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Introducing the Octopus - Worlds 2015 Part I by George Szirtes
George Szirtes, who was recently described by Man Booker International Prize Winner László Krasznahorkai as ‘My Hero’ in the regular Guardian column, blogs on Worlds Literature Festival, reporting on the history and traditions of the festival and summarising the first provocation.
As some will know Norwich has hosted the Worlds Literature Festival for eleven years now and I have attended many of them and summed up the last three before being asked to sum up this one. Putting aside capital cities as centres of all the arts Norwich has been a city of literature for a long time, partly because of its history but chiefly because of the early establishment of the Creative Writing course at the UEA which has produced so many successful, prize winning and much praised writers. That MA course started in 1970 and began to offer PhD's in the mid-eighties.
The New Writing Partnership was a collaboration between the city, the county and the university and was renamed the Writers' Centre Norwich in 2009. This partnership has been so successful that the city, which was already a City of Refuge, was named as England's first UNESCO City of Literature
. It is now also in collaboration with the British Centre of Literary Translation
, first set up by W G Sebald, and has a great ambitious programme. In other words Norwich is a hive of literary activity and each year's festival brings its internationally known writers to the city for the sessions known as salons and for public readings.
Each year the Festival has a set theme that eight writers are invited to address in the form of provocations that can be about half an hour long and are followed by a salon discussion. Last year the theme was Nostalgia
, this time it was Reputation.
My task in summing up is to recall all the main points of the provocations and discussions and to try to link them together in a presentation lasting about half an hour. This could be a dry business so it is worth trying to hold it together with some running theme or metaphor. In this case it was an expression used by a first participant at the festival, Dan Richards who, in describing his unsuccessful attempts to sell a previous book to publishers, said it was like offering them an octopus in a suitcase.
The octopus follows.
First session and Jon Cook's introduction
It is very tempting to begin with the octopus in the suitcase that Dan Richards mentioned at the end of our very first provocation by Chris Bigsby. It is, after all, a creature with eight limbs and and we have had eight quite various tentacular provocations. Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, about whom she spoke that morning, is titled The Pike. Jon Cook then spoke of D’Annunzio being drawn to his public as a predatory bird to its prey. Kyoko Yoshida, in her reading told us a story about squirrels with secret gardens. Liz Berry read us two poems featuring birds, in one of which she told us that a certain kind of pigeon was known in the Black Country as a Birmingham Roller, which I first misheard as a burning umbrella. Anna Funder gave us, was it Ernst Toller, as “an animal, a beaked bird with a glossy black head”. Then Vesna Goldsworthy suggested that hoping to be a writer by engaging in literary study was like preparing to be a jockey by qualifying as a vet. Then, at the very end, the publisher David Graham wondered whether he was a fox in a henhouse or a lamb to slaughter.
Given all this I was rather hoping that I might be able to link all the sessions together by reference to various animals, but then the animals thinned out and grew somehow facetious and the only analogy I have left in my hand is the menagerie.
It would be equally tempting to begin with As You Like It and Jaques’ “all the world’s a stage” speech about the seven ages of man where the fourth age belongs to the soldier who is conveniently compared to a leopard:
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.
And that, I thought might cover a few bases in thinking of reputation in terms of honour and of quarrels, of the sheer transience of bubbles, and indeed of cannons, both the firing kind with two n’s and the kind - perhaps just as deadly, in its own way - with just one.
Jon Cook built his introduction to the salons on Pascale Casanova’s book, The World of Letters and set about exploring the idea of reputation and place. Where do you go to make your reputation? To the big cities, of course, to Paris, to London, to Berlin, to New York, to the great metropolis beyond your back yard. Metropolitan power, he said, following Casanova, was a matter of accumulation; of competition, rivalry and dispute (those jealousies mentioned in Jaques’s speech); and of concentration - a kind of density where all the books and ideas are crowded and jostling together.
He also brought our attention to the idea of a national literary consciousness which some posit as the glory, or even definition of a nation, while pointing to exceptions such as Stendhal who, notoriously (for his French countrymen) preferred Shakespeare to Racine.
But wherever it’s happening now, he ended, it will probably go on to happen elsewhere. I suspect this ease and rapidity of movement has a great deal to do with the technology of immediate communication and globalisation of capital. In any case, as Feste, another melancholy clown in Shakespeare, points out “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”.
This is the first in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. Alternatively, you can watch the provocations on YouTube or listen to them on SoundCloud.
Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.
Visit George's website
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Readers' Circle Member Ken Reviews Badgerlands
Badgerlands is one of our Brave New Reads titles, from Norfolk writer Patrick Barkham. Get a taster of the book from Readers' Circle Member Ken:
Three years ago my eye was caught by the Summer Reads display in the Millennium Library. I decided to read each of the choices, of which my favourite was Evie Wyld's After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
. I subsequently filled in a questionnaire about my experience and was contacted by Sam from the Writers' Centre Norwich, who wished to include me in a survey of reading habits. During my discussion with Sam he told me that the Readers' Circle
would be involved in choosing each year's Summer Reads [now Brave New Reads] selection. Would I like to be part of this? To which the answer was, I certainly would.
I have always been a voracious reader and Brave New Reads has exposed me to new writing, both good and bad, and helped me to study books more closely. Having to review each book you read really focuses the mind. It has also led me to meet other readers just as passionate about literature as I am- if not always sharing my impeccable taste! The discussions at Readers' Circle meetings, though always friendly, can be quite robust.
I am currently re-reading Badgerlands
, having been asked to do this blog, and am happy to say I am finding it just as engrossing second time round. Barkham writes with a very easy going, free flowing style, which betrays his background as an experienced journalist with the Guardian. This accessibility, however, in no way indicates any trivialisation or sensationalising of the subject matter. Facts, figures and anecdotes come thick and fast without the reader ever feeling bombarded or overwhelmed, as can sometimes be the case with fact based books.
is a social history of the badger in Britain. The author brings to life this enigmatic animal, its multifaceted characteristics and its complex and emblematic relationship with the British landscape and its people. The human aspect is important here because though the badger is central to this book it is as much about human relationships with nature, the countryside and each other as it is about badgers.
So this readable, informative, intelligent and engaging book stands highly recommended on its own merits but for me there is an added satisfaction in that the author is Norfolk born and has returned to live in the county. It's always good to be able to promote books by Norfolk authors and now that Brave New Reads encompasses Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, too let's hope for some strong East Anglian contenders next year.
Listen to a recording from Patrick's event at Huntingdon library below.
Chosen by Readers for Readers: Selecting the Brave New Reads Books & Creating the Readers’ Circle
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
with the subject line 'Joining the Readers’ Circle'.
The Readers' Circle at the Final Brave New Reads Selection Meeting.
The Invisible Women by Kamila Shamsie
An original provocation by Kamila Shamsie for our National Conversation event on women and publishing at the Hay Festival, 29th May
Several years ago at the Jaipur festival, Martin Amis chaired a panel on ‘The Crisis of American Fiction’ with Richard Ford, Jay Mcinnerney and Junot Diaz. I was in the audience, and halfway through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said, ‘clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it’. It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary woman writer. A single reference to Eudora Welty was in fact the only acknowledgement that women in America have ever had anything to do with the world of letters. Junot Diaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on White American males, but it was much too little, much too late.
I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing, literary prizes etc. I know the reason I had been struck by it was that it seemed to me less an anomaly than an extreme version of a too–prevalent attitude by men – including male writers – towards women writers. To clarify the matter, I thought it might be useful to do the very unwriterly thing of turning from narrative to statistics. Over the last five years, the Guardian
has asked 252 cultural figures, almost all of them writers, for their year–end book recommendations. 162 among them listed one or more works of fiction. Of those, 56% of the men chose books written by men only as opposed to 32% of women who chose books by women only. And 15% of men chose books by women only, while 29% of women chose books by men only. If male writers are so much more likely than women writers to value books by their own gender, what does that mean for judging panels, for book blurbs, for the championing of lesser known writers by better–known writers? What, in short, does it mean for the literary culture in which we live?
