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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
@PFlaneryAuthor.

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: Miranda Langford, 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.

My only hesitation would be over the design of the cover, with its dark gray drapes: classy but oh-so-sombre . . . Where are the sparks?!





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: Miranda Langford, 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, @leanne.rio tagged us in this breathtaking bath picture on Instagram. There really is nothing better than a good book and a long soak!




 

 

 




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




 


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 www.bravenewreads.org.uk!


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.

Isabelle
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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Readers' Circle Member Ken Reviews Badgerlands

Posted By: Miranda Langford, 16 June 2015



Badgerlands is one of our Brave New Reads titles, from Norfolk writer Patrick Barkham. Get a taster of the book from Readers' Circle Member Ken:


Three years ago my eye was caught by the Summer Reads display in the Millennium Library. I decided to read each of the choices, of which my favourite was Evie Wyld's After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. I subsequently filled in a questionnaire about my experience and was contacted by Sam from the Writers' Centre Norwich, who wished to include me in a survey of reading habits. During my discussion with Sam he told me that the Readers' Circle would be involved in choosing each year's Summer Reads [now Brave New Reads] selection. Would I like to be part of this? To which the answer was, I certainly would.

I have always been a voracious reader and Brave New Reads has exposed me to new writing, both good and bad, and helped me to study books more closely. Having to review each book you read really focuses the mind. It has also led me to meet other readers just as passionate about literature as I am- if not always sharing my impeccable taste! The discussions at Readers' Circle meetings, though always friendly, can be quite robust.

I am currently re-reading Badgerlands, having been asked to do this blog, and am happy to say I am finding it just as engrossing second time round. Barkham writes with a very easy going, free flowing style, which betrays his background as an experienced journalist with the Guardian. This accessibility, however, in no way indicates any trivialisation or sensationalising of the subject matter. Facts, figures and anecdotes come thick and fast without the reader ever feeling bombarded or overwhelmed, as can sometimes be the case with fact based books.

Badgerlands is a social history of the badger in Britain. The author brings to life this enigmatic animal, its multifaceted characteristics and its complex and emblematic relationship with the British landscape and its people. The human aspect is important here because though the badger is central to this book it is as much about human relationships with nature, the countryside and each other as it is about badgers.

So this readable, informative, intelligent and engaging book stands highly recommended on its own merits but for me there is an added satisfaction in that the author is Norfolk born and has returned to live in the county. It's always good to be able to promote books by Norfolk authors and now that Brave New Reads encompasses Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, too let's hope for some strong East Anglian contenders next year.

Listen to a recording from Patrick's event at Huntingdon library below. 

Follow Patrick on Twitter.

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

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

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Chosen by Readers for Readers: Selecting the Brave New Reads Books & Creating the Readers’ Circle

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 09 June 2015

     

Choosing the books for Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads) is always a challenge. The Readers’ Circle start off with a longlist of at least 150 books, but, by the end of the process, they’ll have selected six books as the best, boldest, most absorbing books around.

About The Readers' Circle

The Readers’ Circle began modestly in 2012, with twenty avid Norwich readers volunteering their time and opinions. These readers had worked closely with WCN through book groups and other projects, and took to the challenge eagerly. Since then, the Readers’ Circle has grown to include almost 100 readers from across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, ensuring that readers are always the focus of the project, no matter which stage of development.

Made up of readers of different backgrounds and ages, the Readers’ Circle volunteer to read and review (at least!) 12 books over five months. When reviewing the books the Readers’ Circle members rate their reviews green, amber or red, in a traffic light system. The reviews for each title are then collated, and the books with the highest score make it through to the next round. There are three stages of the selection process, ensuring that the books are rigorously sifted before the final six are chosen.

The generous participation of our Readers’ Circle members means that the Brave New Reads titles are chosen democratically and ensures that the most stimulating and thought-provoking books make it into the final six.


Choosing the Final Six

The final Readers’ Circle selection meeting is always heated, with readers determinedly championing their favourite title. By this point, the longlist has been cut to a shortlist of 25 titles. Whilst the criteria for Brave New Reads is very loose —we’re looking for exciting, brave writing above all—we try to always include at least one collection of poetry and one work in translation, with a balance of male and female writers and a mix of global settings. We also try not to choose books which have already received substantial publicity- Brave New Reads likes to recommend authors that readers might not have encountered before.

