Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

Outlining a Novel

A question I always wrestle with when I start a new novel is should I do an outline? There is an article on the Novelry website by Tess Gerritson, dated June 19, 2022 which deals with this question.

Before she started writing fiction in 1987, Tess Gerritson graduated from Stanford and headed to medical school at the University of California. In 1987, her first novel was published, Call After Midnight, a romantic thriller, followed by eight more romantic suspense novels before she turned her hand to medical thrillers with Harvest in 1996 marking her debut on the New York Times bestseller list.

Tess Gerritson

Ms Gerritson says, “The idea of outlining a novel is one that may strike dread, panic or even tedium in a writer’s heart. Are we really expected to have our entire novel outlined before we put pen to paper?

Years ago, I learned that a certain Very Successful (and Famous) Author would say so. Seemingly, he doesn’t start writing his novels until he has completed a detailed 50+ page outline. He knows in advance every twist and turn of his plot and every crisis, large and small, that his characters will face.

What a brilliant strategy, I thought. It seemed far better than the disorganized way I was writing my novels, with no clue where my story was going.

You don’t build a house unless you have a blueprint, right? What I clearly needed was a blueprint. Instead, I’d been the crazy builder who shows up with wood and nails and just starts hammering away. I’d build a room, decide I didn’t like the looks of it, and start building another room facing a different direction.

I was going to do it the logical way. I was going to become a Planner. So I set about outlining my novel.

In the end, my version differed from the 50-page highly detailed battle plan that the Very Successful Author writes. I wrote only eleven single-spaced pages with scene-by-scene descriptions of my story.

My outline had a really detailed beginning and middle, and just a semblance of an end; by the time I’d written those eleven pages, I wanted to plunge in and just start writing (which is the curse we plungers must deal with. We’re impatient people and we want to just get on with it).

With the outline of my novel in hand, I was ready to write. This time, I wouldn’t suffer my usual sleepless nights agonizing over the plot and my characters’ motivations. This time, the writing would be a breeze. This time, I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And it worked. For about three chapters.

Then the story took off in a different direction. I don’t remember if I was just bored because I already knew what was going to happen, or if some new plot twist popped up unexpectedly on the page. In any case, suddenly the characters weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. It’s as if they stopped and glared at me and said, ‘You really expect us to follow this stupid outline?’

The more I wrote, the more the story deviated from the plan I’d created while outlining my novel. Once I started down that different highway, my original route fell further and further behind me until it was just a distant puff of dust. I was writing an entirely different book, and I was doing it in my usual disorganised way, with sleepless nights and plot agonies.

I’d reverted to my bad habits. I was a failed planner.

But you know what? That book turned out just fine.

  • I still write my first drafts with pen and paper. The paper must be unlined blank typing paper, because seeing lines on the page inhibits my creativity. I’ve tried typing my first drafts on the computer, but seeing words on the screen turns on the editor in my brain. It makes me stop to edit and re-edit the chapter, and keeps me from getting on with the rest of the story.
  • Only after I’ve handwritten the entire first draft do I type the words into my computer. I have to type it myself, because no one else can read my handwriting.
  • I never stop to re-write when I’m on my first draft because it stops my forward motion in the story. This means my first drafts have lots of mid-plot corrections, as well as characters whose motives, names and even genders may change by the end. When those changes happen on the fly, I just slap a sticky note to the page reminding myself to fix this detail later, and I keep writing.

When I hit a plot wall and don’t know what happens next, I take a break from the book. Because of my chaotic method of plotting – in other words, decidedly not outlining the novel – this invariably happens, so it no longer freaks me out.

In fact, it turned out a lot more exciting than the story I’d originally outlined. It had twists I never expected and character revelations that occurred to me only as I was writing the scene.

Yes, I struggled as usual to make all the moving parts work together. Yes, I had to rewrite that manuscript seven times (as I always do) and I threw out about a hundred pages that didn’t fit into the final plot, but that’s the way I’d always done it. It’s the way I now believe I’m meant to do it.

Every writer has his or her own quirks. Maybe you can’t start your workday without drinking three cups of coffee, or lighting a scented candle, or turning on the theme music to Braveheart. I heard about a writer who would put on a chef’s hat when her children were young, as a signal that they were not to bother Mommy while she was working. Years later, after her kids were grown and out of the house, she still puts on that now-tattered chef’s hat to write because it’s become part of her process, and she can’t write without it.

