News and views
The Most Exotic Thing
The most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been translated into Bulgarian. The second is having gone to Bulgaria to launch the translation of my novel there. A Mexican writer does not write in order to be translated into Bulgarian. Being published in Bulgaria is, to put it mildly, an insane hypothesis. How many Mexican novelists have been translated into Bulgarian? Juan Rulfo? Carlos Fuentes? If that. And yet, nonetheless, it happens: it happened to me. The big question was, why did they publish me?
It’s because your novel is about the drugs trade and that’s a subject everyone in the world is interested in, some of my friends told me. It’s because of the success the book had in the UK, said others.
I went to Bulgaria thinking it was all a great big misunderstanding. It seemed to me that the publication of a novel with cultural and literary references completely alien to a Bulgarian reader was, at the very least, madness. Who would be interested in this novel? Who would understand it? I imagined the scenario reversed: some poor Bulgarian writer being published in Mexico. Incidentally, had I read any contemporary Bulgarian authors? If I had I couldn’t remember.
The third most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been interviewed by Bulgarian journalists. I was invited to appear on the news on Bulgarian national television. I spoke to all the journalists. I even went on a literary TV show that was recorded in a cave. And a popular radio show, where I have no idea why we laughed so much. Don’t tell anyone, but it seemed to me that all the journalists were slightly mad. Perhaps I’m exaggerating and it’s just that our English (the journalists’ and mine) was far from fluent, which just heaped misunderstanding on misunderstanding. They asked me about deaths due to the war on drugs. About Subcomandante Marcos. And, just as I thought they would, they talked about Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes.
So far, so exotic, but nothing had prepared me for the truly exotic: my book had readers in Bulgaria. They came to the launches I did in Sofía and in Plovdiv. They talked fondly of the book’s narrator and protagonist. They told me what they’d liked and they asked me about some things that had disturbed or confused them. In short, we communicated, and it didn’t matter that we came from different worlds, from different literary traditions, that is, and that we were destined to misunderstand one another.
It seems to me that when it comes to discussing the subject of the globalisation of literature, to analysing what it is that gets published, where and why, a radical working hypothesis, one that probes the limits of the question, would be this: that of a writer from a peripheral country being published in another peripheral country (like the trip a few Hondurans went on to Liberia, exactly what I describe in my novel). And to make things more complicated, let’s suppose we’re talking about a book that strays from the conventions of Anglo-Saxon realism. How does this sort of thing come about? How does such an insane hypothesis become a reality? What are the stages of mediation? I don’t know, but it happens. Luckily, it happens.
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Barcelona, winter, 2015.
Translated by Rosalind Harvey
An Inspiring Six Months for IdeasTap Inspires Winners
It's now six whole months since our IdeasTap Inspires winners, championed and selected by Ellah Allfrey and Ali Smith along with their mentors Daniel Hahn, Kerry Hudson, Alex Preston, Amy Sackville and Nicola Upson, started their professional development programme. In that time, our ten talented writers have engaged in a whole range of activities to help them not only to improve their work, but also to give them an induction into the complicated world of literary agents, publishers and public readings. Putting pen to paper is just the tip of the writing iceberg; our writers have been on a rollercoaster journey of discovery!
As they emerge, blinking blearily, from a very intense six months they do so clutching not just a chunky portfolio of work. Although this has been an intensive period of creativity for our writers, as their mentors encourage and inspire them to greater levels of output, this productivity has also afforded them other opportunities. They have had the chance to explore their own creative processes and to really find their voice, whilst the input of their mentor has helped to build the ability to self-edit effectively, and has allowed our writers to target specific areas of their writing that they felt needed working on, to tighten up their skillset. Meanwhile sessions with agents, along with the expertise of their mentors has given our winners invaluable inside knowledge of the publishing industry that can help them to publication, and a renewed sense of self belief that their work is good! (It really is, by the way, I’ve loved reading every single extract.
As we prepare for our showcase event with them tomorrow, during which each writer will read from their work, and will have the chance to not only celebrate their successes with friends and family, but to share their work with agents, we are heartened to hear that agents are already showing an interest in our young writers. We hope that this will be the starting point of many great things for them, but as regards Inspires? Well, all that remains now is to raise a glass to their achievements and to enjoy watching them spread their literary wings and continue to achieve great things with their work.
Why not read extracts
from our winners, and find out a little more about them all?
A World Without Centre: The Illusion of the ‘International’ Book Prize
by Paula Morris
For those of us from the Southern Hemisphere – or from continents like, say, Africa – the status accorded to ‘international’ literary prizes is a constant reminder of our marginality. Only five of the 107 Nobel literature laureates, for example, have been writers from the Southern Hemisphere. In the English-speaking literary world, we’re stuck in outdated hierarchies, looking north to the once-imperial power for cultural leadership and validation.
For English-language writers from outside the UK or US, our national or regional prizes don’t translate beyond local markets. The Kiriyama Prize, for books about ‘the Pacific Rim and South Asia,’ closed in 2008. The Commonwealth Prize ended its main book award in 2011.
