Prizes, bibliodiversity, women writers, green issues, freedom of speech – Gesa Stedman rounds up the most recent news from the British literary field.
I am not particularly interested in or enthusiastic about book prizes but they are, doubtlessly, a powerful political instrument, generate much-needed income for writers, and help some readers to orientate themselves on a totally flooded book market. And since consecration matters, it is worth having a look. In particular when a prize is founded in order to remedy certain imbalances within the literary field. The Jhalak Prize is a case in point. Submissions to the prize have steadily risen, and not just because the jury calls in titles, but also because publishers submit possible candidates. The prize was founded on purpose to promote BPoc writers, whose patchy presence on other short-lists was a cause of concern for the founders Sunny Singh and writer Nikesh Shukla. This year, the prize was won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi for her novel The First Woman and by Patrice Lawrence for the new children’s books prize for Eight Pieces of Silva. Previous winners include Jonny Pitts, authoer of Afropean, and Reno Eddo-Lodge.
Link to prize website: https://www.jhalakprize.com/
Link to Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/may/25/jennifer-nansubuga-makumbi-and-patrice-lawrence-win-jhalak-prizes-for-writers-of-colour (last accessed 25 June 2021)
On the short-list of this year’s Woman’s Prize, there are three Black writers, Cherie Jones, Yaa Gyasi, and Brit Bennett and on the longlist for the Gordon Burn Prize there are at least seven writers of colour if I didn’t miscount, including Courttia Newland and Musa Okwonga , judges include Irenosen Okojie, Denise Mina (chair), Derek Owusu and Sian Cain.
The Gordon Burn Prize recognises literature that is forward-thinking and fearless in its ambition and execution, often playing with style, pushing boundaries, crossing genres or challenging readers’ expectations.
Like Gordon’s own work, the prize is open to a diverse range of themes and perspectives drawn from the breadth of today’s cultural and social concerns. It welcomes books by writers emerging from backgrounds underrepresented in the mainstream literary culture. (link to website: https://gordonburnprize.com/)
Whether the books themselves are worth reading needs to be decided by every reader for herself. But at least it is easier to choose from a wider range of titles if their visibility is supported through the political instrument of the literary prize – as ambivalent as prizes are, situated between the marketing tool that they often are, and the consecration method wielded by prestigious institutions.
Following in this vein, and obviously interested in at least sharing their power sometimes, two issues of The Bookseller have been devoted to Black writing and publishing, and to LGTB+ writers respectively. One issue has struck me forcibly as a book-buyer for younger readers: it is possible to grow up with YA books about coming out as gay, trans or lesbian, and to be taught about racism or at least, about multiculturalism, body positivity and taboo-less menstruation in books, the titles are out there and not at all “niche”, be they graphic novels, non-fiction titles or novels. This is still not the case for picture books and readers younger than, say, 10, and only just now happening for adult readers, but for the older section of young readers, this is now the new normal. I wish I had absorbed all this knowledge with the same ease my daughter does today, simply by reading lots of different books!
The Black Agents and Editors’ Group (BAE) was responsible for “The Black Issue” of The Bookseller, published on 9 April 2021 (link to the free online version). What struck me was the cheer mass of titles available which are mostly absent from the “normal” Bookseller pages, which always contain an extensive list of new titles with short descriptions and endorsements, often with particular foci throughout the year (“cookery”, “children’s books”, “non-fiction”). Unless one follows particular authors, or has encountered a specific book review, or has a bookshop which features BPoc writers especially, access to books by writers of colour is as limited a one’s knowledge and resources. Since The Bookseller is read by booksellers and has a gate-keeping function, this should not be underestimated. If they promote a writer or a book, the chances are that this is picked up by other booksellers. If they don’t, then it will be that much harder to get the book even if it is already out there.
