Books on Credit

The January 26th issue of the Daily Telegraph has an article by Chris Price which says much about the times the world is in.

“Egyptians have resorted to taking out loans to buy books as inflation surges in the country. Book prices have more than doubled as the value of the Egyptian pound plummeted by about 43% against sterling over the last year.

Authors have even reportedly begun cutting out characters and descriptions as the cost of paper and ink soars, with inflation hitting a five-year high of 21.3% in December, according to statistics agency Capmas.

Mohammed el-Baaly, of Sefsafa Publishing House, told the BBC: “A book has become a luxury item here in Egypt. It’s not a basic commodity like food and people are saving on luxuries.”

Keen readers now reportedly can spread the cost of a book over nine month at 1.5% interest, according to the Egyptian Publishers Association.

Teen fiction author Dina Afifi told the BBC she hoped the scheme would bolster sales. She said, ‘My book’s been downsized, slimmed down to just 60 pages from around 100, because of the rising printing costs.’

Mr Baaly added: ‘The cost of paper and ink has gone up tremendously. The cost of a ton of paper is nearly four times higher than the start of last year.'”

The interest rate of 1.5% quoted in the article must be a monthly rate which would be equivalent to about 20% per year.

The Guardian, in an article dated last October said; “The price of books is likely to go up, say publishers – which are acting to avoid steep rises for readers.

Some presses are exploring printing on cheaper and thinner paper, postponing reprints for older books and publishing fewer titles to reduce costs and avoid increasing recommended retail prices.

But the hike in costs of paper and energy and the effects of Brexit mean price rises are likely in the long term if not in the short and medium term, “if the current high production and distribution costs stabilise at the current levels”, said Juliet Mabey, co-founder of the independent publishing house Oneworld

Valerie Brandes, founder and publisher of Jacaranda Books Arts Music, said it was highly likely that book prices for consumers would have to increase “across all formats” by 10 to 20%.”

So, we’re fortunate not to be buying our books in Egypt!

The Importance of Sound

There is an article by Susan Griffin dated January 20, 2023, on the Lit Hub website which is worth some extra thought and perhaps attention. Ms Griffin makes the point that the sounds of the words we write can make a difference to the readers understanding and appreciation.

Susan Griffin has written over 22 books, including nonfiction, poetry, and plays. A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times Notable book. Woman and Nature, considered a classic of environmental writing, is credited for inspiring the ecofeminist movement. She and her work have been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy, and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement & Service, among other honors. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Susan Griffin

Ms Griffin says: “Soon after my failed attempt at a war novel, I began to read passages out loud from books I liked. I had listened many times to my older sister, who was studying drama in high school, as she read passages from plays or poems out loud. So, as with practically everything she did, I followed her example. I read stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s stirring poem, “Renascence,” dialogues from Alice in Wonderland, and, though I never could finish the book, I loved to perform the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities.

Perhaps because of its notable symmetrical rhythm, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or the dramatic list of contrasting circumstances, “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” I loved this paragraph and would read it over and over, even when I was alone in the back bedroom, staring out a window that looked over other houses, streets, a few palm trees, and a giant neon sign depicting red paint as it poured over a round earth, imagining as I read that I was creating a larger perspective on the urban scene below.

I did not know yet that with this practice I was training my ear to take in the music of language and, in the process, beginning to notice the music of the various phrases and sentences passing through my mind, bits and pieces, which even without any clear logic seemed to carry meaning. Over time I began to recognize these fragments as the seeds of something I might one day write.

When asked in an interview “how do stories begin for you?” one of the great storytellers of our time, Grace Paley, answered, “A lot of them begin with a sentence — they all begin with language.”

We think of language as conveying meaning. But here, I believe, Paley is talking about sound as well as sense. “Very often,” she goes on to say, “one sentence is absolutely resonant.”

In this way, literature is not, as many often suppose, abstract. Its medium is the human voice, a phenomenon every bit as concrete and sensual as oil paint or marble from Carrara. And though modern attitudes do not recognize the meaning inherent in the concrete world, the medium is never passive. As Michelangelo told us, the material from which he sculpted his masterpieces guided him. “I saw the angel in the marble,” he said, “and I carved until I set him free.”