I too have quirks I can’t shake:

I know that somehow, I’ll be able to figure my way out of the mess. I have a few strategies to deal with it: long walks, staring at the ceiling, maybe a long drive or mindless travel. It may take a few weeks of not writing, but I always manage to figure out what happens next, and why.

Is this an efficient way to write a book? Absolutely not. It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, and it means I often take longer to finish a manuscript. But it’s the only way I know to do it. After writing thirty books, I’m too entrenched in my process to change it.

That’s the message I hope you’ll all take to heart: There’s no wrong way to write a book. Outlining a novel isn’t the key to its success – or the guarantee of its failure.

If your process works for you, no matter how crazy it may seem, just accept it. Embrace it.

And keep writing.”

I certainly agree with Ms Gerritson. I could never write a fifty page outline. Instead, I’ll write a description of the major characters which is reasonably detailed, and there will be a description of the setting and the initial situation. Then, I, too, will plunge in, letting the characters carry the story forward, adding new characters, and inventing new plot twists. I’ll have a general idea of the theme of the book, but the books never turn out as I might have expected. Once I’ve cleaned up the messy parts, the book is better than I had visualised.

A Banned Author Talks

This week, I’ve decided to post the commentary from a black, gay author whose book has been banned from US school districts. The commentary is on HuffPost, 24 September 2022. I haven’t read the book, so I have no basis for deciding whether it should or should not be banned. But the author, George M Johnson, says he wrote it for 14 to 18 year olds, and it’s about his experience growing up, so, if I were a school librarian, I might discourage a ten-year-old from reading it on the basis that he or she probably wouldn’t have the life experience to deal with the book emotionally. But, I might not refuse a 15 year-old.

George M Johnson

“It was sometime during 2019, before COVID turned the world upside down, that I had the first meeting with my publisher. Her team and I sat in a room around a table and discussed the strategy — the marketing and promotion, mostly — for dropping my first book, which I’d recently finished. I was truly living my dreams. Amid the excited conversation, something in my spirit told me to ask a question: “What happens if you need security at an event?” They all looked puzzled. One of them asked why I’d need that. “I know this book will be banned, ” I replied. “I don’t know when or how widely, but I know that it will be.”

“A report from PEN America this week showed that my book, having survived various criminal complaints, was the second-most banned in the United States, with bans in 29 school districts. States’ continued efforts to ban my work is not easy to wake up to daily. For the past year, there have been constant Google alerts, messages on social media from people calling me a “pedophile or groomer,” and other unsavory attempts to deny my story and the very existence of Black queer people everywhere. I never thought I would be at the center of a political issue moving into an election — nor should I ever have been.

“My book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” is a young adult memoir about my experience growing up Black and queer in America. In my story, I discuss growing up in a Black family who loved and affirmed me; the good, bad and ugly truths about what teens really deal with; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life was and still is full of joy, but also include some painful moments involving nonconsensual sex, as well as my experience with losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences have been deemed “an issue” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for ages 14-18 and it contains truths that many of us have experienced and are healing from.

“Books about our experience are not too “explicit” just because they discuss gender, race and other crucial topics that teen readers need to process as they learn about themselves and the world they live in.

“Our books (the banned ones, if you will) often tell stories that are uncomfortable and important. Book banning is nothing new in the U.S., but it has rarely been seen at this magnitude in recent decades. But we can’t just talk about book banning without discussing the suppression of storytelling. Books written by enslaved people, that described their reality, had to be written under pseudonyms to protect the authors. Some of the greatest literary icons of our time — Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and even Harper Lee — have had their books banned despite their works being part of the landscape and foundation for many generations of writers.

“But that is why writing and other types of storytelling are such revolutionary rights.They change lives, provide community, and serve as a lifeline for those who feel unseen, unheard and alone.

“When I first wrote my memoir, I kept reminding myself that this was not for the 33-year-old version of me. This was for my 10-year-old self who had important things to say and had been silenced for so many years. And as I wrote about my experience, I felt lighter. I felt freer. I felt I had tapped a power I never knew existed.

“And then I watched as reader after reader, from teenagers to people well into their 70s, discussed how this book made them feel — how the stories healed and informed them. I was told that my simple existence (me being out here and sticking to my intentions) was something that they could hold on to on their roughest of days. And that’s the truly revolutionary thing about art. Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I did. And while all the book bans are weaponizing my words, I know that they’re providing armor for those who have gone through anything I did.