The Man Booker Prize – the self-styled ‘most important literary award in the English-speaking world’ – presents an illusion of internationalism. After all, this year Australian writer Richard Flanagan won; the 2013 winner was New Zealander Eleanor Catton. It’s easy to think that we infidels have stormed the palace and can wave more compatriots through the gates. We don’t realize how many gates there are.
After US authors were admitted last year, Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, declared that the ‘winner of the 2014 [Man Booker] prize will be able to say: “I am the best in the English-speaking world”’ – suggesting the Man Booker serves as global scout
. In fact, like the Baileys Women’s Prize and the Folio Prize, it’s a British prize, with British or British-based judges, selecting from works of fiction submitted by British publishers from the lists of books published that year in Britain.
No surprise then, as Scottish writer Alan Bissett noted in 2012
, that ‘of the 46 Booker winners [to date], 24 have been English – over half – although England represents a mere 2.5 per cent of the Commonwealth,’ because the majority of novels published in Britain are by English authors. No surprise that only three New Zealand novels have made the shortlist in the entire 46-year history of the prize, because most Commonwealth novels are not published in the UK.
So readers in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth look to London for recommendations about … the Commonwealth novel? Our own national prizes or reviews or tastes be damned: let’s wait to hear what British publishers pick and British judges decide!
Let’s challenge the rhetoric, with its false and self-serving internationalism, rather than simply accept the imperial world model. ‘We all give too much importance to the idea of a world with a centre,’ writes Orhan Pamuk
. Must those of us south of the equator accept that he calls ‘being consigned to the margins,’ looking north for our cultural cues, allowing London and New York to shape the canon? It’s time to level our gaze, and speak directly to each other.
About Paula Morris
Fiction writer Paula Morris is a New Zealander of English and Maori descent, Currently the Fiction writer-in-residence at the University of Sheffield in England, she will be teaching creative writing at the University of Auckland from March 2015. The full text of her polemic ‘Imperial World: The Politics of International Book Prizes’ will be available soon.
What do you think?
Norfolk County Council Spending Cuts
We know that times are difficult for local authorities and that efficiencies have to be made and belts tightened. We were, however, really dismayed to see the latest proposals from Norfolk County Council to cut spending on the arts in 2015-16 by £150,000.
In 2013-14 the funding from Norfolk County Council helped arts organisations in Norfolk bring in £5.7 million in other funding. The lack of relatively moderate support from Norfolk County Council will endanger that other income and reduce the opportunities for young and old alike to engage in arts and cultural activities across the county.
As an arts organisation in Norfolk we have benefited from support from Norfolk County Council. We used that support to work with young and old people in schools, libraries, youth centres, old people's homes, village halls, festivals, events and workshops all across the county. Norfolk County Council’s support has helped us bring in millions to the economy of the county and to enrich the lives of 650,000+ audience members and participants each year, according to the County’s own figures.
Norfolk County Council is running a consultation to ask what residents think about the proposals to save money across the board and the cuts to the arts grants are part of this. We are asking if you would consider filling in the Norfolk County Council consultation to say that you don’t agree with their proposed cuts to the arts.
All you have to do is visit their website
to see the whole consultation or visit this page
to look directly at the proposals for the arts. We want the County Council to know that although times are tough, people value the arts and see the sense it makes to keep supporting the organisations who do so much to enrich the lives of the people who live, work and visit here.
Living Translation: A National Conversation Event with Ali Smith
The Southbank Centre was host to the third National Conversation event on Wednesday 3 December, where Ali Smith gave a sparkling provocation on Living Translation. If you missed the event, we're pleased to provide you with the recording below. Following Ali's flowing words, event Chair, Daniel Hahn, skillfully moderated the conversation and Q&A alongside writer and film maker, Xiaolu Guo, translator Margaret Jull Costa OBE and our provocateur, Ali Smith.
To complement your listening, you can also view a selection of images from the evening, taken by photographer, Belinda Lawley.
And it gets better. Throughout the events we live tweet in order to get your thoughts on the provocation and the discussion that follows. To give you a taste of what was said, have a read through this Storify created by WCN Communications Intern, Elizabeth Hankins.
WCN to develop planned National Centre for Writing in the historic Dragon Hall
We're delighted to announce some excellent news today, regarding our plans to develop a national centre for writing in Norwich. After talks with key partners, Writers' Centre Norwich (WCN) has been offered the Grade 1 listed Dragon Hall in Norwich - a building that offers so much opportunity for us to grow, and has a history that will undoubtedly inspire many stories from visitors in the future.
WCN's Chris Gribble says:
“We are delighted with this new opportunity for the National Centre for Writing to be based in Dragon Hall. This was not an option when we were originally looking at venues in Norwich, and it is an opportunity that, after careful consideration, we are delighted to accept. Dragon Hall already offers an intimate and private venue for readings, office space, a garden, space for writers and translators to live and work and teaching space for young people and adults alike. In fact, much of what we need as a National Centre for Writing is already there making the economic case for Dragon Hall as the home for NCW as clear and compelling as the artistic case.”
