For Oh, it is not always May! (but June – hell yeah!)

Longfellow’s poem ‘It Is Not Always May’ was meant as an encouragement to grasp the fleeting moments of life with a reminder that delights quickly pass. To be completely honest, with all the best intentions I struggled throughout the month to write or engage with anything other than novel reading (I read a lot of novels). Partly that was because my partner was on a fortnights leave and, in the context of lockdown, holidaying at home in what turned out the be the most glorious spring weather, had an easy appeal over sitting at my keyboard. That is not the full story though. Despite all good intentions discussed in my last post, I was still in a trough of being unable to write very much at all, and inspiration was thin.

Thanks to Chase Clark for Unsplash image

I did submit to one competition in May – the ‘Best’ magazine short crime story comp (up to 2.5k words and a prize, to be judged by Val McDermid). I enjoyed writing this story – it was fun. There are a great many excellent and arguably under-appreciated writers of short fiction for what are traditionally thought of as women’s mags. I would love to be one of them but it is more challenging than I imagined to get the narrative voice right and avoid the cliché’s such mags reject. Still… I got a submission in.

BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT.

I got to the end of May feeling a little bit lost with my writing but fortunately, a pair of hero’s were waiting in the wings with a rescue! The fabulous women Sarah and Jo, who run Writers HQ emailed with an invitation to sign up for a free couch to 5k words writing challenge (C25K) course. I have attended a few of their writers retreats back in the days when we could discuss word count face to face and pass each other encouraging cake.

Like many businesses, theirs has been impacted by the damn virus but fortunately they have managed to navigate a safety rope (a very small funding grant) and are able now to offer this particular course for free. They encourage members of the writing community they set up to BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT. So that is exactly what I will be doing this June. I have signed on the dotted line and setting targets. I have a planner, I have a story, I have a goal, and I am going to get up unreasonably early every weekday morning to write because that is when I write best.

It is still not too late to join the C25K Words challenge – see the Writers HQ website.

I will mostly be working on my latest novel (currently at 36k words) but intend to enter at least one competition too this month.

It is great to feel engaged with writing again.

Thanks to Tim Mossholder for the Unsplash image

Reviewing the Review – a Review!

On Saturday 5th January 2019, alongside many other Guardian readers, I received a copy of the Review section of the paper which included a year calendar of books ‘to look forward to’ and ‘literary dates to note’. It was the Review’s cover story and was sizeable piece of journalism covering a whole eight pages of the Review.  I was curious about how the list came about and its purpose.  Was it just a fat advertorial, sponsored perhaps by the publishing industry?  Was it maybe a filler task handed over to some junior intern or newbie-learning-the-ropes?  I pondered the possibility that it was very carefully put together by an incredibly learned bookish person and was indeed filled with terribly important knowledge I really should take note of. No author was ascribed (if I had written it, this would have upset me greatly!)

As I wrote in my first blog post, on 2nd February I decided to Review the ‘Literary Year Ahead’ calendar published in that edition of the paper.  As I mentioned in that post, I hoped it was something Guardian editors over at the Review might be interested in. Their failure to respond to a number of approaches on email, twitter and by actual posted letters (yes, I did that) suggested not.  So, as a potential article pitch, my efforts failed.  Having drawn on the Review for my reading matter during the previous year (for reasons also explained in the first blog post), I found many of their monthly recommendations disappointing reads.  Indeed. Some of the positively reviewed books were downright terrible.  Was the ‘literary year ahead’ calendar, abundant in recommendations, going to offer richer pickings?  I decided to choose one book recommendation and follow up on one ‘event to note’ per month to read, research and write about (see choice methodology below). But first, I wanted to know – why were these books and events to note? What authority did they have?  Who said so and why?  So I wrote, emailed, tweeted to Sian Cain (the Guardian’s books site editor) and Lisa Allardice (the Guardian’s chief books writer).  I asked each:

  • who is the author of the Literary Calendar (none is attributed)
  • how was the ‘books to look forward to’ list arrived at – why were those books in particular chosen?
  • how was the list of ‘dates to note’ arrived at? who put this list together and was there a rationale or inclusion criteria?