These criteria are all considered as we discuss which books should make the final selection. Of course, we don’t expect universal agreement, but we do try to create consensus through a discussion of all the book’s merits. Inevitably, we spend several hours debating which books should be chosen, and eventually reach a decision; sure that we’ve chosen the six books that deserve to be included!

Who Our Readers’ Circle Are

Our Readers’ Circle hail from across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, from the cities to the villages. Within our Readers’ Circle is a mix of ages, gender and backgrounds – the only thing the readers have in common is a love for literature.

If you’d like to get involved with the Readers’ Circle, and can commit to reading and reviewing at least 12 books in five months, please email melanie.kidd@writerscentrenorwich.org.uk with the subject line 'Joining the Readers’ Circle'.

 

The Readers' Circle at the Final Brave New Reads Selection Meeting.

 

Find out more about Brave New Reads

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The Invisible Women by Kamila Shamsie

Posted By: Alice Kent, 28 May 2015

An original provocation by Kamila Shamsie for our National Conversation event on women and publishing at the Hay Festival, 29th May 

Several years ago at the Jaipur festival, Martin Amis chaired a panel on ‘The Crisis of American Fiction’ with Richard Ford, Jay Mcinnerney and Junot Diaz. I was in the audience, and halfway through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said, ‘clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it’. It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary woman writer. A single reference to Eudora Welty was in fact the only acknowledgement that women in America have ever had anything to do with the world of letters.  Junot Diaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on White American males, but it was much too little, much too late.

I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing, literary prizes etc. I know the reason I had been struck by it was that it seemed to me less an anomaly than an extreme version of a too–prevalent attitude by men – including male writers – towards women writers. To clarify the matter, I thought it might be useful to do the very unwriterly thing of turning from narrative to statistics. Over the last five years, the Guardian has asked 252 cultural figures, almost all of them writers, for their year–end book recommendations. 162 among them listed one or more works of fiction. Of those, 56% of the men chose books written by men only as opposed to 32% of women who chose books by women only. And 15% of men chose books by women only, while 29% of women chose books by men only. If male writers are so much more likely than women writers to value books by their own gender, what does that mean for judging panels, for book blurbs, for the championing of lesser known writers by better–known writers?  What, in short, does it mean for the literary culture in which we live?

While considering these matters, there’s one more set of figures that’s significant. Of the 252 people who picked their books of the year, only 37% were women. In the past when the issue of women’s representation in literary pages gets has been brought up it’s very often women editors who, while voicing their frustration with the situation, mention how much more likely men are than women to agree to review or judge or make lists of favourites. Suzi Feay, writing on the issue in 2011, discussed her own attempts to get writers to submit choices for a books of the year feature: ‘You’d think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having.’ I asked Ginny Hooker from the Review whether the comparative reticence of women writers was the reason the Books of the Year contributors were mostly men. She said ‘We always try to get a balance, and although I don't have accurate records, my sense was always that more women said no to contributing than men did. So I would definitely ask a lot more women than would eventually end up contributing. But I suspect that if you looked at the number of people I've approached, it would probably be more than 50% men – something to do with who is in the public eye.’ It’s a double bind then. More men than women get asked to judge, nominate, recommend – and of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so, and those more men are more likely to recommend yet more men.

This is not to say that any experience within publishing can be broken down into a story of fair–minded women versus bigoted men.  Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex, and involves all parties. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes – which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success in the world.  As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker prize over the last five years. Ever since the Women’s Prize for Fiction – formerly the Orange, now the Bailey’s – was set up 20 years ago in response to an all–male Booker shortlist, this has been the prize to which the most attention is paid in gender terms.  If you were to look at the longlists, shortlists, and winners of the last 5 years there’s an easy conclusion: it’s gender biased.  More men than women make up these lists.  The casual observer might conclude that the judges have their patriarchal hats firmly on their heads when making their decisions. Except, the primary problem may not lie with the judges.

