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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.
Our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase
Jeanette Winterson, Cynan Jones, Helen MacDonald; our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase, 18 - 21 March 2015
On my first day at WCN - just over two weeks ago - I was handed a mammoth document to proofread; the International Literature Showcase brochure. It quickly transpired that this was a big event. Representatives will be coming from Armenia, Brazil, China, (nobody from a country beginning with D), Egypt, France, Georgia - the list goes on. What’s more Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson are headlining the big public events, three 2014 Costa Book Award winners are reading and the entire programme is being live streamed
so everyone can take part.
Writers and literature professionals from over twenty countries will arrive in Norwich tomorrow for the first International Literature Showcase - a partnership between Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN) and British Council - supported by Arts Council England. It will introduce emerging UK writers to cultural organisations around the world to spark future collaborations.
On the first day of the showcase I’m particularly looking forward to ‘Digital Literatures’ with Bill Thompson. ‘If James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google’ Tom McCarthy recently wrote in The Guardian
. And as part of WCN’s National Conversation
Will Self said ‘deep serious reading - and serious writing - is under threat from the digital revolution’. I’m hoping for a lively discussion on the most pressing issue facing writers today - with input from a global audience. Watch live at 2pm, Thursday 19 March.
On Friday 20th March I’ve got my eye on the New Fiction readings with Cynan Jones and Emma Healey at 4.45pm. ‘Every bit as compelling as the frenzied hype suggests’ is how The Observer described Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, and I can’t wait to hear her read. I picked up a copy of Jones’ The Dig in the excellent Millennium Library. Reviewers have compared his style to Cormac McCarthy’s and it’s obvious why. Stripped back, unflinching and powerful writing that leaves you in awe. Patrick Barkham (also reading at the showcase) said ‘The Dig is a tender and sensuous depiction of the deep connections both good and bad people have with the earth and its animals’. Watch Jones and Healey read via the live stream at 4.45pm on Friday 20 March.
Continuing with the theme of connections with the animal world, Friday evening’s public event features Jeanette Winterson and Helen MacDonald discussing nature and memoir at Norwich Playhouse. It’s sold out but a podcast will be available on the WCN website soon. MacDonald’s H is for Hawk won the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. It’s just out in paperback and as the Literary Review says it’s ‘an incredible achievement’. I can’t wait to her in conversation and with such an icon…
…Jeanette Winterson is a writer for whom I developed what Geoff Dyer calls a ‘literary crush’ - where you read them to the exclusion of everyone else for a short period in your life. You can spot a literary crush on your bookshelf where there is a big block of spines all the same colour and style by the same publisher. My Winterson crush occurred during my first year of university somehow nearly twenty years ago. I shall be carrying around my much underlined copy of The Passion on Friday in the hope that, giggling like a teenager, I’ll get a chance to ask her to sign it.
Join us in your pajamas at 9am on Saturday morning for the live stream of Daljit Nagra’s retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Described by The Independent as ‘rollicking, often rude and riveting’ – it’s going to be well worth getting up for! Later in the morning don’t miss readings from Charlotte Higgins, Patrick Barkham and Bidisha and a discussion on nonfiction and memoir hosted by WCN’s Programme Director Jonathan Morely.
If you enjoy Barkham’s work you might be interested to know you can spend a day with him on the beautiful Holkham beach as one of WCN’s Writing Rambles masterclasses
- part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Where he’ll help you ‘harness moments of inspiration with the practical business of getting words onto the page’. I sound like I’m up-selling! And I suppose I am but only because I’m sure for many writers this sounds like a magical way to spend a day.
This is really just a taster of all the readings, conversations and performances which will take place during the International Literature Showcase. So do check out the full programme
and join viewers around the world for the live stream from 12.30pm on Thursday 19 March. #ILShowcase
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?
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>
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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.
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?
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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.
Delve into darkness with a preview of Noirwich Crime and Noir Festival
I've always loved the word “noir,” it has a curiously decadent quality which lends the subject a strange luxurious and exclusive air. Along with adding a smoky sultriness to the film and literary genre that it describes, it has also allowed me to couch my life-long obsession with Humphrey Bogart in far more impressive terms – “I'm into Film Noir” sounds so much cooler.