Sound can dive beneath presupposition and assumptions, the world of clichés that has already bored you, to unlock the vital yet undiscovered and unspoken worlds that lie just beneath the surface of what has become habitual.

For this reason, it is important that you listen to the words you have written. If the sound of your words is true (in the sense of a true note or hitting the mark), your reader will be riveted if not enchanted. And, more crucial to this process of writing, which you have already begun by this time, you will be exhausted; put in a kind of trance, the way religious ceremonies from diverse cultures have done for centuries. Thus, even you, as you write, will be led by the sound of the words you have written toward a wisdom you did not know you had within you.”

This advice may seem rather obscure and opaque. But I do find myself listening silently to a phase or a particular word I am proposing to use before, or even after I’ve typed it. Something about it doesn’t feel right. An alternative will spring to mind or I will consult the thesaurus. The alternative is much better. Perhaps the meaning is closer to what I’m trying to convey, but perhaps, also, the alternative has a sound that is more in tune with the feeling I want to transmit. I don’t think this is a scientific process; for me it is intuitive.

Review: A Message from Ukraine

I bought a copy of Volodymyr Zelensky’s collected speeches at an airport bookshop in December. It’s a small book, just the size to wedge into a suitcase, 118 pages at £9.99, of which President Zelensky’s personal income from the book (at least £0.60 per copy) will go to his charity, United24, in support of Ukraine.

I’ve been impressed by Zelensky: his absolute commitment to his country, his ability to lead his people in their struggle against a much larger, heartless, autocratic and immoral aggressor, his skill at coaching Western democracies to come to his aid, but perhaps most of all for his restraint in not criticising donors who pinch pennies. It would be so tempting to call Macron out as a egotistical, French, Putin-loving, tightwad. But whatever he may have thought of Macron, he kept it pretty much to himself. And now, low and behold, there is a transformation: France is backing a military victory for Ukraine and is going to send Ukraine light tanks, prompting Germany to do the same and adding Patriot missile batteries.

Zelensky’s Wikipedia page reads: “Born to a Ukrainian Jewish family, Zelenskyy (in Ukrainian, his surname is spelt with two y’s) grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law. He then pursued a career in comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produced films, cartoons, and TV shows including the TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular. A political party bearing the same name as the television show was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95.

Zelenskyy announced his candidacy in the 2019 presidential election on the evening of 31 December 2018, alongside the New Year’s Eve address of then-president Petro Poroshenko on TV. A political outsider, he had already become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls for the election. He won the election with 73.23 percent of the vote in the second round, defeating Poroshenko. He has positioned himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption figure. As president, Zelenskyy has been a proponent of e-government and of unity between the Ukrainian and Russian speaking parts of the country’s population. His communication style makes extensive use of social media.  His party won a landslide victory in the snap legislative election held shortly after his inauguration as president. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy oversaw the lifting of legal immunity for members of parliament, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession, and some limited progress in tackling corruption in Ukraine.

During his presidential campaign, Zelenskyy promised to end Ukraine’s protracted conflict with Russia, and he has attempted to engage in dialogue with Russian president Putin. Zelenskyy’s strategy during the Russian military buildup was to calm the Ukrainian populace and assure the international community that Ukraine was not seeking to retaliate. He initially distanced himself from warnings of an imminent war, while also calling for security guarantees and military support from NATO to “withstand” the threat. After the start of the invasion, Zelenskyy declared martial law across Ukraine and a general mobilisation of the armed forces. His leadership during the crisis has won him widespread international praise, and he has been described as a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. Zelenskyy was named the Time person of the Year for 2022 and opinion polls in Ukraine have ranked him as Ukraine’s greatest president.”

The speeches – there are 16 of them – were selected by Zelensky for the book, and range from his inaugural address to the Ukrainian parliament to Ukrainian Independence Day on 24 August 2022. There is a useful preface by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian and Eastern Europe editor of the Economist. This is followed by an introduction by Zelensky in which he reflects on changing the past.