While considering these matters, there’s one more set of figures that’s significant. Of the 252 people who picked their books of the year, only 37% were women. In the past when the issue of women’s representation in literary pages gets has been brought up it’s very often women editors who, while voicing their frustration with the situation, mention how much more likely men are than women to agree to review or judge or make lists of favourites. Suzi Feay, writing on the issue in 2011, discussed her own attempts to get writers to submit choices for a books of the year feature: ‘You’d think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having.’ I asked Ginny Hooker from the Review whether the comparative reticence of women writers was the reason the Books of the Year contributors were mostly men. She said ‘We always try to get a balance, and although I don't have accurate records, my sense was always that more women said no to contributing than men did. So I would definitely ask a lot more women than would eventually end up contributing. But I suspect that if you looked at the number of people I've approached, it would probably be more than 50% men – something to do with who is in the public eye.’ It’s a double bind then. More men than women get asked to judge, nominate, recommend – and of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so, and those more men are more likely to recommend yet more men.
This is not to say that any experience within publishing can be broken down into a story of fair–minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex, and involves all parties. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes – which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success in the world. As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker prize over the last five years. Ever since the Women’s Prize for Fiction – formerly the Orange, now the Bailey’s – was set up 20 years ago in response to an all–male Booker shortlist, this has been the prize to which the most attention is paid in gender terms. If you were to look at the longlists, shortlists, and winners of the last 5 years there’s an easy conclusion: it’s gender biased. More men than women make up these lists. The casual observer might conclude that the judges have their patriarchal hats firmly on their heads when making their decisions. Except, the primary problem may not lie with the judges.
The question of the Man Booker prize judges and gender came up last year when only 3 women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges Sarah Churchwell said, ‘We read what publishers submit to us. . . [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.’ So I asked the Man Booker administrators how many of the submitted books in the last 5 years have been written by women. The answer was, slightly under 40%. I should add, this isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve more than once been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging. Because publisher submissions remain confidential this part of the equation remains uncommented on when judges are held to account for the gender imbalance of the long and short lists they produce.
In the 5 years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women to win the prize has been exactly 40%. In this period, although 4 out of 5 of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there’s been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by polishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. In 2013, in a Guardian
article, Debbie Taylor of Mslexia
magazine pointed out that ‘of the last 10 books to win the Booker prize, eight had male protagonists, one a female protagonist, and one both male and female protagonists … If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected, and read as universal.’ It’s worth mentioning that the two books that have won the Man Booker since that interview was published – The Luminaries
and The Narrow Road to the Deep North
– both have male protagonists. Of course we don’t know how many of the submitted books had female protagonists, but it remains instructive to look, by contrast, at the books that have won the Baileys Women’s Prize – formerly the Orange, now the Baileys . In the last 12 years, 4 of the books have centred on a male protagonist, 3 on a female protagonist, and 5 on a mix of male and female protagonists. This, I would argue, is a consequence not only of having women-only submissions, but also of having women-only judges.
I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last 5 years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the VIDA statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic. But at this that [‘this’?] point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that more men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and improve yourself by reading some Toni Morrison.
The question isn’t ‘Is there a problem?’; it’s, ‘Are we recognising how deep it runs, and do we know what to do about it?’ The easy response is to always blame someone else. Prize judges can blame publishers who can blame the kinds of books that cut across male and female reading tastes. Literary editors can blame the women writers who don’t take up chances that are offered to them and the women writers can blame the editors who shift the blame rather than acknowledging they don’t ask as many women to begin with. We can all say, men don’t just have more confidence about picking their books of the year, they also have more confidence about writing big, bold novels – and then we can work out that ‘big and bold’ are only more appealing than ‘subtle and with emotional depth’ because literary cultures have historically been formed by men which allows a patriarchal view to look like a universal truth.
Well, enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend to a world of equality? Or should we step outside that fictional narrative and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I should add, I speak as someone whose great–aunt, Attia Hosein, was brought back into print after 3 decades by Virago Modern Classics, and also as someone who has been twice shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and seen precisely how great an effect that has on a book. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male–dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere. But they also brought questions of female exclusion or marginalisation into the conversation. VIDA, the literary organization which focuses on women in the literary arts, is doing the same with its annual gender breakdown of literary publications. And VIDA has also recognised that power privilege on either side of the Atlantic is not merely about gender but also about race – they now have an Annual Women of Colour Count too. That I’ve failed to mention race until now doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it as an even more lopsided and neglected matter than gender. What we need is more. Not more special privileges for women, but more ways of countering the special privileges doled out to white men.
Now that the problem has been recognised, analysed, translated into graphs and charts and statistics it is time for everyone, male and female, in our literary culture to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality for which we all sectors of the culture bear responsibility. Last year readers, critics and at least one literary journal signed up to a ’Year of Reading Women’ - or in the case of the journal ‘The Critical Flame’, a year of reading women writers and writers of colour. Let’s take it a step further - let’s have a Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour. 2018 , the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, seems both near enough and distant enough to be feasible. Of course there will be many details to work out - including, what happens to paperback of books published the prior year and can we find a more catchy name than Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour (YPWWWC) - but the basic premise is precisely what it says on the tin. Of course the knock of effect of a Year of Publishing Women and Writers of Colour will be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front of store displays, in literary festival line-ups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refuse to sign up, then it’s for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and literary festivals to say their commitment to YPWWWC means they won’t be able to give space to the white male writers who are being published that year. I’m not discounting the fact that many white male writers will, I’m sure, also back YPWWWC and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that are published.
What will it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what will happen in 2019? Will we revert to status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our pre-conceptions of which is unchangeable? I suggest we find out.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of six novels, including the 2015 Bailey’s Prize long-listed A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Three of her other novels (In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Broken Verses) have received awards from the Pakistan Academy of Letters. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists’, she grew up in Karachi, and now lives in London.
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Sam Ruddock Reviews Any Other Mouth
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!)
Diving into Lives with Brave New Reads: A Guest Blog from Sam Ruddock
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.
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.
The National Conversation: Enduring Stories by Erica Wagner
An original provocation piece by writer and editor Erica Wagner, delivered at the National Conversation event 'Amazon and the Civil War for Books' on Sunday 17th May as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
Just about one hundred and fifteen years ago, a young American anthropologist named John Reed Swanton travelled to a group of islands which were called, in his day, the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwest coast of Canada. He was in the employ of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington D.C., but he worked under the guidance of the influential anthropologist Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History, a place just a few blocks from where I grew up, on the Upper West Side of New York City. He had been sent to collect objects from the people who lived there: argillite carvings, wooden boxes, the kinds of objects you find in museums. But in the time he spent with the island inhabitants, he didn’t collect objects, not really. He listened to stories. And he took down the names of the men who told him those stories: one was called Ghandl; the other, Skaay. He transcribed their words in their own language, as they were spoken.
Acknowledging their authorship and language was a radical act. Almost every other anthropologist working in his day believed that stories collected from indigenous people could be compressed and flattened into a so-called ‘universal’ version of that story. As Robert Bringhurst, the scholar who, nearly a century later, would translate these stories into striking, erudite English versions, notes, this is like walking into the Uffizi and saying: but why do we need all these paintings of the Crucifixion? Surely one is enough? I reckon not. Not a few of the stories Swanton heard these men tell are some of the greatest I have encountered in any language, from any culture. By giving these poets their names Swanton allowed them to be authors. The rights of authors, as it happens, remain a lively topic for debate here in the 21st century.
I’m going to talk to you about discovery, and about what literature and art truly are, and the potential that they have to change our lives. Because lately I’ve been thinking that it’s too easy to slip into a mindset in which we believe we are talking about art and literature – when what we’re really talking about is business. Commerce. Not that it’s wrong to talk about business. It’s important to talk about business. But it’s also important to consider how we can separate these two conversations.
