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Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 30 November 2015

A library is many things to many people. It's a place of potential, of discovery. It's a land of dreams: of adventure and magic, of friendly dragons and other planets. It's a land of hope: of finding a new job or a new home, of learning a new skill or making a new friend. A library is many things to many people, so this Christmas WCN decided to celebrate libraries all around the world.

Every day of advent we'll be sharing a photo of a library alongside a quote from a brilliant writer, celebrating the gift that just keeps giving. We'd love you to join in too - send us a picture of your local library, the reason you love it or a quote under the hashtag #libraryadvent and help us to make this season a little more magical.

Even better, we’ll choose our favourite (from the UK – sorry overseas folks!) every week and send the lucky winner a copy of Ali Smith’s latest short story collection, Public library and other stories 

1st of December
National and University Library of Iceland,
Reyjkavik City of Literature

(Image courtesy Indro Candi)

‘And there stood the library, waiting for him like an illuminated spaceship ready to whisk him away to distant planets.’
- Óskar Árni Óskarsson

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Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 05 November 2015

Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year. 

At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'

The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour. 

I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches. 

Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there. 

When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.

On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.

East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive. 

It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”

In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.

Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.

It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.  

I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.

Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”

I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”

Thank you.

East Anglian Book Awards

Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.

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Cutting the Long-list in Two: Choosing the Brave New Reads Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 02 November 2015

Rowan Whiteside, Brave New Reads Communications Coordinator blogs on how the Brave New Reads books are chosen:

How can you possibly choose just six books to be part of Brave New Reads? How do you decide which books are the bravest and brightest around, which titles are going to introduce readers to thrilling new worlds? Well, we do it with spreadsheets, colours, top fives, hundreds of reviews, and with the gracious assistance of the Readers’ Circle, a community of eager readers from across East Anglia.

The Readers’ Circle are all volunteers. They live in villages and cities and small towns across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They come from different backgrounds, and have different reading habits: some snatch the time to read on lunch breaks or bus journeys, some are able to indulge their love for the written word all day everyday, and some squeeze their reading in when the kids are asleep. No matter when, where and how they read, every member of the Readers’ Circle have one thing in common; they share a love for reading and a desire to recommend great books. (Find out more about the Readers’ Circle.)

This year we started our selection process armed with a list of titles (sourced from individual recommendations, prize longlists, review pages, and recommended by publishers) including poetry, non-fiction, short stories, works in translation, and YA. Melanie, the Brave New Reads Programme Coordinator, got in touch with the publishers of the recommended titles and asked very nicely  if WCN could have copies of the suggested books. As the parcels started arriving everyone in the office gathered round, eager to get to the books inside.

The longlisted books, all 121 of them, were distributed to our Readers’ Circle and they started to read, and read, and read.

And this is where the choosing began. Each book that is read must be reviewed and marked red, amber or green. Colouring the review red meant that the reader disliked the book and wouldn’t recommend it, amber that the reader was unsure, and green meant that the reader loved the book. It’s only been two months and we’ve already had more than 500 reviews, with Melanie valiantly organising the feedback onto multiple spreadsheets.

In theory, it should then be a simple task to cut down the longlist according to the number of green, amber and red reviews. In reality, some books create violent reactions (marmite books, as I like to call them) with some people loathing them and others adoring them, skewing the numbers. Naturally some books are also reviewed less than others. Therefore, each colour is assigned a value so an average rating can be calculated. BUT, this still isn’t enough to have a truly representative view of the titles, so Melanie asks for all of our Readers’ Circle members to send a Top 5 of their favourite reads so far.

The Readers’ Circle meet regularly to discuss their opinions on the books, and last week we met in WCN’s new home of Dragon Hall to discuss cutting down the long list to a medium list  of around 60-80 titles. Using all the reviews, the Top 5’s and the colour ratings, the Readers’ Circle members debated which books should make it through and took the opportunity to champion their favourite books.

The next day, having well and truly crossed some titles off the list, and clutching handfuls of notes and comments, we began to cut down the list in a painstaking fashion. As a result, we ended up with 74 titles on the medium list, all of which have so far excited, challenged and entertained. 

One of the sad realities of having to cut down the Brave New Reads list is that some much-loved books don’t make it through to the next stage of shortlisting. As such, we’ve decided to feature three of the very-almost-made-it titles at the bottom of this blog, along with a review which might tempt you to check out the book (perhaps from your local library!).

As always, happy reading!

Making Nice by Matt Sumell

I thought this collection of linked short stories was excellent although perhaps mislabelled as a novel. It put me in mind of Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her both in tone and subject matter, although written from a different cultural perspective. Sumell's central character Alby is both likeable and immensely dislikable in a similar way to Diaz's Yunior. He is sex obsessed, prone to violent outbursts, a bit of a loser and immensely selfish. However he also shows softness, deep love for his family, and his grief at losing his mother and (almost) his dog are realistic and powerful. His portrayal of a dysfunctional and struggling family was accurate, funny and disturbing.
- Reviewed by Julia Webb of the Readers' Circle

The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro (translated by David McDuff)

This book tickled my sense of humour and at times made me laugh out loud (something I rarely do when I read). It has the surrealness of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared with delightfully absurd images being created by Kyro. But it is also thought-provoking and very wise, exploring capitalism, migrancy, environmentalism, and how people are treated by various systems in society. Hugely compassionate, a joy to read.

Coastlines by Patrick Barkham

This book is a tour through the 742 miles of the British Coast owned by the National Trust. As in his previous two books The Butterfly Isles, and Badgerlands, Barkham proves an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining guide. Barkham possesses a journalist's gift of presenting a high density of historical and cultural detail with a deftness and lightness of touch that ensures the reader is never overwhelmed or bored.

I read the bulk of this book while staying in a caravan on the Norfolk coast and I would say its  effect is definitely enhanced by being read by the sea it so powerfully describes. Coastlines is no less enjoyable and informative for being infused with a certain melancholy. The sea seems to bring out in us a sense of awe and an acknowledgement of our own insignificance. The sea's abundance is constantly threatened by human predation as we seek to slake our appetite for its fruits whatever the consequences. The sea also exercises a pull on the desperate who are apparently taking their own lives at places like Beachy Head in ever greater numbers. Yet for all the sadness this is still an uplifting read.
-Reviewed by Ken Mason of the Readers' Circle

Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire or Suffolk libraries.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

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A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation

Posted By: Anonymous, 19 October 2015

An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.

In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.

Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.

This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.

The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.

And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?

Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?

Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.

The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often uncomfortable; often unexpected.  Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.

I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.

On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.

But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?

I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.

The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.  

That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.

But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.

That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.

Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.

Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.

So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.     

1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.

2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.

3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.

4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.

5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.

6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.

7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.