The question of the Man Booker prize judges and gender came up last year when only 3 women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges Sarah Churchwell said, ‘We read what publishers submit to us. . . [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.’ So I asked the Man Booker administrators how many of the submitted books in the last 5 years have been written by women. The answer was, slightly under 40%. I should add, this isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve more than once been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging. Because publisher submissions remain confidential this part of the equation remains uncommented on when judges are held to account for the gender imbalance of the long and short lists they produce.

In the 5 years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women to win the prize has been exactly 40%.  In this period, although 4 out of 5 of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there’s been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by polishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. In 2013, in a Guardian article, Debbie Taylor of Mslexia magazine pointed out that ‘of the last 10 books to win the Booker prize, eight had male protagonists, one a female protagonist, and one both male and female protagonists … If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected, and read as universal.’ It’s worth mentioning that the two books that have won the Man Booker since that interview was published – The Luminaries and The Narrow Road to the Deep North – both have male protagonists. Of course we don’t know how many of the submitted books had female protagonists, but it remains instructive to look, by contrast, at the books that have won the Baileys Women’s Prize – formerly the Orange, now the Baileys . In the last 12 years, 4 of the books have centred on a male protagonist, 3 on a female protagonist, and 5 on a mix of male and female protagonists.  This, I would argue, is a consequence not only of having women-only submissions, but also of having women-only judges.

I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last 5 years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the VIDA statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic.  But at this that [‘this’?] point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that more men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement.  To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and improve yourself by reading some Toni Morrison.

The question isn’t ‘Is there a problem?’; it’s, ‘Are we recognising how deep it runs, and do we know what to do about it?’ The easy response is to always blame someone else.  Prize judges can blame publishers who can blame the kinds of books that cut across male and female reading tastes. Literary editors can blame the women writers who don’t take up chances that are offered to them and the women writers can blame the editors who shift the blame rather than acknowledging they don’t ask as many women to begin with. We can all say, men don’t just have more confidence about picking their books of the year, they also have more confidence about writing big, bold novels – and then we can work out that ‘big and bold’ are only more appealing than ‘subtle and with emotional depth’ because literary cultures have historically been formed by men which allows a patriarchal view to look like a universal truth.

Well, enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend to a world of equality?  Or should we step outside that fictional narrative and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK?  Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I should add, I speak as someone whose great–aunt, Attia Hosein, was brought back into print after 3 decades by Virago Modern Classics, and also as someone who has been twice shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and seen precisely how great an effect that has on a book. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male–dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere. But they also brought questions of female exclusion or marginalisation into the conversation. VIDA, the literary organization which focuses on women in the literary arts, is doing the same with its annual gender breakdown of literary publications. And VIDA has also recognised that power privilege on either side of the Atlantic is not merely about gender but also about race – they now have an Annual Women of Colour Count too. That I’ve failed to mention race until now doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it as an even more lopsided and neglected matter than gender. What we need is more. Not more special privileges for women, but more ways of countering the special privileges doled out to white men.  

Now that the problem has been recognised, analysed, translated into graphs and charts and statistics it is time for everyone, male and female, in our literary culture to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality for which we all sectors of the culture bear responsibility.  Last year readers, critics and at least one literary journal signed up to a ’Year of Reading Women’ - or in the case of the journal ‘The Critical Flame’, a year of reading women writers and writers of colour. Let’s take it a step further - let’s have a Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour.  2018 , the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, seems both near enough and distant enough to be feasible.  Of course there will be many details to work out - including, what happens to paperback of books published the prior year and can we find a more catchy name than Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour (YPWWWC) - but the basic premise is precisely what it says on the tin.  Of course the knock of effect of a Year of Publishing Women and Writers of Colour will be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front of store displays, in literary festival line-ups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refuse to sign up, then it’s for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and literary festivals to say their commitment to YPWWWC means they won’t be able to give space to the white male writers who are being published that year.  I’m not discounting the fact that many white male writers will, I’m sure, also back YPWWWC and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that are published.