We’re told that we are in the midst of a civil war on which the fate of our reading habits will depend. In the world of the old stories the name ‘Amazon’ conjured a fierce, glorious image of a bold woman warrior: no more. Now the ferocity of an Amazon brings a new kind of terror: of a monopoly that will devour literature. We seem to be entering in a period of truce, it’s true. Last month HarperCollins agreed a deal with Amazon over e-books; this followed on from the settling of the lengthy dispute over pricing between Amazon and Hachette, resolved before the end of last year. These are arguments and transactions that take place in a time of unprecedented flux: or so it would seem. But is that really the case? Are we really in a brave new world?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that modern humans have existed in roughly their present form for 100,000 years. Those early people led lives which were very different from ours, but their brains were like ours. The astonishing art on the walls of the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche valley of southern France was made about 30,000 years ago; some indigenous art in Australia is much older. Beowulf’s 3,000 lines – which survive in a single manuscript – were written down around the 10th century CE. Now: the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg came into commercial use about 500 years after that, around 1450.
What am I doing by throwing these numbers at you?
I’m demonstrating that the book is only a very, very small part of the human literary story. From Gutenberg to widely available commercial printing, another couple of hundred years intervened. But literature, I’m quite certain, has existed since humanity has existed. My great-grandmother was born in the East End of London in 1888. When I discovered her birth certificate in the Public Record Office at Kew, I also discovered that her mother had put a rough cross in the box for her signature – and so I learned that my great-great grandmother could neither read nor write; not so uncommon, in those days. But for all I know, my great-great grandmother could have been a storyteller, a singer, her mind could have held a treasure-vault of history and art. But it’s gone. Because books, of course, have a job to do too.
The name of the islands John Swanton visited has changed since he arrived in 1900. Thanks to the efforts of the indigenous people who still live there, and who only narrowly survived the arrival of Europeans into their territory, these islands are now called Haida Gwaii, ‘The Islands of the People’ – and it was the Haida people Swanton had come to study. If you have been to the Great Court of the British Museum, you will have seen a Haida house pole, acquired three years after Swanton travelled there. The house in front of which it would have stood had been abandoned; as had the whole village. Many Haida villages had been abandoned by then. Smallpox and other European diseases had ravaged the population. ‘The island population is now shrunk to not over seven hundred,’ Swanton wrote in a letter. ‘...The missionary has suppressed all the dances and has been instrumental in having all the old houses destroyed – everything in short that makes life worth living.’
Do not mistake me. I am not comparing the destruction of an indigenous culture – of many indigenous cultures – to business arguments in the publishing world. What I want to demonstrate is that the human need to hear stories and to tell stories is something which I believe to be so ingrained in us (in our brains, in our hearts, in our souls) that it will survive no matter what; it will find new forms and flourish in different ways. For the past few hundred years the novel has been the dominant form of storytelling in Western culture; but as I’ve tried to show, that’s a drop in the ocean of time. And what is a ‘novel’, anyway? It’s a way to tell a story. Well, there are other ways to tell stories too. When I watched Breaking Bad, I discovered I was thinking about its plot and its characters with the same seriousness I’ve devoted to many novels. Perhaps not coincidentally, that series emerged in an industry which is also in flux: the old television networks no longer dominate the scene, and newcomers like AMC and Netflix are shaking up the industry. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Amazon is coming into this market too.
But books are a hugely significant part of our culture. I know about John Swanton, you won’t be surprised to hear, thanks to a book; I came to consider the great span of human culture I’ve just described thanks to a book. That is Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as A Knife, first published in 1999; translations from Swanton’s transcriptions which were taken down nearly a hundred years before. There are two companion volumes, which are really not companions, but the central texts of Bringhurst’s great work: they are Nine Visits to the Mythworld, devoted to the works of Ghandl, and Being in Being, which is devoted to the works of Skaay. Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and polymath, a scholar of Ancient Greek and typography, too. Bringhurst took many years to teach himself Haida in order to make these magnificent translations.
Publishers, booksellers and writers find themselves in an industry in transition: some of the changes that transition brings are inarguably troubling. Independent bookshops continue to close. There are fewer than 1,000 on British high streets now, the Guardian has reported; one-third fewer than the decade before. Fifty-seven independent bookshops in this country closed just last year. I’ve worked with the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Foundation to distribute grants to writers struggling to make ends meet – I know that things are tough out there; not least because I’m an author myself. The results of a survey conducted on behalf of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society released last month make sobering reading. Since 2007, the last time authors were surveyed, there has been a 29% fall in writers’ incomes in real terms. And yet, while I have no wish to be a perceived as a Pollyanna, I wonder if there was ever a time when things weren’t tough for the people we now call ‘authors’? Sometimes, it’s useful to take a step back – a really, really big, step back, as far back as 100,000 years – to get a different angle on things.
Swanton’s work didn’t find much of an audience when he came back east. And Bringhurst’s work with the words of Ghandl and Skaay has, so far, found a smaller audience than it deserves. The edition I have was published in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre, a fine house; they went bust, however, a few years ago, a not-unusual fate for a publisher these days. But they were taken under the wing of another Canadian publisher, Harbour, and so have lived to fight – or publish – another day, at least for the time being. I have spent over a decade wondering why no British publisher would take on these texts, which deserve to be recognized as classics; I’m delighted to be able to say that the Folio Society is now preparing an edition, to be published in the autumn, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and illustrations by the Haida artist Don Yeomans.
Atwood’s association with these works goes back a long way – it’s one of the things that brought us together as friends. Not long after I discovered the works of Ghandl and Skaay through the translations of Robert Bringhurst – by way of a series of chance conversations, for such is the way of these things, and it is by these conversations that our human future is made – I commissioned a piece from her on this epic trilogy; it was published in The Times a dozen years ago. Of what Bringhurst had done, she wrote that: ‘It’s one of those works that rearranges the inside of your head — a profound meditation on the nature of oral poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them. It restores to life two exceptional poets we ought to know. It gives us some insight into their world – in Bringhurst’s words, “the old-growth forest of the human mind” – and, by comparison, into our own.’
So we see that these stories can still come to us from the most surprising places; we see that they can find a way through. I am sure that – whatever the future of the industry holds – this will continue to happen. So – can we say where publishing is headed? Where the industry will go? Will Amazon devour everyone and everything? I don’t know. What I do know is that stories and storytellers will survive.
As the world changes – as it always has – and information passes between us in different ways – as it always has – good books, important books, get through. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, was one of the highlights of 2014 to my mind (and indeed, I was one of the judges who put it on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize). This book, written in what the author has called a ‘shadow tongue’ of Old English, was published by the crowd-funded imprint Unbound; just the other day, I’m thrilled to say, it was named the inaugural Book of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards 2015. And Preparation for the Next Life, a gripping debut by Atticus Lish, was published first in the US by Tyrant Books, a small-press publisher; the book has been widely and warmly reviewed, both in the United States and in this country, where it has just been published by Oneworld; last month it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction We find the stories we need to hear.
I am not denying the state of the landscape. But by speaking here less of commerce than of art, I hope to remind you of why we all bother in the first place. Human culture is ancient and durable. Perhaps when it seems at its most elusive – in the way it can pass from voice to ear to voice – it’s the most durable artifact there is. Books may vanish: but if we keep listening, literature will survive. Ghandl and Skaay were poets who had survived the wreck of their civilization. And yet Ghandl and Skaay held on to their art; and John Reed Swanton – who was, incidentally, just 27 years old when he met them – was wise enough to recognize it. It’s up to us to keep our ears to the ground. To speak to each other. To listen. In Skaay’s epic which Bringhurst calls ‘Raven Traveling’, Raven goes hunting. And then he stops, and dives into the water.
He rammed his beak into the rock
out on the point at the edge of town.
He cried as he struck it.
It was solid, that rock,
and yet he splintered it by speaking.
A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst
Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst
Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, translated from the Haida by Robert Bringhurst (Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers); Douglas & McIntyre, Canada.
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is published by Unbound, £18
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish is published by Oneworld, £14.99
We'd love to know your thoughts on this topic, please do comment below or on twitter #NatConv
What's Wrong With Amazon? By Isabelle Grey
An article by writer Isabelle Grey in anticipation of the National Conversation event Amazon and the Civil War for Books at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival this Sunday 17th May.
