Ed Parnell, author of 'The Listeners', on the long-standing friendships gained from Escalator
Award-winning author Ed Parnell took part in the Escalator writing competition in 2007. One of its greatest benefits, he says, is the friendships he made with fellow writers, which still continue to this day.
It seems a long time ago now. September 2007, in fact, when an email from WCN’s (then the New Writing Partnership) Chris Gribble dropped into my inbox, saying that he was delighted to inform me that I’d been selected for inclusion on the Escalator Literature programme. I was delighted too.
At the time I’d just handed in the dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and was three-quarters of the way through a draft of my first novel, The Listeners. Things seemed good. I was writing daily, gradually creeping towards the book’s finish line (so I thought), and, having been buoyed up by talks from eager-sounding agents, the world of publishing was awash with possibility.
Things moved fast. I went on a long-planned holiday to Cornwall, getting back the day before the inaugural Escalator event at The Maid’s Head in early October. Here, I met the other Escalatees, and the biographer Midge Gillies, who was to be my mentor for the programme. Looking back, I can’t remember too much of the day itself, but my fellow winners –who’d descended on Norwich from north London, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk and Norfolk – all seemed very pleasant, as did Midge. I had a good feeling about things.
First impressions were entirely correct. Over the next few months we had several more get-togethers, all equally convivial. I also met Midge for a number of mentoring sessions in Ely. Her most recent book was the excellent, non-fiction Waiting For Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, and as The Listeners was set in rural Norfolk in May 1940 – the end of the phony war up to which point nothing much had seemingly taken place, at least that affected the lives of people back home –we had much to discuss. It was also great just to get to talk to a published professional writer about the day-to-day practicalities of trying to make a living from writing, something I was discovering as a now-freelance copywriter(alongside ploughing on with The Listeners).
As well as the invaluable advice from Midge, and a very welcome grant from the Arts Council to buy writing-time for the novel, the main thing that I gained from Escalator was a long-standing friendship with my nine other fellow Escalatees. From the beginning we all got on famously and over thecourse of the next year met several times at WCN events, culminating in a reading we gave at Foyle’s bookshop in London (having been drilled by the poet Aoifie Mannix in the art of how to conduct a good public performance).
Beyond the year, we continued (and indeed still do) to keep in touch, forming an ad hoc literature collective called Absolute Fiction for awhile, where we performed other joint readings at Cambridge Wordfest among others. It was good to have a group of like-minded new writers for moral – and editorial – support, something I was finding particularly useful now I’d finished The Listeners and was in the drawn-out process of editing and rewriting, trying to get an agent and,ultimately, a book deal.
That story takes a little longer to conclude. Having finally found representation in 2010 – after a series of flirtations with three other agents who concluded, eventually, that my novel wasn’t commercial enough for them – The Listeners did the rounds of various publishers, gaining some encouraging positive feedback, but no publishing deal.
In early 2014, having effectively given up on it ever making the journey into print, I entered the Rethink New Novels Competition; The Listeners won and was published at the end of the year. To steal from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as the book came out just a couple of weeks after my brother Chris lost his too-short battle with cancer. The Listeners had its launch in December at an event hosted by WCN, where I read alongside Patrick Barkham and Sarah Perry. Given Escalator’s and WCN’s input into the book’s long road to publication,it seemed a fitting, albeit for me bitter sweet, occasion.
The Listeners is a novel about grief, and how we try to come to terms with the things we’ve lost –it’s dedicated to my brother, who was an untiring supporter of the book during its drafting process. I’m sure he’d be proud to see it on the shelf, though I have no doubt that he would take enormous delight in poking constant fun at the smirking face that gurns out from the back cover.
Edward Parnell is the author of The Listeners. Winner of the Rethink New Novels Competition 2014. Available in paperback, hardback, and on Kindle.
A library is many things to many people. It's a place of potential, of discovery. It's a land of dreams: of adventure and magic, of friendly dragons and other planets. It's a land of hope: of finding a new job or a new home, of learning a new skill or making a new friend. A library is many things to many people, so this Christmas WCN decided to celebrate libraries all around the world.
Every day of advent we shared a photo of a library alongside a quote from a brilliant writer, celebrating the gift that just keeps giving. You can take a look at all the quotes here, catch up with all the goings-on with Storify, or just scroll down.
#LibraryAdvent 2016 complete round-up
25th of December
Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library
'What a gift: democracy of reading, democracy of space. A library is for life, not just for Christmas.'
- Ali Smith
24th of December
Krakow Regional Public Library
'My first job was in a public library and I recognised, even at 16, how much of a haven it was for local people, somewhere for them to get away from the noise of the outside world as well as a place to educate themselves and their children.'
- Emma Healey
23rd of December
Norwich City of Literature
'Libraryness - it's a unique quality, only possessed by our libraries: the alchemy of a free place where people of all ages and all classes come together, seeking the adventures, discoveries, solace and sheer joy found in books. We must keep them open and cherish them, for they nourish us.'
- Patrick Barkham
22nd of December
Dunedin Public Libraries
'It was in libraries that I really explored reading. They are open to all and they cater for all. They never judge. You can pick something up on a whim, and find yourself with a new favourite book. Libraries contain wonders, they should be preserved.'