What will it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what will happen in 2019?  Will we revert to status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our pre-conceptions of which is unchangeable?  I suggest we find out.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of six novels, including the 2015 Bailey’s Prize long-listed A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Three of her other novels (In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Broken Verses) have received awards from the Pakistan Academy of Letters. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists’, she grew up in Karachi, and now lives in London.

Find about more about the National Conversation debates and have your say.

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Sam Ruddock Reviews Any Other Mouth

Posted By: Sam Ruddock, 27 May 2015

Any Other Mouth is currently the most popular of all our Brave New Reads titles and is flying off the shelves. The most controversial of all the Brave New Reads picks, Any Other Mouth is a "marmite book", which is generating heated discussions in libraries across East Anglia! Get a taster of the book from Sam Ruddock's review:
 

I love Any Other Mouth. In each word we inhabit the skin and see through the eyes of a young woman growing up, learning about life and her body, struggling with overpowering grief. She drinks, smokes, sleeps around, can't hold down a relationship, changes career at the drop of a hat, can re-write an entire PhD thesis in a weekend, stares for hours at a Google Map of her now dead father frozen in time on a deckchair in the back garden. She may have Borderline Personality Disorder. We experience some of what it is to be her. And it is both eye opening and a riotous adventure.

In the epigraph, Anneliese Mackintosh states: '68% happened; 32% did not happen; I will never tell' and this teasing game of fiction and biography  parched my mouth with anticipation for what was to come. It doesn’t matter whether the work that follows is a searing and amazingly frank account of a life lived in the fast lane, or a cunning character study through fiction. The writing is first rate: quick, luscious, direct. Her approach to language mirrors her protagonist’s approach to life: she charges at a thing, she doesn't shirk, she tells stories full of heart that make the spaces between people feel less vast than they sometimes might. 

One of the joys of reading is in discovering different ways of living life, different responses to the challenges and joys it throws up. We most often do this by reading about cultures other than our own, and at times the more harrowing the better in this sort of reading. But we are sadly less willing to read books that present a different view of life in our own society, or that treat with empathy subjects we would rather believe did not happen. In this searing, unflinching book, we get a first-hand view of one experience of life with Borderline Personality Disorder. It is a book that asks us to reappraise our expectations for behavior, often uncomfortably so. And that, in my opinion, is one of the things that the arts should be all about. 

In its nihilistic rejection of convention and vibrant lust for life Any Other Mouth reminded me of AM Homes brilliant novel Music for Torching. But much more than this exciting, blackly comic read, it feels important too. Important, as understanding perspectives on life different from your own always are. Any Other Mouth is engaging, unexpected, gripping, poignant, shocking and exciting. A great read.

(Note: One word of caution, the blurb for this book doesn’t really make any sense! How do you react when you discover your boyfriend is cheating on you with his dead grandma? You don’t. It’s doesn’t happen like that! Don’t be put off, Any Other Mouth is not as ridiculous as the blurb suggests!)

 

 

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Diving into Lives with Brave New Reads: A Guest Blog from Sam Ruddock

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 18 May 2015

Sam Ruddock, who is currently on sabbatical completing a prestigious Clore Fellowship, blogs on Brave New Reads and his love of reading. Having worked on Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads) for six years, Sam reflects on the past, present and future of the Brave New Reads programme.  

Reading is quite probably the best thing I do. I love nothing better than opening the pages of a new book and diving into lives I’ve never lived. For me, reading is utterly social, it is a conversation with the world around me. When we founded Summer Reads six years ago, it was with this principal in mind: that even when reading alone in your favourite chair, reading is a social activity. So it was no shock that book clubs and shared reading endeavours were at the heart of the programme, or that three years in we decided that readers like you were the best people to select the books we feature. The Brave New Reads you see today is the product of conversation, collaboration, and shared reading.

This is no more the case than with the change in our name this year. I’ve been dreaming of a new name for the programme for a while, and wracking my brain for good alternatives. But to no avail. The ideas I came up with – Reading Adventures, Discoveries, Great Reading for Everyone – were all universally rubbish. So we got together a group of excellent library staff and spent the day talking about how to make Summer Reads better. At one point I glanced to my right and spotted a post it note with a phrase on it: Brave New Reads. I was smitten. So smitten in fact that I interrupted the conversation to call out a hallelujah! Fortunately my enthusiasm was matched in the room and pretty much there and then our new identity was born.