Eventually, after a few emails, I had a response to question 2 from a staff member at the Guardian (no role title given) called Hanako who replied:-

“we have a fiction and a non-fiction editor who both read widely and decide which are the most interesting books to include based on catalogues from publishers. Obviously we can’t include everything, but they do their best to make sure a wide range of new and established authors are included in the list”.

(Email correspondence 5 Feb 2019).

I followed this up with Hanako, but unfortunately, no further responses were offered.

It would seem then, the list is drawn up based on the personal choices of the editors. I assume these are the two book editors referred to on the Guardian website – Sian Cain (#siancain) and Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice), but I acknowledge this may be an incorrect assumption.

Anyone who follows Sian Cain and Lisa Allardice on Twitter will know these are women who understand the book world and have enviable knowledge about the industry, books, authors and are fine writers themselves. I admire their work tremendously. There is though, a responsibility that comes with creating a list others should ‘note’. The inclusion methodology should be transparent – is this a well thought out list or just a huge book flogging (paid for??) advertorial for some publishing house/s? The trustworthiness of our media is important, and it shouldn’t matter whether this is news about 2019 (UK) election, or a pert but somewhat throwaway little filler magazine insert into the weekend paper.

Analyzing the list: my methodology
I decided to spend a little time analyzing the list, and it is just as important to make my methods transparent.
‘Analyzing the list’ turned out to be much more of an effort than I had first imagined. I looked at both the books and the dates to note listed for each month of the year. I used a spreadsheet to do a count.

Books to note list
For the book list, specifically, I counted:

  • whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry
  • the gender, sexuality and ethnicity of the writers
  • whether authors identified as disabled
  • (from May only) the class/educational level of the author

To be completely transparent I need to acknowledge that this count was literally me running my fingers down the monthly list and looking the (first named only in the case of dual authored books) authors up on the web. In May I added a further very loosely framed category of class/educational level of the author after recognizing a pattern of very high academic achievement of listed authors but I did not go back and find this data for the previous five months. By any research standards, it was a roughly hewn methodology and approach. Counting is almost certainly awry and therefore, it should be viewed as a general big picture rather than micro perfect.

I need to add a couple more important caveats:

‘Straight’ sexuality was identified and assumed only by the author being married to someone of the opposite sex in materials I found online. No ‘straight’ author actually self-identified as such in any articles I viewed.

Gay and lesbian authors were identified specifically by biographical material found online where they identified with this naming specifically-

Some authors identified as queer.
One author identified as non-binary.

The sexuality of some authors could not be identified through biographical information found online.

Disability information was taken from biographical information found online and language used here reflects how it was presented on-line.

One author self-identified as ‘mixed nationality’. Some identified as dual nationality. International includes Canada, US, Australia, Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, New Zealand, Georgia, Russia, Mexico, India. The country with the biggest representation within this group was the US with 25 writers featured.

Ethnicity data proved to be the most challenging to gather from on-line sources due to the broad range of ways people’s ethnicities were described and in some cases, it could not be found and only assumed from images. The term ‘mixed’ is only used where authors have specifically referred to themselves thus in on-line sources.  I have used the categories provided by Gov.UK’s   ‘List of ethnic groups’ but attributing descriptions as given in on-line information to these groups involved somewhat clumsy decision making and data presented here should be understood in that context and as relatively poor quality data.