In contrast, “crime” really is a no-nonsense sort of genre, with the mention of it serving to accelerate the pulse, and quicken the breath. Both genres though, however different on first impressions, share a pleasing darkness, and an offer of an exploration into the strange and shadowy side of the human psyche. Through crime and Noir we are offered the opportunity to dice with death, and take a voyeuristic adventurous journey into the dark places of the society, although almost always with that sidelong wink at the comedy lurking just beneath the surface.
I'm not the only person who enjoys such things though, along with our partners, the Crime Writers' Association, the UEA, and Waterstones we at WCN are about to embark upon Noirwich, a deliciously dark festival of crime and noir writing, and it looks as though it’s going to be a blood-curdlingly good!
The events during the festival offer a pleasing range to suit all manner of tastes, which means I can get stuck into all sorts of different readings, talks, screenings and sessions with no fear of overlap. So where might we bump into one another? Well, I suspect I’ll be at Frank’s Bar on 14th Sept at 5pm for the (free) screening of The Killer Inside Me, and I’ll certainly be taking the opportunity to go and see Sophie Hannah. A crime writer of much renown, and an international bestseller,Hannah has written a new Poirot novel, returning Agatha Christie’s popular moustachioed detective to the page. With the full backing of the Christie family, and a huge amount of excitement bubbling up online about the first chapter of The Monogram Murders which has been released as a taster (download here) the chance to hear from the lady herself, as she discusses the pressures and pleasures of writing Poirot, is too fantastic an opportunity to miss!
Meanwhile Val McDermid will be talking about the challenges and pleasures of writing books of murderous mystery, and how best to depict brutal serial killers (amongst other things!) Plus, hot off the press, she will be launching her new book The Skeleton Road that will have been published by Little, Brown only the day before! I'm very excited to have the opportunity of hearing a best-selling, critically acclaimed, author read from her new work, and I'm considering whether I'll muster the courage to stick up my hand at the end, and ask a question, too.
These are just my personal highlights of Noirwich though, there are a whole host of other exciting events ready to chill the blood, including a celebration of the CWA Diamond Dagger, an exploration of new writers on the scene, writing masterclasses, a Nordic Noir Workshop, and even an exploration into the works of a forgotten, but absurdly talented local crime writer, S.T. Haymon. So do go and conduct your own investigation into the exciting selection of events on offer – it’s going to be a festival to die for!
Noirwich is sponsored by Norwich BID
An evening with Val McDermid is sponsored by Right Angle Events
An Evening with Megan Abbott is sponsored by Dardan Security.
Writing that Inspires: Some breathtaking competition entries...
I'm filled with a little foreboding as I type this – my first blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich! I'm Anna, the new Communications Assistant, and I've been here now for two weeks, which is either a long time or a very short time depending on how you view such things.
Since I've been here I've been working on our webpage that will announce the winners of our Inspires programme, a writing competition for 18 – 30 year olds, run in conjunction with IdeasTap.
Creating the web page has involved various confusing admin activities which I won’t trouble you with, but it has also afforded me the opportunity to read the entries of our ten winners. Whilst I've been tucking into their work I've been struck by a few things – firstly, how good they all are! The Inspires scheme will allow these winners to work with mentors over the next six months to improve their writing, to hone their skills, to learn about the world of becoming a professional writer, and yet before their six months even begin, I've found their work utterly absorbing.
It is most certainly a major bonus of my new role that I get the opportunity to read great writing.
At the moment, I love short stories and am constantly fascinated by the seemingly effortless structures of these stories that take an image that you feel could run to 500 pages, and somehow condense it down into a perfect portrait of a moment, or a feeling. Reading extracts of our winners’ work, I've been drawn in, and moved, by such portraits ten times over. They are dark, funny, mysterious with moments of pure clarity and deep reflection that left me feeling full and satisfied.
