winning Dotter of her Father’s Eyes
, (next on my reading list) is working on another feminist icon for her next book; one to look forward to.
We enjoyed the tolling of the bells as the peregrines called and Diane Setterfield took to the stage.
Author of the famous The Thirteenth Tale, her new novel Bellman & Black is ghostly in a subtle way. Focussing on the power of the past, and of the dark stories we hide from, (the theme of the day), this gripping story also gives corvids a voice (Norfolk is the best county for crows, says Setterfield).
A crow is not just a harbinger of death, but also a ghostly presence that really looks us humans in the eye, and what do they make of us? Their wing breaks up the light, reflecting colour back at us from out of the dark, much as Setterfield reflects light out of the dark story that William won’t tell himself.
Finally, Raffaella Barker gave the first ever reading of her new novel, From A Distance, which is set around Norfolk and Cornwall. (Raffaella’s account of growing up in Norfolk was in the Guardian recently and makes for a fascinating read). The prime mover in the novel is Luisa, an Italian mother, who is watching her children grow up and move away. It was satisfying to hear from a fictional mother, as Ellis had earlier remarked how mothers often get a rough deal in fiction and that there isn’t enough work from their point of view. Barker also talked of how important humour is in a story, how writers should be able to make their readers laugh and cry, as well as how important place is in a novel, both fictional and geographical.
In all it was an inspiring afternoon of readings and conversation in a beautiful setting, a thoroughly enjoyable set of events. Many thanks to all of the writers involved, and to Rachel Hore for guiding us through the day with such skill.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the works and the writers involved, do see the links below:Visit Hermione Lee's website
or read a review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.
Visit Samantha Ellis' website
or read a review of How to be a Heroine.Visit Mary and Bryan Talbot's website
or read a review of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Visit Diane Setterfield's website
.Visit Raffaella Barker's website
or read a review of From a Distance.Visit Rachel Hore's website