The book breakdown

  • Fiction 61
  • Non-fiction 53
  • Poetry 9
  • Young adult 1
  • Children’s 1

Gender

  • Male 59
  • Female 65
  • Non-binary 1

Sexuality

  • Not known 35
  • Straight 76
  • Non-binary 1
  • Queer 3
  • Lesbian 4
  • Gay 6

Disability

  • Mental health issues 1
  • Physical health issue 1
  • Dyslexia 1
  • Deaf 1
  • Not known 121

Author Nationality

  • UK 56
  • Europe 22
  • International 46 (25 US writers within this group).
  • Mixed 1

Ethnicity

  • White 83
  • Mixed/multiple ethnic groups 2
  • Asian/Asian +other 7
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black +other 20
  • Other ethnic group 1
  • Not known 12

I intended to have a category called ‘educated or posh. By the time my web based research of the authors on list got to the month of May I came to realize that the majority of authors seemed to be Princetown, Harvard or Oxford educated, were Professors of Literature, University lecturers, held degree’s, MA’s, and doctorates and/or were prize winners from Laureate to other prestigious prizes. There were of course authors who identified as working class (in on-line bio’s), so not everyone was posh. Still, the vast majority were at the very least educated to degree level and most far beyond (and, yes, I do equate access to funds to participate in education at beyond degree level to equate to some level of privilege. Sue me). The Ivy League and Oxbridge had a significant presence in the list of authors.

So what might we make of the ‘books to look forward to’ list?

The list is balanced well between fiction and non-fiction aimed at an adult audience. Poetry appears to be underrepresented in this list but this, of course, depends on the annual number of poetry books published by the major houses. Women were marginally over represented. The majority of authors were straight. Although in number terms UK authors had a good showing, in terms of the geographical size of the potential pool of authors both it and US writers were arguably over represented. As mentioned above, the breakdown of ethnicity is complicated because of the challenge of attributing ethnicity accurately and respectfully. However, even with that caveat, white authors significantly dominate the ‘books to look forward to’ list.

Disability information proved to be the most difficult to gather. Very few authors mentioned any kind of disability. As a person with disabilities myself I have long noted both the absence of characters with disabilities portrayed in books. Conversely where we are portrayed we are often the cripples – physically or mentally lessor as a story telling short-cut to enable the help/pity etc of an able bodied character to be evidenced. While it is not the responsibility of people with disabilities to educate society about the subject, it is true that ‘writing from within’ and telling stories from our point of view has an important place. Still, these stories were largely missing from the Guardian list. I have also been influenced to think about the struggle disabled writers face to be published, experiences of ableism within the industry and the impacts of that upon both writers with disabilities and how we are represented in published works. Is this represented in the Guardian List? I guess it is hard to say.

I highly recommend spending time with Alice Wong (@SFDirewolf) and Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz), their #CripLit twitter chats and the Disability Visability Project to understand why representation is important.

The ‘dates to note’ list.
The literary ‘dates to note’ could be separated into book festivals (ie Hay), prize awards (ie Man Booker), historical events (ie Peterloo Massacre), film releases – or dead white men. There were exceptions – for example, the death of the fascinating Sarah Kane – but from whichever viewpoint you look at the list of dates to note featuring people rather than events, is dominated by white, mostly dead, men.

How I used the lists and what I gained from them
Each month I chose one book to review and one event to write about. I tried to get a balance across fiction and non-fiction books but only reviewed one poetry book (Simon Armitage – marvellous BTW) because the second possibility (John Cooper Clarke) had a delayed publishing date. I actively tried to choose books from the list I would ordinarily pass by in bookshops – not actively avoid, but not seek out either. I wanted to leave my reading comfort zone.

I was a rather fabulous adventure! I learned a lot from the ‘dates to note’ list. For example, the Peterloo Massacre was new knowledge to me. I am both astounded and a little ashamed that until my research for this blog, I had been woefully ill-informed about such an important historical event (and I ponder on how this could be). Ditto my ignorance of the wonderful Sarah Kane. I rediscovered a joy for Whitman and decided that for the sake of my bank balance, I must never visit the London Book Fair.

From the books to look forward to I read a couple which underwhelmed but I also read books I absolutely loved and yet, would never have chosen were it not for this blogging adventure. – The standouts were:

  • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (@CCriadoPerez) which was mind blowing and reignited a long damped feminist call to arms. I am delighted to see how widely her book is being recognised as trailblazing and congratulate her for winning the Financial Times Book of the Year award.
  • Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffery Boakye (@unseenflirt) which was written beautifully, was funny and had radical and compelling content. I learned so much from this book. As I wrote at the time, ‘Jeffrey Boakye… opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that’.

