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Never never never never / Shame - Worlds 2015 Part IV by George Szirtes

Posted By: Miranda Langford, 22 July 2015

George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festival, sharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. Reflecting on the fourth day, he discusses literary translation, and writing as an act of political resistance.

After the Wednesday salon there was a two hour session on translation in which three authors appeared with their translators. 

The authors read a sentence or two in the original language then the translars read longer passages in translation. Each author was then invited to ask their translator three questions. 

This session was led by Erica Jarnes. The three writers - Geir Gulliksen, Han Kang and Sigitas Parulskis - write in quite different ways about quite different things. The translators were asked the normal but vital translation questions and each answered differently. Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang, argued that the translator should feed the text through her blood stream by accessing the experience described. Deborah Dawkin, who had just one week to translate a longish passage of Geir’s book about gender and sexuality thought it was the original text one should go back to time after time. Translation, she said, was like acting, a fascinating if unexplored idea. Romas insisted that the translator should know the full cultural and historical context, be utterly at home in both languages, and that translators never never never never improved original texts or, if there were mistakes in the text they should be left to the copy editor. (This concurs with Nabokov’s view of translators as mischievous and incompetent servants who think they know better than the genius writers they serve. Max Sebald too kept his eye closely on what his translators were up to.)

In the Salon on Thursday, Mamta Sagar and Sigitas Parulskis gave the provocations.

Mamta talked of India with its many languages of which her own, Kannada is one. One may make a name for oneself in one language alone, but that name may be extended by translation into other Indian languages. Being translated into, or writing in English made one available to an international public and offered the chance of international reputation. However, there were many complications such as religion, caste and gender. Reputation, she argued, was rooted in imagined memory, a memory that was exclusive and omitted anything it didn’t want to admit, particularly the writing of women and the Dalit (or Untouchables). Social and gender roles would be defined by ideals derived from sacred or mythological text, the Ramayana. Male roles were defined by Rama: female by Sita. If individuals departed from these models their reputations were ruined. The current government of India led by Modi emphasised the martial aspect of Rama and looked to very conservative interpretations of the Ramayana. The women’s movement had brought progress but the major roles were still all male (Bhavit argued that this was not the case now and that all the major festivals had equal numbers of men and women as well as Dalit writers.)


Afterwards there were questions about women-only publishers. Mamta didn’t like the idea of special spots for ‘women’ poets feeling that this meant they were expected to produce ‘women’s poetry’and be like the flowers at a reception. Indian writing should not be looking to package particular groups in specific ways but focus on diversity. India was after all a secular democratic nation. (Mamta’s work is much translated but generally in workshops at festivals or universities.) There was talk of the tension between Hindu and Muslim and Mamta mentioned but did not expand on the episode of the  Godhra train blaze. Marion Molteno argued that the increasing popularity of the ghazal verse form in Urdu was evidence of an essential anti-fundamentalism. Jon Morley wondered how far writing was a form of resistance. Someone else asked whether there were examples of writers forging a reputation in one language than forging a different one in another.

Sigitas’s provocation was read by his translator, Romas. It was the story behind his current book which is about the murder of Lithuanian Jews, as much by Lithuanians as by German Nazis. It was in the Imperial War Museum in London that he discovered how, in his own small home community of just over two thousand, over a thousand Jews were executed. No one had ever mentioned this or chose to remember it, partly because years of Soviet occupation had implanted the idea that it was the Germans alone who were the murderers and that the victims were not so much Jews as communists. This became a matter of “shameful knowledge” in Lithuania and for him too personally. Not even his mother - who had lived through it - believed that Lithuanians could do this. Sigitas went on to resist the idea that literature should by ideologically committed which was not surprising in view of years of ideologically committed  or controlled literature. There was no repentance in Lithuanian society, he said, only denial. How much time did it take for a corpse to become a historical corpse, he asked. We are, he said, parasites living on the corpses of the past. Lithuanians, he added, had certainly suffered but suffering can make you more cruel. There was a constant referring back to Christian belief in both Sigitas’s novel and his provocation. Religion was a form of resistance to the Soviets. It is deeply embedded in Lithuanian people. 