Brave New Reads: it’s all there. The discovery of exciting new books that has always been at the heart of Summer Reads, the adventures we will share throughout the summer, the bravery of our Readers Circle who read more than 150 books to select these final six, and the worlds that open up when we read, the way reading changes us on the inside and shifts our views of the world. These six books will do that for you, and entertain, enthral, and excite in equal measure. From the sweltering heat of rural Mexico where young girls are disguised as boys to escape the drug cartels (Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement), to a nuclear test ravaged desert in Kazakhstan (The Dead Lake, by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield).

You’ll encounter characters like Gretchen, reckless, wild, charming and heartbreaking narrator of Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh. And Louise, Paul, and Nathanial, main protagonists of the gripping and terrifying Fallen Land, as America struggles in the grips of financial crisis and the trauma of land haunted by ghosts. In the midst of a stunning debut poetry collection by Liz Berry, you’ll find lost accents conjured to life in sharp explorations of work and love and flight (Black Country). And in Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham, you’ll meet people who love and hate badgers, all with a tale to tell about rural life alongside one of Britain’s most mysterious animals.

Each has been tried and tested by readers just like you. They were picked because they are the books we fell in love with; that we wanted to put eagerly into your hand and say, ‘here, this is brilliant.’

Friends, your Brave New Reads starts here.

Happy reading.


Find out more about Brave New Reads and all the selected titles.

Brave New Reads Authors Patrick Flanery, Patrick Barkham, Liz Berry and Anneliese Mackintosh will be joining us for special Brave New Reads events in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - see all the author events.

Did you join us at the Norwich Launch of Brave New Reads? Take a look at some photos from the evening.

 

 

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The National Conversation: Enduring Stories by Erica Wagner

Posted By: Anonymous, 14 May 2015

An original provocation piece by writer and editor Erica Wagner, delivered at the National Conversation event 'Amazon and the Civil War for Books' on Sunday 17th May as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Just about one hundred and fifteen years ago, a young American anthropologist named John Reed Swanton travelled to a group of islands which were called, in his day, the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwest coast of Canada. He was in the employ of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington D.C., but he worked under the guidance of the influential anthropologist Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History, a place just a few blocks from where I grew up, on the Upper West Side of New York City. He had been sent to collect objects from the people who lived there: argillite carvings, wooden boxes, the kinds of objects you find in museums. But in the time he spent with the island inhabitants, he didn’t collect objects, not really. He listened to stories. And he took down the names of the men who told him those stories: one was called Ghandl; the other, Skaay. He transcribed their words in their own language, as they were spoken. 

Acknowledging their authorship and language was a radical act. Almost every other anthropologist working in his day believed that stories collected from indigenous people could be compressed and flattened into a so-called ‘universal’ version of that story. As Robert Bringhurst, the scholar who, nearly a century later, would translate these stories into striking, erudite English versions, notes, this is like walking into the Uffizi and saying: but why do we need all these paintings of the Crucifixion? Surely one is enough? I reckon not. Not a few of the stories Swanton heard these men tell are some of the greatest I have encountered in any language, from any culture. By giving these poets their names Swanton allowed them to be authors. The rights of authors, as it happens, remain a lively topic for debate here in the 21st century.

I’m going to talk to you about discovery, and about what literature and art truly are, and the potential that they have to change our lives. Because lately I’ve been thinking that it’s too easy to slip into a mindset in which we believe we are talking about art and literature – when what we’re really talking about is business. Commerce. Not that it’s wrong to talk about business. It’s important to talk about business. But it’s also important to consider how we can separate these two conversations.

We’re told that we are in the midst of a civil war on which the fate of our reading habits will depend. In the world of the old stories the name ‘Amazon’ conjured a fierce, glorious image of a bold woman warrior: no more. Now the ferocity of an Amazon brings a new kind of terror: of a monopoly that will devour literature. We seem to be entering in a period of truce, it’s true. Last month HarperCollins agreed a deal with Amazon over e-books; this followed on from the settling of the lengthy dispute over pricing between Amazon and Hachette, resolved before the end of last year. These are arguments and transactions that take place in a time of unprecedented flux: or so it would seem. But is that really the case? Are we really in a brave new world?