The Guardian Review, Review – the Review!

I still wonder what the list was written for. Was it written to be used as I used it? How many people still have copies, consulted monthly from which a choice is made. Not many I suspect, and that is a shame because with a little attention to the caveats cautioned by the data breakdown, it was a damn fine list which facilitated an enjoyable literary journey across my year. The author – whoever that was – could rightfully be proud of it but may I make a suggestion for next year? Please pay less attention to dead/old/white men and more attention to disability.

Finally as this literary journey comes to an end, to the readers of this blog a warm thank you for following!

OUT OF THE WOODS: JANUARY BOOK REVIEW

Category: Non-fiction

Luke Turner: Out of the Woods. Weidenfield and Nicholson. 288 Pages.

Kindle edition downloaded 24th January 2019.  Kindle edition price £8.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for January said “A powerful memoir, centred on Epping Forest, about sexual abuse, a religious upbringing and life as a bisexual man”.

From the Guardian’s monthly list, this is my first to review.  I chose this book in particular because it took me out of my reading comfort zone (more of that later) but had an element of the familiar in that the writer identifies as queer. 



It was an unthreatening choice though not one I ordinarily would be drawn to in a bookshop.

In a professional capacity, I have reviewed books at the request of both publishers and authors.  For those reviews, I focused on the usefulness of the book in helping to improve my profession or its utility in enabling students to understand how to become new and better professionals. 

The Guardian carried an erudite and scholarly review by Sukhdev Sandhu published 17 January 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/17/out-of-the-woods-luke-turner-review

Sandhu both gives a snapshot of the book and critiques it, so there is little merit in me offering the same. I decided instead to focus on the utility of the book to me, as a reader. Did I enjoy it?  Was the time spent on it a good use of time?  Would I recommend it to others?

To the best of my memory, I have never read a memoir.  I could not imagine why one would. 

In the context of this book, I do not know the author or his work that his name would be a draw (I have subsequently read more about him), nor am I particularly interested in Epping Forest.  I have little active interest in religion.  As a lesbian feminist activist and scholar I have read more books about sexuality than I ever planned to and so these have also somewhat lost their place on my interest spectrum.   It is safe to say this book did not call out to me, screaming to be read. 

It is something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Luke Turner’s book so very much. It is a deliciously rich and multi-layered text, beautifully crafted read.

At first, perhaps because it was the type of book I am not drawn to, I found it a little self-consciously literary and wordy but this may be because I had decided to dislike its ‘self-indulgence’ before I read it.  It may be that it could have done with some further editing – I am unsure (though I did begin to play ‘pollard’ bingo early into my reading so very much did this word appear – so perhaps it did).

Despite my initial irritation with the book (which I own entirely as being nothing to do with the actual book and everything to do with my dismissal of memoir) I was quickly drawn into the craft of this story.  Turner artfully blends complex discussion about self, history, identity, sexuality and nature into one narrative of discovery. He uses words so thoughtfully the story flows river like, and gently.  This is an artistic, poetic use of words rather than being forensically exact in choices made. Whether one is emotionally reeling from stories of abuses of power against him, his connection to the forest or relationship changes, it is still experienced as opportunity rather than woeful/painful documentary. 

Out of the Woods was my bedtime reading book and reading it felt like a tender caress before sleep. 

Despite going into the realms of abuse, unfairness, confusion and breakdowns I was comforted by the refuge of nature that enabled Turner to find more solid ground, and assured me the reader that culturally we all became more evolved through the story Turner told/experienced/shared.

This was a bold and unusual book which I heartily recommend.  Luke Turner is a wonderful wordsmith and I am in awe.  Kudos to Weidenfeld and Nicolson for accepting it for publication. 

Thanks also to the Guardian Literary Review calendar for alerting me to the book as one to look forward to from the January publication list: you were right. 

The plan and the pitch

Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.