Amazon has unquestionably shaken up the way in which readers choose and buy books. It has also opened up the publishing arena to anyone who wants to edit and market their own work. Has this really provoked a civil war? I am old enough to have written my first book on a manual typewriter; as a journalist, I am a veteran of the Wapping dispute. I have seen before how bitterly two sides can fight over new technology.
As a writer, I am neither for nor against Amazon, any more than I am for or against radio, film, television or books (print or digital) as a delivery platform for the stories I want to tell. What I don’t want to do is to write something that will never find an audience.
As a citizen, I have issues with Amazon around employment practices and fair taxation. As a reader, Amazon is too easy to resist. As a writer, Amazon is no more or less interested in making money out of me than my publisher or an independent bookshop. But what Amazon and other e-book sellers do far better than either of them is to find readers for me – over 120,000 of them so far.
The 'thing' about e-books that publishers (and, to be fair, most large corporations, including the BBC) have been woefully slow to get is the value of data. They are catching up – HarperCollins now has a director of audience development while Hachette have developed data visualization and social listening tools. These things aren’t mere Silicon Valley hipster jargon: they really matter.
Shakespeare wrote for the stage because some of his audience were illiterate. Dickens wrote his novels as part-works because cheaper and faster printing techniques made that a popular and exciting way to go. There’s a generation of authors coming along who will write for the mobile phone, because that’s the first place they go to find what they want. Where hardware leads, the style and form of content follows.
The big difference is that today’s hardware comes packed with the potential for data-gathering. It’s not only marketing and sales strategies that are based on data analytics. So are the stories we tell. Here’s an example: Netflix are currently spending $100m (out of a predicted annual spend of £3.5bn) on a TV series called The Crown, a bio-pic of Queen Elizabeth II, that is being show-run by Peter Morgan and Stephen Daldry, a writer and director with multiple Oscar nominations. Why? Because the data that Netflix gathers and analyses tells them that their subscribers’ favourite shows are about royalty, marriage and parenthood.
Their data tells them a whole lot more, too – not only what people search for, but also how, when and where they watch, for how long at a single sitting, at precisely what point they get bored and click out, and what they then say about it, and to whom, on social media.
As a writer, I find that knowledge exciting. I don’t want to be a slave to it, but why would I not want to know the precise effect my work – almost line by line – is having on a reader or viewer? For me, that is the huge creative debate that is to come – and, trust me, it is coming. What is the value of that kind of knowledge? How will it, and should it, be shared? And how far should writers and other creative artists either wish or be asked to respond to it?
It’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution.
Isabelle Grey is a former freelance journalist and reviewer, magazine editor and (as Isabelle Anscombe) author of five non-fiction books. For the past twenty years she has written television drama, including the BBC docu-drama Genghis Khan and an episode of the Bafta-winning series Accused with Jimmy McGovern. She also writes for film and radio and for five years taught screenwriting at Central St Martin's. She is currently finishing her fourth novel for Quercus, a follow-up to Good Girls Don't Die.
Follow Isabelle on Twitter: @IsabelleGrey
Find out more on Isabelle's website
Find out more about the event Amazon and the Civil War for Books. Tweeting? Use #NatConv to debate online with us this Sunday evening.
Books Need Readers
Hello, hello, welcome! How nice to see you. Please come in, take a seat. I'm Rowan, the new Communications Coordinator at WCN Towers.
Oh, the bookshelves? They are full, aren’t they? You’re looking for something to read? Say no more, I know just the shelf for you!
Now that you’re settled, with a stack of books next to your arm, shall I tell you a bit more? Great, I’ll begin.
These six books, with their eye-catching covers, are part of a shared reading programme called Brave New Reads
. Formerly known as Summer Reads—oh yes, Summer Reads was brilliant, thank you— Brave New Reads is in its sixth successful year.
This year Brave New Reads will take place in libraries across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire
. Don’t worry that you don’t live nearby- you can find lots of details about all the books online,
as well as extra resources. We’ll be reporting back from lots of the events too!
What sort of events? Oh, all sorts – there’ll be book clubs, author readings, tea parties and book quizzes. (You can take a look at our Timetable
, or pop into your local library to see what’s on.) And on the 11th of May we’ll be welcoming Hamid Ismailov, author of The Dead Lake
to the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library for the Norfolk Launch of Brave New Reads
Yes, that is going to be treat! Hamid has promised to read from The Dead Lake
in both Russian and English, and answer your questions. He’s had a fascinating life – he’s worked as Writer in Residence for the BBC World Service and his work is banned in his home country. The book is absolutely enchanting, too. You can buy your ticket here
, if you’d like to join me. (It’s cheaper and far better value than a coffee, only £2!)
Shall I tell you a bit more about the books? I think this year’s selection
is stronger than ever before, with a really fantastic mix of writing: poetry, non-fiction, short stories – there really is something for everybody. The six books were chosen from a longlist of over 150 titles by the Readers’ Circle – a friendly community of over 100 readers based in East Anglia - who spent months arguing over which books should make the final pick!
Let me give you the run-down:Fallen Land (by Patrick Flanery) tells the story of Poplar Farm and those who live on the acres. A chillingly tense novel, this gothic drama charts the downfall of the landowners: Louise, whose slave ancestors ploughed their blood into the earth, Paul Krovik, whose life fell apart when his property business caused bankruptcy, and the Noailles family, whose fresh start only magnifies the fault lines inherent in their clan.
Badgerlands (by Patrick Barkham) is a fascinating examination of the badger, exploring the history and future of the distinctive striped creature. Barkham investigates the badger with a fair but gentle eye, speaking to farmers and wildlife campaigners alike to create an intriguing piece of nature writing.
Prayers for the Stolen (by Jennifer Clement) tells the tale of Ladydi (no, not that Lady Di), a fierce young girl who lives in rural Mexico with her mother. Ladydi and her mother struggle to survive in the isolated region, plagued by drug cartels and toxic herbicides. You’re sure to find yourself immersed in Ladydi’s thrilling existence.
Black Country (by Liz Berry) is a soaring collection of poetry, swooping from the joy of childhood triumphs to deeper sensual pleasures. Berry’s distinct voice is characterised by her use of West midlands dialogue, creating fresh and magical language.
Any Other Mouth (by Annelise Mackintosh) is not quite a novel, and not quite a short story collection- this book can be read as either, depending on your inclination! Brutal, raw and wickedly funny, Any Other Mouth tells the compelling story of Gretchen as she stumbles through bereavement, growing up, and explicit sexual encounters.
The Dead Lake (by Hamid Ismailov, translate by Andrew Bromfield) is an enchanting novella. Fable-like, this book introduces you to Yerzhan; a seemingly-ordinary young boy who will introduce you to the world of the Kazakhstan steppes, and reveal the truth of his blighted youth: from the nuclear testing ground of his homeland to his lost love.
Heard enough? Well, you can buy all of these titles from all good bookshops, and if you pop into Norwich's Waterstones, Jarrolds and the Book Hive, they're stocking all the Brave New Reads books. Or, head to your local library and borrow the titles from there.
I’d love to know what you think of all the books! If you’re on Twitter
you can join in the chat with other book lovers under #BraveNewReads
. (Keep an eye out for competitions on there too.)
Well, thanks for stopping by. I hope you like what you saw, and that you’ll be back again soon.
Don’t forget we’ll be adding lots of extra Brave New Reads material to the website as time goes on, including a list of recommended reading, so you’ll never run out of books!
Find out more about Brave New Reads.
Find out more about the Norfolk Launch of Brave New Reads, featuring author Hamid Ismailov.
The Civil War for Books: Where’s the Money Going? by Philip Gwyn Jones
Philip Gwyn Jones' provocation on the civil war for books for our National Conversation event at the London Book Fair on 16th April. Do let us know your thoughts on this piece in the comments section below.
Over the course of the last few years, it has come to feel that we bookish types are stuck in our very own World War One re-enactment, in trench warfare over where the money lines are drawn. The skirmishes in the global book industry are internecine and unrelenting: the independent authors bombard the traditional publishers; the traditional authors bombard the literary festival directors; the traditional publishers bombard the retailers; academics denounce those who would defend copyright as traitors to the public good; and the retailers take the publishers to courts martial. With the new armaments of disruption and disintermediation whirring nicely, the ‘creative destruction’ of techno-capitalism is at full tilt in the business of writing. But who will taste defeat first? Will it be the publishers? Or the booksellers? Agents? Or, dread thought, might it be the writers? Mounted on my high horse, surveying the scene, I fear it is another regiment on this clamorous battlefield which is most in peril. The Readers.
