Fifty Books A Year

Books

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

Number of Novels Read: Ten.

Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

Number of Anthologies Read: One.

Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

That is all.

How To Write A Novel

The Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald has been running “a series about how to write”, which I have been reading with increasing irritation. First there was Sue Woolfe, who stated that anyone can write a novel, provided they “don’t stick to a subject, a character or, worst of all, a plot”. Her advice is not to read what you’ve written until you have a hundred thousand words “about anything”, whereupon you add “some narrative techniques and suspense” and, voila, “you’ll have the novel you knew you could write”! Oh, and you mustn’t use a computer – that’s death to creativity.

Then there was Debra Adelaide, who insisted on “total extermination” of adverbs. She isn’t keen on adjectives, either – they’re the “cockroaches of prose”.

MERCIFULLY (I intend to saturate this post with adverbs), most of the other articles in this series have been wiped from my memory, but they were EQUALLY ANNOYING.

Phyllis BnF Francais 874, Folio 11v
The author resolutely ignores all those urging her to delete her adverbs
Here’s why they annoyed me. They imply that all you have to do to write a good novel is to follow a set of simple rules that apply to all writers and all situations. I agree that a writer needs to know about grammar. However, blanket statements, such as “Adverbs are evil”, make me bristle. Yes, deleting all the adverbs in your prose may make it sound cleaner and more contemporary. But if you’re writing a series about, say, posh British people in the 1930s, your prose (and especially your dialogue) will sound inauthentic if you delete all the adverbs. I’ve studied English grammar and I think about it constantly as I write. But sometimes I start my sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions – because that’s what works in a novel written in the first person, narrated by a teenage girl. Every writing project – and every writer – is unique. Some writers need to do detailed planning before they begin a first draft; other writers work best by jumping into the project feet first. Some people find it efficient to edit as they write; others find this slows their writing down. Telling writers that there is ONLY ONE TRUE WAY TO WRITE A NOVEL is wrong and silly. Writing is not brain surgery. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to kill anyone. Just press ‘delete’ ON YOUR COMPUTER and try again.

FORTUNATELY, Gabrielle Carey restored some sanity to the series in today’s Herald by saying:

“There are many things one can get out of a writing class: advice on character, structure, grammar and punctuation. But that leap into the creative realm is something you can only do on your own.”

EXACTLY! She also talks about teaching creative writing to rich, successful adults, who, having achieved all their other goals in life, decide they’re going to bang out a novel:

“They pay exorbitant prices for creative writing classes but by the end they often come up to me and say, ‘Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve learnt a lot. But I’ve realised it’s just too hard. I’m going back to law.'”

It’s true, writing a novel can be hard work. It takes concentration, good language skills, persistence, an ability to exist on limited sleep and funds – plus a mysterious, amorphous element called ‘creativity’. It’s tempting to try to get around all this by persuading an author to surrender what Ms Carey laughingly calls “some secret code or some magic advice”. But I agree with her – there ISN’T a secret code.

Of course, I’ve never actually done a creative writing course, so what would I know? Group instruction for a solitary pursuit like writing just isn’t my thing, but I’m sure some writing courses are great, especially the ones that take place over a long period of time, have a small number of students, focus on a particular type of writing (say, ‘writing a short story’ or ‘writing fiction for children’) and are taught by someone with both writing and teaching expertise. You don’t need to do a creative writing course to become a published novelist, but if you like the sound of a particular course and can afford it, why not?

What I can recommend from personal experience is working with a mentor. A mentorship is for writers who’ve committed themselves to hard work – who’ve sat down and written a draft (or several drafts) of a novel and realised they need help with the next stage. Mentors can give specific advice on your manuscript, once they’ve talked with you about what you want to achieve. Some of them also know agents and publishers, which is useful if you feel your novel is complete and you’d like to try to get it published. Your local writers’ centre may have a mentorship program, and free mentorships are awarded each year by the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Of course, you don’t need a mentor to become a published writer. You don’t need a literary agent, either – at least, you don’t if you live in Australia. But that discussion is probably best left for another post.

ARCs

I am feeling very Oscar the Grouch because I’ve just seen ARCs of the American edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile for sale, for almost twice the price of the real book, five months before publication date. This is not the first time this has happened.

An ARC, for the uninitiated, is an Advance Reader’s Copy of a book. It’s a set of uncorrected typeset pages of the book, bound into paperback form, usually with an early version of the cover art on the front. The first page of the ARC gives information about the book’s publication date, price and other bits of information useful for librarians, booksellers and reviewers (who receive ARCs for free). The ARCs of Random House books also include this notice:

“ATTENTION, READER: THESE ARE UNCORRECTED ADVANCE PROOFS BOUND FOR REVIEW PURPOSES. All trim sizes, page counts, months of publication, and prices should be considered tentative and subject to change without notice. Please check publication information and any quotations against the bound copy of the book. We urge this for the sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.”

And then, on the front cover of the ARC, it says “NOT FOR SALE”. Which some recipients of ARCs interpret to mean “YAY! LET’S SELL THIS ON-LINE! FREE MONEY FOR ME!” Even worse, according to Liz B. from Tea Cozy, some librarians in the US are actually putting ARCs on their library shelves, rather than buying the proper book.