We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page, and you can read more about our plans in today's Norwich Evening News
and by reading the press release below. Writers’ Centre Norwich announces a new development in its plans to create a National Centre for Writing in Norwich, England’s UNESCO City of Literature.
As a result of partnership discussions with Norwich City Council, Arts Council England, Norfolk County Council and UEA, Writers’ Centre Norwich is pleased to announce its intention to develop the planned National Centre for Writing and home for Norwich UNESCO City of Literature in the historic Dragon Hall in King Street, Norwich.
After careful consideration by the current tenants, the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust (who funded the original restoration of Dragon Hall), in partnership with Norwich City Council, the outstanding Grade I listed building has been offered as a home for the prestigious National Centre for Writing.
Thanks to the outstanding stewardship of the current tenants, Dragon Hall has been subject to much improvement in recent years, and is already equipped with many of the spaces and facilities that were at the heart of WCN’s previous plans to develop the NCW at Gladstone House.
Chris Gribble, CEO of WCN says:
“We are delighted with this new opportunity for the National Centre for Writing to be based in Dragon Hall. This was not an option when we were originally looking at venues in Norwich, and it is an opportunity that, after careful consideration, we are delighted to accept. Dragon Hall already offers an intimate and private venue for readings, office space, a garden, space for writers and translators to live and work and teaching space for young people and adults alike. In fact, much of what we need as a National Centre for Writing is already there making the economic case for Dragon Hall as the home for NCW as clear and compelling as the artistic case.”
Graham Creelman, Chair of Writers’ Centre Norwich says:
“As a jewel in Norwich’s heritage crown, Dragon Hall is a rich and vibrant part of our history redolent with stories and narratives that will bring our UNESCO City of Literature programmes alive. At the heart of a community in the process of great development, it also allows us to be part of the regeneration of a key part of the city at a crucial time. We will aim to be proud custodians of Dragon Hall and this centre for visitors to and residents of the city. The NCW at Dragon Hall should prove to be of lasting artistic and economic benefit to Norwich and the whole region.”
These developments mean that Writers’ Centre Norwich is no longer pursuing its plans for the National Centre for Writing at Gladstone House and will be withdrawing from the ACE Large Capital Funding programme with the full backing and support of Arts Council England.
Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature and the South East, Arts Council England, said:
“We are proud to support Writers’ Centre Norwich’s move to Dragon Hall. Writers’ Centre Norwich already plays an important role for writers and academics in the East of England; this move will support its ambitions to become a major new centre for writing in England’s only UNESCO City of Literature.”
Writers’ Centre Norwich aims to move into Dragon Hall at some point after the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust relinquishes the lease in spring 2015, and to evolve into the National Centre for Writing in the autumn of 2016 in line with its original plans.
In the run-up to the 2016 opening as a National Centre for Writing, the organisation will continue its fund-raising campaign in order to develop the already approved south wing as an innovation and education space and to update key elements of the building’s infrastructure to secure Dragon Hall’s long term future for the city, its residents and visitors.END <End of Copy>
For Further Information Please Contact
• Chris Gribble, Chief Executive: email@example.com
/ 01603 877177 / mob 07800 662879
• Katy Carr, Communications Director: firstname.lastname@example.org
/ 01603 877177 / mob: 07919 312155
Photographs are available on requestEditor’s NotesWriters’ Centre Norwich
Writers’ Centre Norwich is the literature development agency for the East and last year led the successful bid to have Norwich nominated as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, one of only eleven in the world. WCN supports emerging and established writers and seeks to explore the artistic and social power of creative writing through pioneering and collaborative projects with writers, readers, schools, libraries and cultural partners. Its programme includes mentoring, workshops, conferences, live literature events and talks by internationally acclaimed writers. Speakers at the WCN Worlds Literature Festival, which takes place in June, have in recent years included JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson.
Translating Nazi Language - Meike Ziervogel on the perils of poor translation.
When I was researching my novel Magda, I read a lot of Nazi literature in the original. There were two things that struck me: the way the Nazis employed language and how, if an English translation was available, the rendition often missed the point.
Let me give you an example.
In 1962 the German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Israel for his war crimes. The court sessions were recorded. After Eichmann is sworn in, he is asked by the defence why he joined the Nazi party and what he has to say about the prosecution of the Jews.
His answer in German is as follows: ‘Dass die damalige Staatsführung nach den ersten schnellen Siegen in dem dem deutschen Reich aufgezwungenen Kriege im Überschwang dieser Siege in Überheblichkeit einer vermeintlichen Unbezwingbarkeit verfiel und im Gefolge dieser Einstellung dann zu törichten, sinnlosen und hemmungslosen Massnahmen schritt, [das ist] eine Tragik, die niemand vorausahnen konnte, auch ich nicht, denn dazu war mein Dienstgrad zu klein.’
The literal translation would be: ‘That the former government, after the first quick victories in the war that was forced upon the German Reich, in the first flash of excitement, fell into arrogance of supposed invincibility and as a consequence of that attitude took foolish, senseless and unrestrained measures, that is a tragedy that no one could anticipate, myself included as my rank was too low."
