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The Kindness of Strangers – a reading in support of Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
On Thursday 14 January, writers and literature enthusiasts from across the region gathered at Norwich Arts Centre for an evening of readings in support of justice, freedom and Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
. The event, which simultaneously took place at 122 locations in 44 countries worldwide, answered an international call for solidarity from the International Literature Festival Berlin. Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, has been found guilty by a court in Saudi Arabia of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of society. His sentence is death.
Novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower gave a reading that evening which reflected on her time spent in Palestine - Fayadh’s birthplace - whilst researching for her new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can't It? During this time, she travelled to the West Bank to act as a protective presence to local people during the olive harvest, and to record any disruptive incidents by illegal settlers for the UN.
The Kindness of Strangers
Image © Jenny Kassman
‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice.
The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.
I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon.
Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.
The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.
It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.
This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.
The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd.
They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.
Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.
So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence.
What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study.
Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.
About Sarah Bower
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam
and the Historical Novels Review
(which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.
‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’
I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
Listen to the provocation and debate here
Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?
In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?
I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road. That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal. There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably. All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”
Having said that, I thin
k all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function. And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality. They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.
Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real. Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe. It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share. It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.
It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.
That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve. The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy). We’re all agreed now that meaning
, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.
But still. Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world. If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three. Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it. And it’s the same with stories.
Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence
. It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence. It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable. You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.
What I’m saying is more about function. You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for. You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours. You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.
When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world. Be in there as yourself, not as someone else. And be honest. It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.
Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer. He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production. He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.
Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.
Shifting Debates and Modern Translation
Programme Director Jon Morley looks forward to our upcoming event Translation in the Margins. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, this practical symposium will investigate issues around translation. Tickets are still available at only £15.
Translation in the Margins, which I’m curating at the Free Word Centre on Saturday 3 October, will explore the radical edges of literary translation in an interactive, writer-led format.
When I used to study Postcolonial Literature in a Translation Studies department, it always seemed to me that there was something of a rift between the two fields. At the annual postgraduate conferences, I was often the lone postcolonialist, listening with fascination while translators outlined cutting-edge research. I remember illuminating presentations on the inadequacies of the classic English translations of Chinese poetry; on the pressure that Thai and Sri Lankan translators faced from Buddhist supremacists when they sought to bring narratives that challenged nationalist myths to a wider international readership; on unexpurgated English versions of Osama Bin Laden’s speeches, whose rhetoric seemed uncomfortably close to that of emblematic heroes of Third World liberation struggles (Mandela, Castro or Cabral). Like the history of empire which I was discovering more about, translation seemed to turn the world on its head.
With performance techniques borrowed from the Caribbean poets I loved (including samples of reggae music in an analysis of poetry, for example) I was able in turn to seize the attention of the translators, exposing them to New World perspectives on literature. It always struck me as strange that, for translators, there was such novelty in mixing up ‘literature’ and common speech in this way, given that multilingualism and ‘the oral tradition’ are conditions of the developing world.
The debate is shifting. International Translation Day, In Other Words and Modern Poetry in Translation regularly include discussion of postcolonial ‘englishes’ and how they might serve to bring texts from Africa or Asia into European markets. But our event (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) seeks to refine the issue a little more, by including translators, writers and political activists on the same platform and seeing what kinds of discussion, what lines of enquiry, emerge.
Jamaican poet Olive Senior will start the day off with a keynote lecture that explores the issues from a new world, Caribbean perspective. Bestselling Korean novelist Sun-mi Hwang will talk about setting children’s fiction – stories so dark and thought-provoking that they’re categorised as books for adults when the English translations hit the shelves of Waterstones – in war zones and disputed territories. Meena Kandasamy, Tamil poet, activist and agitator will argue that translation is a feminist act, speaking about the intimidation and threats she has received as a result of translating the political writings of ‘Untouchables’. Hamid Ismailov will reflect on the experience of being widely acclaimed as Uzbekistan’s foremost novelist whilst living in political exile, and how translation has facilitated wider access to his work. We’ll have a crash-course on how to translate poetry composed partly in Braille by Indonesian disability activist Khairani Barokka, radical publisher Deborah Smith will give her view on why the world still needs independent presses, Yrsa Daley-Ward will explore the new routes to publication that young, multiple-identity writers are experimenting with across Africa and the Americas, Francesca Beard will help us find new forms of expression through a live literature master-class, and we’ll close the afternoon with the announcement of the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize and an international poetry reading by several of our delegates.