His speeches are focused on several themes. Ukraine is a free, sovereign, independent country. Russia is engaged in an illegal and immoral invasion. Russia must be stopped because ultimately, it is at war with Western democracy, its values and principles. If Ukraine loses the war, Europe itself will be next. Ukraine can and must win this war. It will end when all the Russian occupiers are gone.

The language and the images are highly motivational. This is an excellent, two-hour read.

Australia’s Struggling Authors

The Guardian has an article today by Rafqa Touma ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: How Australia’s Favourite Authors Are Making Ends Meet’.

Ms Touma writes:”According to new research by Macquarie University, the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency, the average annual income from practising as an author is only $18,200 (Australian = £10,000). This has left two-fifths of authors relying on their partner’s income, and two-fifths relying on a day job unrelated to their writing. We spoke to some of Australia’s most celebrated authors who are supplementing their income with day jobs. Here is what they have to say:

Jennifer Down: the Miles Franklin-winning copywriter

Jennifer Down, author of Bodies of Light

Down won the 2022 Miles Franklin for her novel Bodies of Light, which was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s prize, the Stella prize and the Voss prize. She is also the author of Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points.

At a weekend writers’ festival in October, Jennifer Down had work to finish for her day job: a brand launch campaign was coming up. So she sat down at a pub and pulled out her laptop.

“I thought if I have to work on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll do it with a pint,” she says. She looked so focused that a group at the table across from her made a passing joke: “Have you finished your novel yet?”

Little did they know Down had in fact finished her novel, which had just won the country’s most important literary prize. “The irony is that it is a Sunday afternoon, and I’m doing my money job while at a festival for my non-money job.”

Down was named the Sydney Morning Herald’s young novelist of the year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. At the time, she was working as an in-house copywriter for an Australian skincare company, being paid less than $50,000. “I was living in a five-person share house, and I could barely pay my bills.”

“It is surreal,” she says. “Outside of work, my writing is really respected. I had this modest critical acclaim coming in. Then at work, I’m having social media copy corrected by a person who doesn’t understand what subordinate clauses are and hasn’t read a book in 10 years.”

Down currently works as a copywriter full-time. She sets her alarm for 4am to write for herself; the alternative is foregoing social engagement.

“I don’t know if it has paid off. It is gratifying to have won prizes, but I feel like it can be incredibly isolating at times.”

It also means she’s effectively working seven days a week. “I don’t really remember the last time I have had two consecutive days off,” she says. “It is paid for in the sense I have been able to produce work, but it is not without a cost.”

Holden Sheppard: the manual labourer with a TV deal

Holden Sheppard’s debut novel Invisible Boys won the 2019 WA Premier’s prize for an emerging writer, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell award, the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford award and the 2017 Ray Koppe residency award. He is also the author of The Brink.

Holden Sheppard is well loved among high school readers, with a TV adaptation of his multi-award-winning novel Invisible Boys currently in production. He is now writing his third book under contract; to fund it, he is working as a manual labourer in a timber yard.

“Authors are sole traders,” he says. “The part that doesn’t get seen is that there is a huge amount of admin.”

The Australia Council report found writers spend only half their writing time actually producing original writing. With invoicing, emailing, social media managing, talks at schools, event appearances and podcasting to fit between his work at the timber yard, Sheppard says he is left to write whenever it fits.

The annual income of children’s book authors sits at $26,800 – higher than the $18,200 average. Sheppard acknowledges his books have sold well, “but as much as it might appear successful, it is still not enough to live off”.

He deliberately looks for casual jobs instead of permanent part-time ones, for the sake of flexibility. “If there is a media interview opportunity, or an event I really want to do on a day of work, it is hard to get it off,” he says. “You jeopardise your day job and your income.” This precarious work he chooses rarely comes with entitlements such as annual leave and sick leave.

In 2015, Sheppard received an Australian Council Art Start grant for $10,000, but the program was scrapped after his round. “I feel that is needed again.” He also advocates for digital lending rights, which don’t exist in Australia.

“Each revenue stream helps us. When people take a book out of an e-library, we don’t see that revenue.”

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: the award-winning novelist who wrote behind the counter

Michael Mohammed Ahmed won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists award for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin. He also founded the Sweatshop literacy movement.

