In her usual round-up of news, Gesa Stedman discovers new controversies after a lull in events in the UK literary field. From strikes to gender debates, 2023 has seen a number of topics resurface, with all-time favourites such as authenticity and gender issues getting another airing.
When I first collected news items, topics I had come across, names, prize winners and debates that I was either involved in or picked up elsewhere, I had the impression that nothing much was happening in the literary field this spring and early summer. But as soon as I turned my back for a bit, revelling for a change in a historical research project on early-20th-century women writers, translators and mediators between the literary worlds of Berlin and London, news about different controversies started to come in. The war in Ukraine, the royal family, the question of women’s place in the literary field, and trying to uphold positive outcomes of the pandemic suddenly all clamoured for attention.
I will try to order the different strands which have emerged as best I can in this late summer’s round-up of book news.
I will start with the most recent controversy, as yet mild: the Booker Prize shortlist contains several male authors who sport Paul as their first name, and only one woman writer. Shortly after the Women’s Prize was awarded this summer to Barbara Kingsolver for her novel Demon Copperhead, a debate was aired whether one still needs a prize dedicated solely to women writers. This is a point worth dwelling on. It is true that women writers are much more prominent than they used to be two or three decades ago. However, most reviews are still written by male reviewers, and the titles reviewed are also still overwhelmingly written by men. The exception are the best-selling titles of writers of the likes of Hilary Mantel or Maggie O’Farrell, more recently also Bernadine Evaristo. I would argue that it is precisely because of the Women’s Prize that these writers have become prominent and the issue continues to be talked about. Why scrap something that works well and keeps the matter in the public eye? The Women’s Prize doesn’t, however, address any of the other inequalities from which most of the literary fields that I am aware of suffer but this wouldn’t improve either if the Women’s Prize were scrapped. The Women’s Prize announced it would include a non-fiction women’s prize for the first time in 2024, as this is an area which is still very much dominated by male writers. On a related note, an icon of feminist trailblazing has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, namely, Virago, originally an independent publisher, now an imprint of Little, Brown, and a publisher which has changed the canon in a big way. See their five gold reads, one for each decade they have existed, including Angela Carter, Grace Nichols and Sarah Waters:
https://store.virago.co.uk/collections/five-gold-reads-virago-anniversary-collection (last access 24 September 2023)
Possibly one way forward for the book world as a whole, considering a greater diversity beyond gender, is the Publishers Association Inclusivity Action Plan.
This plan, published in 2023, aims, among other aspects, to do the following:
Commit to data collection and support consistent cross-industry data collection. This will help measure both the demographics of the publishing workforce (to ensure we are building diverse and representative teams) and the culture within the sector (to help ensure equity in experience, progression and retention). Ensure your output is accessible, authentic and inclusive including content, design, imagery and language. Try to widen the pool of contributors to bring in new voices to the sector, aim for speaker panels at events and festivals to represent all audiences. Ensure efforts are made to reduce bias in content across all channels
https://www.publishers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Publishers-Association-Inclusivity-Action-Plan.pdf (last access 24 September 2023)
Furthermore, the initiative is intersectional in that it lists different aspects which might increase inclusivity, does not only address the workforce but also the audience of festivals, events, and readers and book buyers in terms of diversity, and that includes what is rather coyly called “socioeconomic background”. Publishers are also asked to consider regional differences when collecting data – an important point when you take the different kinds of social inequality into account which dominate class-ridden and unequal Britain in the 2020s.
To help publishers meet these targets, the Publishers Association has also launched the platform OpenBooks which wants to make the book world more accessible to new people who would otherwise perhaps not have considered a career in the book industry as being available to them. It includes everything from sales to marketing to book selling and writing and sports a diverse set of speakers, e.g. Juno Dawson or Paul Coelho, to mention two authors as hosts who are well-known. They get to talk to marketers or designers, and this includes people of colour, people from the North, and people with disabilities. The website includes advice on how to write a cover letter and a CV or where one might find a mentor and what paths are possible.