The English interpreter’s voiceover says: ‘Then the helm of the government after the first victories in the war that was thrust upon Germany – then the helm of the government passed to other people and it was translated later on into unbridled and senseless measures which I was not able to anticipate at that time because of my rank.’
The fact that the interpreter misunderstood the beginning of Eichmann’s sentence shall not concern us here. Rather I like to draw the attention to another – in my view more important – aspect that is not rendered into English, namely the overall tone of the statement.
Eichmann’s sentence is longwinded (even for German ears). Furthermore, it is filled with heavy nouns (Überschwang, Überheblichkeit, Unbezwingbarkeit) and surplus adjectives. This creates an aura of detached objectivity and a hint of moral superiority. It also empties the sentences of any real reference to the shocking crimes that lie at the source of these words.
Eichmann’s utterance presents an example of how Nazis employed language. Nazis used language to create an alternative, clean, logical reality. They did not apply words to describe and address the crimes they committed.
Generally, we assume that we all use our different languages in more or less the same way for more or less the same purpose – to communicate and understand the world we live in. We tend to overlook that languages, with their idiosyncratic syntax and phonology, create their own realities. In order to understand history, that of others and of ourselves, we have to enter those linguistic realities. But how can we do that if we don’t speak the language?
By listening to how others tell their stories. In other words: by reading their literature.
Listening to Eichmann’s statement I, as a German, am immediately aware of the authoritative, bureaucratic language that seems to claim a monopoly on psychological and historical truth. I am also aware that deep down inside me the tone of Eichmann’s utterance has given rise to a worry that I might not possess valid enough arguments to dismantle his statement. I am more than seventy years removed from the Nazis. So the effect such language had on my grandparents’ generation must have been far more frightening.
Ludwig Wittgenstein tells us that ‘what expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language.’ Novels, novellas, short stories and poetry use images, structure and plot to express what cannot be caught in words. They go beyond the content of language and point at the realties created by these languages. They give insights into the invisible forces that shape history.
Eichmann’s interpreter understood the general content of the German but was not able to pick up on the true meaning. In my view, he – unwillingly – deprived Eichmann’s statement of its true horror. It is a powerful example of a poor translation. Moreover, it shows that the difference between one language and another goes far beyond lines of words. If we don’t want to stay on the outside of understanding – of ourselves and the larger world that we are part of – we have to listen to how others tell their own stories.
Meike Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press, an award-winning independent publishing house that specialises in the translation of European literature into English. She is also the author of two novels, Magda and Clara’s Daughter, both published by Salt. www.peirenepress.com www.meikeziervogel.com This piece is part of our National Conversation - a series of conversations, with the nation, about literature.
Daniel Hahn on Literary Translation
In the third event of the National Conversation, Ali Smith will speak on Living Translation. Here, Daniel Hahn, who will moderate the conversation, gives his thoughts on the importance of literary translation.
It’s simple enough: translation allows us to read things we would otherwise not be able to read. It allows me to read Norwegian crime fiction, and Pushkin, and Hans Christian Andersen. It allows Italians to read Joyce and Woolf, Brazilians to read Flaubert and Dickens, Indonesians to read Harry Potter or the Canterbury Tales. It allows a couple of billion Christians to read the Bible. Translation moves us – slowly and modestly, but so very optimistically – towards a world where everyone can read anything.
And how does it do this? By pretending. A translator rewrites a book, changing all the words, and asks a reader to collude in the pretence that nothing has changed at all. Maybe all the important stuff will survive the journey – through the translator’s sensitivity,writerly skill and, well, deviousness – but all the words do have to be lost along the way, replaced by new ones. We readers accept the deceit. Have I read Don Quixote? Of course I have! Admittedly it had none of Cervantes’s words init when I did, because the book I read was written not by a one-time prisoner of war in seventeenth-century Spain, but by a twenty-first-century New Yorker, reigniting the text in her apartment on the Upper West Side. But she and I agree to pretend that the book I've been reading is pure Cervantes.Have I read Don Quixote? Of course I have.
Translation is a great literary enabler,and any thoughtful reader should know why it matters. If you love detective fiction, why would you choose arbitrarily to dis-able the possibility of ever meeting Maigret? Is it possible to love theatre and yet have no interest in experiencing Ibsen, Molière, Sophocles, Pirandello, Chekhov or anybody who didn't happen by pure chance to share your native tongue? Middlemarch and Vanity Fair are in, Bovary and Karenina are out. We get to keep Shakespeare,but we lose the opportunity to read almost anybody who influenced him… It’s arbitrary, this deprivation. As if one were to say: from now on, I'm limiting my reading to Sagittarian writers whose names begin with vowels.
Yet, for all kinds of reasons, the Anglophone literary world resists translation. Or rather, it resists inbound translation.We are more than happy for our writers to be recreated into other languages, and they sell very nicely thank you. Bringing other writers into English, however, is another story. (A very short story.) So English readers suffer. But that is not the worst of it. English writers, who are readers too, also suffer,and their writing suffers with them. A culture flourishes when exposed to the currents of oxygen borne across with influences, ideas and aesthetics coming in from outside; but we've long been locked into a domestic literary world with little access to what everyone else is saying and, if you ask me,it’s getting a little stuffy in here. There are about 6.7 billion people in the world whose first language isn't English. All the world’s best writers are among them. And I’d like to be able to read them. Wouldn't you?
