Male and Female Writers’ Coverage Bias

There is an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian on March 18, 2019 in which she analyses the Emilia Report.

Emilia Bassano (portrait circa 1590 by Nicholas Hilliard)

 

Excerpts from the article are quoted below:

“Emilia Bassano became England’s first published female poet in 1611 and – according to some – could be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But Bassano has largely been forgotten by posterity, with her reputation eclipsed by male contemporaries. Four hundred years later, research commissioned by the producers of Emilia, a play about Bassano’s struggle for recognition as an artist, has found that women writers continue to be judged by the “pram in the hallway”, and pigeonholed as domestic rather than taken seriously as authors.

“The Emilia Report compared broadsheet coverage of 10 male and female writers in the same market. It found a “marked bias” towards male writers, who received 56% of review coverage. Looking at comparable authors Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris, who had both written new works of fantasy – Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Harris’s A Pocket Full of Crows – researchers found that while Gaiman’s received widespread coverage, Harris’s did not receive any coverage at all. A similar story emerged for commercial fiction authors Matt Haig and Rowan Coleman; his How to Stop Time was mentioned 12 times by newspapers, in a mix of reviews, interviews and news, while her The Summer of Impossible Things got just three mentions.

“References to women writers’ ages were “ubiquitous”, even in reviews, the researchers found, with women twice as likely to have their age referenced as part of their coverage. In the case of Sally Rooney, only five pieces out of 16 failed to mention her age, three of which were reviews.

“Coleman, one of 27 female authors interviewed for the report on her experience of being published, said she had never been reviewed by a broadsheet, despite writing a string of bestselling novels. “For a man writing is a career,” she said. “For a woman, so often her writing is treated like it’s a hobby, it is a nice thing to do on the side. That attitude is deeply embedded in our culture.”

“Harris reported similar experiences: “In general, when you compare the coverage of my work to that of men writing in similar areas, the emphasis in my case has been on the domestic, and in theirs on the academic,” she said. “Women are still viewed as a niche group, dealing solely with women’s issues, whereas men (even in the same area) are thought of as dealing with important, universal themes.”

“Danuta Kean, the report’s author, said that just as it was for Bassano, “women still aren’t provided with an equal platform to men upon which their work can be judged.”

“The Emilia report recommends challenging publishers over gender stereotypes on covers, which “undermine the credibility of fiction by women and their ability to be taken seriously”, and asking literary editors to examine any gender bias in their review coverage.

“Playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, whose play Emilia is transferring to London’s West End, said that the research showed that Bassano’s struggles for recognition “sadly still chime with those of her fellow women writers 400 years later”.

“Bassano managed to publish a book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, getting around censorship that limited women to writing only religious texts. Yet she is scarcely known outside academic circles.”

What was it the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement used to say?  “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  (From 1590 to 2020, but there’s a long way still to go.)

Would Be Authors Bombard Publishers with Manuscripts

There is an article by Yohannes Lowe in The Daily Telegraph of June 1st with the above title.

Yohannes Lowe works as an apprentice for The Telegraph and won the National Council for the Training of Journalists apprentice of the year award in 2019.   He says, “I have always enjoyed talking to people and finding out about their personal stories.  That interest combined with a hunger for current affairs, made journalism a natural fit. But with no formal writing experience, I took up a teaching assistant role after graduating from university in 2017.  It did not last more than six weeks.  I then looked for reporting jobs. An NCTJ apprenticeship was vital for training me in the basic skills of the profession, allowing me to be competent in a national newsroom with little formal experience.  The apprenticeship, which included regular teaching sessions at PA Training was great as it taught me to write shorthand quickly and the basics of media law and court reporting.”

Yohannes Lowe

The article says, “Budding authors have been inundating publishers with manuscripts during lockdown, with dystopian novels being among the most commonly offered.  The time freed up by working hours from home has given many aspiring authors more hours in the day to finish off their book proposals.

Avon, a commercial fiction division of HarperCollins, has seen ‘unagented submissions’ increase threefold between March and May compared with the same time last year.  They have received a large number of crime and thriller novels from writers who are drawing their inspiration from their pandemic-induced social surroundings.  Literary agents, which represents writers and help send their scripts to publishers, have also seen a growing trend for dystopian themes.