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that modern humans have existed in roughly their present form for 100,000 years. Those early people led lives which were very different from ours, but their brains were like ours. The astonishing art on the walls of the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche valley of southern France was made about 30,000 years ago; some indigenous art in Australia is much older. Beowulf’s 3,000 lines – which survive in a single manuscript – were written down around the 10th century CE. Now: the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg came into commercial use about 500 years after that, around 1450.

What am I doing by throwing these numbers at you? 

I’m demonstrating that the book is only a very, very small part of the human literary story. From Gutenberg to widely available commercial printing, another couple of hundred years intervened. But literature, I’m quite certain, has existed since humanity has existed. My great-grandmother was born in the East End of London in 1888. When I discovered her birth certificate in the Public Record Office at Kew, I also discovered that her mother had put a rough cross in the box for her signature – and so I learned that my great-great grandmother could neither read nor write; not so uncommon, in those days. But for all I know, my great-great grandmother could have been a storyteller, a singer, her mind could have held a treasure-vault of history and art. But it’s gone. Because books, of course, have a job to do too.

The name of the islands John Swanton visited has changed since he arrived in 1900. Thanks to the efforts of the indigenous people who still live there, and who only narrowly survived the arrival of Europeans into their territory, these islands are now called Haida Gwaii, ‘The Islands of the People’ – and it was the Haida people Swanton had come to study. If you have been to the Great Court of the British Museum, you will have seen a Haida house pole, acquired three years after Swanton travelled there. The house in front of which it would have stood had been abandoned; as had the whole village. Many Haida villages had been abandoned by then. Smallpox and other European diseases had ravaged the population. ‘The island population is now shrunk to not over seven hundred,’ Swanton wrote in a letter.  ‘...The missionary has suppressed all the dances and has been instrumental in having all the old houses destroyed – everything in short that makes life worth living.’

Do not mistake me. I am not comparing the destruction of an indigenous culture – of many indigenous cultures – to business arguments in the publishing world. What I want to demonstrate is that the human need to hear stories and to tell stories is something which I believe to be so ingrained in us (in our brains, in our hearts, in our souls) that it will survive no matter what; it will find new forms and flourish in different ways. For the past few hundred years the novel has been the dominant form of storytelling in Western culture; but as I’ve tried to show, that’s a drop in the ocean of time. And what is a ‘novel’, anyway? It’s a way to tell a story. Well, there are other ways to tell stories too. When I watched Breaking Bad, I discovered I was thinking about its plot and its characters with the same seriousness I’ve devoted to many novels. Perhaps not coincidentally, that series emerged in an industry which is also in flux: the old television networks no longer dominate the scene, and newcomers like AMC and Netflix are shaking up the industry. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Amazon is coming into this market too. 

But books are a hugely significant part of our culture. I know about John Swanton, you won’t be surprised to hear, thanks to a book; I came to consider the great span of human culture I’ve just described thanks to a book. That is Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as A Knife, first published in 1999; translations from Swanton’s transcriptions which were taken down nearly a hundred years before. There are two companion volumes, which are really not companions, but the central texts of Bringhurst’s great work: they are Nine Visits to the Mythworld, devoted to the works of Ghandl, and Being in Being, which is devoted to the works of Skaay. Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and polymath, a scholar of Ancient Greek and typography, too. Bringhurst took many years to teach himself Haida in order to make these magnificent translations.

Publishers, booksellers and writers find themselves in an industry in transition: some of the changes that transition brings are inarguably troubling.  Independent bookshops continue to close. There are fewer than 1,000 on British high streets now, the Guardian has reported; one-third fewer than the decade before. Fifty-seven independent bookshops in this country closed just last year. I’ve worked with the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Foundation to distribute grants to writers struggling to make ends meet – I know that things are tough out there; not least because I’m an author myself. The results of a survey conducted on behalf of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society released last month make sobering reading. Since 2007, the last time authors were surveyed, there has been a 29% fall in writers’ incomes in real terms. And yet, while I have no wish to be a perceived as a Pollyanna, I wonder if there was ever a time when things weren’t tough for the people we now call ‘authors’? Sometimes, it’s useful to take a step back – a really, really big, step back, as far back as 100,000 years – to get a different angle on things.