As with all good work,images and fragments have stuck with me, and such images as Lauren Van Schaik Smith’s Iowan cousins in Flood Tide or this line in her opening paragraph, had me convinced me that I was going to really enjoy reading on – ‘It was the lion half of March when she died and high July when the road lolls in,a river of stinking tar nosing through the low ground and scrub. We watch it for a week, first from the roof and then from the beans, Zora and I both squint- pinching its black neck in our fingers and counting the thumbs between its roll and our momma’s head’.
I also loved floating into the beautiful inner world of Lindsey Fairweather’s character Walter, in Flowers For Eleanor, and I've returned a few times to the strange world of Maria Hummer’s Open House which spoke to me so perfectly about my own constant desire (mostly encouraged by ill-advised purchases of lifestyle magazines) to live that bizarrely perfect, highly improbable, life found in magazines and films.
As part of my induction at WCN I've recently been acquainting myself with the various schemes that the Writers’ Centre is running, or has run in the past, and this is not the first writing competition that the Writers’ Centre has run.
Indeed, WCN has an impressive history of nurturing new talent through the Escalator Writing Competition which has run annually for the past eight years. With Inspires running this year,in its place,this year is a chance for younger writers to take centre stage. With the record of previous Escalator winners, I can see that our fresh crop of talent will undoubtedly be going places. Past Escalator winners have gone on to be highly-praised and published - Kate Worsley, Nicola Upson, Guy Saville and Sarah Ridgard are just some of the Escalator alumni who have gone on to publish acclaimed novels.
This year’s Inspires winners certainly have something to look forward to, as they are helped to be the very best that they can be, and I can’t wait to see their work at the end of this process.
Anyway, enough from me, you need to go and have a read of our winners’ entries, get to know them from their biogs, and follow them on twitter! Make yourself a coffee, settle down and enjoy their pieces, I can guarantee it will be an hour very well spent.
What’s the Point of Books? by Michael Rosen
This is an original provocation from Michael Rosen, delivered in person on Monday 25th August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at the launch of the National Conversation. (Prefer PDF? Click here or listen to the below event podcast.)
With literature, human beings have invented a way of enabling us to try out and weigh up the possibilities of action and thought. It attaches ideas and feelings to beings we recognise and care about. When we find we care, we usually spend some time speculating about the whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, the truths and untruths of the thought and action. We may well wonder about why and how we cared about these beings. I can make a case here for suggesting that these speculations in and after the reading process of literature mostly take place in a slow, reflective, contemplative way. Nothing wrong with speedy reflection. It’s just that it’s good to have some slow stuff as well. One of the reasons for the slowness of literature is that there is a tradition that it is often narrated ‘inside and out’. We view things from outside of protagonists through what they say and do, but we also often view things from inside them through what they think. This gives us multi-dimensional ways of understanding events.
I think I can also make a case for the function of written language here. Written language requires us to live in two time frames simultaneously: one is linear, following one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter after another; the other is multi-directional and involves us in recollecting (going backwards and harvesting what we’ve read), predicting (going forward) and interpreting (going forwards and backwards in order to come up with a sense of it all). Of the many other kinds of mental work going on here, I could also pick out the fact that while we do the work of interpreting what we think of as the meaning, we are also playing along with the physical matter of sound, rhythm and cadence of language. A ‘dirty dustbin’ is not the same as a ‘filthy garbage can’.
One of the most pleasurable ways of engaging with written language in these ways is through literature, probably because of the way it engages our feelings. Another is that we often have the sense that the writer expressed things that we find difficult to express ourselves or, related to this, that a writer expressed something more to the point or more illuminating or more resonant or more beautiful than we could do.
Is all this important?
My bias is to say yes. I’ll justify that by saying that it is important on account of the primacy of language in all our human interactions. Language is not simply a means of communication, it is the means by which we do things. Though we have invented activities which are seemingly less or more shot through with language, (as with the difference between, say, composing music and winding up the case for the defence) ultimately it is impossible to be who we are, to think and to survive without the language we use and hear.