“I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies my right to write them.”

I say, “Carry on, George!”

Review: Life after Life

This novel by Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel Award in 2013. Her novel, A God in Ruins,which I greatly admired, also won the Costa. I wasn’t quite as taken by her third World War II novel, Transcription, but I was fascinated by the blurb on the back cover of Life after Life: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”

Kate Atkinson

The novel begins in 1910 with the birth of Ursula Todd into an upper class English family in the London suburbs. There is a heavy snowstorm at the time and the doctor is unable to reach the house. The chord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, and unfortunately, she died. But there is another version where a 14 year-old maid recognises the problem, cuts the chord and the baby survives. And there is another version in which the doctor arrives in time. Similarly, when Ursula is a toddler at the beach with her older sister, they wade out into the sea and they are struck by a huge wave. Ursula drowns. No, she is saved by an elderly artist on the beach. Then, there is the time when she is taken advantage of as a teenager by the American friend of her brother and becomes pregnant. Or is she? No, she bats him away.

The story continues to the run up to the war. Ursula visits a family in Munich where she meets Eva Braun and her older lover, Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s family includes some remarkable and memorable characters, like her aunt, Izzie, who is a loose cannon socially, financially and romantically. Then there is Teddy the much-loved younger brother who becomes a bomber pilot and is killed in the war. Or no, he was shot down, parachuted, spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp, and finally made his way home.

Ms Atkinson’s descriptions of the London blitz of 1940 when Ursula worked as an area warden are astonishingly authentic, the settings devastating and the characters memorable. There are so many twists and turns in Ursula’s life, that one can’t be away from the story for very long.

There is a passage which occurs at the beginning and the end of the book in which Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with a family handgun which she takes from her purse. She, in turn is killed in both versions, yet she lives to work into the 1950’s. Perhaps this is just her imagination of how the war may not have been.

For me, the idea of living one’s life again until one get’s it right is misleading and doesn’t actually happen in the book. Rather, it is a question of slightly different circumstances and reactions of the characters which make for a different result. So, the point for me is how a small bit of fortune – or misfortune – can dramatically change one’s life.

Questions for Harry

In an email last year, Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers answered some questions about getting published. The answers are useful for many of us.

“But to get back to the deluge of responses to last week’s email, there were a few themes that stood out.

1. Small publishers

A couple of small publishers wrote to me, reminding me their universe constitutes another credible path to publication. They’re right. It does. And it’s a good route, too. For literary fiction, especially, there are some brilliant tiny publishers who have an adventure and enthusiasm you might find hard to find at a bigger firm. If you have troubles finding an agent (but have reason to believe your book is good enough), then definitely explore a direct submission to a small publisher in your area.

2. Is there a particular problem with literary fiction?

Those of you writing literary fiction seemed to think there was a particular problem in getting your work accepted. Well, yes and no. Yes: in the sense that literary fiction doesn’t generally sell a lot, which means publishers – and you – have to work harder to establish a commercial case for your book. As far as you’re concerned, that means coming up with an elevator pitch which is compelling, albeit literary. The exemplary case here is Hilary Mantel and her Wolf Hall trilogy. Before Wolf Hall, she wrote terrific, but small, books, that were widely respected but of minor consequence in terms of sales. Then an idea occurred to her with clear “tell me more” potential – and the result was the literary phenomenon of the decade.

In other words, if you’re writing excellent literary fiction with a strong elevator pitch, it’ll sell every time, I promise.

3. I’m a man, I’m old, I’m …

Yes, most literary agents are white, metropolitan, left-leaning, middle-class women with liberal arts degrees. But for one thing, they aren’t all like that. And for another, agents’ tastes range right across the market. My own agent represents high-end literary fiction, and serious non-fiction, and heart-warming women’s fiction, and crime fiction … and really any book that tells a strong story and tells it well. In the end, it’s the manuscript that makes the sale not you. One of the glorious democratic advantages of the slushpile is that agents don’t know your age, your background or a great deal else. If you worry (let’s say) that your age is a disadvantage, then don’t mention it. It’s the manuscript that matters. You – thankfully – are somewhat unimportant.

4. How much is personal taste a factor?

It is and it isn’t.

It is, in the sense that an individual agent needs to chime with your book. If your book is set at sea, for example, and a particular agent just has a dislike of the ocean, that’s probably a tough sell. But you’re going to get your book out to 10-12 agents, perhaps even 15. So those personal taste issues even themselves out. And in the end, agents are looking for assets they can sell at a good price. That’s a largely objective question. Any two agents will agree much more than not. Finding and selling manuscripts is their job.