Sarah Revivis-Smith, a fiction reader at the Eve WhiteLiterary Agency, said, “I would say we’re seeing lots of people working out their fears of the current situation through dystopias, with submissions that either explore Covid-19 overtly or have an unknown virus or disease spreading through humanity.”

The UK’s publishing industry reached record sales of £5.7 billion in 2018, consolidating its position as the  globe’s top book exporter.

Literary agencies are expecting even more manuscripts to flood in by autumn from those who started in late March.

Sam Copeland, director of RCW literary Agency, which boasts Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro among its published authors, added: “Submissions have continued to be relentless during lockdown, increasing from around 80 a week to 100 . . . I am expecting that number to rise again still further, though, with all the people who have been writing their novel in lockdown.  ‘I have had the odd Covid quick book in, funny books, that sort of thing, and some canny authors have tried  twisting their pitch to reflect the lockdown.  But I think the main rush of Covid books is still to come.'”

Do Introverts Make the Best Writers?

On the Introvert, Dear website there is an post from last July which caught my attention.  The title is ‘6 Reasons Why Introverts Make the Best Writers’.  It was written by Christine Bernard who is a novelist, freelance writer, and illustrator.

Christine Bernard

“I’m not saying you have to be an introvert to be a writer. In fact, some of the best writers I know are also incredible socialites and fantastic public speakers. However, if you are an introvert and a writer (like me), you can use it to your advantage. It’s a trait you should be proud of.

Why Introverts Make the Best Writers

1. Introvert writers are aware of emotions in others.

It’s true, we introverts spend a lot of time in introspection, but we also spend a great deal of time aware of the emotions of other people. Many of us “quiet ones” — especially if we’re also highly sensitive — pick up on small nuances and subtleties that other people aren’t aware of. Some might call it a curse, but if used correctly, it can be a huge benefit in a creative capacity.

For example, some introverts can hear what someone is telling them but know right away whether it’s truthful in its meaning based on eye contact, hand movements, voice tone, and other little physical clues. These are all things that can be used within their writing to make their story more authentic and to appeal to a larger audience. Because of this, they can write characters who are multi-faceted rather than static.

2. Introvert writers look within themselves.

Because we spend so much time alone, reflecting on our experiences, we introverts tend to know ourselves deeply. Knowing ourselves so well will have a big impact on creating real characters that others can relate to. Have you ever read a story where you’ve thought, “I know that feeling,” or “That happened to me”? That’s because the writer is creating characters with real depth and emotion.

4. Introvert writers like being alone.

Writing means sitting alone for long stretches at a time, which can be a daunting task for a lot of people. It’s why some people prefer to work in an office environment where they can have maximum contact with other people. For us introverts, writing is a way of being creative without having to interact with anyone else but the characters we’ve created. This means sitting in front of our computer to write can be an exciting task, rather than a daunting one. Just this alone can have a profound impact on how much work an introvert writer gets done on a daily basis, compared to someone who strongly craves the company of others.

5. Introvert writers enjoy meaningful conversation.

Introverts are usually not a fan of small talk. It’s a situation we may feel uncomfortable in and something we generally try to avoid. That doesn’t, however, mean that we don’t enjoy talking at all. We do. However, unlike extroverts, we can be selective about who we talk to and what we’re talking about. Deep, meaningful conversations with the right person can make an introvert seem like an extrovert to the person on the other end of the exchange. These meaningful conversations can be used in our stories to create an exchange that is long lasting on the reader’s mind — and make sure that it’s never too succinct and robotic, but rather interesting and memorable.

Again, I’m not saying that all introverts are creative, but there is definitely a large community of people who benefit from putting all their pent up inner thoughts to good use. We introvert writers can use this creative space as an outlet because we already have such an enigmatic inner world just desperate for the opportunity to be released. We’re creative, and our written stories become a way to showcase this.