My case would be that the literature that we come to regard as profound, enables us to use and hear the kind of language which helps us think and reflect more, which in turn - if I’m right - helps us do things and ultimately to survive. In addition, because of the special role that literature plays in offering us possibilities of thought and action, it also helps us to think of change - personal or social. I believe that in a world that is for millions of people imperfect and cruel we are in desperate need for anything that helps us think about change.
In our time, we do not have equal access to profound literature. Or, put another way, the pattern of people choosing to turn to literature for deep thought, is very uneven. Some people do. Many people don’t. In crude terms, we might say that there can only be two reasons for this - the behaviour of either writers or audiences: is it that writers of profound fiction aren’t good enough to engage with the audiences who don’t read? or is it that those non-reading audiences have found other places to go for the experience of fiction - TV and film in particular?
Another reason, though, might be in our formation: how we are educated both as readers and writers. Might it be possible that even as we have created mass education and mass reading the people who lay down the curriculum and examine it have created a school regime that puts many people off reading for pleasure?
There may well be others.
But let’s take these three possibilities in turn:
Writers. Is it possible to distill the distinctive aspects of great and popular books of the past and ask if writers today can’t or won’t write books like that? Is there something distinctive about, say, what Chaucer, or Shakespeare or Dickens did? Or do they maintain their status through some kind of hoax, some kind of continuous puff from an elite that justifies its own existence by elevating its favourites into all-time classics?
I think there is some truth in my caricature of the elite. I may even be part of that elite myself. At the same time, these writers in their different ways did something special that is worth hanging on to: they were prepared to consider the lives of people across the whole of society and create situations (scenes, if you like) which enable us to wonder about whether society is just.
In Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, prologue and epilogue, a man who was supposedly sanctioned by God’s representative on earth to sell pardons for a living, tells his audience a story about how the lust for gold is self-destructive. The job of selling pardons was highly dubious with pardons being in essence, alibis or let-offs for malfeasance before the deed. And who had the power or the right to sell them anyway? The tale the Pardoner tells is circumscribed by several of the Ten Commandments: we shouldn’t be coveting what belongs to others, we shouldn’t steal and we shouldn’t kill. Having told the story, the Pardoner then tries to sell his pardons. This enrages at least one member of the audience who threatens to do damage to his nether parts.
The tale itself engages us with down-the-line questions of good and bad, a good deal of it raising the matter of how we would behave in such circumstances but with the framing - the part where the Pardoner and his audience interact - we are taken into social and political questions to do with whether pardoning is legitimate. However, if the Pardoner had told a dull, hectoring tale, there wouldn’t have been much chance that either his audience or us would be moved or troubled. Instead, his tale is fascinating and full of cunning and tricks that go wrong. It’s convincing. There’s a disconnect between the good tale and the bad person telling it. This gives us ironies to think about; gaps, if you like, in which to do some wondering about the imperfections of the people in the story and the imperfections of this social phenomenon of pardoning.
I suspect that at least some of the ingredients for great literature are here. Modern-day pardoners walk amongst us with falsenesses to sell. We need Chaucers to show the ironies of their trade.
At the end of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, the perpetrator of what looks like the worst crime of the day, comes to realise that he was tricked and fooled into thinking the opposite of what was true. The stated reason from the deceiver as to why he did the deceiving is that he was slighted for promotion. However, the way he expresses this brings the racial origins of his superior into the matter. He says, ‘I hate the Moor’, not, ‘I hate my boss’. We have come to know that racialising conflict in this way is not innocent. In this case, it drags the hierarchies of society at large into what would otherwise be a purely professional matter of someone deserving or not deserving promotion.
This is why and how the term ‘tragedy’ referred originally to a social and political form of literature, one which showed us that the roots of a good deal of sorrow and pain can be found in social ambition. Nowadays we might say that an accident is a tragedy and we won’t need to discover or explore any possible social origins for that accident. This leaves us with inchoate feelings around fate or coincidence.
I'm going to suggest that we need ‘tragedy’ in the old sense of the word.