8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.

9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.

10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.

11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.

12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.

Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.

This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.

Listen to the provocation and debate here

Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 16 October 2015


In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?

I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road.  That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal.  There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably.  All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”

Having said that, I think all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function.  And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality.  They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.

Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real.  Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe.  It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share.  It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.

It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.

That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve.  The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy).  We’re all agreed now that meaning, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.

But still.  Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world.  If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three.  Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it.  And it’s the same with stories.  

Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence.  It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence.  It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable.  You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.

What I’m saying is more about function.  You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for.  You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours.  You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.

When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world.  Be in there as yourself, not as someone else.  And be honest.  It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.

Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer.  He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production.  He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz.  His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.

Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.

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If You Liked Brave New Reads, You’ll Love....

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 29 September 2015


Did you devour the Brave New Reads titles? We’ve picked out some books which we think you’ll also enjoy. Scroll down to see them all, or click the relevant title.

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham
Black Country by Liz Berry
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

We'd love to hear what you thought of Brave New Reads 2015. Please take the time to fill in this brief survey and you could win book tokens!

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh

A brutal, compelling and savagely funny collection of interlinked short stories. Semi-autobiographical, Any Other Mouth is a candid and deeply personal exploration of grief, growing-up, family dynamics and explicit sexual experience. Mackintosh deftly reveals the raw reality of bereavement, balancing supreme honesty with a wrenching tenderness.

Find out more about Any Other Mouth.

If you liked Any Other Mouth, we think you might enjoy:

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.

Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham
A hilarious, poignant, and extremely frank collection of personal essays by Lena Dunham, the acclaimed creator, producer, and star of HBO’s ‘Girls’.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Part memoir, part rant, How to be a Woman offers a new way to look at feminism from Caitlin Moran, one of our funniest writers.

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
A remarkable collection of stories which explores seemingly ordinary people living extraordinary lives and how a single moment can change everything.

Eat My Heart Out
by Zoe Pilger
Fiercely clever and unapologetically wild, Eat My Heart Out is the satire for our narcissistic, hedonistic, post-post-feminist era.

Brass by Helen Walsh
Shockingly candid and brutally poetic, Walsh creates a portrait of a city and a generation that offers a female perspective on the harsh truth of growing up in  Britain.

Music for Torching by AM Homes
Homes lays bare the foundations of marriage and family life and creates characters outrageously flawed, deeply human and entirely believable.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
Twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humour and curiosity, stories about what it means to live and love, together and alone.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
In language dazzling, energetic and pure, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine on her way to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.


Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham

Dig deep and discover the subterranean world of the humble badger in this compelling account of the animal’s history. In Badgerlands Barkham examines one of our most controversial creatures. Intriguing and instructive, Badgerlands debunks myths and proves that when it comes to badgers it’s never just black and white.

Find out more about Badgerlands.

If you enjoyed Badgerlands we think you might like:


H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
H is for Hawk is an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming.

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson
A Sting in the Tale tells the story of Goulson’s passionate drive to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to its native land and contains groundbreaking research into these curious creatures.

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world of places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
Roger Deakin's unmatched exploration of our relationship with trees is autobiography, history, traveller's tale as well as incisive work in natural history.

The Dig by Cynan Jones
Deep in rural Wales, a farmer is struggling through lambing season when he becomes aware that his land is being stalked by a badger-baiter who brings with him the stark threat of violence.

Claxton by Mark Cocker
Passionate, astonishing and inspiring, this book is a celebration of the wonder that lies in our everyday experience.

Four Fields by Tim Dee
Tim Dee tells the story of four fields spread around the world: their grasses, their hedges, their birds, their skies, and their natural and human histories.


Black Country by Liz Berry

A soaring collection of poetry, which weaves birds of all kinds through the text and swoops from childhood innocence to sensual pleasures. Black Country melds traditional West Midlands dialect with Berry’s fresh and contemporary voice, creating a distinctive linguistic energy. Using precise language and an acute awareness of heritage, Berry creates an enchanting atmosphere of folklore and magic.

Find out more about Black Country.

If you enjoyed Black Country we think you might like:

Division Street
by Helen Mort

From the clash between striking miners and police to the delicate conflicts in personal relationships, Mort’s stunning debut is marked by distance and division.

Chick by Hannah Lowe
With London as their backdrop, Hannah Lowe's deeply personal narrative poems are often filmic in effect and brimming with sensory detail in their evocations of childhood and coming-of-age, love and loss of love, grief and regret.

Fire Songs by David Harsent
David Harsent's new collection of poems shares a dark territory and a sometimes haunting, sometimes steely, lyrical tone.

Moontide by Niall Campbell
Moontide is filled with images of the island's seascapes, its myths, its wildlife, and the long dark of its winters. Quietly reflective and deftly musical, these thoughtful poems explore ideas of companionship and withdrawal, love and the stillness of solitude.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller
Acclaimed Jamaican poet Miller dramatizes what happens when one system of knowledge, one method of understanding place and territory, comes up against another, as the cartographer, a scientific rationalist, attempts to map his way to the eternal city of Zion.

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Mesmerising and haunting, this otherworldly fairytale describes a life shaped by landscape. Yerzhan is seemingly an ordinary young boy, but as you travel across the Kazakhstan steppes together he’ll lead you through his blighted youth; from the nuclear wasteland of his home to his lost love. Emotionally true, The Dead Lake will echo long after you’ve finished reading.

Find out more about The Dead Lake.

If you liked The Dead Lake, you might enjoy:


Soul by Andrey Platonov, Translated by Elizabeth Chandler, Olga Meerson and Robert Chandler

'For the mind, everthing is in the future' Platonov once wrote; 'for the heart, everything is in the past'. The protagonist of Soul is a young man torn between these opposing desires, sent as a kind of missionary to bring the values of modern Russia to his childhood home town in Central Asia.

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
All That is Solid Melts into Air is an exceptionally moving novel of interwoven lives, set amidst one of the most iconic disasters in living memory, Chernobyl.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, Translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer's wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Jones, Translated by Clarissa Botsford

Hana is forced to adopt male persona Mark to avoid an arranged marriage. After many years as a man, Mark is offered the chance to move to the US – but what does he know about being an American woman?

The Wall by William Sutcliffe
Joshua is a troubled boy who lives in a divided city, where a wall and soldiers separate two communities. One day Joshua discovers a tunnel, which leads under the wall to the forbidden territory of the other side.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Translated by Rosalind Harvey
A masterful and darkly comic first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish. Tochtli, son of a drug baron, has everything apart from his heart’s desire: a pygmy hippotamus from Liberia.

The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov, Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Koyla moves into a new flat and discovers an annotated manuscript hidden inside a copy of War and Peace. He decides to track down the author, and begins a very bizarre

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

Fallen Land
charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel. 