Heinz Von Foerster 1992

On Saturday 5th January 2019 The Guardian Newspaper Review* carried an eight-page cover story feature. The piece was a 2019 month by month breakdown of ‘books to look forward to’ and important dates to note.  For example, in May 2019 The Book of Science and Antiquities by Thomas Keneally will be published by Sceptre, while August marks the bicentenary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.

Each month this blog will ponder/reflect/muse upon one of the allegedly noteworthy dates suggested by the article. At least one of the suggested ‘books to look forward to’ will be reviewed.

My selection will, to a large extent, be influenced by what calls out to me as a vegan, leftie, Guardian reading, disabled, lesbian feminist, academic and latterly hobby writer but I will at least make an effort to leave my comfort zone and select from the range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books. 

Why bother? 

Primarily (though not exclusively as I will come to later) it is because I have a complicated relationship to the Saturday Guardian Review supplement.  Once upon a time, as some of the best stories begin, I aspired to be the kind of person drawn to the broad range of books it included: the latest tome on Kantian philosophy or the History of Mathematics, or the multi-award nominated debut literary novel about fishing by a Spanish hermit whereabouts currently unknown.  Only… I was a crime girl, through and through.  A compulsive reader since childhood, I was hooked by the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and moved onto Agatha Christie before I reached my teens. My love of the thrilling murder mystery, in most of its forms, never since wavered. Over the years the Guardian Review sometimes led to crime authors new to me but, mostly the weekly supplement had content about all the books I might read if only I had the time. 

I felt more worthy just by reading the Review and that was a good enough short cut to intellectual exercise of my mind. 

And then crime fiction and I had a falling out.  I am an aspiring writer.  Since the slog of completing my un-thrilling doctoral thesis, I have had some small but yes-thrilling publishing success in journals, books, in newspapers and through guest blog posts.  I have performed my stories to lovely gracious audiences and, my work has even featured in an art installation.  Of course, the book I ache to write well is my crime story.

Crimefest

Crimefest 10 year celebration promotional t-shirt image

One of the best Christmas gifts I received in December 2017 was a full three-day event pass to Crimefest 2018.  Crimefest is a convention for crime readers and according to their website ‘die-hard fanatics’ of the genre. As one of their target audience, I had wanted to go to it for several years. Big name crime authors would be speaking at the event and they were, of course, something to look forward to but the panel itinerary was the biggest draw.  I want to be a better writer. I am enthusiastic to study my craft and keen to learn from those who write and publish.  I carefully marked each panel I would attend and despite my partner’s gentle reminders about the usefulness of the clutter free Kindle and the flimsiness of our bank account, knew I would come home with a great many new books.  In fact, buoyed by the remarkably un-starry, friendly and approachable Lee Child’s affirmation that he reads literally hundreds of books every year and assertion that only great readers become great writers I bought every single book from every author of every panel I attended. 

It was an impressively large stack covering cosy mystery, whodunit, locked room, police procedural, forensic crime and psychological thriller.  My bedside table looked like a branch of Waterstones. 

And this is where, in the best tradition of whodunits, things took an unexpected turn.  Many of the books I read were terrible.  Some sloppy stories, poorly told with little imagination or craft.  Many were boring or stretched credibility to its limit. Far too many of them involved harm to women either in the sense of them being the victims (over and over and over) or in the portrayal of women as weak, impressionable, to blame, complicit and deserving of their often laboured over gruesome fate.  Of course, I am aware of the discussion on Twitter and in other arenas (see for example discussion related to the Staunch Book Prize) in support of fiction that does not portray women thus but only in immersing myself so deeply in my preferred genre had I seen the Emperor’s new clothes.  The genre sells and publishers like to sell books, but it really doesn’t mean they are actually very good books.  I was glad to get to the final novel in my selection. Genred-out, I stopped working on my own crime novel and parked an idea for a sequel. 