Find out more by clicking below:
Our Favourite Creative Spots, from the staff at WCN
The path to creativity is a very personal one, some people work better at 3am, others can only get going after a coffee, a potter around the house and a flick through morning trash tv. Plus, whilst some of us enjoy working on public transport or in cafes, others like to hole up in a cosy corner at home, with a well-planned selection of writing-aides close at hand.
Our new UEA-WCN International Writing Courses embrace this diversity in our creative habits, and allow writers to work whenever, and wherever, is best for them! To celebrate this escape from the classroom, we asked all the creative types at WCN to share with us their favourite creative locations - where do they hole up to write, draw, paint, sew...? Let's find out!
Laura Stimson, Programme Manager and Writer
"Here is my real life writing spot; a corner of my bedroom replete with tic tacs, tea and the Observer Food Monthly for distractions. And when all else fails, I have a narrow view, which is particularly golden today, with the Norwich Cathedral spire on the distant horizon."
Chris Gribble, Chief Executive
Our Chief Exec Chris takes a break from sitting at his desk, to stand at his desk instead. This is where the WCN magic happens!
Leila Telford, Resources Manager
"Thriving in the jumble and chaos of overflowing sewingboxes, the onslaught of the bookshelves, and the comforting gaze of family,ideas feed each other."
Richard White, Communications Officer and Artist
"I think I'm the only WCNer to travel by train to work. My colleagues don't know what they're missing out on: I read; drink coffee; observe people picking the exact same seat every single day; unavoidably listen in (on one end of) phone conversations, and on a good day, draw. Drawing on a moving train isn't easy, but it's better than not drawing at all. At the moment I'm drawing Richard Whites, of which there are many."
Anna Scrafield, Communications Assistant prone to dabbling in various creative activites
"This is my Granny's writing desk and I love it - I write, draw paint, embroider and pen copious letters here, along with gazing out of the window and leafing through my extensive postcard collection for inspiration...
My co-conspirator in all this is my badger skull. I'm fascinated by skulls and have amassed quite a collection over the years, from squirrel and vole through to red deer and seal, but Mr Badger is my favourite - he always has good ideas."
Sam Ruddock, Programme Manager and voracious reader
"This is the tree round the back of WCN. I do love that spot, and it is a great place to read. Comfy, bright, and a real sun trap, with the scent of lavender rising all around you."
Conor McGeown, Development Manager and noise-maker.
"This is a picture of me in what our landlord laughably calls "a second bedroom", and what I, equally laughably, call "my studio". There’s not much to it, and anything I can hear above the white noise of the traffic tearing down Duke Street is obscured by the impenetrable box-room acoustics. But I love it all the same. It’s used mostly for spare nappy storage these days, but from time to time you’ll still find me here, filling rare quiet moments with loud noise. Headphones on, of course."
Jon Morley Programme Director, poet and reader
"The thrumming of trains provides a conducive background music for poetry. Moniza Alvi's harrowing sequence about the Partition of India and Pakistan enacts the journeys of displaced families in 1947, and became even more vivid to read as I surged towards London this morning with the train murmuring around me."
Ed Cottrell, Programme Manager & Writer
Boat-dwelling Ed, shares his port-holed creative space with us. We're not sure if this is his creativity face - it might be.
Want to read some of his work? Before taking up his post with us, Ed won a place on the IdeasTap Inspires Programme, so you can have a read of some of his work here.
Our Twitter Followers' #MyCreateSpace:
@MatLovegrove tells us about his #MyCreateSpace...
"I love my cabin...I built it...I live in it....I write and paint in it."
@Jo_Bell, a boat-dwelling poet agrees -
"nothing beats a good cabin"
Out of the cabin and into the coffee shop, @LMFairweather explains the situation:
"I write in coffee shops, when my 4 month old lets me!"
The important question now, is where do you get creative? Share your favourite writing or creating location with us in selfie format through twitter or instagram (@WritersCentre) via #MyCreateSpace and you could be added to our blog!
Sam Ruddock: On Creative Reading
Sam recently gave a keynote talk as part of our Young People and Literature Symposium on creative reading and writing with young people. The following is the text of that speech.
Listen to Sam's speech below, and tell us what you think at the bottom of the page:
My name is Sam Ruddock, and I am a reader. (And also some other things including a blogger, a book critic, a prize judge, a husband, a cat father, and a Programme Manager at Writers' Centre Norwich where I produce our events and reading programmes).
Basically, I love reading. I love stories that take me on a journey I don't ever want to end, with characters it feels as though I have known for ever. I love reading that makes me think, that introduces me to new ideas, and that is all about the creative use of language. Reading is pure imagination.