Here’s why authors get grouchy about this:

1. Authors don’t earn any money from sales of ARCs. The ARC is produced by publishers and given away free for publicity purposes. A sale of an ARC is not counted towards book sales figures, and it doesn’t earn the author any royalties. Most authors are not rich. They need all the book sales they can get.

2. People buying ARCs are not buying the proper book. They are buying a cheap, flimsy paperback that will fall apart after a couple of reads, instead of a beautifully-produced hardcover.

But, most importantly,

3. An ARC contains grammatical errors, unchecked facts, weird spellings, odd typesetting and many other problems. It is not the final version of the book. My publishers and I go to lots of trouble to proof-read the typeset pages of my books before they are printed, and I want readers to read the corrected, final book, not an ARC. I certainly don’t want readers paying inflated prices for a book full of errors, not when the book has my name on the cover.

So, if you’re a book blogger, professional reviewer or librarian reading this, and you’re wondering what to do with all those ARCs you’ve received – don’t sell them. And don’t give them to someone else who’s going to sell them. If you do, don’t be surprised if the authors and publishers involved get very cross with you.

And while I’m having a whinge – what’s with all those book reviews I’ve been reading lately where the reviewer hasn’t even seen the final copy of the book? For example, a recent review of a YA novel (which I am not going to name, because I don’t think that’s fair to the author or the book) complained about editing problems in the book, then admitted:

“As this review has been assessed from an uncorrected proof, my comments in relation to editing issues need to be considered in this light.”

Well, why didn’t you wait until you could assess the final book, then? This review appeared in a published journal, and its readers want to know about the final, published book, not some earlier, uncorrected version!

Right. Now I’ve got that off my furry, green chest, I’m climbing back inside my trash can for a nap.

Just A Girls’ Book

So, I was reading the latest edition of Viewpoint and came across a review of India Dark, Kirsty Murray’s new novel. This book has been on my To Read list ever since I heard of it, because a) it’s by Kirsty Murray, b) it’s set in India and c) it’s historical fiction based on a fascinating true story, all of which suggest it will be an excellent read. The review, by Tony Thompson, was very positive, but then, towards the end, he had this to say:

“It would be tempting to suggest this is a book for girls but I think that would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)Yep. You see, books told with ‘skill and precision’ are wasted on girls. To give such a book to girls would ‘diminish’ the book, because, as everyone knows, girls can’t cope with complex plots, rich language or vividly-described settings. Only boys have the vocabularies, reading comprehension skills and attention spans that are required to read and understand a well-written novel.

Yes, I am being sarcastic, Mr Thompson. But what’s that you say?

“. . . astute English teachers will recognize that, despite the female narrators, this is a book that will appeal strongly to the boys in the class . . .”

So, boys ought to be given a chance to read this book, despite the fact that it contains characters who are (ugh!) girls. But only ‘astute’ English teachers will recognise this, because apparently it takes a huge amount of wisdom to see that boys might benefit from learning about the other half of the human population.

Of course, English teachers, astute or otherwise, don’t seem to have any problem making girls read books about boys. When I was in senior high school (a quarter of a century ago), only one female writer existed – Jane Austen. There were no female poets, playwrights, short story writers or contemporary novelists in the English-speaking world, according to our syllabus. The current list of texts for New South Wales senior high school students shows some improvement, but in junior high school, texts about boys still predominate. The thinking seems to be that, as boys are more likely to be reluctant and/or poor readers, they must always be indulged at the expense of girls. Girls will read anyway. Besides, it doesn’t matter so much about their academic skills, because they don’t have to get a job – they’ll get married and be supported by their husband. (Don’t laugh – this is what I was told by the parents of one of my students, a girl who’d just been identified as having learning difficulties).

I understand that teachers need to consider many issues, including themes and language, when they’re selecting books for their students. I just don’t see why the gender of the characters is only an issue when the characters are female. Teachers don’t often say, ‘I can’t give this book to my co-ed class – the narrator is a boy!’

It’s depressing enough that the Children’s Book Council awards so often seem to privilege stories about boys over stories about girls. But do we also have to read patronising reviews about ‘girl’ books that are so good, even boys might like them? That’s insulting to both girls and boys.

EDITED TO ADD: Two pages on in Viewpoint is yet another male reviewer who has interesting views on girls and books. Here’s Malcolm Tattersall reviewing Kate Elliott’s alternate history/fantasy novel, Cold Magic:

“One aspect of Cold Magic will be a problem for half its potential readers and a strength for the other half: it is intrinsically a girls’ book. That is apparent on the surface level in the protagonist’s clothes-consciousness and romantic crushes, but it also pervades deeper levels, in the greater significance accorded to relationships than to deeds and Catherine’s ongoing, if unarticulated, struggle for self-determination in a male-dominated world.”

I haven’t read the book, but . . . really? Boys never have ‘romantic crushes’? They never care about what they’re wearing? They have no interest in relationships? They never struggle for their own self-determination? And they have no interest in reading about someone else’s struggle for self-determination?

You’d think boys and girls belonged to completely different species, reading this. Maybe I just give teenage boys more credit than these reviewers do.

UPDATE: Just A Girls’ Book, Redux