“I am a multi-award winning author, and I have a doctorate in literature. I am about as educated as you can get. I have sold tens of thousands of books. Still, I don’t have the job security of a manager at McDonald’s.”

While writing three acclaimed novels – The Tribe (2014), The Lebs (2018) and The Other Half of You (2021) – and setting up the western Sydney-based literacy agency Sweatshop, Michael Mohammad Ahmad worked at his father’s army disposal shop.

“When customers weren’t there, I’d be writing my novels behind the counter,” he says. “I only stopped working there about two or three years ago.”

He’s proud he was able to support his family this way, he says. “But it is insane that I had to do that. The industry isn’t set up to support people.”

Mohammad Ahmad still works seven days a week, with weekends spent writing. “I feel fortunate that in my case it is a job I am passionate about,” he says. “Writers didn’t enter the industry for money.

“It is an activity we’ve been participating in since humans could begin to think. It is fostering the next generation of thinking. It is something we find valuable outside of the capitalist construct of wealth. Even though writers aren’t making ends meet, they are still going to do it.

Anna Spargo-Ryan: the acclaimed author doing everything all at once

Anna Spargo-Ryan won the inaugural Horne prize in 2016 for her essay The Suicide Gene. She was longlisted for ABIA’s Matt Richell award in 2017 for her novel The Gulf. She is also the author of novel The Paper House and 2022 memoir A Kind of Magic.

According to the research, more than one-fifth of authors have a day job that’s related to being a writer – but that doesn’t make it easier for them to write a book.

Since 2013, Anna Spargo-Ryan has been balancing a full-time freelance mix of jobs, from ghostwriting and advertising copywriting to writing podcasts, websites, brand guidelines and feature articles.

“I do a lot of writing,” she says. “But all of it is for other people. A very small proportion of it is for my own writing work.”

Spargo-Ryan once held a romanticised idea of working as a writer. “But over the past 10 years … I have realised that the only way to get writing done is to fit it in.”

This year she published her first nonfiction book, A Kind of Magic. Although she spent the last three years writing it, she “barely remembers” the process. “I had a deadline, I had a contract, so I had to write it, but I didn’t have the leisure of having lots of time to get that done,” she says.

“So I wrote it in all kinds of small gaps. Waiting for the kids at school, before meetings, during meetings, editing on the treadmill. Whenever I could get bits of time … which I don’t really recommend as a writing process.”

Spargo-Ryan recommends writers learn to diversify their craft. “You might get an advance that is like a tenth of your annual salary, and that would be quite a good advance,” she says. “Then you are going to earn like three cents a word, for 100,000 words. In itself it isn’t sustainable.

“No one has a patron who pays for you to do your creative work. Part of being a writer is the hustle, trying new things, and diversifying the work you are doing.”

Omar Sakr: the PM’s literary award-winner looking for a day job

Omar Sakr won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary award for poetry for his collection The Lost Arabs. It was also shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary award, the John Bray Poetry award, the Judith Wright Calanthe award and the Colin Roderick award. He is also the author of These Wild Houses and Son of Sin.

“[It was] easy enough to do at first because I was couch-surfing and didn’t have much in the way of expenses,” he says. “But it has become increasingly difficult as I settled down and started a family.”

Grants and prizes gave him time to write his debut novel Son of Sin, but publishing involves a “relentless grind” of writing and touring, which has been “impossible” to sustain since his wife gave birth to their son this year.

The report finds more than half of authors find searching for income elsewhere to be a competing demand on their writing time.

“Now I find myself in a very precarious financial position, and actively trying to find a day job,” Sakr says. “Full-time freelancing relies too much on uncertain outcomes and requires too much of me, on top of being a dad. I already knew that our society doesn’t support artists enough, but it’s brutal to realise we also don’t support parents in a meaningful way either.”

Have Celebrities Ruined Kids’ Books?

Ben Lawrence has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph which makes the arguments that not only have celebrities seriously reduced the quality of kids’ books, but they have also captured the publishing space to the detriment of competent kids’ writers.