5. Is there a self-pub market for X?

There’s a self-publishing market for pretty much everything, but especially any sort of genre fiction. t’s also a terrific way of selling niche subject-led books that address specific topics. So “How To Prune Fruit Trees”, for example, will sell – in small volumes, but constantly – to people looking for help on that exact subject.

The only area where I think self-pub is not likely to help you is with literary fiction. I don’t know of any contemporary example of successful self-published literary work.

It’s also worth saying that you can’t meaningfully self-publish without also marketing your work. Books very seldom sell themselves. But there are tools for marketing and a well-known, well-worn approach that works. Needless to say, Jericho members can get all the help they need there, and for free.

6. Can I make a living from genre X / publishing approach Y?

Probably not. Across the whole of publishing history, it’s rare for authors to make a living from writing. That remains true today. You can go into your local flagship bookstore and look at the books on the front tables. Most of the writers there, aside from the world’s major bestsellers, won’t be able to rely on writing income alone.

That said, the people who make the most money these days are successful and hard-working self-pub authors. If you’re happy with the marketing challenge, and write good quality genre fiction, then a regular six-figure income is within your grasp.”

I write literary fiction – at least that’s what most of it it. Some of it’s pretty terrible, some is quite good. It’s all self published, in spite my efforts at great elevator pitches. And I have to confess that I haven’t put anywhere near the effort I put into writing that I put into sales and marketing. I enjoy writing; for me, selling is a lot less fun.

Car Crashes

Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers had some interesting thoughts in his email of a couple of weeks ago.

He said, “Let’s talk car crashes.”

“What if you have a writing car crash? A complete and total failure?

And, by the way, we need to be a bit careful to define terms here. If you’re writing your first novel and you make some plotting cock-ups, that’s not a failure – that’s just writing.

If you complete your work, edit it hard, then come to us for a manuscript assessment, only to be told that there are still a lot of issues, that too is not a failure. It’s just writing.

Same thing, indeed, if you go through the whole process, and send your stuff out to agents, and get some agents wanting to see the full manuscript only, ultimately, to say no. That’s disappointing, of course, but really, that’s a success. You wrote your very first novel and got it good enough, on that first outing, to have serious agents toying with the idea of taking you on? How is that not impressive?

So, yes, I have high standards for what constitutes a car crash. I think the key ingredients are (A) your work is way below the standard to be expected from someone of your experience – plus, (B) you’re completely in the dark about how bad things are. If you have the first element without the second, you don’t have a car-crash, you just have an unresolved editorial problem, and we all have those. Again: that’s just writing.

But, even on a strict definition, I had a total car crash early in my career – my only really bad experience.

I’d already sold my first book, via a highly contested auction, and the book went on to be a bestseller. So: good outcome, right?

Better still, I’d delivered the draft of my second book before the first was even launched. So: good author, right?

The trouble was that second book was AWFUL. I haven’t kept a draft of it and never re-read it, so I now only have a nightmare-style recall of what was in it. But – plotting, bad. Elevator pitch – worse. Writing – subpar. Characters – patchy and (yeugh) a bit icky too.

The draft was so bad that I got called into HarperCollins’ nice London offices for an editorial discussion. My editor and publisher, both very nice humans, told me – gently – how bad the book was.

I didn’t need a lot of telling. I wasn’t defensive. As soon as they started to talk it through, I realised they were right. Luckily, I had plenty of time to do a re-write. So I got home, copied the document into a Drafts folder that I could plunder for paragraphs here and there, then selected the whole document and hit delete.

This bestselling author had just deleted his second novel.

My redraft was about a million times better than the version before, and it was still the least good thing I’ve ever written. But it’s also where I really learned to be a writer. My first novel had just come too easily. The core idea had been a good one. My delivery was fine, or more than fine. But the absence of struggle had also meant an absence of knowhow. I’d read nothing at all about the craft of writing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to do so. (We all know how to write, no? You just glue enough sentences together.)

That second novel was a wrestling match, start to finish. I read every book I could find on craft. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but even the process of disagreeing made me more reflective, more considered.

And that second book didn’t do badly. I got a sort-of film deal for it, which admittedly never quite materialised. The book was shortlisted for one of the big annual writing prizes. It sold a plump five-figures number of copies.