- Sally Craythorne
21st of December
'Under these leaf-libraries where
Melodious lost literature
- 'Abernethy', Douglas Dunn
20th of December
Edinburgh Central Library
'Edinburgh is a city of books and learning, open to all knowledge.'
– Dame Muriel Spark
19th of December
Norwich Cathedral Library
(Image Courtesy of Paul Hurst ARPS)
'Latterly it has been used as a lumber room. I hope no one will be so unkind as to say it will be so used still.'
– Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich, 1913
18th of December
Norfolk Heritage Library
'We need libraries and their wonderful staff. They are part of the lifeblood of British culture. Libraries are indispensable to me and to us all.'
- Mark Cocker
17th of December
Municipal Library of Prague
'A house without books is like a body without a soul.'
- Julius Zeyer
'Our library is a box of wonders that opens and lets me experience different worlds, meet different people, and explore my imagination.'
– Year 6 Pupil, Angel Road Junior
15th of December
'What a sad adolescence I would have had without a library to escape to! And what a very different life since then: the library opened the door to my future.'
- Andrew Cowan
14th of December
Dublin City of Literature
(Image Courtesy Patricio Cassinoni)
'The expected and the unexpected are always to be found in Dublin's libraries; the jewels in the city's crown.'
13th of December
Plumstead Road Library
'As a child, the library was my gateway - the only gateway available - to the world opened up by books. I read my way around every single shelf in the children's room of my local library, and was hooked. I am still today enthralled by the possibility for new discoveries which a library holds; the thought that you can discover something quite unexpected, and walk away with it tucked under your arm. I think in these days of tailored recommendation algorithms and curated digital experiences, the sense of rampant intellectual opportunity a library represents is needed more than ever.'
– Jon McGregor
12th of December
'Free public libraries are one of the traditional guarantors of freedom, places where anyone may start to explore all that humanity has thought and recorded in words. The burning of books and libraries is one of the great barbaric acts: the closing down of libraries is a step towards the same barbarism.'
- George Szirtes
11th of December
'You made me feel at home, so far from home.'
- guestbook entry by Marcelo Figueras, author from Argentina, October 2010
10th of December
'it shone like a boxful of butterflies
it shone like a web at the wood's edge
it shone like blazing hilltop victory
it shone like the valley of last resort
it shone like the story of you and me
it shone all night'
- on the library, Alasdair Paterson
9th of December
'Heaven, I am certain, looks like Gladstone's Library: Britain's only residential library, where you can live and study surrounded by a world-class collection of books and glorious Gothic architecture. You can choose to be alone, or converse with other visitors - a bishop at breakfast, and a poet at teatime. If inspiration fails (which it won't), you can venture outdoors to a cemetery, a valley, a ruined castle, a forest and a river.’
- Sarah Perry
8th of December
Library at the Dock
Melbourne City of Literature
(Image Courtesy Timothy Herbert)
'There was a tree outside the window where I worked, with a face in it, and I came to know it as my “permission” tree.
I did nothing in the library except write in front of that tree, and so every time I saw it, I was inspired to write.
Besides which, it is a beautiful, light library with minimal screaming. It was also during study week, so there were many other people working there, but all separately and silently. I felt part of a community, but not interrupted or under pressure to perform.'
- Anna Spargo-Ryan
7th of December
University of East Anglia
'Libraries are oases of quiet and learning in a distracted and noisy world, a human refuge, which should not be denied to us.'
- Rose Tremain
6th of December
Norfolk Mobile Library
'On moving to a new town or city, the first place I seek out is the library because the library is the heart of a community. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, but, because I had regular access to a library (in fact, many libraries: the library in my school, the library in a nearby village, a mobile library and the main public library in Norwich), I was able to learn about the world. Children who grow up with access to a library grow up with the understanding that access to knowledge is a right, and this gives them power. Books allow people to dream. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a library throughout my life. Had this not been the case, I would be an entirely different person.'
- Megan Bradbury
5th of December
'Growing up, my local library was a place of wonder, imagination, excitement and safety. Ours had two floors: downstairs for adults, upstairs for kids. I both longed for the day I could stay downstairs and dreaded it. As a kid, I snuck books out of the adults’ section; as an adult I sneak them out of the kids’ section. Such are the contradictions of a reading life and the pure joy of a library.'
- John Boyne
4th of December
Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library
‘I wrote the vast majority of The Last Pilot in Norwich's Millennium Library and I saw first hand, day after day, how libraries are refuges for the most vulnerable members of society, from the lonely to the elderly; the unemployed to the unwell. The public library is so much more than the sum of its books: it’s a community hub, a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. The library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm.’
- Benjamin Johncock
3rd of December
Iowa City Public Library
Iowa City of Literature
'A library is where they live - words that burn
or freeze, cajole and tease, that sound of
barks, bawls, hollers, whispers, mutters
May this, our library prosper, for
life without it would be smaller.'