James asked whether the book was unusual for Sigitas. It was important to irritate yourself, Sigitas replied. Without irritation, no literature. Erica wondered whether it was odd that he should be promoted by the state when he was writing something that questioned the narrative of the Lithuanian nation. The state did not determine culture, argued Rita Valiukonyte, the Cultural Attaché at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. Was the opposite view - a guiltless version - expressed in Lithuanian literature, asked Dan? There is an anti-Semitic spirit in Lithuania, said Sigitas, but it is not overt in literature. Jack Wang said his own book - about Vienna’s Kristallnacht - began at the opposite end, with a pride in saving Jews. What, asked Deborah Dawkin, was the effect, on both nation and writer, of the awareness that once a book like this was translated everyone outside would be invited to view the nation’s dirty washing. (I would have answered that the role of some Lithuanian people in the extermintations has long not been a secret and it was just that Lithuanian authors hadn’t referred to it). Sigitas replied that he gets panned for it and called a lot names. Kyoko made a very interesting remark at the end: We like to take the side of the victim, she said, but that makes it very hard for us to imagine ourselves as perpetrators, and went on to ask whether the obscenity referred to by Sigitas in his provocation consisted of the act itself or of the describing of it. It was the describing, said Sigitas, but it had to be done for didactic reasons.

What is it we identify with in stories of atrocities elsewhere? In the case of Sigitas and Lithuania we were moved to hear that truth could be spoken in a place where previously there was concealment. But are we glad to hear such things only because they confirm our superiority? Would we have acted better than the Lithuanians? Perhaps the story should inspire us to tell truths about our own circumstances rather than feel too comfortable about our sympathies for distant victims.

Sigitas’s angle on reputation concerned the reputation of his own society, not so much in the outside world but at home. Reputation could be a lie. In Mamta’s case reputation was a social status you could lose, a repressive force. Was Creative Writing about the power of partially closed societies - such as universities, but also publishers perhaps - to make reputations that that flattered their own preferences and extended their own power?

This is the fourth in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. The first blog, "Introducing the Octopus", the second, "The Whirligig of Time", and the third, "Solitude and the Racket", can be found on our website. 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.

Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes.

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Translating Myanmar

Posted By: Kate Griffin, 22 July 2015

Kate Griffin, WCN Associate Programme Director, reports back from Link the Worlds in Myanmar, and discusses the issues faced by Burmese writers, translators and publishers.  

In May 2015, I was lucky enough to visit Myanmar for Link the Worlds, a week-long series of translation workshops and literary discussions in Yangon. Writers’ Centre Norwich had been planning the event for just over a year, in partnership with PEN Myanmar and the Select Centre in Singapore. A truly international collaboration, other partners and funders included the British Centre for Literary Translation, Penguin Random House, the Taw Win Foundation, PEN International, the British Council and the National Arts Council of Singapore

Myanmar has only recently emerged from a long period of isolation. Throughout the week, we explored ways to revive the flow of contemporary writing and ideas between Myanmar and other countries, particularly in South East Asia. 

Literary exchange in Burma – now Myanmar – flourished in the years after the declaration of independence in 1948. The Burma Translation Society was established in Rangoon in 1947, and high quality translations of the best literature from other countries became available to readers and writers in Burma. Despite the opening up of the country three or so years ago, in today’s Myanmar many of the translations available in bookshops still date from this period. Censorship has meant that since the 1960s, little world literature – other than Soviet literature – has been translated into Burmese. Since the 1990s, translators have been making an effort to change the situation, but in Myanmar, translation tends to be a labour of love, with little or no financial remuneration. Although there is a need to nurture a new generation of literary translators, there is no systematic support in the form of workshops, or skills development in schools and colleges. 



This means that Burmese readers have difficulty gaining access to more contemporary writing and ideas from around the world, and Burmese writers find themselves isolated from their international counterparts. At the same time, little contemporary Burmese writing is translated into other languages as there is a shortage of experienced literary translators who can translate out of the languages of Myanmar. We hoped that Link the Worlds would be a first step towards changing this.

PEN Myanmar

Since its establishment in late 2013, PEN Myanmar has aimed to encourage dialogue between writers
and readers, reaching out to different parts of Burmese society by holding literary discussions in public places across the country, including on trains and at bus stops. The level of education in Myanmar is low, so people read very little. PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida said that children need to be encouraged to read and write short stories and poems. 

As part of its drive to open up the Burmese literary scene, PEN Myanmar holds literary evenings in Yangon (in English), presenting non-Burmese literature, as well as writing from the other ethnic states of Myanmar. Little ethnic literature is available, because of censorship; PEN would like to help develop more writing and translation between Burmese and ethnic languages. This is also the focus of the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds project.

Publishing

The independent publishing sector in Myanmar is small but growing. Our partner San Mon Aung’s publishing house Ngar Doe Sar Pay ('Our Literature') is part of a new generation of independent publishers forging a new Burmese publishing scene and bringing it to the international stage. 