How can that be? The Reader has never had it so good. In the UK, the Reader has enjoyed a decade of improved access to ever cheaper books, more efficiently distributed and more elegantly designed than before. Entering the doors of one of our grander old-world bookshops, a handsome branch of Waterstones or the glorious new flagship Foyles or Blackwell’s in Edinburgh or Oxford, and surveying the lustrous array of beautifully packaged new titles, it would take a positively curmudgeonly, perverse book-lover not to bask on those sunlit uplands of choice and simply be thrilled to be alive at such a moment in British bookselling history. I am of course that pervert. Yes, I too have been lifted aloft by the sense that We Readers have never had it so good – that the profusion and the excellence and the value before us is unprecedented. And yet I find myself bumping back down to earth all too often. As with raising children, where every moment of joy has an elegiac cloud shadowing it – oh, this is a wondrous moment, but, lo, it is already passing – so it feels that we are at the apex of British bookselling, and the only way now is Down.
Books are like stars. By the time they reach the New Titles shelves, their birth is a fact of the distant past. The books displayed at the front of today’s bookshop were created, contractually or cosmologically, in a big bang of acquisition two, three, ten years prior. So, there is something of an optical lag in place – in the space and time in between, there have been some interesting developments in the business. Yes there are still occasional new shooting stars, lighting up the firmament all of a sudden, a Jessie Burton or a Paula Hawkins, as there have always been. But increasingly rather large patches of the galaxy have gone black. Now, this is where the amateur publishing astronomer can only be speculative: deciding that something might have existed that isn’t readily apparent is mind-twisting work. And it’s hard to offer up the hard stones of evidence. But as a commissioning editor and publisher of some 25 years standing, I hope I have some authority to make the claim that certain stars are missing. They are just not being born. It seems to me that there is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye. We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines.
A big change in how The Reader finds their next book to read only exacerbates this development, even if it is not the primordial cause. Readers have always valued personal recommendation. Every book market research survey ever done has told us this. This is why the best bookstores always, in the end, return to the power of their booksellers’ advocacy – those bays festooned with Tim’s Reading Tips or Chloe’s Kids’ Books to Cherish. Now that two out of every three books in the UK are not bought at a till in a bookshop, it is how books rise to visibility online that matters. Metadata-driven discoverability, to use the jargon, is the key to modern book-buying. Online, if you are looking for a book about German grammar or Cantonese cookery or Filipino forestry, algorithms will lead you by the hand to your rightful destination in a nanosecond. If, however, you are just idly looking for your next novel to read, open to suggestion, then it is stumbling across a plausible recommendation that is crucial. And that works online in a very different way from Tim and Chloe’s methods of diffidently but passionately – and above all personally – persuading you to read this not that while you chat at the till with them. The happy few self-published authors who are making good money by skillfully and incessantly promoting their works online have long ago realized that generating talk around a book can be almost infinitely amplified in cyberspace to lucrative effect. Social reading is the coming thing, we are told, where our reading devices and apps will allow us to communicate with others who are reading the same book we are, share notes and queries with them, correct and conject, exult and excoriate together as if we online readers were round a digital dining table, and even involve the writer in that conversation if they are willing. But for such Social Reading to work, everyone has to be reading the same thing, so it tends to favour the popular, the shared, the already-known. Hence the ubiquity of Most Read and Most Liked lists. There is a lot of barked coercion out there in cyberspace. So the online sharing book economy will coalesce around, well, winners. But what happens to the losers: the unshared, the jagged, inimitable, harder-to-chat books? Lest I sound altogether too tweedy, I ought quickly to align myself with techno-utopian Clay Shirky, the Voltaire of the ebook revolution, who says ‘While I disapprove of what other people read, I will defend to the death their right to read it.’ I second that emotion. However, selfish reader that I am, it’s the kind of books I like to read most that I’m most worried about. Their authors are increasingly hard-up, feel unloved and unrewarded, and some of my acquaintance are even turning away from writing books altogether. ‘But, twas ever thus’, you cry. And you are of course at least half-right.
Many of the greatest writers struggled to earn enough in their lifetime; they had to do non-literary work to survive, or lean on others, or come into family wealth. It’s worth saying for the avoidance of a false historicity that writers have always been hovering at the threshold, cap in hand. And also that it can be in the tension between the contradictory urges to unleash creativity and to make money that culture is made.
But the facts are that, as of last summer, according to the most comprehensive survey we have of British professional writers, conducted once a decade by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, less than 12% of British writers were able to earn a living wage from writing alone, down from 40% of those surveyed in 2005. Moreover, the median income of a professional writer in the UK has fallen to just £11K p.a. So, it’s fair to say it’s not the long-serving professional writer who is making all the headway in the struggle for economic security in the book industry. For many of them, with book contracts halving in average value over the last ten years, journalism tending to be unpaid, and no rise in state or philanthropic support for the literary arts in the UK, it is to teaching, and specifically the teaching of creative writing, that so many have turned for essential income to pay for their food, energy and shelter. They teach in order to write but often find teaching impedes their writing. And even with teaching income, very few are making significant sums of money.
So let’s look elsewhere for the cash, and get back to the ‘hysterical narcissists’ as good old Clay Shirky calls them: the big traditional corporate publishing houses. Last month, Hachette’s parent Lagardère announced its financials for 2014, a year during which their key US division had been at loggerheads for months with its biggest customer, Amazon, and that customer had strategically impeded Hachette’s sales by altering discounts and availability onsite. So, revenues were down a little on the previous year’s as were net profits, but those profits, at €197 million, remained a good sharp 10% of their overall publishing revenues of €2.04 billion. Meanwhile, the newlyweds at Penguin Random House managed to make profits of €363million, a margin of 13% in 2014, their first year under the marital roof. HarperCollins managed an identical profit margin in their 2014 accounts, and Simon & Schuster managed, yes, 13%. Spooky. When I was growing up as an editor in trade publishing, a house was perceived to have done exceptionally well if it made double-digit profitability in a given year. The biggest houses seem to have secured that golden performance year in year out of late. For the time being at least. Because of course this newer profitability is entirely underpinned by two key shifts: the higher profit margins on ebook sales over print book sales, which is in turn founded on the prevailing orthodox royalty rate of 25% of net receipts for authors on ebooks; and the immense profitability of their Amazon account – Amazon having eliminated returns and vastly reduced the cost of servicing that account for printed books and quite simply having created a whole new efficient book market – for ebooks – from scratch. So there's plenty of money to be made in corporate publishing at present. But how much longer the corporates can hold that 25% royalty line against the battering of the big guns of literary agenting is a major tactical question in the civil war for books. Likewise, Amazon’s repeated raids on publishers’ discounts, which see them attempting to seize ever more of the publishers’ most profitable territory, aren’t likely to cease anytime soon. Meanwhile, in another corner of the battlefield, that same large standing army lashes at itself with mace and broadsword, in order to avoid becoming profitable.
It is one of the great mysteries of technocapitalism. Amazon, that most gnomic, inaccessible, efficient and omni-competent of businesses, the Wizard of Oz of the retail world, has for twenty years made very little money, in the specific sense that it makes proportionately tiny profits. And yet it is adored by Wall Street and the post-bubble new tech evangelists in the world of finance. It is not an old business, but it has been with us now for over two decades, and can just about be counted as mature on most peoples’ scales. So it is surprising that over the last five years, according to the figures on Reuters Markets database, despite in each of those years producing worldwide revenues in excess of US$30 billion p.a., rising most recently to US$88 billion, i.e. 88 thousand million dollars (always worth spinning that out, I find), its average annual profit margin across the period 2009—2014 is a whopping 0.64%. Less than 1%. Now admittedly that is less than 1% of a very large sum, so it’s still in absolute terms a handsome stack of cash. But it is not the kind of ratio that the Stock Exchange normally permits to go unchallenged for so long. Unless they are convinced that far, far greater profits lie ahead, which is what some analysts evidently believe – that Amazon’s data mining of all its customers’ buying habits, movements and preferences will permit them ever-more-targeted, ever-more-seductive marketing. They will know our desires before we do. In their current position, even more perplexing to financial half-wits like me, is the fact that with each of the last five years Amazon’s overall revenues have ascended steadily as their reach and range increases, from $34bn in sales in 2010, to 48 to 61 to 74 to $89bn in 2014, while their operating profits have declined inversely steadily, from $862m in 2011 to $178m last year. Of course, if you earn less, one happy consequence is that you pay less tax – but that is a whole other conversation.