Find out more about Fallen Land.

If you liked Fallen Land we think you might enjoy:

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
The Bellefleurs own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires; a mass murderer; a spiritual seeker; a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch; a baby, Germaine - the heroine of the novel - and her parents, Leah and Gideon.

The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Immensely imaginative. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget. House of Leaves is thrilling, terrifying and unlike anything you have ever read before.

Wreaking by James Scudamore
Three solitary characters remember their shared past in a sprawling, derelict psychiatric hospital on the English coast. Wreaking is an intricate, labyrinthine novel about the opiate power of place, the fragility of sanity and the fickle nature of memory.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it tells a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery
Sam Leroux returns to South Africa to write the biography of Clare Wald, world-renowned author. But as the project continues and her life story develops, the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred, and Sam’s own ghosts emerge. 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Over six decades, the consequences of a moment's impulse unfold, drawing an heroine Holly Sykes woman into a world far beyond her imagining. A kaleidoscopic story of an unusual woman's life, a metaphysical thriller and a profound meditation on mortality and survival.

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In a sleepy little New England village stands a dark, weather-beaten, many-gabled house. This brooding mansion is haunted by a centuries-old curse that casts the shadow of ancestral sin upon the last four members of the distinctive Pyncheon family.

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

A potent tale of survival and determination, Prayers for the Stolen tells the story of Ladydi: a fierce young girl who masquerades as a boy to escape the grasping threat of drug cartels. Ladydi is taught defiance by her wisecracking mother, yet the mountains of Mexico are filled with dangers; from toxic herbicides to ravaging gunmen. Immerse yourself in her enthralling life, and an unforgettable adventure.

Find out more about Prayers for the Stolen.

If you liked Prayers for the Stolen, we think you might enjoy:

The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys by Jenny Nordberg
An Afghan woman's life expectancy is just 44 years, and her life cycle often begins and ends in disappointment. For some, disguising themselves as boys is the only way to get ahead. Exploring the historical and religious roots of this tradition, The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating and moving narrative that speaks to the roots of gender.

The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle
Two very different men find their lives entwined when wealthy American Delaney Mossbacher knocks down a Mexican pedestrian. The two men are fated to collide, and as Delaney attempts to clear the land of the illegal immigrants a boiling pot of racism and prejudice threatens to spill over.

2666 by Robert Bolano
On the Mexico-US border there is an urban sprawl that draws lost souls to it like a vortex. Convicts and academics find themselves here, as does a sportswriter, a student with her widowed father, and a reclusive 'missing' author. But there is a darker side to the town: girls and women are disappearing at an alarming rate...

Heliopolis by James Scudamore
As a child Ludo is plucked out of the shantytown and transported to a world of cosseted luxury; at twenty-seven, he works high above the above the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo. But this is not a simple rags-to-riches story: Ludo's destiny moves him around like a chess piece, showing him both extremities of opulent excess and abject poverty, taking him to the brink of madness and brutality.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. As she comes of age and begins to understand her own feelings and identity, she dares to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman.

Any of these titles take your fancy? Check out the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire library catalogues and reserve the books online, or pop to your local bookshop.


Brave New Reads is brought to you by Writers’ Centre Norwich and the library services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and was created in Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.

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Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 26 August 2015

Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land, one of our Brave New Reads titles, written by Patrick Flanery. Get a feel of the book below:

Fallen Land is Patrick Flanery’s second novel and one that is stuffed full of themes which range from the nature of madness and cruelty, the legacy of family abuse and the intrusion of business into every sector of our life.

Most overtly, Patrick Flanery explores and dissects the American dream through his cast of diverse characters, and finds the dream wanting. There is the widow Louise Washington, a teacher who is unable to keep her farm profitable after her husband’s death. There is Paul Krovik, the callous property developer who buys Louise's land, driven by dreams of a gleaming subdivision which unravels into a nightmare of lawsuits and foreclosure. Sent mad by his failure Paul loses his family and holes himself up in an underground bunker attached to his former home. Into this house moves Nathaniel Noailles, a ‘director of rehabilitation’ at EKK, a corporation which seeks to monetize the prison population as effective slave labour. As the rain begins to hit this unnamed Midwestern land and a flood begins to rise, Patrick Flanery creates a tense atmosphere where the fates of these three characters collide and the book builds to a tragic conclusion.

It is partly a dystopian vision of corporate greed and partly a psychological thriller of two men’s descent into madness. It has a modern setting yet it seethes with a gothic menace. Patrick Flanery’s skill is building a world where the very land on which the characters place their feet seems to simmer with threat as sinkholes appear to swallow objects whole. Flanery's prose is dark and intense and wholly effective in keeping the reader turning the pages. It is an unsettling read, disturbing but fascinating.

Patrick Flanery will be reading from Fallen Land at Bury St Edmunds Library on the 22nd September, 7pm. Tickets are only £2 and can be purchased online, or directly from the library.

Find out more about Fallen Land.

Enjoy extra Fallen Land content, including podcasts and films.

Listen to a recording of our Brave New Reads event with Patrick Flanery below.

Follow Patrick Flanery on Twitter

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.

Fallen Land is available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Libraries.

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National Conversation: The Science of Reading by Charles Fernyhough

Posted By: Anonymous, 25 August 2015

A provocation by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, first presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 31st, 2015

Open a book and a chorus of voices starts back at you. I remember being asked as a bookwormish child whether I could hear a novel’s characters speaking in my head. ‘I hear them,’ I enthused (my own eleven-year-old son recently said the same). With a sheaf of printed pages in front of her, a reader settles in for an extraordinary internal performance. It’s an everyday happening that illustrates a deep mystery of consciousness: how someone sitting alone in a room, ostensibly doing nothing but silently turning the pages, can be hearing the voice of an unreliable narrator, listening into conversations that never happened, conversing with the dead.

I want to do more than propose that fiction transports you into a different reality: it can certainly do that. Rather, I’m interested in how reading for pleasure can have specific effects of something like an auditory quality. It leaves its sounds resonating in our minds and brains. I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is an engagement with simulated voices with a certain phenomenology (the ‘What is it like?’ qualities of experience). If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of its appeal.

Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of ‘inner speech’: the internal conversation that occupies many of our waking moments. Reading colonises that inner dialogue in varied ways. If you are asked silently to read words with long vowels (as in cape) you will do so more slowly than if the vowels are short (as in hat). If you are told about a certain fictional character who speaks fast, you will read their speeches more quickly than those of a character with a more leisurely speaking pace. Such findings show that you as a silent reader are nevertheless sounding out the words: you are not processing the text purely at some abstract level of meaning, but rather are articulating those voices for yourself in your head.