The old system of nurturing writers was for them to winkle out patrons who themselves might be exponents of what you the writer thought was wrong. Today the nurturing is done through a marriage between state patronage and the market. Most writers don’t earn enough to make a living from their writing alone. With one or two exceptions, publishers stay afloat through the selling of film and TV rights. The question here is whether these arrangements nurture the kind of talent that can produce great literature or whether it squanders and discourages it. Do bursaries and grants help? Does the directing of these towards reading and writing groups have a more significant outcome than cherry-picking individuals as beneficiaries? Are there ways in which the most profitable ends of the business can share any of their proceeds by way of seed corn to the next generation of writers? Some kind of targeted or ring-fenced tax?
This links us to the question of audiences and the matter of whether we are too easily seduced by non-literary forms. The problem here is as I’ve stated: there are flows of cash and talent between the highly profitable screen business and the less profitable book trade. Two ironies here: writing is surviving by its relationship with the very thing that may well be strangling it; though the screen business appears to audiences as to be without writing, most of what we see is the result of millions of hours of scripting, and rests in massive part, on the literature of the previous three thousand years.
I thought that Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ were great films. I didn’t read the books. If there are millions like me, does this mean that future McEwans and Ishiguros should sidestep the business of writing books and just work on selling screenplays? In which case we would lose at the very least some of that slow contemplation and reflection, the inside-outside dimensions and the prolonged, exclusive engagement with language itself.
So, to the question of our schooling.
The main obstacles in the way of reading for pleasure have been the narrowing down of the criteria of success of a school to its test and exam scores in very few subjects; the narrowing down of comprehension of literature to questions that prove what are called ‘retrieval’ and ‘inference’ with interpretation being sent out of class; the decline of local and school libraries; and the decline of the independent school bookshop movement. In a world where we grant children and young people autonomy over the purchase and use of consumer goods, it’s ironic that when it comes to the consumption of literature within education, there is still a great deal of compulsion enforced through tests, exams, inspections and league tables - hardly the right environment to foster speculation, reflection and the slow engagement with language.
We need a government to allow what Ofsted’s own report on English studies recommended: that every school should develop its own policy on reading for enjoyment for all. If this happened, this would engender a national conversation between all the parties involved in creating readers, otherwise known as pupils, teachers, parents, carers and researchers. It won’t happen unless the government makes it a policy. But I suspect it won’t happen if government thinks that it should meddle with how the conversation takes place. It needs what we might call legislation without interference.
What do you think?
Listen to the event
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey: Why Books Matter
An introduction to our National Conversation events by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Writers' Centre Norwich Board Member.
When I was about eight, I made weekly visits to a speech therapist. I had a stutter, and together we worked to find ways to overcome it. As part of her treatment, she would sit with me while I read out loud to her – the book was C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
. That final word was problematic. The first time I had to read it out loud she said: say it slowly. If you can get it right, we’ll have peach melba before you leave. I got it right. We had peach melba and ever since then I have been trying to find my way to Narnia.
Books are for pleasure and entertainment. For escape. They are also for information, discovery, guidance, discussion, debate and so much else besides. Books are about expressing ourselves as human beings, connecting with each other, telling our stories and imagining new worlds and new possibilities. As we begin a national conversation on our reading, writing and engagement with books, it seems fitting to provoke a discussion about the reasons we think books (and their authors) are important.
Michael Rosen, beloved children’s author and champion of literacy and reform in education, starts things off at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with the bold claim that books are intrinsic to our survival as human beings, and that, for a nation to thrive, it is essential that literacy and reading are placed at the heart of our society. Later this year, in October, Will Self will speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the future of the book in a digital age and Ali Smith will challenge us to consider the importance of literary translation at the South Bank festival in December.
The National Conversation is an invitation to join some of our country’s most talented thinkers as they explore the ways in which literature can have an impact on our lives, and to engage in finding solutions to the challenges facing writers and readers in our complex world. Beyond the questions we’ll ask is the real hope that this will indeed be a conversation about an art form that is as varied and dynamic as those who produce it. A conversation that includes any and all of us who have ever fallen into the pages of a book and found a place that felt like home.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE is former Deputy Editor of Granta magazine and now works as a freelance editor, critic and broadcaster. Her reviews are aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and she is the presenter of the recent BBC Radio 4 Archive on Four: A History of the N Word. Since joining the Board of WCN she has been active in the organisational changes and expansion of the company.