There are four main barriers to publishing in Myanmar, according to San Mon Aung. The distribution system is terrible; the lack of a reliable postal system makes it difficult to get books to readers, either via bookshops or direct. It’s also difficult to collect money from bookshops, and therefore to survive.

Secondly, the reading rate is very low; a book that sells 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Thirdly, publishers struggle to find quality writers and translators; even when they do, high quality and literary style don’t necessarily attract a lot of new readers. Finally, although official censorship is in the past, there are still a lot of laws that control publishing – in effect an alternative version of censorship. 

Editing

Generally there is not a strong culture of editing in the Burmese publishing industry, and many of the small independent publishers cannot afford to hire editors. Most Burmese editors work for periodicals rather than publishers. Myo Myint Nyein, one of the few experienced editors in Myanmar, told us that until two or three years ago there was an official censorship bureau overseeing publications. The editor was captain of the ship, navigating the waters of censorship. And in daily life, whenever people had a conversation they felt had to self-edit before they spoke; this atmosphere of caution has left its mark on writers. Burmese writers are still resistant to editing when they see it being used as a form of censorship.



Nowadays, editors are more able to focus on style rather than policing content, but even this can be complicated, for a number of reasons. Spoken Burmese sounds smooth, but when the informal language is written down it can be full of grammatical mistakes. Readers in Myanmar don’t mind this, but if the translation echoes this informality, international readers may be less understanding.
 
Translation

Another barrier for many publishers in South East Asia more generally is the linguistic diversity of the region; translation is very important for books to travel even to neighbouring countries. There are no literary agents in Myanmar to promote either Burmese or other writers. It is expensive for Burmese publishers to pay for copyright, as books have such a low circulation and make so little money. 

Link the Worlds was welcomed by all concerned, as a first step towards improving the situation for
literary translation in Myanmar. At the core of the five-day event were two workshops, each with ten participants from different parts of Myanmar. The Burmese to English group worked with workshop leader Moe Thet Han to translate work by UK author Suzanne Joinson and Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at into Burmese. The English to Burmese group translated work by Myanmar writers Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San into English, under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum.

‘I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people from Myanmar,’ said Suzanne Joinson. ‘Using the process of translation as a common task, what really opened up was a range of narratives: stories, explorations of language, communication. I have already edited a short story for one participant, and have been in touch with another about Burmese writers. It’s a unique chance to make friends from a distant part of the world.’ 

Alfian Sa’at said he ‘really appreciated the experience as someone living in Southeast Asia. There haven’t been many initiatives to understand the region and I have to admit that Myanmar was never really in my radar as a writer. But now I’m really keen on reading works from Myanmar writers and hoping that these little acts of connecting with one another will lead to greater cultural integration among the Southeast Asian nations.’

One of the senior translators praised Link the Worlds as the first major translation event in Myanmar since 1969. We hope that we won’t have to wait as long until the next time. 



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Solitude and the Racket - Worlds 2015 Part III by George Szirtes

Posted By: Miranda Langford, 15 July 2015

George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festivalsharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. Reflecting on the third day, he discusses taught Creative Writing degrees, and the role of professional writers in academic institutions.

On Wednesday morning the attention turned, as it often does, to Creative Writing (henceforth CW for short) and its place in university. Did this relate directly to reputation or was it something quite separate, an intruder in our menagerie? Jon Cook quoted Malcolm Bradbury on the unlikelihood of transforming small talent to big talent more of establishing a significant climate within which writing in general might prosper.

D J (David) Taylor led the attack via Cyril Connolly’s 1938 book, Enemies of Promise. What Connolly - a “romantic, classicist, sensualist and anti-academic” in David’s words - offered us in his book was mostly a critical view and a personal memoir, but in the middle section of the same book, he examined factors militating against the production of great literature and the writing life proper: these included hack-work, political committment, escapism, the pressure of ‘promise’, sex, domesticity (the famous pram in the hall) and last, and possibly worst of all, success itself.

David invented a family, the Littlejohns, one member of which in an earlier generation wrote neglected books but survived by hackwork. A later, contemporary figure in the same family proceeded from a CW degree to book publication then returned to university to join what David called a racket, wherein academics write for each other and lose contact with the greater public. He preferred the earlier generation if only because they did things in the real world, the academic world not being considered real.