Swanton’s work didn’t find much of an audience when he came back east. And Bringhurst’s work with the words of Ghandl and Skaay has, so far, found a smaller audience than it deserves. The edition I have was published in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre, a fine house; they went bust, however, a few years ago, a not-unusual fate for a publisher these days. But they were taken under the wing of another Canadian publisher, Harbour, and so have lived to fight – or publish – another day, at least for the time being. I have spent over a decade wondering why no British publisher would take on these texts, which deserve to be recognized as classics; I’m delighted to be able to say that the Folio Society is now preparing an edition, to be published in the autumn, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and illustrations by the Haida artist Don Yeomans. 

Atwood’s association with these works goes back a long way – it’s one of the things that brought us together as friends.  Not long after I discovered the works of Ghandl and Skaay through the translations of Robert Bringhurst – by way of a series of chance conversations, for such is the way of these things, and it is by these conversations that our human future is made – I commissioned a piece from her on this epic trilogy; it was published in The Times a dozen years ago.  Of what Bringhurst had done, she wrote that: ‘It’s one of those works that rearranges the inside of your head — a profound meditation on the nature of oral poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them. It restores to life two exceptional poets we ought to know. It gives us some insight into their world – in Bringhurst’s words, “the old-growth forest of the human mind” – and, by comparison, into our own.’  

So we see that these stories can still come to us from the most surprising places; we see that they can find a way through. I am sure that – whatever the future of the industry holds – this will continue to happen. So – can we say where publishing is headed? Where the industry will go? Will Amazon devour everyone and everything? I don’t know. What I do know is that stories and storytellers will survive.

As the world changes – as it always has – and information passes between us in different ways – as it always has – good books, important books, get through. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, was one of the highlights of 2014 to my mind (and indeed, I was one of the judges who put it on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize). This book, written in what the author has called a ‘shadow tongue’ of Old English, was published by the crowd-funded imprint Unbound; just the other day, I’m thrilled to say, it was named the inaugural Book of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards 2015. And Preparation for the Next Life, a gripping debut by Atticus Lish, was published first in the US by Tyrant Books, a small-press publisher; the book has been widely and warmly reviewed, both in the United States and in this country, where it has just been published by Oneworld; last month it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction We find the stories we need to hear.

I am not denying the state of the landscape. But by speaking here less of commerce than of art, I hope to remind you of why we all bother in the first place. Human culture is ancient and durable. Perhaps when it seems at its most elusive – in the way it can pass from voice to ear to voice – it’s the most durable artifact there is. Books may vanish: but if we keep listening, literature will survive. Ghandl and Skaay were poets who had survived the wreck of their civilization. And yet Ghandl and Skaay held on to their art; and John Reed Swanton – who was, incidentally, just 27 years old when he met them – was wise enough to recognize it. It’s up to us to keep our ears to the ground. To speak to each other. To listen. In Skaay’s epic which Bringhurst calls ‘Raven Traveling’, Raven goes hunting. And then he stops, and dives into the water.
He rammed his beak into the rock
out on the point at the edge of town.
He cried as he struck it.
‘Ghaaaaaw!’
It was solid, that rock,
and yet he splintered it by speaking.  

Notes:

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst
Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst
Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst (Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers); Douglas & McIntyre, Canada.
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is published by Unbound, £18
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish is published by Oneworld, £14.99

Erica Wagner writes for The New Statesman, The Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times. Her latest novel is Seizure,  published now in French as La Coupure.Follow Erica on Twitter: @EricaWgnrFind out more about Erica on her website

Read the first article in this two part debate for the National Conversation - Philip Gywn Jones, The Civil War for Books: Where's the Money Going?


We'd love to know your thoughts on this topic, please do comment below or on twitter #NatConv



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