Of course, there is much, much more that we could include. I hope the Q&A sessions will be lively debates where a multiplicity of writers, from different styles and different cultural backgrounds, can share their experiences and their hopes for the future.
The event runs at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon from 10.30am on Saturday 3 October. I hope to see you there!
Programme Director, Writers’ Centre Norwich
National Conversation: The Science of Reading by Charles Fernyhough
A provocation by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, first presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 31st, 2015
Open a book and a chorus of voices starts back at you. I remember being asked as a bookwormish child whether I could hear a novel’s characters speaking in my head. ‘I hear them,’ I enthused (my own eleven-year-old son recently said the same). With a sheaf of printed pages in front of her, a reader settles in for an extraordinary internal performance. It’s an everyday happening that illustrates a deep mystery of consciousness: how someone sitting alone in a room, ostensibly doing nothing but silently turning the pages, can be hearing the voice of an unreliable narrator, listening into conversations that never happened, conversing with the dead.
I want to do more than propose that fiction transports you into a different reality: it can certainly do that. Rather, I’m interested in how reading for pleasure can have specific effects of something like an auditory quality. It leaves its sounds resonating in our minds and brains. I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is an engagement with simulated voices with a certain phenomenology (the ‘What is it like?’ qualities of experience). If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of its appeal.
Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of ‘inner speech’: the internal conversation that occupies many of our waking moments. Reading colonises that inner dialogue in varied ways. If you are asked silently to read words with long vowels (as in cape) you will do so more slowly than if the vowels are short (as in hat). If you are told about a certain fictional character who speaks fast, you will read their speeches more quickly than those of a character with a more leisurely speaking pace. Such findings show that you as a silent reader are nevertheless sounding out the words: you are not processing the text purely at some abstract level of meaning, but rather are articulating those voices for yourself in your head.
In this context, voice can mean a whole lot of different things. We speak of writers ‘finding’ their voice, or of succeeding (or otherwise) in channeling the right voice for a particular piece. One of the most influential figures in recent literary studies, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that novels work when distinct voices, manifested in language, come into creative dialogue with each other. When our team of researchers asked Guardian readers last year what the experience of reading was like for them, we wanted to be very specific about its phenomenology. When listening in to fictional characters, do readers actually hear something like a voice? It seems that many of them do. One in seven of our readers said that the voices they heard were as vivid as an actual person speaking. For some respondents, not hearing the voices of the protagonists was a sign that they were never really going to get into the book.
If hearing these fictional voices is a big part of the reading experience, you would expect that writers would have cottoned on. Any creative writing student will tell you that, if you want to make your characters’ voices resonate, you should use direct rather than reported speech (compare Jane said ‘I love you’ to Jane said that she loved him). Glasgow neuroscientists recently demonstrated a neural basis for the observation that direct speech is experienced more vividly than its reported form. But writers give us their characters’ silent, unheard voices as well as their externally uttered ones. They play with the fact that a character can think (in inner speech) something different to what she is saying out loud, and they build inner worlds through deft portrayals of the stream of verbal consciousness. They fill our heads with voices.
It stands to reason, then, that writers must hear those voices too. As the author of two novels, I am familiar with the experience of hearing my characters speak. They don’t talk directly to me, but I overhear them. I know their accents and tones of expression, their choice of words and how their voices betray certain emotions. I don’t confuse them with real people, but I do need to be able to hear them. It’s a common view about the creative process that writers need to hear their characters speak before they can really bring them alive.
Eager to put that idea to the test, our researchers teamed up last year with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to ask professional writers about the voices they heard. Seventy percent of the writers who completed our questionnaire said that they heard their characters’ voices; a quarter said it was as clear as if the protagonist were in the room with them. Two-fifths said they could enter into a dialogue with their characters. In detailed follow-up interviews, our researcher Jennifer Hodgson heard writers describing the experience as something like eavesdropping or taking dictation. One writer described it as a process of ‘tuning in’: ‘It is intimate, like being let in on their thoughts.’