- This Library, Marvin Bell
2nd of December
Norwich University of the Arts
‘In their unique atmosphere there are portals to all kinds of worlds, knowledge, ideas, inspiration, it’s all there; brilliant reminders of the best and worst we can be as humans. The Whole Earth Catalogue 1972, where else could you see it? NUA library, small but perfectly formed.’
- Peter Martin, Course Leader BA Animation
1st of December
National and University Library of Iceland,
Reyjkavik City of Literature
(Image courtesy Indro Candi)
‘And there stood the library, waiting for him like an illuminated spaceship ready to whisk him away to distant planets.’
- Óskar Árni Óskarsson
Recommended by the Readers’ Circle: A Selection of Brilliant Books
Our fantastic Readers’ Circle
(a collection of dedicated volunteers from around the East of England) have been devouring books from our Brave New Reads medium list
. They’re reading, reviewing, and chatting about brilliant titles, from short story collections to non-fiction to poetry, to help us choose the six astounding books for Brave New Reads
Sadly, not every book can be included in the final six, so we’re featuring reviews of some of those which didn’t quite make it. Take a look below, and tempt yourself with some highly-acclaimed books (or find a perfect Christmas present!).
Interested in how we choose the featured Brave New Reads titles? Check out this earlier blog, explaining the very complicated process
Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
Find out more about Brave New Reads
This book is set in the woods and fields of Norfolk, starting in the summer of 1940, just as Britain was sliding into war. William Abrehart, an odd nature-loving boy, has remained silent since the death of his father but has promised to look after his two beautiful sisters and very withdrawn mother. The narrator shifts from person to person and William, Kate, Rachel and Louise all take a turn in speaking to us with their own interpretation of events and emotions present and past.
This book is incredibly beautiful and desperately sad. Beautifully written, with tender and lyrical descriptions of crumbling, haunted buildings and Norfolk flora and fauna. It is just as eerie and haunting as the poem by Walter de la Mare.
Family secrets, self deception and lies sit at the heart of this novel, which depicts the heartbreaking and tragic destruction of a family over the course of a few days in a summer long ago. The depiction of the flourishing world of nature is a backdrop to the pain endured by the main characters in the book. There are no lighthearted or amusing moments whatsoever, yet somehow it avoids being a depressing read. Wonderful sense of place and time. Takes you back to the 1940s!
- Reviewed by Cambridgeshire librarian
is a compelling collection in which heartbreak shimmers along every line of its hauntingly exquisite and often masterful prose. Its tragedy-ridden tellings express a grim reality; how ripples from the core of grief radiate further darknesses into the girls' lives. Whilst it would prove a difficult read for some due to disturbing subject content, this really is quite a staggeringly stunning, albeit gut wrenching, collection that one should take the time out to consume.
- Reviewed by Readers' Circle member Zeena Thompson
I really enjoyed this haunting book; dark and heavy yet delicately threaded together. I was drawn in by a feeling of closeness which was almost claustrophobic, with the protagonists’ intimate first meeting and descriptions of their movements as witnessed by the other. There was a sense of uneasiness conveyed by the rapidity of Elsa and Jack’s first meeting to their moving to America, the fact they can’t see the Golden Gate Bridge (the reason for their moving) from the air, and the constant chasing away of memories. The more we come to know them as individuals the less they seem a couple.
This book is about the histories that people carry with them and the way these histories work their way to the surface. Jack and Elsa jumped into their relationship as it was a happy release from their past problems, but then the ripples of that choice begin to be felt. Understated but beautiful.
- Reviewed by Kathryn Elliot of the Readers' Circle
This was easily the best of the novels I have read so far. Christine Dwyer Hickey, like all of the great Irish writers, has the ability to say such a lot in a few words.
The story is excellent. It is divided into two halves with part in the past told by Elaine Nichol's sixteen year old self, and part in the present where she is a fifty year old woman returning to Ireland ostensibly to look after her aging father. The reader is aware almost from the outset that a traumatic event occurred which resulted in Elaine, our main character, being sent off, exiled, to New York.
The writing has such clarity: I remember when the women, who seem to live very meaningless and powerless lives, get together and one of them who has obviously been drinking is described "words sticky from her mouth" when she speaks. Brilliant!
- Reviewed by Tricia Andrews of the Readers' Circle
Reader for Hire – Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter
I enjoyed this novella greatly. The idea that the female protagonist provides the commercial services of a reader to all and sundry sparked my interest. It may contain elements of a male fantasy but is also the exploration of the power of reading and listening, what we read and why we read it.
Marie-Constance trips through the looking glass into readerland; seemingly unaware of the effect she has on a range of listeners or at least believing that she can manage or control the expectations that they have. In the course of the novella political activism, crime, adultery, the corruption of minors (and possibly majors) whoosh by leaving her practically unscathed. Clearly, she has a determination to carry on reading on her own terms. I was very comfortable with the language of the translation. I found it enjoyable and mildly subversive!
- Reviewed by Jim Murray of the Readers' Circle
Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk
Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
Find out more about Brave New Reads
Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'
Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year.
At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'
The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour.
I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches.
Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there.
When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.
On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.
East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive.
It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”
In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.
Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.
It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.
I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.
Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”
I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”
East Anglian Book Awards
Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
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