In this context, voice can mean a whole lot of different things. We speak of writers ‘finding’ their voice, or of succeeding (or otherwise) in channeling the right voice for a particular piece. One of the most influential figures in recent literary studies, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that novels work when distinct voices, manifested in language, come into creative dialogue with each other. When our team of researchers asked Guardian readers last year what the experience of reading was like for them, we wanted to be very specific about its phenomenology. When listening in to fictional characters, do readers actually hear something like a voice? It seems that many of them do. One in seven of our readers said that the voices they heard were as vivid as an actual person speaking. For some respondents, not hearing the voices of the protagonists was a sign that they were never really going to get into the book.

If hearing these fictional voices is a big part of the reading experience, you would expect that writers would have cottoned on. Any creative writing student will tell you that, if you want to make your characters’ voices resonate, you should use direct rather than reported speech (compare Jane said ‘I love you’ to Jane said that she loved him). Glasgow neuroscientists recently demonstrated a neural basis for the observation that direct speech is experienced more vividly than its reported form. But writers give us their characters’ silent, unheard voices as well as their externally uttered ones. They play with the fact that a character can think (in inner speech) something different to what she is saying out loud, and they build inner worlds through deft portrayals of the stream of verbal consciousness. They fill our heads with voices.

It stands to reason, then, that writers must hear those voices too. As the author of two novels, I am familiar with the experience of hearing my characters speak. They don’t talk directly to me, but I overhear them. I know their accents and tones of expression, their choice of words and how their voices betray certain emotions. I don’t confuse them with real people, but I do need to be able to hear them. It’s a common view about the creative process that writers need to hear their characters speak before they can really bring them alive.

Eager to put that idea to the test, our researchers teamed up last year with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to ask professional writers about the voices they heard. Seventy percent of the writers who completed our questionnaire said that they heard their characters’ voices; a quarter said it was as clear as if the protagonist were in the room with them. Two-fifths said they could enter into a dialogue with their characters. In detailed follow-up interviews, our researcher Jennifer Hodgson heard writers describing the experience as something like eavesdropping or taking dictation. One writer described it as a process of ‘tuning in’: ‘It is intimate, like being let in on their thoughts.’

We conducted these studies as part of Hearing the Voice, an ongoing interdisciplinary study of the experience of hearing voices, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Some of the writers we have been studying literally heard voices that no one else could hear. Dickens was pestered by his characters in all sorts of vivid ways. Virginia Woolf was troubled by auditory hallucinations related to sexual abuse, bullying and bereavement (she put some of her experiences into the character of her war veteran voice-hearer, Septimus Smith, in Mrs Dalloway). Thinking about the range and variety of heard voices points to measures for helping people who are distressed by their experiences, and some of these insights are being integrated into our cognitive behaviour therapy work with voice-hearers. Certain fictional characters can act as though they are beyond the author’s conscious control; understanding the psychological processes involved holds out the possibility of relief for those troubled by uncontrollable voices.

Writers hijack the voices of our ordinary inner speech in all of these ways. Part of the contract we make as readers is to simulate, in our own minds, the vocal hubbub of other consciousnesses. Writers stimulate our regular inner dialogue too; they make us talk back. I am actually a highly distractable reader. If I’m reading fiction that delights, I am constantly fighting the impulse to put the book down and do my own writing. Even beloved novels and stories have the paradoxical effect of making me disconnect from the text for moments or minutes. I don't think that makes me less of a reader. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of fiction is its capacity to make us wander off somewhere else.

To understand why that can be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to be easier on ourselves about this distractibility. A mind that is temporarily gazing away from a book is anything but disengaged. In our Hubbub project at Wellcome Collection in London, a diverse group of academics, artists and clinicians are taking an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to rest and its opposites, and finding that a mind that is ostensibly doing nothing is a lively and varied place to be. Our psychologists and neuroscientists are tying richly detailed descriptions of consciousness to the complex patterns of activation shown by a brain that is busy with nothing in particular. This focus on the so-called ‘resting state’ is one of the growth areas in cognitive neuroscience, and I suspect that reading—or momentarily failing to read—offers many of us a direct line into it. I mean that gorgeous moment of putting a book down, not from boredom or external distraction, but because one’s mind is full of new, unexpected wonders. Woolf herself, like plenty of other writers, enthused about the process of what she termed ‘woolgathering’, or what I would like to call creative mind-wandering. Watch me in my armchair: I may end up reading the same paragraph several times over, but in the process I am having delicious thoughts of my own.

Putting science to work on an experience as intimate, personal and deeply human as reading is a risky business. In a world of library closures and device addiction, it is natural to try to harness scientific evidence to prove a greater good. But we should tread carefully. I’ve suggested that some of the pleasures of reading fiction are its stimulation of the varied voices of our inner speech and its capacity to trigger creative mind-wandering. I’m not here to tell you that reading changes your brain (whatever that laughable statement might mean), or that books make you a better person, in the narrow definition of some inevitably limited research methodology. I am fascinated by how we sometimes seem to think that neuroscientific truth is somehow 'more' true than other kinds of knowledge, such that even literary people are disproportionately swayed by it. We don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you. Rather, let’s delight in the varieties of that exquisite internal performance: ‘the beautiful stillness,’ as Paul Auster described it, ‘that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.’

This provocation is part of the National Conversation series of events featuring thought-provoking original ideas from writers. Read more, and follow the discussion here.

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Readers' Circle Member Anna Reviews Black Country

Posted By: Nina Evangeli, 18 August 2015

Anna Reckin, Readers' Circle Member, gives a tempting introduction to Liz Berry's debut collection Black Country, a 2015 Brave New Reads pick.

Black Country was my number one selection for the Brave New Reads poetry choice, so I’m thrilled that it made it into the final six books! It’s sparkling with wit, energy and linguistic virtuosity, as well as being wonderfully unafraid of myth and magic.

I really appreciate the range of poetry included in the collection, especially the more magical pieces, which read like a poetic re-imagining of Angela Carter. Here are poems that are themselves spells and invocations; including the exhilarating opening piece, ‘Bird’. Others, like ‘Christmas Eve’ and ‘Wulfrun Hotel’ are more straightforward lyrics of landscapes and cityscapes.

The sparkiness of Berry’s writing isn’t superficial glitter; the fairytale elements are grounded in the themes woven throughout the collection: home and flight, love and loss.

Black Country
is available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Libraries.

Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.

About Anna Reckin

Anna lives in Norwich, where she works part-time as a creative-writing teacher and freelance editor. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and a PhD in the Poetics Programme at SUNY Buffalo. Her poems have appeared in magazines in the UK and the US, including Shearsman, How2, Poetry Wales and Chain. Her first book, Broder (Traffic Street Press, 2000), won a Minnesota Book Award; a pamphlet, Spill (Chibcha Press) appeared in 2004. Her first book-length collection, Three Reds (Shearsman, 2011) draws on materials from Portugal, Australia, China and East Anglia. She is currently working on her second, supported by a grant from Arts Council England.