I still don’t love the book, but it did OK.

My reasons for offering you this story is threefold:

1. Car crashes happen

They’re not terminal. Don’t fret. Move on.

2. Use them to learn

I’m a huge believer in the importance of craft.

Writing technique is the sword and shield that protects you from disaster. It won’t protect you from mistakes – nothing does. But the better your basic writing craft, the quicker you’ll pick those issues up and the more rapidly you’ll solve them.

3. Protect yourself

The best way to avoid major problems, however, is to stop making them in the first place. The single strongest tool you have for doing that is a powerful idea for your book. The stronger that idea, the better your delivery is likely to be – and the less any errors of execution are likely to matter. Dan Brown is the ultimate exemplar here. He is a poor writer – but his Da Vinci Code idea was (for his particular market niche) one of genius. You could, I guess, say the same about EL James and Shades of Grey, except that her writing is even worse.

The reason I called my own personal car-crash a worst-best experience is because it made me a far better writer. It was the single biggest learning development of my writing life.

My first book was gifted to me. The rest? They were all worked for. And if I’m technically competent now, that’s largely because of the kick in the pants I got from that terrible second novel of mine.”

Audio Books : Pro & Con

As a followup on last week’s post about reading, Boris Starling makes the observation, “You may have heard the book, but you haven’t really read it” in the 18 October Daily Telegraph.

Boris Starling

His publisher, Harper Collins, says this about Mr Starling: “Boris Starling has worked as a reporter on the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and most recently for Control Risk, a company which specialises in kidnap negotiation, confidential investigations and political risk analysis. He was one of the youngest ever contestents on ‘Mastermind’ in 1996 and went on to the semi-finals with his subjects: the novels of Dick Francis and the Tintin books. Boris studied at Cambridge and currently lives in London. ‘Messiah’ was his first novel and this was followed by the publication of ‘Storm’. The ambitious Russian gangster novel ‘Vodka’ followed this and his latest novel ‘Visibility’ is an espionage thriller set amidst the Great Fog of London in 1952. ‘Messiah’ was televised by the BBC starring Ken Stott and has since become a hugely successful detective franchise.”

In the Telegraph article, Boris says (in part), “First it was music: then it was podcasts. Now Spotify, the most popular streaming service in the world, is offering audiobooks. For now they are only available in the United States and their cost is not included in Spotify’s existing membership packages. Given the pace of change in the sector, neither should remain the case for long.

Audiobooks have been a going concern since the mid-1980s, but technological advances in the smartphone era have brought accessibility and convenience. No more lugging around umpteen cassette cases or CD boxes. The global market is estimated to be worth around £3.5 billion and rising fast. Competition is fierce: Google Play, Apple, Audible and Kobo are already players in the market. 

There’s no doubt audiobooks can boast several advantages over traditional books. You can listen to them while doing other activities: driving, gardening, housework, walking the dog or exercising, for example. They can afford a communal experience, with couples or families all able to listen to the same thing at once. And a good narrator –Steven Fry, Michelle Obama, Rosamund Pike, Andrew Scott and Meryl Streep have all turned their hand to audiobooks – can make words and story come alive in ways that a reader alone with their own internal voice may not be able to.

But the big question is, are audiobooks as good for you as traditional reading? Consistent reading improves your vocabulary, grammar, reasoning, concentration, critical thinking and ability to communicate. These in turn will help promote empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. How much of this gets lost in the switch from page to app and in what Deloitte, the global consulting firm, describes as “a war between those who want to use their eyes versus those who prefer their ears”?

Some things certainly do. There are few pleasures – at least those suitable for listing in a family newspaper – to compare with losing oneself in a good book. But it does require concentration and absorption to the exclusion of all else. Reading is active in ways which listening is not: you have to keep reading to progress with a book, whereas an audiobook will keep playing until you stop it. Reading is something you do: listening is something that happens to you.

“As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. These physical anchors, absent in audiobooks, seem to aid memory and comprehension, as do the physiological aspects of reading.

“About 10 to 15 per cent of eye movements during reading are actually regressive, going back and re-checking,” Willingham adds. “This happens very quickly and it’s sort of seamlessly stitched into the process of reading a sentence.” Rewinding an audio file even a few seconds is more disruptive. In the case of most books this may not be a problem, but complex and/or technical books are almost certainly better read than listened to – you can’t underline or highlight passages and text boxes or bolded words to emphasise importance are much harder to get across in audio.