I know I'm a bit excitable. But I make no apologies for being over-the-top enthusiastic about reading. Especially where it comes to young people. Because literacy has never been so important. There has never in human history been so much reading and writing taking place as there is now. The mass spread of the internet and social media has changed how we behave: where people once interacted with the world predominantly verbally, we now do so more and more through words on a screen. A young person’s life chances today depend on literacy: if you cannot read or write, you cannot succeed in this world. Literacy is to be the single most important thing we do for our young people.
Reading isn't a tool for anything, but if it is, its a basic tool for literacy, which is a basic tool for life. But one of the ways that we will best encourage literacy, is to focus on reading for pleasure.
(When we talk about reading for writing, we essentially create a hierarchy where everything leads to writing. I'm not sure it is this way around. The Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton recently set up a fund in New Zealand to grant young writers money to cover time to read. It’s an amazing initiative – imagine being paid to read! But it has a serious and laudable intention, too. She felt reading was getting forgotten in the drive to write, to create, and to express oneself. And she felt that writers who didn't read were likely to produce less interesting work than writers who did read. I share this as a challenge for us all – reading should be at the heart of our engagement with young people, not as an afterthought.)
There is only one way we will get people reading: if they enjoy it. If it gives them something they want or need. If it is rewarding.
I read to relax. And to escape from myself and the world around me and all the interconnectivity of technology. And I read to dive head-first into the world, to learn about other people and the world around me. I like to read in the bath. It is a sanctum if you will, where technology frazzles and drowns and my imagination can billow steam-like around me. About 5 years ago I decided to rename our bathroom ‘the pub’ so that I felt less anti-social about the time I spend reading and now when I go home in the evening and say to my wife ‘I'm going to the pub’, it makes reading feel cool. And I like that, for even an enthusiast like me sometimes feels apologetic about reading. I need to read. If I don’t find time to read, I get stressed and frantic, I get grumpy, and I get self-involved. And what is interesting is that research increasingly shows that this is the case for many people.
In a series of reports and studies over the last decade, reading has been shown to be of huge personal, social, health, and economic benefit. Reading has been shown to have all sorts of impressive qualities including:
- Enhancing people’s life chances, civic and social engagement, employment prospects, and quality of life;
- Busting stress and providing real health benefits such as delaying the onset of dementia;
- Reducing cases of reoffending in prisoners and those on parole;
- Improving theory of mind, a common measure of empathetic ability.
One of the things that interests me most about reading is that it is both retreat from the world, and the most active engagement with it. There is nothing I do in my life that so enables me to inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. Reading matters to me because it puts me inside the heads of other people, other lives, other cultures, other ways of thinking. Reading helps me see things differently, it makes me think differently, it complicates my point of view. I am a far better person for reading. Why not be enthusiastic about something like this?
I'm also fascinated by what reading does for people. So fascinated in fact that earlier this year I set out to interview readers across the UK about their experience of reading, what it gives them and why they do it. I want to get beyond the scientific research to uncover the personal stories about readers and reading, and I want to give readers a voice to tell their own stories.
There is a campaign I admire called 53 Million Artists. Like all great campaigns its mission is deceptively simple: to 'unlock the creative potential of everyone in England.' I recently spent some time with the founder of 53 Million Artists, a ridiculously talented woman named Jo Hunter, and asked her whether she considered reading an artistic activity. She thought for a minute and I could see her wondering how to say that no she didn't. We kept talking, and she eventually set out the four linked activities that they encourage people to do when being artistic.
- The first is having an idea.
- The second is doing something. Reading is doing something. In reading we are co-creators of a story. But now it gets interesting...
- Number 3 in the approach to being an artist is thinking about what you are doing. This is really important. Thinking. Reflecting. An artist isn't just someone who creates. An artist is someone who thinks about what they create. A reader artist is someone who thinks about what they read.
- And the fourth is sharing it with others.
I turned to her at this point and said: ‘okay, so readers are artists when they think about what they read, and share it with others’. And she agreed. When we think about creativity we often instinctively think about making things. We so rarely think about consuming something. But I believe absolutely that reading is active and creative engagement in the art of literature, and that great reading is an art to be developed. It is an art so long as we think about what we read, and share that with others.
So how do we get young people reading? It starts with how we think about and talk about reading. I have three tips:
1. Be enthusiastic. Break down that inner critic who says you need to call the bathroom ‘the pub’ in order to make reading cool. If you are that apologetic about reading, no-one is ever going to enjoy reading. John Waters has a great suggestion and language for this, he says: ‘If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t sleep with people who don’t read!’. A little judgemental, perhaps. But interesting.
There is a quote I love from Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald, a not particularly successful novel he wrote in between The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits.
“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be”
Useful advice at any time and for anything you love! But even more so when it comes to reading, an activity that society and formal education strives to tell young people is dull, boring, and only for school. Too often we are embarrassed to talk to young people about loving reading. We fear it may lose us their interest. We think it is easier to give people a pen and piece of paper and ask them to express themselves. That they will find that more fun. But this is our fears being projected; our failing not theirs. We cannot hope to change other people’s perspectives if we don’t change our own.