Visit Anna's website.

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Giggles and Gasps with Anneliese Mackintosh

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 11 August 2015

Bookseller Louisa Theobald reports on our Brave New Reads finale with Anneliese Mackintosh, author of Any Other Mouth.

I absolutely loved reading Any Other Mouth. It is exactly the sort of book that sums up Brave New Reads. It is provocative, experimental in its content and, best of all, written by a writer at the start of fantastic career. Anneliese Mackintosh's debut is a collection of linked short stories that blurs fiction and memoir by drawing on her own experiences of academia, sex, her father's death and living with Borderline Personality Disorder. Any Other Mouth felt so bold and uncompromising that I couldn't wait to attend the Brave New Reads finale and hear Anneliese speak. And clearly I was not alone, as the the room at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library was abuzz with anticipation.

The Brave New Reads Programme Co-Ordinator Melanie Kidd began with an introduction that outlined Anneliese's pedigree, (many of the individual stories have been shortlisted or won a whole host of short fiction prizes whilst the collection itself won the 2014 Green Carnation prize), before discussing the strength of feeling that Any Other Mouth has generated: thousands of library loans, scores of heated discussions and impassioned feedback!

Next Anneliese read the story 'Doctors' from Any Other Mouth, and her previous experience on the live literature scene was immediately apparent. She had a lively and theatrical reading style, with spirited gestures and an excellent comic timing which was invigorating to watch. Wry jokes peppered a story that took a darker turn as Anneliese detailed her father's passing and her subsequent grief. I was on the edge of my seat as her tone softened and drew the audience in.

After the reading there was a discussion with questions from Melanie and Readers' Circle members Isabelle and Frances: all three were deeply impressed and affected by the book. Anneliese described the shift in her writing process following her father's death, how she quit her job and spent two months writing rants about things she was angry about, calling them explosions of feelings and screams on the page. She added that she still felt so emotionally close to the material that some stories she is unable to read publicly for fear of tears. Another recurring point was the liberating feeling of writing for oneself as therapy, in contrast to the process involved in taking that writing and shaping it for public consumption: she called it the initial splurge. Anneliese was also very frank about the way her writing had tested her relationship with her family.

It was fantastic event which left me feeling very lucky to hear such an honest discussion of the role of creating art in order to navigate one's own emotional landscape. It was also great to share that experience with a group of engaged, intelligent and curious readers. A brave and bold event indeed!

Listen to Anneliese read her short story 'Doctors':

Listen to a podcast of the whole event:

See photos from the event.

Find out more about Any Other Mouth.

Read Sam's review of Any Other Mouth.

Enjoy extra Any Other Mouth content, including videos and interviews.

Follow Anneliese on Twitter @AnnelieseMack

Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.

Any Other Mouth is available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Libraries.



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Readers' Circle Member Frances Reviews The Dead Lake

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 28 July 2015

The Dead Lake is one of our Brave New Reads titles, written by Hamid Ismailov and translated by Andrew Bromfield. Get a taster of the book with Frances' review:

I'm going to write about my experiences of being part of last year's Readers Circle, and specifically one of my favourite books The Dead Lake.

Before I start there are three things you should know about me:

1. I love reading. I've always read. At one point I wanted to write, but as my first book would need to win the Man Booker prize I wasn't sure I could handle the disappointment.
2. I'd like to be a literary pundit.
3. I've always wanted to be a judge of the Man Booker prize.

So, what's not to like about being a reader for Brave New Reads?  I get to read very many interesting, entertaining, great books. I get to judge and rank them and discuss them. My opinions count as much as the next persons. And at the end, if I'm lucky, the books about which I have been passionate and fought for get to be chosen for the summer event. And, wow, have I been lucky this year! Of the 5 selected books 2 were in my top 5. Oh, and until I joined this reading group I had never read a book of poetry. Now I have, and I will again. I have lost my fear.

Now to The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov. This book from Peirene Press forms part of their Coming-Of-Age series. As such it deals with a young boy's maturation. He lives with his family and one set of neighbours on the desolate Russian Steppes during the period when Russia was competing with America to become the premier nuclear weapons force in the world. Russian nuclear explosions rendered an enormous area of the steppes a Dead Zone. The story that this boy, now a man, tells to a stranger on a train is moving, shocking, and heart-breaking. The more I think about it as I write this the more I think it is truly wonderful.

Hamid Ismailov had to flee to the UK from Uzbekistan in 1994 because of his "unacceptable democratic tendencies". His work is still banned there. I thought the translation was excellent. It was poetic. For me, this book illustrates the fantastic work that publishers like Peirene do in making accessible works in other languages.  

Find out more about The Dead Lake.

Enjoy extra content from the The Dead Lake including interviews and photos

Follow Hamid on Twitter @Ismailov_writer.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.

The Dead Lake is available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Libraries.

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Brave New Reads: #ReadingSpot Competition

Posted By: Nina Evangeli, 15 July 2015

To coincide with our Brave New Reads summer programme, we've been running an exciting competition on our Twitter and Instagram pages. WCN Communications Intern Miranda tells us more, and explains how finding a new #ReadingSpot can be just as exhilarating as finding a new read.

Sometimes allowing ourselves time to sit down and relax with a book is a hard thing to do. We often say that we don’t have enough hours in a day, that time reading is time that could be spent doing something more productive, like finally replying to those emails, clearing out the cupboard under the stairs or giving the dog his long-overdue bath. Placing our undivided attention on a new novel, memoir, or collection of poetry seems just too indulgent. As Arthur Schopenhauer said: ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them’. Consequently, we often end up opening our books whenever and wherever we get a spare moment, and can find a relaxing reading spot in the most unlikely of places.

In the summer I usually find myself waking up earlier than usual, and recently I’ve started to dedicate the first half hour of my day to reading. I sit down in a comfy chair and squeeze in a chapter or two while I have breakfast (and an all-important bucket of coffee) and, for a little while, my mind is allowed to drift off somewhere else. My book stays with me throughout the day, often in a heap at the bottom of my bag, getting dog-eared and damp as I carry it around and wait for another moment of quiet. Ideally, I would spend an entire morning sat back in that comfy chair, turning page after page of whatever I’m reading that week without having to re-renter the real world, but I can’t deny that I have found some imaginative and varied ad-hoc reading spots over the years.