The majority of people – around 65 per cent – are predominantly visual learners, best absorbing information through reading. Thirty per cent are auditory learners and the remaining five per cent kinaesthetic ones who learn by doing rather than seeing or hearing.

Reading is more time-efficient than listening: the average adult reads around 250 to 300 words per minute, whereas the recommended talking speed for high comprehension is 150 to 160 words per minute.

Dr Matt Davis, programme leader at the University of Cambridge Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says that “reading and listening involve different senses”. Davis explains that each of these connects to a different part of the brain: things that you see are processed in the visual cortex at the back of the brain, whereas things that you hear are processed by the auditory cortex which sits on the side of the brain, above the ears.

But when it comes to the ways in which the brain processes information, there is much less distinction between reading and listening than many might think. “We see that many of the same parts of the brain are involved, regardless of where the information comes from,” Davis continues. “The same brain systems seem to be involved in accessing the meaning of written and spoken words.” 

And though we rightly value reading as an intellectual skill, stories have of course been aural for longer than they have been visual, both collectively and individually. Before widespread social literacy, storytellers would recount tales to crowds large and small: before we learn to read as children, our parents and carers read us stories. Spoken storytelling has been around for tens of thousands of years: widespread literacy dates back only a few hundred years, to Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press in 1440. 

In some cases, audiobooks can be better than traditional ones, especially for those who suffer from dyslexia or other reading difficulties. “Anyone who finds reading difficult might retain more from listening to an audiobook,” says Davis. “The additional effort involved in reading the words uses mental resources that they would otherwise need for comprehension and memory.”

So audiobooks are here to stay and that is no bad thing. The level of what you’re consuming is more important than the medium through which you consume it. But no matter how useful or prevalent audiobooks become, it should and must never be at the expense of literacy itself. “Learning to read is the single most important thing children do at school,” says Davis. “Too many children never get to fully experience the joy of reading. To be able to be absorbed in a book is a wonderful skill.”

Do Books Make Kids Feel Stupid?

“Reading books can make modern children feel “stupid”, the author of How to Train Your Dragon has claimed.” (Article by Will Bolton from the Daily Telegraph 8 October 2022)

“Award-winning author Cressida Cowell said television and computer games have made children “more visual” than when she was young.”

Cressida Cowell

“Ms Cowell is most well known for her best-selling book series, How to Train Your Dragon, which subsequently became an award-winning franchise adapted for the screen by DreamWorks. As of 2015, the series has sold more than seven million copies around the world.

“She warned that young people who suffer from dyslexia and are used to watching TV may be put off reading books because they make them feel stupid.

“‘How on earth can you love something that makes you feel stupid?’ she added.

“The 56-year-old former children’s laureate described TV as ‘incessant’ and effortless to watch, while books can be associated with school and make youngsters feel stupid. Writing in Teach Primary magazine, the author said: ‘Making a book that a child of today will read with the same amount of pleasure that I read books with when I was a kid is rather trickier than it sounds.

“‘When I was a child, the telly was terrible. There was no internet, no PlayStation. Now the telly is glorious and incessant, and it is magically ‘beamed’ into children’s heads without them having to do anything, whereas books can become associated with school and hard work, but if a child has dyslexia, it can be worse than that. In that case, books can sometimes come to represent something that actively makes the child feel stupid, and how on earth can you love something that makes you feel stupid?”

I have several grandchildren who are avid readers in spite of the availability of television and iPads. Given a choice between watching television and reading a book, they will choose the book. For them, books are associated with school, learning and growing up. For them, school isn’t ‘hard work’. It’s about discovering ideas and maturing. They don’t feel stupid reading a book. They see the grown-ups around them reading books and they feel clever. Where did Ms Cowell get the idea that reading a book makes a child feel stupid?

For me the issue is not children, it’s the parents. Do the parents set an example by their own reading and by reading to the child art an early age. Parents can also help the child select books that will interest them, and they can set limits on video games and TV.

The article concludes, “Ofcom estimates that three-to-four-year-olds spend an average of three hours a day watching screens. Children’s screen time is thought to have increased significantly during the pandemic when home schooling and Zoom calls became common. A recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that children who spend less than an hour on iPads and other gadgets each day are likely to develop better brains than their peers. Children who were on electronics for less than an hour a day were significantly better at remembering information, controlling impulses and had greater overall executive function.”