Meanwhile, back in the author’s study, the world bifurcates: there is the increasingly casino-like traditional publishing option, where the bets are big getting bigger, and the winners are big getting bigger too as are the losers. Or, for those not allowed to approach the corporates’ gaming tables, there is the option of being among the happy poor at the fringes who are just grateful to get published, thank’ee kindly guv’nor. This state of affairs of course permits, demands and accelerates the rise of crowd-funded publications and autonomous publications. So, a writer wanting to enter the fray can hire a gang of experienced mercenaries from among the vast pool of wise old former publishing professionals now swelling the ranks of the self-employed. These experts will help get an autonomous author’s typescript into its best shape. The author then puts on the self-publicist’s armour (and stays in it 24/7) and heads out to be their own battalion. Or an author can look to microsourcing, spreading the load of a publication’s start-up costs lightly across many shoulders via online crowdfunding sites, before, again, having to don the self-publicist’s armour and go into combat with rival writers for the attentions of The Reader. The swordplay starts on Twitter and Facebook, continues on GoodReads and YouTube, and climaxes on Amazon and then Google, where it will be indexed forever. It’s all about visibility, publicity, penetration, SEO. But there’s the rub, as while travelling assiduously through those six mighty digital kingdoms, the writer and their work will in passing give up for free their most precious attribute – at least as contemporary economics, and indeed The Stock Market, defines it – their metadata. And Facebook and Google and the rest will continue to slice tiny slivers of income off all those who cross their borders, while also amassing a passport profile of the passers-by that can be parceled up, sliced any which way, shuffled and sold and sold and sold again to all those who would profit from knowing consumer habits and movements. Now, the question of whether it is at all right that the data monopolist companies continue to amass ever greater wealth from their tracking of the desires and dreams of individual citizen-consumers amid the financialization of everyday life is beyond the precincts of this provocation, but how states and citizens choose to marshal or not to marshal the data companies is perhaps the second biggest issue of our time after the climate crisis. Were they cannier, the large publishing corporations would perhaps be more actively advocating that national governments and supra-national bodies like the EU intervene to protect consumers’ data or better still to give copyright control of that data back to those consumers, to The Reader. To be fair they do so in Germany and France but fall short of doing so in the Anglo-Saxon world.
For, it all comes back to copyright, who controls the right to make copies, and the tension between creator and consumer. Increasingly the work that used to be copied for a cash price, the book itself, will become less commercially valuable than the details around its sales transaction – when it was done, where it was done, amongst what other activities, alongside what other purchases. As the cost of copying approaches absolute zero in the digital space, and the belief hardens that ‘sharing’ writing on the Internet by hyperlinking is not the theft it would be deemed to be were it to take place in print, our traditional copyright payment structure will come under ever greater pressure, and Publisher and Author book revenues may suffer further. Which is why the income to be had from live events might become crucial to writers. Readers increasingly want intimacy: access to writers, online and in person. They seek proximity, to share an experience with writers, conversation, observation, questioning, at literary festivals and at the new salons like Damian Barr’s, Pin Drop, Local Transport, Intelligence Squared et al, and beyond that in other initiatives where writers sell their unique wisdom in person rather on paper, to individuals or to institutions and companies. All this unprinted activity might come to displace the income from the books themselves as the major source of revenue for writers in the future. Some would argue that such a change favours the confident self-publicist rather than the better writer per se. I believe it favours those who have something substantial to say, which is no bad thing.
Ultimately, the coming shift to Social Reading is liable to consign the traditional Publisher and many a writer to decline and defeat in the Civil War for Books... which of course saddens me. Economically it will be the Reader who is the prize, the territory to be captured, the Alsace-Lorraine or the Poland of the Civil War. Winning the Reader’s attention – and the natural monopolies of Google and Facebook will be far better at this than the publishers – then chopping that attention into tiny little morsels for never-ending re-sale and re-cycling seems, in a way that might even be beyond the imaginings of a Borges or a Ballard, likely to be the humming machinery at the heart of the twenty-first-century book business. Reader, you ain’t seen nothing yet: they will be all over your every move like a rash.
Philip Gwyn Jones is an editor, publisher, lecturer and commentator, and a Trustee of both English PEN and the Royal Literary Fund.
A Wild Evening with Jeanette Winterson and Helen Macdonald
“I’m not going to be reading from Why Be Happy,” says Jeanette Winterson. “I can’t be doing with that. Instead, in honour of Helen, I’m going to be reading you a story about a dog.”
So begins our evening with Jeanette Winterson and Helen Macdonald at Norwich Playhouse, a sold-out event as part of the International Literature Showcase
that brings row after row of excited faces and then an expectant hush as the house lights go down.
Winterson is an H is for Hawk fan – "if you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat," she says. Macdonald smiles, settling back on the sofa, the rapport between the two writers clear as we relax into a conversational atmosphere, a discussion between two like-minded enthusiasts.
Winterson sips her whisky as the lecturn is removed, then stands up to read, pacing and gesticulating as she tells us a short tale about love and doggishness. “Dogs are on the side of life; they love life and they love you...” The story bounds along, is always just slightly ahead of us like the dog, pulling us on with insistent enthusiasm. Dogs make you say yes to life and “yes is chaos, no is control...” then “love is chaos because it is bigger than any of the boxes it came in.”
The audience clearly adore the story, are an active part of its deceptively simple gamble through resistance, adoption and bounding love. There is silence when finally the dog does not come back, when the story takes us to the ultimate end. At the close Macdonald says that when she read it earlier in the day she was in floods of tears, saying also that this is a raw day, the eighth anniversary of her father’s death. "It’s a long time," says Helen. "Well not so long really," says Jeanette. We feel privileged to be witnessing this conversation, one of trust and openness, and so finely tuned, mirroring the precision of expression that is so effective and engaging in both writers’ work.
Helen and Jeanette talk about the non-human thing that comes into the room when you write – that takes over, the other. “Is it animal,” asks Jeanette? “It has more legs than a human.”Animals have always existed in culture as spirit guides, shamanic totems that can help us through. It’s because they’re so utterly different, they are not human, the two agree. Similarly there is a ruthlessness, a wildness in writing, says Jeanette. This thing, it is not tame, it ruptures writer and the world; it is wild, it has to be. That’s the power.
This otherness concerning animals is important. We can learn from them, says Helen – they can show us how to live if we let them. The Origin of Species shows it, how animals exist through interdependency, connectedness. How layered it is. Yes, we get these layers through reading too, and interdependency between people, connection, says Jeanette.
They discuss the zeitgeist’s move towards the wild and our untamed spaces, Jeanette saying that we need to connect to something wilder for our mental health. All around the evening, the overly tamed nature of our daily world circles, the desire to escape it, the need.
What’s important about the Goshawk is its utter difference says Helen. That it's not human. She talks about how animals are appropriated by humans for their features, how this is insidious. How the Goshawk was loved by the Nazis because it killed things weaker than itself.
Then Helen stands up and reads from H for a Hawk and we live her visceral fascination for Mabel’s daily existence, the escape into the bird of prey’s pursuits, feeling the brush of the earth and the stumble through land not adapted for humans.
Afterwards, Jeanette asks Helen about Mabel, about why Helen needed her. Helen tells of her lifelong fascination with hawks, but how she suddenly needed to escape fully into Mabel’s world after her father’s death, the release of it. "It’s important to connect to the wild we have left," says Helen. "And to learn from these other beings, these animals."