What is the Point in Books: a National Conversation Event with Michael Rosen
Monday 25th August 2014, 8.30pm, £10 / £8 conc, Edinburgh International Book Festival
Rosen, editor and literary critic, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (Chair) and panellists Denise Mina (Red Road) and Jamie Jauncey (Room 121) will explore the hard-hitting, controversial and vital questions surrounding our national artform. Find Out More.
Join The Discussion
If you use twitter please do join Michael Rosen and our panel online this Monday 25th (follow @WritersCentre and use the hashtag #NatConv), and enter the conversation. Otherwise please do check our website after the event, where the full provocation will be available for download and discussion.
Find out more about the National Conversation here.
Starting a National Conversation
What’s happening to writing, reading, publishing and bookselling in the modern world? Will the rise of online giants result in the end of publishing as we know it, or are we witnessing the rise of more and better books for all? Why do our bankers get paid a fortune when most authors struggle to make a living? Can independent bookshops lead the way as community hubs supporting new writers and readers alike? Do men recommend women writers to other readers and vice versa? Can we still find working class narratives in the middle class world of literary publishing? What will happen to our libraries and will they still stock books in twenty years time?
The ‘National Conversation’, is a major new programme from Writers’ Centre Norwich that both marks and helps us make our journey towards becoming the National Centre for Writing. Working with some of the most exciting, thoughtful and eminent writers and thinkers in the UK and further afield, the National Conversation is an attempt to engage readers, writers and everyone with a love for and interest in literature in the big questions which we’re facing.
Working across at least ten festivals and event programmes in London and across the UK, (including the Southbank Centre, Hay Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival and Cheltenham Festival) the National Conversation will explore hard-hitting questions about the ways in which we produce, engage with and fund our national art form. Based on an initial commissioned provocation by an outstanding writer or thinker, each event is a curated conversation about the issues facing every part of the reading, writing, publishing and bookselling ecology.
With provocative think pieces by writers including Michael Rosen, Will Self, Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie, the National Conversation will be a cross-media project; the debate will begin at live events around the country (we really do want to be national) and will be carried on on-line via Twitter, Facebook and our own website as well as on the websites of media partners. Finally, we hope the conversations will have an afterlife by informing innovative projects we commission with partners in the coming years.
Launching at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in summer 2014 and following the festival season through to the late autumn the following year, the National Conversation aims to be an evolving conversation between readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, literary agents, libraries and, in fact, anyone who cares about reading and writing and the power of stories.
All of the commissioned pieces, event audio and video, dialogues and conversations will be published as a resource on the National Centre for Writing website, so if you can’t join us at one of the events, you can join in the conversation online and tell us what you think the real issues are.
Join us at the first event at Edinburgh International Book Festival:
What is the Point in Books: a National Conversation Event with Michael Rosen
Mon 25th August, 8:30pm, £10/£8 conc, Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Don’t miss poet and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen as he gives a provocation on why books are intrinsic to our survival as human beings. Joined by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Denise Mina and Jamie Jauncey, they will explore the vital questions surrounding our national artform.
Book your ticket | More information
House of a Thousand Doors
William Galinsky, the Artistic Director of Norfolk and Norwich Festival
emailed one day and said ‘take a look at Walk With Me
it’s a piece from a guy called Rob Van Riskwick who I met recently. It’s wonderful. It’s an app that responds to location, light, other people and a lot more besides. The potential for story-telling is really exciting. I’m not sure how well I’m explaining this. Let’s talk.’
William has lots of ideas. It’s his job. They sometimes scare me, his ideas. Mostly they intrigue me, as this one did. I took a look. I saw what he meant: stories that respond to individual ‘participants/readers’ depending on where they are physically, socially, climatically and more - a real life adventure driven and supported by locative technologies and powered by great writing…
I’d recently introduced William to a friend of mine, the writer Naomi Alderman
. She’s that rare sort of writer who can produce critically acclaimed novels (Disobedience, The Liars’ Gospel
) and short stories at the same time as being an innovator in the world of gaming (Zombies Run! Perplex City
) and being a naturally collaborative and inquisitive early adopter of technologies of all sorts.