I’ve read Jack Kerouac on a transatlantic flight to New York, Jane Austen in a Hertfordshire park, Ian McEwan in the Student Union at UEA; I’ve taken books to beaches, bars, banks and birthday parties, and even carried a tattered copy of Harry Potter in my backpack whilst climbing a volcano in Costa Rica. Reading spots can be as diverse as the books being read. Sometimes, I’ll want nothing more than to curl up in an armchair reading Gatsby for the tenth time. Other times, I’ll be on a train heading somewhere new and unexplored, courageously reading a new book by an author I’ve never encountered before.

To coincide with our Brave New Reads summer programme, here at WCN we’ve been running a competition on our Twitter and Instagram pages to see where our followers are devouring their books this July. From rugged countryside in Yorkshire to pebbles on Brighton beach, from a cosy bedroom chair to a seat on the number 28 bus, we’ve seen some great reading spots all over the UK, and have become quite envious in the process!

Every Wednesday we are sharing our favourite two pictures from the week on our social media accounts, and sending the lucky winner and runner-up a Brave New Reads book or tote bag. 

Are you reading something new and brave in your usual, comfy spot? Or an old favourite in an exciting new place? Wherever and whatever you’re reading, we’d love to see it!

To enter our competition, simply tweet @WritersCentre with a picture of your #readingspot, using the hashtag #BraveNewReads. You can also follow our Instagram account @WritersCentre, and tag us in your #readingspot on there. 

Here are some of our favourites so far:

The first week's winner was @HattieLC on Twitter, with this enviable view of Calder Valley, Yorkshire.She described it as a 'perfect reading escape' and we have to agree - it looks idyllic! 


@woollen_bullet was our second winner. She tagged us in this picturesque snapshot of the Norfolk Broads over on Instagram - her prize was a copy of Badgerlands, a Brave New Reads title by Norfolk author Patrick Barkham.


Our first runner-up was @gettingtonomi on Twitter. It seems there was a strong 'tea' theme that first week!




We had two runners-up as a special treat for week two. First, tagged us in this breathtaking bath picture on Instagram. There really is nothing better than a good book and a long soak!




Our other runner-up for the second week was @MrStuAnderson, who tweeted us this picture of him and William Faulkner sharing a bus journey. All runners-up win a Brave New Reads tote bag, which will no doubt prove useful for carrying their various books around!


All our Brave New Reads titles are available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Libraries.

Anneliese Mackintosh, author of Brave New Reads title Any Other Mouth will be joining us at the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library on the 5th of August, 6pm. Join us to enjoy a brilliant, funny reading and to find out more about Brave New Reads.

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Bookseller Isabelle Shares Her Thoughts on Brave New Reads

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 13 July 2015

Isabelle King, bookseller at Waterstones Castle Street blogs on Brave New Reads and Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.

I first discovered Brave New Reads, previously known as Summer Reads, last year when I was working voluntarily for Future Radio, producing pieces about literary events in Norwich. What particularly caught my eye about this project was the variety of books and events on the programme. Everything from dark, experimental poetry, to vivacious contemporary fiction and surrealist crime; this would surely make a dynamic radio piece.

With this in mind, I attended various Summer Reads books clubs and events for the purpose of the piece; a small pocket recorder in hand and donning some overtly large headphones, which might have made me look like an eighties DJ, but pride aside, they got the job done.

What really came across at every event I attended was WCN’s passion for the books on the list, evident through their effort to capture the experience of the book. The launch event, for example, with Hiromi Kawakami, whose book Strange Weather in Tokyo was selected for this list, featured a buffet of sake and sushi to help bring the book to life, as it has countless sumptuously detailed food references.

I should mention this book was a particular favourite of mine, not only as a beautifully crafted exploration of an modern relationship, but also because I happen to like food!

Needless to say, in attending these events, it didn’t take long before I was far more than a representative for Future Radio, I was an enthusiastic audience member and avid reader of the books on the list, who just so happened to be wearing enormous headphones.

One year on, I work as a Bookseller in Waterstones. The Castle Street shop has a window space and book stand dedicated to WCN’s current list. Having personally explored Summer Reads last year, it’s been interesting to delve into them this year in a customer focused role, keeping a public view in mind.

What’s really struck me about working in Waterstones is how much customers really do want to try something different; something they wouldn’t normally pick up, and this is where ‘Brave New Reads’ comes in handy as a Bookseller. For one thing, the title offers an instant sense of adventure.

A huge factor in chatting to customers about the books involves talking about WCN’s process of The Reader’s Circle. This is an interestingly democratic process, in which a group of roughly fifty people read one hundred and fifty books then slowly, through a voting process, narrow them down to just six books!

People tend to find the idea of The Reader’s Circle very appealing; they like that the books have been chosen by people rather than institutions. There’s a sense of freedom and risk-taking involved in this, which makes the list accessible and openly ditches that stuffy concept of ‘this is what clever people read’ which tends to put people off book suggestions.

A particular favourite of mine is Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for The Stolen. The story offers a brutal and unsparing insight into the life of a young girl growing up in a remote part of Mexico, run by the drug cartel, where being a woman is a dangerous and devastating experience. In spite of a dark backdrop, the story is interwoven with warmth and humour when it comes to exploring the ‘tell it like it is’ way Ladydi views the world under the influence of her feisty, no-nonsense mother.

The book packed a punch a page and I couldn’t put it down. For more info on this year’s list, pop into Waterstones or visit!

Find out more about Prayers for the Stolen

Take your reading further with extra Prayers for the Stolen resources, including videos, interviews and podcasts.

Find out more about Brave New Reads

Anneliese Mackintosh, author of Brave New Reads title Any Other Mouth will be joining us at the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library on the 5th of August, 6pm. Join us to enjoy a brilliant, funny reading and to find out more about Brave New Reads.

All the Brave New Reads titles are available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Libraries, and available to purchase from Waterstones and all good bookshops.

is a Bookseller at Waterstones as well as an avid reader, writer and tea drinker.
She won and was short-listed for two creative competitions on IdeasTap which encouraged her to pull up her writing socks and crack on with 'that novel.' She is currently working on a story project with support from Norfolk Museums' Collections Centre, and is the founder of literary events Books Talk Back, with support from The British Library. Find out more about Books Talk Back.

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National Conversation: Lost Stories, Unheard Voices - Diversity in Literature

Posted By: Anonymous, 10 July 2015

By Kerry Hudson.

On Thursday 9th July, Kerry Hudson presented a rousing provocation to a full house at our National Conversation debate on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute. Here is the provocation in full.

As a working class, queer, female writer I was welcomed with open arms into the publishing world. My debut novel was received with enthusiasm, nominated for prizes and I was invited to teach at respected institutions. The industry has been nothing but kind and supportive of my work and though I earn less than I did when I worked in a call centre, I’m rich in getting to do what I love for a living and I’m very grateful for that.