Denouement

“The word ‘denouement’ is a borrowed word that came to the English language via the French word denoue. Its literal Latin meaning is to ‘untie the knot’. This is why we now use it as a literary term to refer to the conclusion of a novel.”

This post is from an article by Isabella May in the Jericho Writers blog. She is the author of The Cocktail Bar and The Chocolate Box. She lives in Andalusia, Spain, although she grew up in Somerset on Glastonbury’s ley lines (she loves to feature her quirky English hometown in her rom-coms.) After a degree in Modern Languages and European Studies at UWE, Bristol, she worked in children’s publishing selling foreign rights for novelty, board, pop-up and non-fiction books all over the world.

“The denouement of a story (whether it’s a book, play or movie) is a literary device that involves the tying up of all the loose ends, the ironing out of the plot, and the final resolution that should leave your audience feeling satisfied. As writers, the narrative of our work should have a story arc and take readers through the five stages of development; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Denouement occurs at the very end and it needs to help readers understand the bigger picture and how all of the subplots and events have led to its creation. This is true for all genres and forms of storytelling.

“Simply put, stories demand conflict. Conflict, in turn, leads to a climax which then demands denouement in the final scene to give the audience a sense of closure. You can’t get to the exciting point then leave readers guessing! It is also the part where we discover the moral of a story, or we learn the lesson. Human beings love to see good beat evil. This is why denouement is particularly important when it comes to children’s books (where everyone ‘lived happily ever after’). Of course, this doesn’t mean every single novel has to have a fully-formed denouement in its final pages. If the book is part of a series, the final chapter may wrap up the book’s side storyline, but there may be a cliffhanger for the bigger story thread in order to entice readers to the next book. Although some standalone books break the writing rules and shun denouement completely.

“William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet highlights the importance and impact of employing denouement as a technique for closure. Instead of offering a happy ending, the double suicide of the main characters means this particular denouement teachers the audience a lesson – that it was their death, not their love, that healed the family feud. William Shakespeare was a master of denouement, ensuring that every last scene in his plays culminated in a dramatic (and conclusive) finale!

“The popular Netflix series (and book adaptation) could not have left us with a greater celebration of accomplishment on behalf of its genius chess-playing protagonist. Beth’s life challenges up until the point of denouement have been enormous. But despite everything her life has thrown at her, she overcomes every one of her hurdles to finally defeat her greatest chess rival, bringing her story to a highly satisfying conclusion.  

“Here are five basic rules to follow:

  1. Denouement should tie up every single loose end in such a way that a quick tug won’t make everything unravel again! Readers should not be left with a single niggle.
  2. Denouement should allow key characters the chance to reflect realistically on their story, whilst taking into account whether their reactions feel warranted.
  3. Denouement should be plausible and believable (even if you write fantasy, the book should be wrapped up in a way that makes sense).
  4. Denouement should complete the aforementioned story arc and work in harmony with the previous components of it: exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action.
  5. Denouement should link effortlessly with the main themes of your novel.

“The denouement of a story is at the author’s discretion, but it is definitely the point at which the bad guys should be revealed (and hopefully brought to justice), the hero rewarded, secrets unearthed, and loose ends tied up. Writers take readers on a journey of escapism, so that journey needs to have a satisfyingly plausible ending. It may be tempting to cut corners when you’re on the verge of typing THE END, but it’s vital to be just as diligent with your denouement as you are with your opening chapter. Because your final words, and that final scene, will stay with your readers forever.”

New Novel

My latest novel – my tenth – Nebrodi Montains: Th Billionaire and the Mafia is out.

Front Cover:

Back Cover:

What happens when a Black American billionaire with feral business instincts engages with a violent Sicilian Mafia family? Will his wealth become the justification for an affair that funds a migrant charity?

The billionaire and his wife, the migrant charity couple, and the Mafia family find that they are neighbors in the mysterious Nebrodi Mountains of Sicily.

Jerry Johnson, an African American billionaire from the Bronx, New York, and his young Spanish wife, Balencia Hidalgo, an accomplished artist, have renovated and enlarged their 18th-century residence in the small village of Gabiana in the Nebrodi Mountains.

The Johnson’s new neighbours are David and Eva Pretorius, who work for a refugee charity in Sicily.

Situated between the two couples is the Forio family, of which Salvatore (known as Shorty) is the head. Shorty has a wife and three married children living with him, and they are Mafia.