‘Do you think Naomi would be interested?’ said William.
‘Let’s find out,’ I said.
‘Good idea,’ he said.
Introductions were made. An application to the Without Walls
R&D fund was made. A positive
decision was received – hip hip!
So what are we doing? Well, we’re bringing together composer-technologists Strijbos and Vanrijswijk
to explore how the iPhone app technology they continue to develop can be used as the basis for an outdoor gaming experience that maps a fully responsive, interactive virtual environment onto a range of real-life cities.
The finished app will be available to download in participating cities (Norwich will be one – we can’t reveal the others yet…) and could run simultaneously at multiple festivals. The story will develop based on choices made by the festival audience member in real physical space. For example, users are given a choice to turn left or right or pass through one door or another in a real environment and depending on that choice, the virtual story moves in a different direction.
The game will build on Naomi Alderman’s passion for gaming and story-telling and Strijbos and Vanrijswijk’s digital composition work using an app which manipulates sound in response to location, crowd/place density and other factors on smart-phone devices.
As an audience member/player, you’ll become immersed in a real-time story with music, digital content and social interaction in a live environment. Will the people around you be actors? Some of them might be. Will you know how the story ends? No. It’s partly down to you. Will you experience a place, its buildings, its people and its history in a new way? Oh yes. Yes indeed…
About Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. In 2006 she won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones' 25 Writers for the Future. Her first novel, Disobedience
, was published in ten languages; like her second novel, The Lessons
, it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime
. Penguin published her third novel, The Liars' Gospel
, in August 2012. Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Prospect,
on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the BAFTA-shortlisted alternate reality game Perplex City
. She's written online games for Penguin, the BBC, and other clients. In 2011 she wrote the Doctor Who
tie-in novel Borrowed Time
. In 2012, she co-created the top-selling fitness game and audio adventure Zombies, Run! Naomi broadcasts regularly, has guest-presented Front Row
on BBC Radio 4 and writes regularly for Prospect
and the Guardian
. In 2012 and 2013, Naomi has been mentored by Margaret Atwood as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and in April 2013 she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in their once-a-decade list.
About Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos
Dutch composers Rob van Rijswijk (1971) and Jeroen Strijbos (1970) both graduated with honors from the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, specializing in Electronic & Computer Composition. The hallmark of Strijbos and Van Rijswijk's collective body of work is a combination of electro-acoustic composition and spatial elements, design and innovative music technology. The composers seek out zones where different disciplines meet and intersect.
Their work has been awarded an honorary mention for the PRIX Ton Bruynèl 2010 and First Music prize by The Prins Bernhard Cultural Foundation Netherlands 2012, and is performed and exhibited in among others Amsterdam, London, Glasgow, Berlin, Zürich, Istanbul, Shanghai, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Montreal.
Concerts & installations:
• FuChair 2014 - installation with ensemble of 5 Swiss made rockin' chairs
• 360° | Seascapes 2013 - installation / expanded sound cinema
• SoundSpots GraphicScore 2013 - architectural graphic score of SoundSpots
• Cells 2012 - concert for cello & e-cello, electric guitar & live electronics
• Cross Avenue 2012 - concert for NY string-quartet Ethel & live electronics
• Walk With Me 2011 - composer app for iphone, tool to write topographical compositions
• Vox 2010 - concert with live electronics, 2 sopranos & architectural acoustics
• Dadoc 2010 - an interactive sound installation and design object
• Whispers 2009 - ceramic sound sculpture
• Air Sensible 2008 - concert for duo-accordion and live electronics
• Muss Mann Erleben 2007 - constallation for one SoundSpot
• SoundSpots 2007 - a directional multi-speaker sound installation
• "Composition, Time & Space", oeuvre publication (2013)
• "Whispers", graphic score booklet with historical background (2010)
• "Air Sensible", graphic score booklet with historical background (2008)
• "SoundSpots", graphic score booklet with historical background (2007)