True story:  several years before I was old enough to own an adult ticket I had out-grown the children’s library with its tiny brown Bakelite chairs and troughs of picture books and was allowed by my Mum, who happened to be a library assistant, to sneak into the adult section.  With a firm warning that I needed to be quiet and unobtrusive, I was parked by the Dewy categorised 920s where I could not be seen.  I sat in my hiding place devouring the biographies of a broad range of interesting folk. I never properly thanked my Mum or her colleagues for failing to properly re-shelve my current read which I hid so it would still be there on my return.  Thanks Mum, I owe you – for such a lot but in this context, specifically for giving me the opportunity to read about, amongst others, Douglas Bader, Winston Churchill and Tallulah Bankhead at what is often called an impressionable age.  I am sure each of these influenced the adult I became and I am sure there is a story waiting just in the wings ready to be told, but perhaps that is for another time. 

The point is, at nine years old, my horizons were expanded by reading beyond the confines of Mallory Towers.

Finding myself years later in an unfamiliarly barren fiction landscape I knew it was time to force a broadened approach to my reading habits, only without my Mum deciding where I should go.

The Pitch

MC Escher Lithograph 1948

So this blog and its ambition is an exercise in self-development but it is more than that – it is a pitch to the editors of the Guardian.  If I had a more established writers profile the pitch would have been delivered to Guardian team members Sian Cain (@siancain) editor of Guardian Books and chief book writer Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice) with a suggestion of a monthly page in their well-regarded supplement. I imagine the audacity of such a pitch might have raised a smile – if they even bothered to read it. 

This blog – my review of the reviews in the Review – might, on the other hand, persuade the editors next year to allow me a monthly column in which I review their 2020 Literary Calendar.  I am sure there will be one because the Guardian Review is fond of its lists. The Escher-esque circularity of the idea tickles me.

However, and coming back to my complicated relationship with the Review, it has so far helped my literary learning only in the negative. Since July 2018 and while taking a leave of absence from my favoured genre of reading, I have exclusively read positively Guardian reviewed books.  There was no method to my choice and they tended to be largely but not exclusively novels, many of them featured in fastest selling/best in category/prize nominated/prize winning/genre-busting/huge this year lists so favoured of the Guardian.  The Guardian reviews sat cosily, matily, alongside reviews of many of the same books which featured in other newspapers. Those reviews sometimes then appeared in later editions of the books marketing materials (see ‘Droste effect’). 

The Journey

During this time I have come to wonder about what influences its choices because, to date, I haven’t read a single book that seemed to me to have earned the often ebullient commendations.  Not a single one.  It could, I suppose, be argued that my considerable investment in reviewed books was money well spent.

I have read well-written material and have learned about putting words together so that they are deliciously evocative to read but that does not necessarily equate to producing an interesting story

I have learned how to destroy a truly breath-taking story through a timid editor perhaps too afraid to tell a famous author to lose twenty thousand words. I have learned that utilising a particular literary technique those in the know will understand as incredibly clever does not lead to a book anyone – other than judging panels – will think is a good read.  I also learned that misogyny sells in genres other than crime and it still sucks.

Eight pages is a lot of copy.  Perhaps someone in the book or journalism business might interpret the lead story of the Saturday 5th January 2019 Guardian Review differently to that of a mere reader but as that mere reader, it speaks to me of gravitas, of something to take notice of and of something trustworthy but still, my recent experience raised nagging questions.

Why are these books, as opposed to the dozens lined up by publishers to print in the forthcoming year, ones to look forward to? Who says so and why?

Given they will also feature as a part of my journey (Guardian readers love a ‘journey’) I will be paying attention to the monthly ‘dates of note’ included in the Literary Calendar and using them as a guide to expand my breadth and depth of literary knowledge. Some of the dates added give the impression of being almost self-explanatory but are they?  Why, for example, should I note that 23rd June is the bicentenary of the publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book including “Rip Van Winkle”?  What should, in particular, I take from note of the 31st July centenary of Primo Levi’s birth?  I wonder too about how this element of the calendar came about.  Is there some very learned booky type person I should admire for their startlingly expansive knowledge of literary history or some junior intern told to Google for filler.  You see my point?

I intend to ask the editors (sending them a link to this blog) and if I get a response, I will discuss it here.

*The article can also be found on-line https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/06/2018-year-in-books