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“This is a fast-paced, action-packed tale that skillfully showcases love, family, tragedy, and loss amidst a bevy of criminal activity.”Blue Ink Reviews

Synopsis:

            Jerry Johnson, a African-American billionaire, from Bronx, New York, and his younger Spanish wife, Balencia Hidalgo, an accomplished artist, have renovated and enlarged an eighteenth-century residence in the small village of Gabiana in the Nebrodi Mountains of Sicily.  The Mansion has a full-scale drone helicopter to transfer Jerry to Palermo Airport for his business trips.  The Johnson’s new neighbours are David and Eva Pretorius, who are mid-forties, both working for a refugee charity in Sicily.  David is South African, and Eva is Italian-Swiss.  Living on the road between these two families is the Forio family, of which Salvatore (known as Shorty) is the head.  Shorty has a wife and three married children living with him.  They are mafia.  The Johnsons and the Pretorius become friends.

            Shorty’s elder son, Giuseppe (knows as Shark) gives a local shepherd a severe beating for refusing Shorty’s order not to graze his sheep on Jerry’s property.  Shorty had an illegal arrangement with the previous owner which allowed him to collect a European Union subsidy.  Jerry entices Shorty into consideration of a business relationship, which results in the carabinieri being involved and the shepherd receiving an apology.

            The Johnson children, aged 20, 18 and 16 and the Pretorius children, aged 15 and 13 are walking between their two houses.  They have asked Loredana aged, 24, who is the Pretorius children’s teacher in the local school, and has become a friend of Eva’s, to join them.  Loredana is Shorty’s youngest child.  She has severed all connections to her family because of they are Mafiosi.  As they pass Loredana’s former home, they are attacked by a dog and threatened with a gun by Shorty’s son, Lazzaro.  This altercation ends up in court where Lazzaro is found guilty of perjury and assault.

            David, who was a curator at the Uffizi Museum in Florence before he met Eva, believes that three antique religious paintings in Father Pino, the local priest’s office, may be originals by the fifteenth century Italian painter, Crivelli.  They are professionally examined and found to be Crivellis, worth an estimated £10 million.

            Aisha, a nineteen-year-old single woman from Burkina Faso makes the hazardous trip across North Africa and the Mediterranean, ending in Eva’s hostel.  Months later she is abducted with five other women, by thugs under the control of Shorty’s older daughter, Giovanna, raped and forced into prostitution in Rome.  Aisha escapes, the police are called in, and Giovanna is found guilty of modern slavery, human trafficking and accessory to murder and assault.

            Jerry hires Shorty and Lazzaro, for one hundred thousand euros, to take actions which result in his offer to buy a large neglected vineyard to be accepted.  Jerry travels to Rome to bribe two deputies (MPs) to introduce legislation which will permit him to build, operate and sell a huge solar energy power plant for a profit of seven hundred million euros.

            David and Eva, who are having difficulty raising the necessary funds to support their charity.  They approach Jerry for a donation of one million euros.  Jerry visits Eva’s hostel and proposes a monthly contribution of € one hundred thousand if she has sex with him during his monthly visits.  She reluctantly agrees.  Balencia discovers her husband’s unfaithfulness and informs David.  Jerry and Eva are confronted, and their spouses decide to take trips: Jerry to Florence to try to regain his old job at the Uffizi, Balencia initially to Spain, but later to Florence where she and David have an affair.  The married couples reconcile.  Jerry agrees to The Giving Pledge, putting fifty percent of his five billion dollars into a charitable trust.

            Santiago and Loredana fall in love.  Lazzaro, furious at Santiago’s testimony at the trial which results in him facing a five-year jail sentence, shoots and kills Santiago when he and Loredana are on a camping trip in the Nebrodis.  The Anti-Mafia Department, assisted by Loredana, the shepherd, and the Pretorius children gather the evidence which results in a life conviction for Lazzaro.  

            Shorty, enraged at the convictions of two of his children by what he sees as the actions of Jerry and prohibited by his wife from attacking Loredana, shoots down Jerry in his drone.  Jerry survives the attack.  Loredana induces family members to ‘turn grass’ and the Anti-Mafia Department gathers the evidence to convict Shorty of attempted murder.  Aisha is hired to be Jerry’s carer.

            David succeeds in obtaining the Crivellis for the Uffizi and is rehired is deputy curator. Eva is hired to work from home in Florence for the Johnson Trust.