2. Don’t try to control reading. Reading is freedom. It is an adventure, and no adventure is any fun if you know where it will end. It doesn't matter what a reader is reading now, only what they may go on to next. The best reader engagement projects don’t lecture readers about what they should and shouldn't read, they create the space and framework and let readers run with it.
This is what Writers’ Centre Norwich has done with Summer Reads (in partnership with Norfolk Libraries) over the past 6 years. Each year we recruit a jury of everyday readers (this year there are over 90!). We give them a long-list of books (this year there were 150) and ask them to read. They read the books and review (i.e THINK ABOUT) them. We gather all the reviews together, hold meetings for them to discuss the books (i.e SHARE WHAT THEY HAVE DONE), and slowly work the long-list down. At the moment there are 60 books we are considering. Come January we will select the 6 that we promote during the programme. It is amazing to see how reading habits change given this space and encouragement, and in an environment where reading is cherished. We will receive more than 1000 reviews this year. In some ways, it is a more rigorous process than the Booker Prize.
So successful has Summer Reads been that we were recently awarded a large amount of money to evolve and grow in partnership with libraries in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
I've long harboured ambitions to run a similar programme for young people, working with school libraries and English teachers to build a network of engaged young readers. I’d love us here today in this room to consider whether there is a way of making this happen.
There was a great project that the Orange Prize ran a few years ago, to celebrate its fifteenth year. They wanted to conduct a poll to find the ‘best of the best’ of the previous 14 winners of the Orange Prize. But instead of employing the usual collage of writers, critics, and academics, they turned to young people. Six teenagers were recruited through Penguin’s Spinebreakers website, an online book community run by teenagers, for teenagers that has sadly recently closed. Those readers met, discussed the books, and eventually chose a winner: Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels, a truly brilliant book.
And this brings me on to my third suggestion for getting people reading:
3. Never ever undervalue readers, young or old. Never assume people don’t read and don’t want to read. Never talk down. Encourage up.
Had you asked me before this to guess which of the 14 titles would have most appealed to a younger audience, one of my last choices would have been Fugitive Pieces. It is lyrical and non-linear, it is challenging and distressing. But when you put your faith in people, when you give them the opportunity to try and to think and to share, they so often surprise you. This has happened again and again in my experience of Summer Reads.
And if you want to make reading fun, make it dangerous! There’s a great story I once heard about a mother who, when she was pregnant, built a shelf in her bedroom and placed all her favourite books there. When he daughter was young, she told her that she could read any of the books in the house, except for those books on that shelf. That was all. Years later, when the daughter was fully grown they were talking about reading, and the daughter said to her: ‘of course you know I read all of those books I wasn't allowed to?’ and the mother turned to her and replied: ‘Of course! That was the point all along!’ She had succeeded in making great reading dangerous!
I love that story.
So, in summary:
- Reading is fundamental to modern life. More reading is done now than ever before. Never forget that when people say that reading is no longer cool.
- Reading is fundamental to writing. But it is valuable enough, enjoyable enough, in and of itself.
- Never try to squish reading into other outcomes lest you lose what is great about it.
- Don't think it is easier to give people a pen and paper and encourage them to write than it is to give them a library card and encourage them to read. And if it is, think about what that says about how you are talking about reading.
- Be passionate. Otherwise, why should anyone believe you?
- Support exploration. Take a journey together. Reading is an adventure.
- Don’t dictate, empower.
- Never ever underestimate people.
Reading is not elitist. Great reading is and should be for everyone. And it is creative and artistic. Do not hide from your responsibility to share the joys of reading with others.
And share it with me too. For there’s a dirty secret at the heart of this talk. This year has been my worst reading year since I've been an adult. I've really struggled to find time and space to read. I need you to tell me about the books you've loved, to recommend to me, and then to recommend to everyone else here today.
Thank you for your time. And happy reading.
Now... come with me...
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).
On Reading, Writing and Losing our Minds
With Will Self, Maureen Freely and Dan Franklin.
The second instalment of the National Conversation had a key similarity to the first part that took place at Edinburgh International Book Festival
with Michael Rosen at the end of August: we were under canvas. In Cheltenham, however, the rain beat down on us, providing an ominous drum roll as Will Self took to the stage to talk to us about reading, writing and losing our minds.
You can read Will’s elegant provocation in the Guardian or on our website
, where you’ll also find Dan Franklin’s opening response
. So what happened on the day? For the full podcast scroll to the bottom of the page, and find out. Here are my highlights.
Will was pretty clear that careful reading is on the wane and the difficult novel is doomed as readers lose the capacity to lose themselves in the maelstrom of language on the page. Dan Franklin shot right back, claiming that he didn’t buy into this scenario. Things are changing: the new generation of readers value access over ownership; we should be thinking of ways to engage them meaningfully beyond the confines of the printed book. Maureen Freely highlighted the passion and commitment felt by young people and noted that not only did ‘digital reading’ enable permeability between the text and the online world, but that it also enabled freedom of movement for literature across geographical and linguistic borders.