We conducted these studies as part of Hearing the Voice, an ongoing interdisciplinary study of the experience of hearing voices, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Some of the writers we have been studying literally heard voices that no one else could hear. Dickens was pestered by his characters in all sorts of vivid ways. Virginia Woolf was troubled by auditory hallucinations related to sexual abuse, bullying and bereavement (she put some of her experiences into the character of her war veteran voice-hearer, Septimus Smith, in Mrs Dalloway). Thinking about the range and variety of heard voices points to measures for helping people who are distressed by their experiences, and some of these insights are being integrated into our cognitive behaviour therapy work with voice-hearers. Certain fictional characters can act as though they are beyond the author’s conscious control; understanding the psychological processes involved holds out the possibility of relief for those troubled by uncontrollable voices.
Writers hijack the voices of our ordinary inner speech in all of these ways. Part of the contract we make as readers is to simulate, in our own minds, the vocal hubbub of other consciousnesses. Writers stimulate our regular inner dialogue too; they make us talk back. I am actually a highly distractable reader. If I’m reading fiction that delights, I am constantly fighting the impulse to put the book down and do my own writing. Even beloved novels and stories have the paradoxical effect of making me disconnect from the text for moments or minutes. I don't think that makes me less of a reader. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of fiction is its capacity to make us wander off somewhere else.
To understand why that can be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to be easier on ourselves about this distractibility. A mind that is temporarily gazing away from a book is anything but disengaged. In our Hubbub project at Wellcome Collection in London, a diverse group of academics, artists and clinicians are taking an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to rest and its opposites, and finding that a mind that is ostensibly doing nothing is a lively and varied place to be. Our psychologists and neuroscientists are tying richly detailed descriptions of consciousness to the complex patterns of activation shown by a brain that is busy with nothing in particular. This focus on the so-called ‘resting state’ is one of the growth areas in cognitive neuroscience, and I suspect that reading—or momentarily failing to read—offers many of us a direct line into it. I mean that gorgeous moment of putting a book down, not from boredom or external distraction, but because one’s mind is full of new, unexpected wonders. Woolf herself, like plenty of other writers, enthused about the process of what she termed ‘woolgathering’, or what I would like to call creative mind-wandering. Watch me in my armchair: I may end up reading the same paragraph several times over, but in the process I am having delicious thoughts of my own.
Putting science to work on an experience as intimate, personal and deeply human as reading is a risky business. In a world of library closures and device addiction, it is natural to try to harness scientific evidence to prove a greater good. But we should tread carefully. I’ve suggested that some of the pleasures of reading fiction are its stimulation of the varied voices of our inner speech and its capacity to trigger creative mind-wandering. I’m not here to tell you that reading changes your brain (whatever that laughable statement might mean), or that books make you a better person, in the narrow definition of some inevitably limited research methodology. I am fascinated by how we sometimes seem to think that neuroscientific truth is somehow 'more' true than other kinds of knowledge, such that even literary people are disproportionately swayed by it. We don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you. Rather, let’s delight in the varieties of that exquisite internal performance: ‘the beautiful stillness,’ as Paul Auster described it, ‘that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.’
This provocation is part of the National Conversation series of events featuring thought-provoking original ideas from writers. Read more, and follow the discussion here.
Brave New Reads: #ReadingSpot Competition
To coincide with our Brave New Reads summer programme, we've been running an exciting competition on our Twitter and Instagram pages. WCN Communications Intern Miranda tells us more, and explains how finding a new #ReadingSpot can be just as exhilarating as finding a new read.
Sometimes allowing ourselves time to sit down and relax with a book is a hard thing to do. We often say that we don’t have enough hours in a day, that time reading is time that could be spent doing something more productive, like finally replying to those emails, clearing out the cupboard under the stairs or giving the dog his long-overdue bath. Placing our undivided attention on a new novel, memoir, or collection of poetry seems just too indulgent. As Arthur Schopenhauer said: ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them’. Consequently, we often end up opening our books whenever and wherever we get a spare moment, and can find a relaxing reading spot in the most unlikely of places.