Instead of asking questions at this stage, Jon Morley, in the chair, asked Vesna Goldsworthy to respond with her own provocation. Vesna talked of her early youth of writing poetry and of her parents’ determination that she should be a doctor. She studied Comparative Literature instead, but the study of it led her to write less and less as the course went on. Studying literature as a subject of criticism did not make one a writer, she said: vets don’t make jockeys. She referred to Hanif Kureishi’s contemptuous dismissal of CW while teaching it. There were the natural comparison with other Arts subjects such as music and visual art where no-one thought to question the idea of formal, institutional education. Was CW a vocational course that prepared you for the life of a wage-earning writer. Would it help you to succeed, to gain a reputation?” Or was it something else? Was the respectability of academic opinion actually one of the underwriters of reputation, I wondered? Vesna herself did not make too high a claim for institutions and shared a certain writerly wariness of them.


In the discussion afterwards Geir Gulliksen suggested that the best a CW course could do was to create good readers, and added that publishing - the field in which he worked - was also a kind of institution. Jonty Driver said he had heard that the Norwegian state bought a thousand copies of all literary books. True, said Geir, the state does intervene to save the literature that it recognizes as literature. Jack Wang has long experience of teaching CW and referred to an essay by Chad Harbach comparing the MFA culture of universities with the NYC culture of writing in a world of publishers. Neither was free of limiting considerations he said but at least the university allowed for experminet and the avant-garde. Ana Clavel talked of the problem of commercialisation in Mexico, Mamta Sagar of the tension between Comparative Literature and straight Literature Departments. James Shea remarked that CW was hardly new since there were ancient schools of haiku in Japan and China and that CW was currently expanding in China and Singapore. Anna Funder wondered how teaching might affect one’s writing while Erica said publishers (and she had worked in publishing) don’t really like CW.  This may be so, I thought, but if they really didn’t like it they wouldn’t be publishing as many graduates as they do.

Lauren K Alleyne commented that institutions bestowed a kind of respectabilty in the eyes of the outside world (as for example in the eyes of her own parents). Kyoko Yoshida had done an MFA course and returned to Japan to find that people back home no idea what that meant. She did however emphasise that there existed in CW an ethical contract that agreed your writing, and desire to write, were legitimate and guaranteed that it would be taken seriously. I suggested that not only had writers always met, albeit informally and without institutions, but that before CW started it had been a matter of luck if you happened to come across senior writers willing to discuss your work in person, I also suggested that teaching was essentially intelligent conversation. Dan - whom I had in fact taught at one time - agreed but rightly pointed out the increasingly high cost of such courses. 



Lucy Hughes-Hallett wondered why CW should not be regarded, almost incidentally,  as a kind of vocational training providing transferable skills just as other humanities degrees did. You did not necessarily have to become a writer. Thinking and reading were the important things. Amit pointed out that CW classes were the only ones where no one ever bunked off. Students wanted every minute they could get. He also noted a certain tension between literary theory in reading, and reading for literary style. Deborah Smith agreed with Kyoko and imagined CW must be a great deal better than straight English Literature which was a matter of ploughing through work by a lot of dead white men.

Romas Kinka worried about the lack of support and respect for translators. Jack said it was a matter of earning a living. All writers had to do it one way or the other and modern pedagogic practice was far from the racket DJT had called it: it was a profession with high professional standards. Bhavit Mehta surprised us by arguing that there no shrinking readership, that readership was wider than ever, it was just that readers weren’t all reading in hard-copy book form. DJT ended on a different note: that of a necessary solitude. He lamented its loss in the climate of workshops, social media and public forums. The notion of writers not just writing but developing in solitude was, I thought, worth considering.

Are you interested in creative writing? Writers' Centre Norwich has teamed up with the world-renowned University of East Anglia and developed new Creative Writing Courses to help you advance with your writing. Available both online, and face-to-face, these Creative Writing Courses are taught by critically acclaimed professional writers and are open to writers of various levels and disciplines. Find out more and book your place.  

This is the third in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. The first blog, "Introducing the Octopus", and the second, "The Whirligig of Time", can be found on our website. 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.

Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes.

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Bookseller Isabelle Shares Her Thoughts on Brave New Reads

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 13 July 2015



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more about Prayers for the Stolen
.

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

Find out more about Brave New Reads
.

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

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

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

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

Posted By: Anonymous, 10 July 2015

By Kerry Hudson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Posted By: Katy Carr, 06 July 2015

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

1. Agents and Authenticity

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

2. The Madness of Meritocracy

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

3. Reviewing the Situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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The Whirligig of Time - Worlds 2015 Part II by George Szirtes

Posted By: Miranda Langford, 03 July 2015

George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festivalsharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. On the second day, he discusses the provocations from Chris Bigsby and Lucy Hughes-Hallett, on the distinctions between literary success and literary reputation. 