Introvert writers can be natural storytellers, because we spend most of our time creating stories and worlds in our own mind. While many introverts see themselves as being stunted in a world built for extroverts, this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a place for everyone on Earth. It’s not a case of one being better than another, but rather a case of using what you have to your best potential. As Susan Cain wrote in Quiet, “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.””

I, too, am an introvert writer, and, in my experience, what Ms Bernard says is correct.

 

Review: A Delicate Truth

I was on holiday recently and I had finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.  Hoping to find a new book, I noticed that the hotel shop had a shelf of books – all in English, which I thought was a bit unusual as it was a Mexican resort.  I asked the shop keeper whether they were for sale.

“No,” she said, “but you can borrow one.”

That wouldn’t do, because we were going to leave that hotel soon and I wanted to finish a book at leisure.  So, I asked, “Is it possible to trade a book?”

“Yes, that would be fine.”  So I left them The Grapes of Wrath and I selected A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré.  I have to say that the hotel got the better part of that deal, but I bought another copy of The Grapes of Wrath when I got home.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell who was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England.  He is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. 

He studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corp of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West.  In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College,Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.  When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School.  In 1955, he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins.  In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal, and official award of the Federal Republic of Germany, given annually by the Goethe-Institut to “non-Germans who have performed outstanding service for the German language and for international cultural relations”.

John le Carré

This novel, published in 2013, concerns a failed plot by the British and Americans to capture a jihadist who was, reportedly, about to buy arms in Gibraltar.  The plot was conceived by a shadowy American private intelligence firm and endorsed by a British minister.  It involved British special forces who would flush the jihadist from a meeting with a notorious Middle Eastern arms dealer into the hands of the Americans who had their special forces in a boat on the water.   A middle ranking British Foreign Officer, who was observing events in Gibraltar was to advise the minister whether the situation was ‘go’.  When events turned sour, the officer advised ‘no’, but the minister with American backing decided ‘yes’.   The result was a failed operation which resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and her child.  In the aftermath of the operation, there was a cover-up, the minister was reassigned, and the observing officer was given a knighthood and a plum assignment in the Caribbean.  The bulk of the story concerns Toby Bell, a rising star in the Foreign Office, who was not involved, but who was suspicious at the time.  Bell gradually uncovers the whole story, its participants, and has to decide whether to risk his career to blow the whistle.

This novel is not on a par with John le Carré’s typical craftsmanship. It seems contrived and hastily put together.  For me, the author did not get the balance right between the credibility of the story, which would have been enhanced by more detail and a more deliberate pace, and the aura of secrecy surrounding the story.  The sensational aspects of the story contribute to a believe-ability problem in the sense that how likely is (or was) it that all these features would coincide in real life: a stubborn, wilful, isolated minister, an incompetent, headstrong group of Americans, a secret arms transfer being made on the streets of Gibraltar, a notorious, super-rich arms dealer on his yacht in Gibraltar harbour, a middle grade officer being given a knighthood for his meaningless participation, two murders in Gibraltar that go unnoticed and so on?  The characters are real; the suspense and the intrigue are vintage le Carré, but the editor was asleep.

Give it a pass.  There are much better le Carré novels.

The Popularity of Poetry

There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting.   Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance.  (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)

Donna Ferguson

“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.  Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”  (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)

“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”  He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.

“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”  People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”  Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.

Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?

 

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Hachette’s Future Bookshelf Project

 

There is an article in the winter 2019 edition of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, titled “Bursting the Bubble” and written by Francine Toon, who is an editor at Hodder & Stoughton, a Hachette imprint.  She writes about her involvement in Hachette’s Future Bookshelf project which is intended to get poorer and ethnic minority authors into print.  Ms Toon is herself a debut author: her first novel, Pine, will be published by Doubleday in January.

Francine Toon

Ms Toon says that being from the Highlands of Scotland, where literary events are rare, working as an editor for a publishing house, seeing many books in a wide range of genres, and having her first novel published made her realise that there may be other potential authors who are unfamiliar with the process, or don’t have the funds to go on an expensive creative writing course.  She therefore joined a small group of her colleagues who started the Future Bookshelf Project in 2016.  They used paid advertising and their outreach presence at different communities of writers to encourage writers to submit their manuscripts during the second year of open submissions.  In December 2017 they issued a call for submissions by unpublished, un-agented authors who self-defined as ‘under-represented’, owing to such characteristics as age, disability or race.  Authors were asked to write a short personal statement outlining why they felt under-represented when they submitted a sample of their work.  The top five reasons applicants gave were, in order, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and socio-economic status.