So for a while I forgot to look around and check the level of the playing field for others like me. Now I’ve viewed the skew of that field – which turns out to be more of a mountainous plane – I realise I am one of the lucky few and I am angry. 

We are losing stories in the UK. We are narrowing our literary culture. We have a publishing industry which continues to perpetuate its failure to reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country and so we are losing that potential vitality, social exploration and innovation in the books we publish. 

Unless we tackle this lack of inclusivity, the mountains marginalised writers must climb in order to get and stay published, we may never reach our true potential as an industry. 

Let me tell you about how stories are lost, how voices remain unheard. 

Imagine four writers. For our purposes let’s agree that they are talented and that they’ll write brilliant, sales-worthy books. They are BME (black, minority, ethnic, 14% of the population overall and 40% in London), LGBT (5-7% according to government figures), working-class (in the Great British Class Survey 48% were catogorised as ‘below’ middle class), have a disability (19% of the population according to the Disability Rights Commission). 

The BME writer studies for a creative writing MA, but only a handful of professors are BME and this is also reflected in the number of fellow-BME students. Our working class writer simply can’t afford the fees for an MA or even a part-time writing course. This writer works two jobs and writes in the evenings and on weekends even though they’ve seen few books that represent the world they want to write about. Likewise for the writer with a disability who sees few disabled characters in books, few writers with disabilities profiled in newspapers. These writers think:  ‘Perhaps, my stories aren’t meant to be heard. I don’t belong.’ 

Still our writers persevere. They have written excellent, unique books and go in search of a literary agent, a publisher. However, the people who will read these books to decide if they are good enough and grant access, might not ‘connect’ with these books. In Spread the Word’s recent ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’ report only 11% of publishing house respondents had recruitment ties with non-Oxbridge universities, suggesting that for 89% this was the sole graduate recruitment method, surprising given that Oxbridge graduates make up only 1% of the overall population. 

Unlike many industries, audits for diversity and support groups, for instance LGBT groups, aren’t a standard in publishing. Additionally, publishers are overwhelmingly London based and entry into the profession is largely by unpaid internship, excluding those who don’t have family or spousal support to work unwaged, often for substantial periods. 

Feedback comes in for our writers, variations of, ‘the writing is good, the story is original, but it didn’t speak to me. I don’t know how I’d sell this’. This is natural, to love a book it must resonate personally, it must, on some level, be representative of a society we recognise, have characters we relate to. Still, after many submissions, three of our authors do gain representation. Not so the BME writer who, like 53% of BME writers surveyed in ‘Writing the Future’, remains unagented. Instead, they find a home for their book through the hit and miss of unsolicited submission – without the support of an agent.

And so our writers are through the gates, into the kingdom. They had good stories to tell and they sell their books. Of course there are commercial concerns and the LGBT writer is asked to ‘straighten’ a few of their characters, while the BME writer’s editorial notes urge for ‘authenticity’ by which they seem to mean more ‘urban/African/recognizably “ethnic”’ though the writer is sure that the semi-autobiographic novel is authentically about their world. When it comes time to publicise the book, the disabled and working-class writers are asked to talk frankly about their personal experiences and childhood. While one welcomes the opportunity to speak about issues important to him, the other doesn’t wish to be defined by this single trait: publicity column inches reflect this decision.

Finally, the books are sent to reviewers, bookshops, Amazon warehouses. It hasn’t been easy, they’ve made compromises, but our writers are finally authors. But there’s an important detail which will affect some authors’ likelihood of achieving reviews in the broadsheets and prize listings which both contribute to getting enough sales to enable a second book – two of this gang are women. And since women are still reviewed less than their male counterparts and earn averagely 20% less, these books and authors have a greater struggle. 

Where there are debuts there should naturally come second novels. Unfortunately, our BME author remains unagented even after publishing a book and is unable to place his next novel. Our disabled writer suffered from her lack of press coverage, especially since she also got fewer reviews than expected, and so didn’t sell enough to get a second book contract. The working-class writer, though accepting that he’d have to live on very little, ultimately couldn’t sustain the added unpredictability of that small income and so took a salaried job. His first book was successful; he had the best intention of writing another book but never did. The LGBT writer was nominated for two LGBT awards and was supported by the LGBT community, she had a two book contract and, though her advances reduced as years progressed, she developed a loyal readership and was able to write without concern that she might alienate the presumed ‘mainstream’ reader. 

Four writers. One stays in print. The others, their future stories, are lost. The consequence? The consequence is that other emerging writers will look and fail to find voices like their own. It is young people in non-Oxbridge institutions who will have no idea that they may have potential careers in publishing and contribute to a literary culture. It is stories lost; voices unheard and a book buying public who have no idea how much of the possible spectrum of choice they are being denied. 


Without making change and making change now we risk turning our proud literary legacy into a factory producing mono-cultural, ‘safe-ish bets’ based on the success of previously published books in similar models. An industry where books are viewed as ‘units’ to be shifted, things of financial checks and balances. And of course in part they must be; this is a business. So perhaps the case for the safeguarding of culture isn’t enough? If you are thinking of the bottom line then consider an industry that benefits from the potential disposable income of £300 billion for the BME community  and approximately £80 billion each for ‘Pink Pound’ and those with disabilities . I believe the best books are created to entertain, to inspire both rational and revolutionary thinking, to contribute to an emotionally richer, better informed, intelligent society. But, if you think in pound signs then consider that even as our own books market is saturated we are able to harness our inherent diversity to perform within an increasingly competitive global market specifically because of this unique quality of our nation’s literary output.

Yet no matter how profit driven the publishing industry is compelled to be, we all understand what is being produced and sold here are not jumpers or smartphones. Books and stories are not just a business; they are a fundamental element of any evolved society. The reason that those who write, who communicate, who represent society in words are often the first to be persecuted by oppressive regimes is because words have immense power to change, influence and shape. And we must not relinquish that power by reducing it merely to profit and loss calculations.
Let's harness the enormous power of our diversity not only to meet our current financial objectives but fulfil our future responsibilities for generations to come.

Let’s make sure a career in publishing is seen as a viable option for people of all backgrounds – ensure secondary school work experience is offered, that publishers are represented at non-Oxbridge university career fairs. For writers, let’s identify talent early and nurture that talent with mentoring schemes, official or unofficial.  

In an industry where the annual profits of the Hachette Group were €197 million and Penguin Random House was €363 million , we can afford, and have a responsibility to, give more support to libraries, 337 of which have closed since 2011 in England alone, and offer book donations to the most deprived areas. Not only to inspire, plant a seed of hope and expand horizons but, more practically, to stimulate the habit, and thus the business, of reading. If we shift focus to portray the true multiplicity of society in books, young people will grow up immersed in a British cultural life that reflects their world and which fosters a creative environment that has inclusivity, innovation and collaboration at its heart.