Gabriele D'Annunzio in Fiume

The whirligig of time was very much the subject of our first provocation, by Chris Bigsby, who started by exploring and expanding on the term reputation, by adding estimation and notoriety, to which others eventually added fame, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. There were at least eight tentacles for our octopus here.  Chris went on to consider those whom we now regard as great but who were neglected at the ends of their lives: Hermann Melville and John Williams (who wrote Stoner), among them, but concentrating on the writer he himself has written about with such distinction, Arthur Miller, the estimation of whose work has gone up and down depending on where you were, in the US or in Britain. Was Miller accepted by Americans as the representative of all they considered best? Probably not. Was he regarded by Brits as what we thought a good liberal American should be? Probably yes.


But who is this ‘we’?  Are we the only ‘we‘ worth talking about? That question did arise afterwards, as did the notion of value, a much more complex term depending on who assigns it, and Erica Jarnes' fine distinction between success and reputation. Is selling more books an indication of reputation, or indeed of value? Amit Chaudhuri talked of the way reputation was constructed in terms of nationhood, but also of how some were required to run counter to the established narrative. How do revivals of reputation occur, asked Cathy Cole. Jack Wang pointed out that despite not being regarded as a true-blue or red-blooded American, Miller was still on school reading lists. 

Susan Barker lamented the lack of women among those considered important (importance being another term related to reputation), a problem pointed out in private discussion later by Dave Wilson, who remarked that all the names discussed at this session were white, male, and anglophone. Anna Funder did, on the other hand,  confirm the substantial reputation and stature of the Australian writer, Christina Stead. She talked of the importance of history and wondered how far literature was perceived as an aspect of history (or vice versa for that matter). Deborah Smith brought us back to the question of women’s writing and how it was evaluated according to different criteria in different places: in the west along feminist lines, but differently in other places with other histories and cultures (Catholicism and Buddhism were offered as examples in later sessions.)  Reputation might simply be a kind of noise, a form of agreement. It might in fact be constraining if if meant publishers would demand more of the same from any successful author. 

The dangers of success were (briefly) to reappear in D J Taylor’s provocation the next day.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s provocation on D’Annunzio was spellbinding and very much to the point, since her subject not only pursued reputation but understood perfectly how to get it. He was the genius of the publicity stunt, a polymath, brilliant at many things including poetry, seduction and rabble-rousing rhetoric. Reputation is not a sufficiently grand term for him: celebrity, superstardom, megastardom need to be introduced. D’Annunzio is born into the first age of mass media. He steps on people, he exploits people, he charms and discards people, he leads them into battle and into a fierce nationalism anticipating Il Duce whom he regards as vulgar. There was a lovely phrase Lucy used about D’Annunzio giving action the lasting power of symbol - and maybe that is what it takes. Dan then added another word to the growing lexicography of reputation by referring to D’Annunzio as a brand. Branding and mass media are very much of our age, but they begin with D’Annunzio. The poet as life as mask as symbol.


In the discussion afterwards Vesna talked of “the art of lifemaking”. Others talked of the way suicide fixes the author as identity, fate and destiny and how it makes us read their works in a different way. Stefan Zweig was mentioned as an example of fame arrested and amplified by suicide. Mishima was another such.  Jon Cook suggested that Allen Ginsberg’s public life was an extension of his poems. Lucy pointed to the line from Romanticism to Fascism. Amit mentioned Tagore who became a world celebrity, admired chiefly as a sage and purveyor of mysticism, rather than as was what he was in India: a poet. Chris Bigsby pointed to Mailer and Hemingway as conscious constructors of their own images. Consideration of the image and the self-image led us in the direction of social media. At one level inflation of the self appears comical: at another, venal and potentially disastrous.


This is the second 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.

Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes.

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Introducing the Octopus - Worlds 2015 Part I by George Szirtes

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 30 June 2015

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.

Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes.

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

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 09 June 2015

     

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

About The Readers' Circle

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

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

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


Choosing the Final Six

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

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

Who Our Readers’ Circle Are

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

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

 

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

 

Find out more about Brave New Reads

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The Invisible Women by Kamila Shamsie

Posted By: Alice Kent, 28 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sam Ruddock Reviews Any Other Mouth

Posted By: Sam Ruddock, 27 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 18 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends, your Brave New Reads starts here.

Happy reading.


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

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

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

 

 

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The National Conversation: Enduring Stories by Erica Wagner

Posted By: Anonymous, 14 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

What am I doing by throwing these numbers at you? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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


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What's Wrong With Amazon? By Isabelle Grey

Posted By: Anonymous, 14 May 2015

 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.



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Books Need Readers

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 05 May 2015

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 or Facebook 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.


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