757 submissions were read by 59 in-house readers from across the four divisions of Hackette.  Since this reading was in addition to the day work commitments of the readers, it took almost a year to complete.  The most promising submissions were passed on the commissioning editors.  No decisions were made at the outset as to the number of authors to be published, and since the project ran in parallel to reading submissions from agents, the commissioning editors decided which books they felt passionate about and took those books through the normal submission process.  “The aim of the open submissions was to consider authors we wouldn’t see through the agenting route.  However, during the acquisition process, we tried our best to match authors with agents if they so wanted.”

“Among the three authors whose work we were thrilled to acquire, I found Elizabeth Okoh, a British Nigerian writer, whose transportive gem of a novel, The Returnees, held me spellbound.”  Rather than calling the selected authors ‘winners’, they are called the Class of 2018.

“As I write this, hundreds more submissions are filling the Future Bookshelf’s inbox.  This year we have spread our wings to include colleagues from Orion and Little, Brown, and are advertising the project through channels that might reach under-represented writers more effectively.”

More information on The Future Bookshelf can be found at thefuturebookshelf.co.uk.

Review: The Cut Out Girl

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es, won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2018 after being named biography of the year.  It is non-fiction about a Dutch girl of Jewish heritage who was placed by her parents in the care of others in 1942.  As such, it bears some resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank, but the girl, Hesseline (Lien) de Jong is moved on multiple occasions to escape being sent to the to the death camps, where most of her family, including her parents were murdered.  The story is told by the grandson of the couple who were Lien’s principal foster parents.  Bart Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands in 1972, researched the story and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University.

Bart Van Es

Lien de Jong is now over 80, living in Amsterdam; she has children of her own.  Born into a middle-class, secular Jewish family, she was seven years old when, in 1942, her parents decided to place her into a Christian family for her safety.  At the time Jews were being deported to the death camps and had already been stigmatised.  Over 80% of the Jews living in Holland at the beginning of the war died in the Holocaust.  This is a gripping story of bravery on the part of many non-Jews in the Netherlands during the war; they risked their own lives to save thousands of children.  The story proceeds along two tracks: Lien’s story – her background, the events of the war years, and the after war years; and the author’s account of his thorough and painstaking research into the events, the people and the places that Lien experienced, as well as into the culture and circumstances as they affected Jews in Holland during the war years.  Since the author had heard that his grandparents had fostered Lien and that at one time she was considered part of the Van Es family, he wanted to understand why, after the war, Lien had fallen out with his grandparents.

The title is derived from Lien’s ‘poesy album’ in which she kept notes and little poems written by her friends, and in which there are pasted several cut outs of old fashioned girls.  But Lien, herself is a cut out girl being moved from one family to another without notice.

This story is timely, as Antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe.  The author’s fear that this is just another Holocaust story is un-founded.  It is told with such detail of the events, the feelings and motivations of the people involved that it is difficult to put down.  One is almost literally trans-located to the cities, villages, and houses in war-time Holland.  The author’s writing is straight forward and without extra emotional embellishment.  One has to admire the meticulousness of his research into people, places and events.  He clearly established a remarkably close relationship with Lien, the central figure, nearly twice his age, who had fallen out with his family.  My only quibble about the book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the numerous families who provided shelter to Lien, and what their relationships were to one another.  Clearly, though, Lien didn’t know this either.

This is without a doubt the best biography I’ve read in a long time.  It’s one that gives you faith in human nature is spite of all the evil around us.

Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century.  It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters.  As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories.  At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway.  She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever.  Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing.  She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937.  In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim.  She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories.  She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945.  In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught.  Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him.  Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY.  Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends.  Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates.  Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s,  There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser.  Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst.  The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.

When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.  She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.

For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then.  The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.