In the summer I usually find myself waking up earlier than usual, and recently I’ve started to dedicate the first half hour of my day to reading. I sit down in a comfy chair and squeeze in a chapter or two while I have breakfast (and an all-important bucket of coffee) and, for a little while, my mind is allowed to drift off somewhere else. My book stays with me throughout the day, often in a heap at the bottom of my bag, getting dog-eared and damp as I carry it around and wait for another moment of quiet. Ideally, I would spend an entire morning sat back in that comfy chair, turning page after page of whatever I’m reading that week without having to re-renter the real world, but I can’t deny that I have found some imaginative and varied ad-hoc reading spots over the years.
I’ve read Jack Kerouac on a transatlantic flight to New York, Jane Austen in a Hertfordshire park, Ian McEwan in the Student Union at UEA; I’ve taken books to beaches, bars, banks and birthday parties, and even carried a tattered copy of Harry Potter in my backpack whilst climbing a volcano in Costa Rica. Reading spots can be as diverse as the books being read. Sometimes, I’ll want nothing more than to curl up in an armchair reading Gatsby for the tenth time. Other times, I’ll be on a train heading somewhere new and unexplored, courageously reading a new book by an author I’ve never encountered before.
To coincide with our Brave New Read
s summer programme, here at WCN we’ve been running a competition on our Twitter
pages to see where our followers are devouring their books this July. From rugged countryside in Yorkshire to pebbles on Brighton beach, from a cosy bedroom chair to a seat on the number 28 bus, we’ve seen some great reading spots all over the UK, and have become quite envious in the process!
Every Wednesday we are sharing our favourite two pictures from the week on our social media accounts, and sending the lucky winner and runner-up a Brave New Reads book or tote bag.
Are you reading something new and brave in your usual, comfy spot? Or an old favourite in an exciting new place? Wherever and whatever you’re reading, we’d love to see it!
To enter our competition, simply tweet @WritersCentre
with a picture of your #readingspot,
using the hashtag #BraveNewReads
. You can also follow our Instagram account @WritersCentre
, and tag us in your #readingspot
Here are some of our favourites so far:
The first week's winner was @HattieLC on Twitter, with this enviable view of Calder Valley, Yorkshire.She described it as a 'perfect reading escape' and we have to agree - it looks idyllic!
was our second winner. She tagged us in this picturesque snapshot of the Norfolk Broads over on Instagram - her prize was a copy of Badgerlands, a Brave New Reads title
by Norfolk author Patrick Barkham.
Our first runner-up was @gettingtonomi on Twitter. It seems there was a strong 'tea' theme that first week!
We had two runners-up as a special treat for week two. First, @leanne.rio tagged us in this breathtaking bath picture on Instagram. There really is nothing better than a good book and a long soak!
Our other runner-up for the second week was @MrStuAnderson, who tweeted us this picture of him and William Faulkner sharing a bus journey. All runners-up win a Brave New Reads tote bag, which will no doubt prove useful for carrying their various books around!
National Conversation: Lost Stories, Unheard Voices - Diversity in Literature
By Kerry Hudson.
On Thursday 9th July, Kerry Hudson presented a rousing provocation to a full house at our National Conversation debate on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute. Here is the provocation in full.
As a working class, queer, female writer I was welcomed with open arms into the publishing world. My debut novel was received with enthusiasm, nominated for prizes and I was invited to teach at respected institutions. The industry has been nothing but kind and supportive of my work and though I earn less than I did when I worked in a call centre, I’m rich in getting to do what I love for a living and I’m very grateful for that.
So for a while I forgot to look around and check the level of the playing field for others like me. Now I’ve viewed the skew of that field – which turns out to be more of a mountainous plane – I realise I am one of the lucky few and I am angry.
We are losing stories in the UK. We are narrowing our literary culture. We have a publishing industry which continues to perpetuate its failure to reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country and so we are losing that potential vitality, social exploration and innovation in the books we publish.
Unless we tackle this lack of inclusivity, the mountains marginalised writers must climb in order to get and stay published, we may never reach our true potential as an industry.
Let me tell you about how stories are lost, how voices remain unheard.
Imagine four writers. For our purposes let’s agree that they are talented and that they’ll write brilliant, sales-worthy books. They are BME (black, minority, ethnic, 14% of the population overall and 40% in London), LGBT (5-7% according to government figures), working-class (in the Great British Class Survey 48% were catogorised as ‘below’ middle class), have a disability (19% of the population according to the Disability Rights Commission).