This is a theme, that continues when the house lights go up and questions are taken. A concern for our modern world and the way we are living. What we can do about it. Whether it’s too late. "Do we look to nature to acknowledge that we’re part of it," somebody asks? "Yes," says Jeanette, "I think we do – think of a world without hierarchy, imagine how it could be." The message is stark. "No planet, no people." These are worrying times.
We all have power, agree the writers, we mustn’t give up, there is plenty that all of us can do. Start about thinking about what you buy. Think about what you eat – the food on your plate is the most political thing you’ll deal in every day. Then empathy, back to that: once again the conversation restates – animals are not us, and that is what we look for in them perhaps; we are looking to value difference.
Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Chris Gribble walks slowly out of the wings. “Here comes the grim reaper,” says Jeanette, and Chris smiles, reluctantly closing the event. Then the crowd files out, forms two long lines to get books signed, searching special final moments with two very special writers.
Our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase
Jeanette Winterson, Cynan Jones, Helen MacDonald; our new Director of Communications Alice Kent looks forward to her highlights of the International Literature Showcase, 18 - 21 March 2015
On my first day at WCN - just over two weeks ago - I was handed a mammoth document to proofread; the International Literature Showcase brochure. It quickly transpired that this was a big event. Representatives will be coming from Armenia, Brazil, China, (nobody from a country beginning with D), Egypt, France, Georgia - the list goes on. What’s more Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson are headlining the big public events, three 2014 Costa Book Award winners are reading and the entire programme is being live streamed
so everyone can take part.
Writers and literature professionals from over twenty countries will arrive in Norwich tomorrow for the first International Literature Showcase - a partnership between Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN) and British Council - supported by Arts Council England. It will introduce emerging UK writers to cultural organisations around the world to spark future collaborations.
On the first day of the showcase I’m particularly looking forward to ‘Digital Literatures’ with Bill Thompson. ‘If James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google’ Tom McCarthy recently wrote in The Guardian
. And as part of WCN’s National Conversation
Will Self said ‘deep serious reading - and serious writing - is under threat from the digital revolution’. I’m hoping for a lively discussion on the most pressing issue facing writers today - with input from a global audience. Watch live at 2pm, Thursday 19 March.
On Friday 20th March I’ve got my eye on the New Fiction readings with Cynan Jones and Emma Healey at 4.45pm. ‘Every bit as compelling as the frenzied hype suggests’ is how The Observer described Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, and I can’t wait to hear her read. I picked up a copy of Jones’ The Dig in the excellent Millennium Library. Reviewers have compared his style to Cormac McCarthy’s and it’s obvious why. Stripped back, unflinching and powerful writing that leaves you in awe. Patrick Barkham (also reading at the showcase) said ‘The Dig is a tender and sensuous depiction of the deep connections both good and bad people have with the earth and its animals’. Watch Jones and Healey read via the live stream at 4.45pm on Friday 20 March.
Continuing with the theme of connections with the animal world, Friday evening’s public event features Jeanette Winterson and Helen MacDonald discussing nature and memoir at Norwich Playhouse. It’s sold out but a podcast will be available on the WCN website soon. MacDonald’s H is for Hawk won the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. It’s just out in paperback and as the Literary Review says it’s ‘an incredible achievement’. I can’t wait to her in conversation and with such an icon…
…Jeanette Winterson is a writer for whom I developed what Geoff Dyer calls a ‘literary crush’ - where you read them to the exclusion of everyone else for a short period in your life. You can spot a literary crush on your bookshelf where there is a big block of spines all the same colour and style by the same publisher. My Winterson crush occurred during my first year of university somehow nearly twenty years ago. I shall be carrying around my much underlined copy of The Passion on Friday in the hope that, giggling like a teenager, I’ll get a chance to ask her to sign it.
Join us in your pajamas at 9am on Saturday morning for the live stream of Daljit Nagra’s retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Described by The Independent as ‘rollicking, often rude and riveting’ – it’s going to be well worth getting up for! Later in the morning don’t miss readings from Charlotte Higgins, Patrick Barkham and Bidisha and a discussion on nonfiction and memoir hosted by WCN’s Programme Director Jonathan Morely.
If you enjoy Barkham’s work you might be interested to know you can spend a day with him on the beautiful Holkham beach as one of WCN’s Writing Rambles masterclasses
- part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Where he’ll help you ‘harness moments of inspiration with the practical business of getting words onto the page’. I sound like I’m up-selling! And I suppose I am but only because I’m sure for many writers this sounds like a magical way to spend a day.
This is really just a taster of all the readings, conversations and performances which will take place during the International Literature Showcase. So do check out the full programme
and join viewers around the world for the live stream from 12.30pm on Thursday 19 March. #ILShowcase
Fuelling Creative Minds by Meg Rosoff
LET’S BEGIN WITH YOUR FUNERAL
Let’s talk about what makes a ‘successful’ life.
Did anyone love you? Did you contribute to someone else’s happiness? Did you help someone in trouble? Did you love someone over a long period of time, even when it was difficult to sustain that love? Did you question injustice? Did you give away some of your money – no matter how little of it there was – to someone who needed it more than you did? Did you have a passion? Did you think about your time on earth? Did you ease suffering, enlighten someone’s mind, do a job with honesty and integrity? Did you appreciate nature, stand up for what was joyous and what was morally right?
Let’s talk about what makes a successful life.
One of my few really interesting professors at Harvard was a psychiatrist called George Vaillant, who took over a seventy-five year assessment (begun in the early 1940s) of a group of Harvard undergraduates. The Grant Study was set up to trace the sources of and influences on success (or lack of success) in every arena of life.
The subjects still alive are now in their nineties and still being studied.
By means of questionnaires and interviews, 268 men were followed closely, year after year, looking for correlations between geography, IQ, family life, emotional intelligence, diet, marital status … and success.
Here are a few of the things they found.
- Above a certain basic level of intelligence, more is not necessarily better.
- Career success depended on warmth of relationships and, above a certain base level, not on intelligence.
- Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers earned more than men whose mothers were uncaring.
- Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
Vaillant’s key takeaway, in his own words: ‘The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”?’
So (despite many of the Grant Study’s results being presented in terms of income) in the end, it seems, happiness comes down to the quality of your relationships – friendships, sexual relationships, family relationships, working relationships, relationships between parents and children.
And success, I believe most people would agree, comes down to happiness. If you live a happy and fulfilled life, then you die successful.
So why do we persist in measuring success in terms of salaries, job titles and assets? Why do we measure the success of executives by the size of their bonuses? Doctors and lawyers by their hundred hour weeks? Writers by how many books they sell? Children by their number of A*s? Why do we (currently) determine success based on media exposure, fame, number of Twitter followers? Why are we endlessly trying to quantify life experiences, as if the person with the greatest number of followers on Facebook, the biggest bank balance or the greatest number of A*s somehow wins?
According to George Vaillant, none of these things contributes markedly to happiness.
Perhaps we need to go back to the very beginning – to the very definition of success, and to how we educate our children to think about success, in order to get to the bottom of our thinking on the subject.
So let's go back to school.
In the twenty-first century, educational success is largely determined by the government. The government puts in place a series of goals that evaluate children as young as three against measures of socialisation, reading proficiency, an understanding of numbers, the ability to answer questions in an acceptable, established manner, and later – during GCSEs and A levels – the ability to pass exams in up to twelve subjects and write essays in a strictly approved fashion.
Success in school requires hard work and a competitive approach to study on the part of students – but more to the point, a successful student is one capable of achieving goals as defined by the exam graders, as defined by the government.
A successful student is one capable of matching learning to this very specific series of goals.
In other words, a child who reads all day is not a successful student. A child who writes brilliantly and with a distinctive voice but can’t spell, is a failure. A child who loves history but can’t write an essay in the approved manner, is doomed. A child who loves stories, who loves to dream, who makes unusual connections, whose brain works in unconventional, peculiar ways – but who can’t multiply 11 x12 – is not a successful student.
Successful students must sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, temporarily memorise large amounts of information, understand and achieve received goals, think inside the box. A desire to please and a willingness to conform are key.