Bursaries should be available to enable students from marginalised backgrounds to study creative subjects thus bringing the proven benefits of creativity and diversity not only to publishing but to all industries. Peer mentoring is possible if writers are recognised as being skilled workers, contributing as they do an important function to any developed society, who deserve to be paid a living wage (in the UK writers averagely earned £11,000 in 2013 which is £5000 less than the living wage), giving them time and resources to support new writers.  
For the sake of both our cultural evolution as a nation and our industry's ability to compete in a global market it’s essential to promote more diversity in agenting, editorial, marketing and sales teams. 

Much of this provocation owes a debt to the excellent research conducted by the ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’ report and I would call for similar reports relating to working class, LGBT and disabled individuals and communities working in publishing. I echo many of the report's recommendations, particularly regarding the improvement of diversity ratios by publishers signing up to the Equip Publishing Equality Charter which helps promote equality across UK publishing, bookselling and agenting, by driving forward change and increasing access to opportunities within the industry. Like most industries, audits on diversity retention and progression, diversity training, LGBT groups and wider recruitment avenues should be implemented. Alongside an industry ban of unpaid internships and introduction of a living wage for entry level publishing employees. This could herald the start of a movement to create a workforce which is able to relate to, and champion, more diverse voices thus making them more visible. 

I don’t believe anyone in the industry is unconcerned by its lack of diversity. I have nothing but respect for my colleagues in writing and publishing who I know to be incredibly hard working, passionate and intelligent with genuine integrity regarding the books they produce. I know that many will share my fears for the future of our literary culture, my frustration regarding a model which sets the odds against the representation of a huge proportion of our society. But it’s not enough simply to agree. This is our society and from the top down (more diversity in our boardrooms, an investigation into the glass ceiling existing for senior management) and grassroots up, each of us must take an individual responsibility to ask ‘what can I do?’

Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus and was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award. It was also shortlisted for the Southbank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and the Polari First Book Award. Kerry’s second novel, Thirst, was published in 2014 by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. Her books are also available in the US (Penguin), France (Editions Phillipe Rey) and Italy (Minimum Fax). Kerry founded The WoMentoring Project and has written for Grazia, Guardian Review and YOU Magazine. She has led writing workshops for the National Academy of Writing, Arvon Foundation and Writers’ Centre Norwich. 

The National Conversation events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you.  Find out more about the National Conversation here.

Unpaid internships should be banned: read an overview of the diversity event in the Guardian.
Read a blog by Nikesh Shukla on his experiences of diversity here. 

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National Conversation: Four Examples of Diversity In Publishing by Nikesh Shukla

Posted By: Katy Carr, 06 July 2015

Nikesh Shukla writes about some of his experiences in the publishing world in advance of our National Conversation event on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute this Thursday.

1. Agents and Authenticity

Before Quartet Books picked up my first novel Coconut Unlimited – as a direct, unagented submission – and published it, I had sent it everywhere. I sent it to every agent and every publisher I could find. At the time I worked in the industry and so I met people all the time. My submissions weren’t always unsolicited, often it was someone I met at an event who seemed interested. They all rejected me, because, they said, the story of three hip-hop obsessed Asian boys was too niche. One agent, white, told me that she didn’t feel the characters were ‘authentically Asian enough’. I asked what she meant. My characters were drawn from my own authentically Asian observations and experiences. I was baffled. She said that none of them acted in a way that readers would identify as Asian. 

2. The Madness of Meritocracy

At London Book Fair four years ago, I sat on a panel about diversity. All the panellists agreed that one of the biggest problems with the industry was that because the make-up of the people in the houses was mostly white, the books they published by non-white writers felt like a romanticised or fetishised experience. We all agreed, as a panel, that the industry needed to be more diverse, so that the types of writers published were too. Someone (so ridiculously high up in the industry at the time it’s embarrassing) said that it was a meritocracy, because they tended to hire people through their internship programme. I told him that only a certain type of person can afford to do a free internship in London so a meritocracy is a fallacy. Later that day, at a party, he mistook me for another Asian male who worked in publishing.

3. Reviewing the Situation

A reviewer once said of one of my short stories that he was glad to see Indians going through the universal experience. That stuck with me. 

The characters weren’t Indian; one was Bengali, one was Pakistani, one was from Watford. That wasn’t even the issue for me – that generic catch-all of the continent as country (cf ‘African dress’, ‘Asian spices’) is not new. The thing I found most problematic about this comment was that it was even a question – that an entire subcontinent might miss out on ‘the universal experience’. It’s ‘universal’. That means it applies to everyone. That’s not a revelation. The universal experience isn’t an entirely Western concept. It’s a universal one. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or universal plug adaptors. 

It made me realise what the problem was with the wider literary establishment. The universal experience is for white people; other cultures have culturally specific experiences. 

4. Questions I’ve Been Asked In Interviews/At Events/At Launches

What do my parents think of me wanting to be a writer?

What do I think of [insert name of Pakistani/Bengali/Sri Lankan writer]?

Did I find it easier to get published because my partner is white?

Do I think by getting more Asian boys to read, it will make them less prone to being radicalised?

Do I think the term ‘people of colour’ is offensive to white people?

Thank you so much … your work really reminds me of all the yoga retreats I’ve been to in India.


The way diversity is viewed is not just an issue for people of colour to combat – it needs to be challenged in all its forms by all of us. That’s how intersectionality works. I recently wrote an essay as a provocation to white writers, asking them to help normalise the experience of others by occasionally including non-white characters in their work, not as a token, but because you recognise that it’s pretty messed up that people in books tend to be white unless they have to do something culturally/racially specific. Now, that’s a provocation for a utopian time when things like the above aren’t still happening in 2015. But they are. And you need to help me call it out, friend.

Do join us to continue this fascinating debate on diversity and publishing on Thursday 9th July.

Nikesh Shukla is a writer of fiction and for television. His new novel is Meatspace, the Guardian saying of the book that 'like Douglas Coupland's Generation X, this novel captures a cultural moment.' His debut, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010. Nikesh’s short stories have been featured in: Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Moth Magazine, Pen Pusher, The Sunday Times, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine and Teller Magazine. He has written essays (‘Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don't Tell Us About Our Nation's Youth’), a novella (The Time Machine, 2013), and for TV, including ‘Two Dosas’ with Himesh Patel, and his Channel 4 Comedy Lab ‘Kabadasses’. Shukla has written for the Guardian, Esquire and BBC 2 and hosts the The Subaltern podcast, the anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing.

The National Conversation events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you. 

Have your say on twitter, (@writerscentre #NatConv), at the event or online below:

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