The BME writer studies for a creative writing MA, but only a handful of professors are BME and this is also reflected in the number of fellow-BME students. Our working class writer simply can’t afford the fees for an MA or even a part-time writing course. This writer works two jobs and writes in the evenings and on weekends even though they’ve seen few books that represent the world they want to write about. Likewise for the writer with a disability who sees few disabled characters in books, few writers with disabilities profiled in newspapers. These writers think: ‘Perhaps, my stories aren’t meant to be heard. I don’t belong.’
Still our writers persevere. They have written excellent, unique books and go in search of a literary agent, a publisher. However, the people who will read these books to decide if they are good enough and grant access, might not ‘connect’ with these books. In Spread the Word’s recent ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’ report only 11% of publishing house respondents had recruitment ties with non-Oxbridge universities, suggesting that for 89% this was the sole graduate recruitment method, surprising given that Oxbridge graduates make up only 1% of the overall population.
Unlike many industries, audits for diversity and support groups, for instance LGBT groups, aren’t a standard in publishing. Additionally, publishers are overwhelmingly London based and entry into the profession is largely by unpaid internship, excluding those who don’t have family or spousal support to work unwaged, often for substantial periods.
Feedback comes in for our writers, variations of, ‘the writing is good, the story is original, but it didn’t speak to me. I don’t know how I’d sell this’. This is natural, to love a book it must resonate personally, it must, on some level, be representative of a society we recognise, have characters we relate to. Still, after many submissions, three of our authors do gain representation. Not so the BME writer who, like 53% of BME writers surveyed in ‘Writing the Future’, remains unagented. Instead, they find a home for their book through the hit and miss of unsolicited submission – without the support of an agent.
And so our writers are through the gates, into the kingdom. They had good stories to tell and they sell their books. Of course there are commercial concerns and the LGBT writer is asked to ‘straighten’ a few of their characters, while the BME writer’s editorial notes urge for ‘authenticity’ by which they seem to mean more ‘urban/African/recognizably “ethnic”’ though the writer is sure that the semi-autobiographic novel is authentically about their world. When it comes time to publicise the book, the disabled and working-class writers are asked to talk frankly about their personal experiences and childhood. While one welcomes the opportunity to speak about issues important to him, the other doesn’t wish to be defined by this single trait: publicity column inches reflect this decision.
Finally, the books are sent to reviewers, bookshops, Amazon warehouses. It hasn’t been easy, they’ve made compromises, but our writers are finally authors. But there’s an important detail which will affect some authors’ likelihood of achieving reviews in the broadsheets and prize listings which both contribute to getting enough sales to enable a second book – two of this gang are women. And since women are still reviewed less than their male counterparts and earn averagely 20% less, these books and authors have a greater struggle.
Where there are debuts there should naturally come second novels. Unfortunately, our BME author remains unagented even after publishing a book and is unable to place his next novel. Our disabled writer suffered from her lack of press coverage, especially since she also got fewer reviews than expected, and so didn’t sell enough to get a second book contract. The working-class writer, though accepting that he’d have to live on very little, ultimately couldn’t sustain the added unpredictability of that small income and so took a salaried job. His first book was successful; he had the best intention of writing another book but never did. The LGBT writer was nominated for two LGBT awards and was supported by the LGBT community, she had a two book contract and, though her advances reduced as years progressed, she developed a loyal readership and was able to write without concern that she might alienate the presumed ‘mainstream’ reader.
Four writers. One stays in print. The others, their future stories, are lost. The consequence? The consequence is that other emerging writers will look and fail to find voices like their own. It is young people in non-Oxbridge institutions who will have no idea that they may have potential careers in publishing and contribute to a literary culture. It is stories lost; voices unheard and a book buying public who have no idea how much of the possible spectrum of choice they are being denied.