https://www.publishers.org.uk/openbooks/spreading-the-word/ (last access 24 September 2023)
The impact of literary and cultural managers to work for greater and wider access to reading, books, and libraries was recognized in the King’s Honours list, which includes a number of women. Oddly enough, the writers on the list such as Ian McEwan, Ben Okri, and – backdated as honours are not awarded posthumously, Martin Amis – were all famous male writers…
A notorious male “writer”, Prince Harry and his tell-all ghost-written memoir Spare, dominated sales throughout the year so far. It has now moved over to the audiobooks bestsellers list, whereas the usual boring fare of cookery books, TikTok hits, and cosy crime novels (recently accused by the New Statesman as being terminally twee) have now taken over the top slots again. After having followed trends on the British book market for more than twenty years, I am rarely surprised and find the usual rotation of cosy crime/royal or celebrity memoir/cookery book/self-help guide incredibly depressing. There are surprises, sometimes, but these are not produced by the Big Five, but rather by independent publishing houses and original and individual writers, more often than not not from England but from Ireland or Scotland or simply not from the white middle classes. Whether this terminal boredom can be alleviated by Radio 2’s new book club? I doubt it. But see for yourselves:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0dwxkv4/episodes/player?page=2 (last access 23 September 2023)
Something that did come as a surprise for me was the massive industrial action taken by Amazon workers in the UK. In other words: they have gone on strike. Since many people who work for Amazon are both exceptionally dependant on their jobs and badly paid, this is a risky action and all the more encouraging to hear about. Even if they are better paid and their working conditions improve, this will never make me like this non-tax paying conglomerate but if unions and strike action make them pay better, that is a cheerful thought, in particular when considering their incredible revenue increase during lockdown, not necessarily with books one must admit, but still. This Goliath deserves a few more Davids putting on the thumbscrews, even if governments won’t. (https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/amazon-workers-two-uk-fulfilment-centres-strike-august-2023-07-27/ last access 24 September 2023)
Towards high summer, a new issue came into view: namely, the sponsorship of literary festivals. Just like other arts institutions which have come under attack for accepting dirty money, e.g. by BP, Edinburgh Festival had to defend its sponsor Baillie Gifford, sponsor of the non-fiction prize shortly to be announced. Greta Thunberg pulled out of the festival as a protest against Baillie Gifford’s continued financial involvement with fossil fuels. This was endorsed by numerous prominent other writers and speakers and sparked off a fierce debate over sponsorship in general, and this particular sponsor in particular. Since the arts are underfunded in the UK, and large events such as these depend on sponsorship by firms who happily accept the positive connotations their tax-reducing activities entail for them, events organisers are in a dilemma. Should they end the BPs and Baillie Giffords of this world and make do with the scraps the Arts Councils provide them with? Or should they accept this kind of money and try to put pressure on sponsors to change their ways by inviting challenging speakers and writers? Late capitalism doesn’t really allow for any other option and I am very glad I don’t have to organise this kind of event, or take this kind of decision. I had rather remain in my arm chair position of the lofty academic who has the same dilemma to face in terms of dirty academic funding (most German funding bodies that count are all inheritors of some kind of Nazi money) but not when she organises modest author readings or other cultural events in a university context…
Agitation was also felt across the book world when it became known that Russian readers favour escapist fiction at the moment and that high prices can be had during rights auctions. Is this ethical? Should one profit from a war which makes people want to read certain books, and not others? And was it right for American author Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for “Eat, Pray, Love”, to pull her current novel because it is set partly in Russia and Ukrainian fans and readers objected? (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/jun/13/elizabeth-gilbert-russia-book-snow-forest last access 24 September 2023) This chimes in with the – rather American – debate about authenticity (hated term) and who is allowed to publish books and tell stories, and who isn’t. If only personal experience counted, then no historical novel would ever have been written, nor could anybody create child characters who no longer is a child themselves, or for that matter, a character who doesn’t happen to share the author’s gender. I don’t think that would be a good idea, as I have stated in earlier columns. But that doesn’t mean that greater care couldn’t be taken to make more people’s voices heard, without constraining them to always write about their particular background, experience or class. Because that is what the authenticity trap ultimately amounts to: you are tied as a writer (and possible as an identificatory reader) by what is deemed to be authentically your story. After having staged a debate among young students on the pros and cons of sensitivity readers, and after having read accounts by sensitivity readers, I am somewhat at a loss as to their role in all of this. It seems there are so many terrible writers who need their hands held so as not to produce endless insensitive if not downright abusive gaffes, that this fairly new job in the book world is necessary. I just wish this weren’t the case, which might be a utopia for the future: everyone gets brilliant editors from different backgrounds and at the same time, everyone does a lot of research so as not to produce plot and character howlers galore…
On a related issue: The Bookseller has continued to let other people edit special issues, e.g. a disability-focused one, or the now firmly established Black issues. The rest of the time, however, even despite their fairly new discovery section devoted to new titles which might be beyond the mainstream, it reproduces the usual and recommends authors and titles which will sell well. More often than not, this will be white writers of cookery books or fantasy novels, or perhaps digestible fiction of the Richard Osman-type. Why can’t the regular issues include all these wonderful titles by all kinds of writers, be they Welsh, disabled or queer and PoC? It would be truly daring if the Bookseller simply ignored Jamie Oliver, Richard Osman and J.K. Rowling – and Prince Harry – and focused on raw talent. That would indeed be radical.
And the rest of the news? Will go in the autumn/early winter column…