Ben Lawrence, Commissioning Editor of the Telegraph

In the article, he says: “Long ago, when I was young, I had a vivid imagination that needed feeding. While TV shows and computer games went a little way to inspiring me, nothing shaped my thoughts like a good book. This was the 1980s, so I caught the tail end of the second golden age of children’s literature. I happily lost myself in the vivid, sometimes strange worlds of Nina Bawden, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield and Susan Cooper, while supplementing my addiction with the classics: Kenneth Grahame, E Nesbit, C S Lewis and Eve Garnett. Books build a child, and my career in writing and editing would not have evolved without them.

I was lucky: I had bookish parents, both acting as in-house curators, full of ideas of what I should (and shouldn’t) read. Yet if I were small now, I am not sure that I would have the same access to great children’s fiction. You could make the usual noises about social media and attention spans, but there are other worrying factors in regard to the 21st-century child.

First, I benefitted greatly from my local library, which had a staggering selection of books both old and new – and we all know what has happened to Britain’s libraries. There were, I remember, plenty of friendly librarians, armed with incredible knowledge and an infectious love of reading, who could make recommendations to me. In an age when primary-school teachers were less constricted by a national curriculum, we also had the luxury of “reading afternoons”: we could sit and browse the books in both the school library and the shelves which lined our classroom.

There is now also the serious problem of brand recognition. Writers today (whose average salary, in Britain, is down to £7,000 per annum) are unable to gain a foothold in the children’s market because they are being muscled out by celebrity names whose publishers can afford the most prominent slots in bookshops and supermarkets.

It never felt like such a problem in the days of JK Rowling’s reign: she, at least, was a career writer whose works – though not, I’m afraid to say, that well written – displayed a vivid imagination, and who did a great deal to get children interested in reading.

For the harried parent trying to find a book for their child, a familiar name on a bookshelf is always going to be the obvious option. The Duchess of York went first in 1989, with Budgie the Little Helicopter. But in truth, blame Madonna: 14 years later, her wafty Kabbalah nonsense, The English Roses, started a ghastly trend. Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies, Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She Was a Dog – they all feel like cynical cash-ins.

Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is the comedian David Walliams, now the most successful children’s author in Britain. Anecdotally, I’m told by parents who’ve bought his best-selling books that they’re appalling: sub-Roald Dahl (of whom Walliams is a fan), and devoid of heart or writerly flair.

David Walliams

The only thing worse than a child deprived of books is a child immersed in bad ones. Defenders might say that at least a writer such as Walliams gets more children interested in reading, but I see no evidence that he is acting as a gateway drug to better quality gear.

All of this is heartbreaking, because there’s so much to recommend. A quick ring-round to friends and colleagues resulted in my being bombarded with names. You should mention Emma Carroll, they said. Julia Copus is brilliant, said another. MG Leonard, Ross Montgomery, Nadia Shireen, SF Said, Katherine Rundell, Jenny McLachlan… Yet with the exception of Rundell, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of any of them (even if, not having any children of my own, I have a reasonable excuse).

It was enough proof to me that children’s literature is as strong now as it was 40 years ago when I was young. So: enough is enough. It is time to attempt to end the depressing monopoly of a small selection of not-very-talented writers. A concert pianist never achieves success by being mediocre, so why should a children’s author?

There is, I admit, a slight air of nostra culpa here. Children’s fiction has always been the Cinderella of the book world, and we journalists need to work much harder in highlighting works for children. As the children’s author and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce argued persuasively on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, newspapers run plenty of restaurant reviews, featuring swanky places that 99.9 per cent of the population are never going to actually visit. Books, on the other hand, are comparatively cheap, and even cheaper if they’re loaned or shared.

So I’m going to make a pledge. From January, we will review a new book by a children’s author once a week. It could be a picture book for younger readers, a novel for pre-teens, or perhaps some Young Adult fiction. It could be a book by an established (professional) author, or a debut by someone brilliant and unknown. What you won’t see, I promise, is anything by a non-writer who is pushing larger talents out of the way in order to extend their personal brand.”

It seems to me that publishers bear some responsibility for this situation. They certainly know what a good quality children’s book is. To favour a celebrity brand-builder, who offers a short-term sugar rush of poor quality sales, over a professional author, who offers long-term sales to happy customers, is making bad business decisions.

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.

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.”