Without making change and making change now we risk turning our proud literary legacy into a factory producing mono-cultural, ‘safe-ish bets’ based on the success of previously published books in similar models. An industry where books are viewed as ‘units’ to be shifted, things of financial checks and balances. And of course in part they must be; this is a business. So perhaps the case for the safeguarding of culture isn’t enough? If you are thinking of the bottom line then consider an industry that benefits from the potential disposable income of £300 billion for the BME community and approximately £80 billion each for ‘Pink Pound’ and those with disabilities . I believe the best books are created to entertain, to inspire both rational and revolutionary thinking, to contribute to an emotionally richer, better informed, intelligent society. But, if you think in pound signs then consider that even as our own books market is saturated we are able to harness our inherent diversity to perform within an increasingly competitive global market specifically because of this unique quality of our nation’s literary output.
Yet no matter how profit driven the publishing industry is compelled to be, we all understand what is being produced and sold here are not jumpers or smartphones. Books and stories are not just a business; they are a fundamental element of any evolved society. The reason that those who write, who communicate, who represent society in words are often the first to be persecuted by oppressive regimes is because words have immense power to change, influence and shape. And we must not relinquish that power by reducing it merely to profit and loss calculations.
Let's harness the enormous power of our diversity not only to meet our current financial objectives but fulfil our future responsibilities for generations to come.
Let’s make sure a career in publishing is seen as a viable option for people of all backgrounds – ensure secondary school work experience is offered, that publishers are represented at non-Oxbridge university career fairs. For writers, let’s identify talent early and nurture that talent with mentoring schemes, official or unofficial.
In an industry where the annual profits of the Hachette Group were €197 million and Penguin Random House was €363 million , we can afford, and have a responsibility to, give more support to libraries, 337 of which have closed since 2011 in England alone, and offer book donations to the most deprived areas. Not only to inspire, plant a seed of hope and expand horizons but, more practically, to stimulate the habit, and thus the business, of reading. If we shift focus to portray the true multiplicity of society in books, young people will grow up immersed in a British cultural life that reflects their world and which fosters a creative environment that has inclusivity, innovation and collaboration at its heart.
Bursaries should be available to enable students from marginalised backgrounds to study creative subjects thus bringing the proven benefits of creativity and diversity not only to publishing but to all industries. Peer mentoring is possible if writers are recognised as being skilled workers, contributing as they do an important function to any developed society, who deserve to be paid a living wage (in the UK writers averagely earned £11,000 in 2013 which is £5000 less than the living wage), giving them time and resources to support new writers.
For the sake of both our cultural evolution as a nation and our industry's ability to compete in a global market it’s essential to promote more diversity in agenting, editorial, marketing and sales teams.
Much of this provocation owes a debt to the excellent research conducted by the ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’
report and I would call for similar reports relating to working class, LGBT and disabled individuals and communities working in publishing. I echo many of the report's recommendations, particularly regarding the improvement of diversity ratios by publishers signing up to the Equip Publishing Equality Charter which helps promote equality across UK publishing, bookselling and agenting, by driving forward change and increasing access to opportunities within the industry. Like most industries, audits on diversity retention and progression, diversity training, LGBT groups and wider recruitment avenues should be implemented. Alongside an industry ban of unpaid internships and introduction of a living wage for entry level publishing employees. This could herald the start of a movement to create a workforce which is able to relate to, and champion, more diverse voices thus making them more visible.
I don’t believe anyone in the industry is unconcerned by its lack of diversity. I have nothing but respect for my colleagues in writing and publishing who I know to be incredibly hard working, passionate and intelligent with genuine integrity regarding the books they produce. I know that many will share my fears for the future of our literary culture, my frustration regarding a model which sets the odds against the representation of a huge proportion of our society. But it’s not enough simply to agree. This is our society and from the top down (more diversity in our boardrooms, an investigation into the glass ceiling existing for senior management) and grassroots up, each of us must take an individual responsibility to ask ‘what can I do?’
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus and was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award. It was also shortlisted for the Southbank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and the Polari First Book Award. Kerry’s second novel, Thirst, was published in 2014 by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. Her books are also available in the US (Penguin), France (Editions Phillipe Rey) and Italy (Minimum Fax). Kerry founded The WoMentoring Project and has written for Grazia, Guardian Review and YOU Magazine. She has led writing workshops for the National Academy of Writing, Arvon Foundation and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
The National Conversation
events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you. Find out more about the National Conversation here.
Read a blog by Nikesh Shukla on his experiences of diversity here.
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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