The least successful children in this sausage factory will be branded from the age of five. Children with parents or carers who don’t talk or read to them enough are most likely to fall into this category of early failures. As are dyslexic children. Or eccentric thinkers. An irregular schedule, disorderly home life and financial instability all interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
Less support at home, fewer books, a less regular schedule, a less orderly home life, less healthy meals, less consistent love – all these economic or emotional disadvantages further condemn the five year old to failure. Food banks, immigration problems, substance abuse problems, unemployment, parental absence or mental illness – all of these elements interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
I see them when I visit secondary schools – the children branded failures because they can’t get on in school. Because they’re bored, or not very verbal, or not very good at sitting still and taking information in as required in a classroom situation – or the ones who just don’t see why thirteen years of their lives should be spent taking exams they’re not good at, absorbing information in a manner that hasn’t changed much in two hundred years. ‘Not a student’ is a label that has condemned decades of children to a diminished sense of what they’re capable of in life. When in fact all it means is, ‘does not thrive within government parameters’.
Do I buy into the idea that these students are without value? Of course not. Put them in a different sort of learning environment or teach them something that stimulates their imaginations and they’ll be fine. But sit them in a classroom for thirteen years with a series of targets chosen by a government that knows nothing at all about education and they’re doomed.
In contrast, the most successful children in this whole process of learning and taking exams will get all A*s and go to Oxford or Cambridge, after which they will go on to have what most people consider to be the most successful lives – the best jobs, the highest salaries, large and comfortable and expensive houses and cars.
In a 2014 book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, award winning American essayist and educator William Deresiewicz concerned himself with what’s going at the top level of American education.
‘Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose … great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.’
This was written about Harvard and Yale but applies just as well to elite British universities. Like the highest rated state primary and secondary schools, these institutions take few risks – they admit top performing, highly driven teenagers and turn out graduates with no motive to question the status quo, no motive to question the structure of society or the weight that society puts on a certain kind of success.
If you win a beauty contest, you don’t dedicate your life to challenging society’s perceptions of beauty.
William Deresiewicz continues:
‘So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.’
All of this is happening at exactly the moment at which the world most needs risk takers: individuals willing and able to retell the story of society in a more positive way. People willing to take risks with meaningful social and political change. Hardly anyone would disagree that our political system needs changing – free market capitalism has led to terrifying extremes of wealth and poverty. The pharmaceutical industry needs meaningful change along with the system of drug patents that price simple, inexpensive drugs out of the reach of entire populations whose lives they might save. The legal system favours those with money, as does education, as does housing. In the meantime, there is little financial motive to stem – or even acknowledge – the devastating effects of global warming. It is difficult to think of a single aspect of life on earth today that couldn’t do with rigorous deconstruction and rethinking.
If schools are going to train a better class of political leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, parents, and social policy-makers, they’re going to have to ask themselves which qualities to promote. If we require a more compassionate, more radical, less class-riven and self-centered definition of success, where does it begin?
I would like success to be redefined. I would like a successful man or woman to be defined as one who thinks creatively and laterally, who questions authority and accepted wisdom, who lives thoughtfully, generously and not entirely for personal gain. To be successful, I believe, it is important to leave the world a little bit better than you found it.
How do we do this? By listening to the wise and enduring voices of our civilization – by encouraging each new generation to read history and philosophy and to think big thoughts – about religion, politics, ethics, love, passion, life and death and the origins of the universe. The extraordinary imagination of our species – as expressed in poetry and fiction, music, art, dance – might someday spill over into cures for cancer and war and inequality. This will happen not by thinking about what we are, but what we might be.
A further striving after knowledge and meaning is the proper goal for education. Everyone doesn’t need to achieve A*s. But everyone needs to learn how to live a good, creative, questioning life.
What we don’t need are more five-year-old failures and more excellent sheep.
The Most Exotic Thing
The most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been translated into Bulgarian. The second is having gone to Bulgaria to launch the translation of my novel there. A Mexican writer does not write in order to be translated into Bulgarian. Being published in Bulgaria is, to put it mildly, an insane hypothesis. How many Mexican novelists have been translated into Bulgarian? Juan Rulfo? Carlos Fuentes? If that. And yet, nonetheless, it happens: it happened to me. The big question was, why did they publish me?
It’s because your novel is about the drugs trade and that’s a subject everyone in the world is interested in, some of my friends told me. It’s because of the success the book had in the UK, said others.
I went to Bulgaria thinking it was all a great big misunderstanding. It seemed to me that the publication of a novel with cultural and literary references completely alien to a Bulgarian reader was, at the very least, madness. Who would be interested in this novel? Who would understand it? I imagined the scenario reversed: some poor Bulgarian writer being published in Mexico. Incidentally, had I read any contemporary Bulgarian authors? If I had I couldn’t remember.
The third most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been interviewed by Bulgarian journalists. I was invited to appear on the news on Bulgarian national television. I spoke to all the journalists. I even went on a literary TV show that was recorded in a cave. And a popular radio show, where I have no idea why we laughed so much. Don’t tell anyone, but it seemed to me that all the journalists were slightly mad. Perhaps I’m exaggerating and it’s just that our English (the journalists’ and mine) was far from fluent, which just heaped misunderstanding on misunderstanding. They asked me about deaths due to the war on drugs. About Subcomandante Marcos. And, just as I thought they would, they talked about Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes.
So far, so exotic, but nothing had prepared me for the truly exotic: my book had readers in Bulgaria. They came to the launches I did in Sofía and in Plovdiv. They talked fondly of the book’s narrator and protagonist. They told me what they’d liked and they asked me about some things that had disturbed or confused them. In short, we communicated, and it didn’t matter that we came from different worlds, from different literary traditions, that is, and that we were destined to misunderstand one another.
It seems to me that when it comes to discussing the subject of the globalisation of literature, to analysing what it is that gets published, where and why, a radical working hypothesis, one that probes the limits of the question, would be this: that of a writer from a peripheral country being published in another peripheral country (like the trip a few Hondurans went on to Liberia, exactly what I describe in my novel). And to make things more complicated, let’s suppose we’re talking about a book that strays from the conventions of Anglo-Saxon realism. How does this sort of thing come about? How does such an insane hypothesis become a reality? What are the stages of mediation? I don’t know, but it happens. Luckily, it happens.
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Barcelona, winter, 2015.
Translated by Rosalind Harvey
An Inspiring Six Months for IdeasTap Inspires Winners
It's now six whole months since our IdeasTap Inspires winners, championed and selected by Ellah Allfrey and Ali Smith along with their mentors Daniel Hahn, Kerry Hudson, Alex Preston, Amy Sackville and Nicola Upson, started their professional development programme. In that time, our ten talented writers have engaged in a whole range of activities to help them not only to improve their work, but also to give them an induction into the complicated world of literary agents, publishers and public readings. Putting pen to paper is just the tip of the writing iceberg; our writers have been on a rollercoaster journey of discovery!
As they emerge, blinking blearily, from a very intense six months they do so clutching not just a chunky portfolio of work. Although this has been an intensive period of creativity for our writers, as their mentors encourage and inspire them to greater levels of output, this productivity has also afforded them other opportunities. They have had the chance to explore their own creative processes and to really find their voice, whilst the input of their mentor has helped to build the ability to self-edit effectively, and has allowed our writers to target specific areas of their writing that they felt needed working on, to tighten up their skillset. Meanwhile sessions with agents, along with the expertise of their mentors has given our winners invaluable inside knowledge of the publishing industry that can help them to publication, and a renewed sense of self belief that their work is good! (It really is, by the way, I’ve loved reading every single extract.
As we prepare for our showcase event with them tomorrow, during which each writer will read from their work, and will have the chance to not only celebrate their successes with friends and family, but to share their work with agents, we are heartened to hear that agents are already showing an interest in our young writers. We hope that this will be the starting point of many great things for them, but as regards Inspires? Well, all that remains now is to raise a glass to their achievements and to enjoy watching them spread their literary wings and continue to achieve great things with their work.
Why not read extracts
from our winners, and find out a little more about them all?