We debated quality, excellence, elitism and how the author might start to take control of the changes around us instead of passively reacting to them. There was nothing passive about the audience. In the tent, online, before, during and after, the audience made its voice heard and changed our event from an experience into a real conversation. Writers are also readers, and readers are rewriting the narrative of how stories are being read. From the individual reading to her children, to the translator making available stories from places and people we might never have heard of, we are all part of a community with an interest in what is happening to readers, writers and the collective mind.
It was an exhilarating occasion and the perfect preparation for our next National Conversation instalment, when Ali Smith will start a debate
on the value of translation and the dangers of ignoring its strengths for whatever we choose to call ‘British literature’.
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
What do you think?
Share your thoughts below, or on Twitter via the #NatConv tag.
What is the Future of Storytelling?
A Publisher’s Perspective, by Dan Franklin.
"Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment."
Dan Franklin is Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House UK. He is taking part in our National Conversation event 'On Writing, Reading and Losing our Minds' with Will Self this Saturday and in anticipation of that event, Dan warms us up with a thought-provoking post about the future of publishing and storytelling. Do check back on Latest News this Saturday at 11.45 to read Will's full provocation, and please do comment or tweet @WritersCentre to share your thoughts on the conversation.
Five years ago the mainstream e-reading culture was non-existent. Now, most publishers make a quarter of their revenues this way and digital self-publishing has exploded. If reading books on screen is intrinsically different to reading on paper, are we seeing a fundamental shift in the types of writing being consumed? Can we expect the popularisation of the 'digitally native' text?
Reviews for new e-readers valorise how close they are to the print experience, hailing what is an almost perfect replication of the print reading experience in digital form. We are reading books on screens, but it doesn't seem essentially different. In fact, for many, it seems comfortably the same. Commentators posit that publishers are satisfied with this state of affairs, being custodians of a certain way of promulgating culture. The problem with this reading of the situation is that publishers don't self-define themselves as gatekeepers, not the good ones at least. As much as she might repeat publish according to successful commercial formulae, the publisher's business is one of pursuing the new. Each new book is an irruption into culture, giving readers what they don't know they want. A publisher provides seed-funding and investment, and a means of amplifying a text to the marketplace.
The huge upheaval that occurred in music industry was the digital compression of a song to a twelfth of its size, and the dismantling of its container, the album. Driven by a new technology (the MP3), there came a significant widening of the listenership, commensurate to the contraction of record companies' revenues from CDs. The labels couldn't make up the difference of what they were losing to digital. This is simply not the case for books: the market is (relatively) stable. In this situation, we have created a digital mirror of the Gutenberg model, and it feels like the digital tsunami has broken over us. Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment. Reading on a screen might be transforming us all, but the effects haven't been registered by reader, writer or publisher in any considerable way except on the fringes, where experimentation in digital texts has been going on for decades now.
The power lies with readers and in the main they are happy reading a mix of print and electronic books in the contained, linear fashion they have been for hundreds of years. This will change, and the greatest challenge to the publishing industry will be what we change for an audience that doesn't care for this experience. One way is to work on literacy and the importance of the long-form reading experience through education and the other is to adapt what that experience is, to innovate around new types of digital reading. This can only be achieved with 'authors' who are innovating in this space.
The question arises then: what is the future of storytelling? Who will emerge in this landscape? Publishers are ready to experiment, refine and lead this process because, rather than being mere gatekeepers, that is the essence of publishing.
Find out more by clicking below.
A little bit of free TLC for your Manuscript
There's that well known phrase - "money can't buy you happiness" which is in many ways pretty true. However, money can buy you the things you need to be happier, and help you to get a foot into doors that may otherwise remain firmly closed.
Although writers are 'meant' to be tapping away in garrets, in reality a lack of funds can make it very difficult for writers to get ahead.
Writing the first draft can be hair-pulling work, but when you have to edit, re-draft and revisit your work that’s when it some help comes in handy. Words meld together and you start to genuinely wonder whether the structure of your plot has any virtue whatsoever. An outsider is needed.
Having another set of eyes, preferably experienced ones, taking a look at your manuscript is incredibly useful, and many writers turn to a reading agency or editor for help. Unfortunately, this is where the money comes in, and it can be galling for a writer with limited funds to find that their crucial next step is just out of reach, all for the sake of a bit of extra money!
The Literary Consultancy is one such agency that writers turn to, for an impartial eye, and is the UK's leading manuscript assessment service. Aware of the financial restrictions many writers face they, through a generous Arts Council grant, are offering a solution - free reads! I know, FREE! It's not often you get something completely free, so this is a really exciting opportunity.
Recommended by Arts Council England, along with various big name publishing houses, TLC has a strong track record of helping writers get into print. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain access to a very useful service - so if you live in the East of England, are on a low income and are in need of the kind of invaluable assistance that The Literary Consultancy can offer then Free Reads is for you.
Writers will be selected based on merit, so if you think your manuscript has what it takes, then get applying, and you could be taking that next step on the ladder to literary success, for free.
Deadline - 5.00pm Thursday November 13th 2014
for more information on the scheme, and for how to apply.