It is good to see that power-sharing has begun, and of course sheer numbers don’t necessarily mean anything. But without the numbers, choice isn’t there so at the end of the day, the mass of available books, and access to them, counts. I can understand why the Black Writer’s Guild concentrates on Black writers but from a reader’s point of view, I would prefer issues which aren’t separated along identity-group lines, but rather greater diversity in all respects – age, colour, gender, geography – you name it. Perhaps something that will happen in the future once separatism has been overcome?
After Charlotte, the last of the surviving Brontë sisters had died, her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls sold all the remaining library and manuscripts of the family. The last time anyone – apart from two academics – had access to this material was in 1939. Recently, this private library has come up for auction at Sotheby’s. The Brontë copy of The History of British Birds, which features in Jane Eyre, annotated by the family, a letter by Charlotte to her publisher George Smith about the use of their pseudonyms, and a rare manuscript of poems by Emily Brontë, are included in the lot which will come to auction next month.
The material allows a glimpse into the extraordinary activities of a writing family and reminds readers very strongly that access to the literary field for women writers was much, much more difficult two hundred years ago than it is now. No handbook for aspiring writers, no creative writing programme was available to the Brontës. One can only hope that the material doesn’t once again disappear in a private collector’s library but is made accessible to scholars and the public.
Link to the Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/may/25/emily-brontes-handwritten-poems-are-highlight-of-lost-library-auction (last access 25 June 2021)
Random House UK has announced it has gone climate neutral by switching to 100% renewable energy, making its premises energy efficient and offsetting any unavoidable emissions. The plan is to ensure climate neutrality by 2030 and to promote this actively with the help of books and writers. Recycling and not binning returned books are also on their agenda. Many smaller publishers are already en route to this goal but if one of the world’s largest publisher attempts this kind of change, others might follow suit. My recent disaster moment was when I unpacked the free copies of my own recent book from mounds and mounds of plastic, only to discover that each individual copy had also been shrink-wrapped. When I complained to the publisher, I was told that it is normal to have them individually wrapped to protect them. That paper could have done the job wasn’t even on the agenda! And the publishing person had the temerity to say that this was a huge conversation at the moment. Actually, no. That conversation has been had and the decision should irrevocably be: no plastic. Ever.
Link to the rather hidden Penguin sustainability policy: https://www.penguin.co.uk/company/creative-responsibility/sustainability.html (last access 25 June 2021)
The publishing industry has been at the centre of numerous rows concerning trans-issues with people leaving publishers or agencies in the wake of JK Rowling’s remarks on trans women, and the reactions of parts of the trans community. Other cases have involved the question of who is allowed to write about whom. Hachette will ask new recruits to its business to accept that they will be working with authors whose views they don’t share. Books will not be published if there is no market for it or if it is against the law to publish it. Otherwise, they would continue to publish. Agent Clare Alexander is quoted in The Bookseller (30 April 2021, p. 23) as saying that writers are self-censoring in case they are accused of cultural appropriation. On the other hand, an anonymously-signed open letter was sent out to warn that the publishing world was governed by transphobia following the remarks by Hachette c.e.o. Shelley and Alexander’s statements.
No wonder that general cultural issues also affect the publishing world, of course. What the best way forward is remains to be seen. The dangers of essentialist, possibly racist, aggressive identity wars are certainly a concern for writers or translators but I have my doubts whether blanket policies are a solution. I am thinking not so much of current concerns, which often seem a bit like storms in a tea cup in the UK or in Germany (but not necessarily in countries such as Poland or Hungary, Russia or in some African states), but of historical examples such as Diana Mosley or Francis Stuart who were both to greater or lesser extent fascist writers but whose work was and still is endorsed for their writing skills. What comes first, politics or the writing? Where is the point where the writing becomes unbearable and both the work and the author have to be considered beyond the pale? Each new generation of publishers, writers, and readers will have to come up with their own solution for that particular moral and political dilemma…
And to end on an unrelated note: Amazon paid no taxes for its European activities as these would have to be based on profits, but as the firm reported a large loss, in spite of sales of 43.8bn Euro, they didn’t pay any taxes. Heavy investments, apparently, and low margins. Comments, anyone?!