Thursday, July 08, 2004

Read 'em and weep
Being asked to judge a major fiction prize may be a huge privilege, but there's more to it than just reading a mountain of novels. As the winner of this year's Orange prize is announced, Katharine Viner, the editor of Guardian Weekend and one of the five judges, reflects on weeks of hard graft, moments of panic and at least one day spent in tears

Katharine Viner
Wednesday June 9, 2004

The Guardian

There was a moment yesterday when, having read up to eight books a week since January, I wondered what I was going to do today, now that there's no longer all this fiction in my life. As a judge for the Orange prize, the £30,000 literary award for women won last night by the brilliant Andrea Levy's book, Small Island, I have spent the past few months immersing myself in the following themes of the moment: loving brother-sister incest, the second world war, female teachers having sex with male pupils, staying with the man who makes you happy rather than promises hot sex, people "as old as the century", male narrators, armageddon and people who change their lives completely before ending up exactly where they started. How ever am I going to fill my time without it?
When I was asked to be a judge, I thought there was no way I could find the time - I have a full-time job, for a start - but then I was told that Helena Kennedy had already said yes, and she's a QC, a Labour peer, chair of the British Council, chair of the Human Genetics Commission, president of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and she's doing a book tour. If she had the time, what was my excuse?

The first judges' meeting was held in January in a London club which had some kind of naked floor show going on downstairs. Already my fellow judges had outgunned me; one had read 15 books already. (By this stage I had read four, and four very slim ones at that.) We discussed what we were looking for: good writing, good story, and a reason to read - a point or a message. Sandi Toksvig, the writer and broadcaster, and our chair, was down-to-earth and organised; she liked order and decisiveness and making charts, which I found thrilling. Minette Walters, the crime novelist, was into smoking and talking a lot. Helena Kennedy was very busy. And Karen Cunningham, the head of Glasgow libraries, was getting up at 5am every morning to read.

I left the meeting slightly hysterical, convinced that there was no way I would ever finish these novels - 46 in six weeks in the first batch, although I would read 71 in total - and certain that my swotty fellow judges would. So at 2am that night I realised I needed to make a schedule. Weekends were best - say, six novels - and then a couple in the week, in the odd spare evenings or on the bus.

This was the exact opposite of the languorous pleasure I usually take from reading, and the intensity had consequences. You become savage. There were a couple of books, for instance, which I enjoyed very much and would have been happy to read in normal life; reading them as a judge, their flaws were blatant and they had to go. And you become soft. Just when you're thinking, "My God, this is terrible, how could they bear to put pen to paper?", you also start thinking, "This person spent 35 years of their life writing this novel, sacrificing marriages, careers, relationships with their children. Surely I have to give it a chance?"

This meant I read all the novels right to the end. I enjoyed the well-written books, because they were rewarding and enriching (I wrote this with relief in capitals next to one novel: "ENRICHING. I FEEL ENRICHED"). And I enjoyed the badly written books, because I could read them fast and with a guilty laugh. It was the books that were just OK that were trickiest. Several times I thought that a book was fine, and might make the long list if it had a great ending. It never did, which made me think that if you can't write a good beginning, you can't write a good novel.

I started to become furious about small linguistic matters, such as cliches, and wildly judgmental about them. "Few and far between"; "cloud cuckoo-land"; "for good measure"; "I stood there, literally open-mouthed"; "a cathartic silk purse, if you will". In fact, anything ending in "if you will", which seems to mean, "I know it doesn't quite work as an idea or as a metaphor, but give it a go, won't you? Please?"

There were two particularly low points. One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. At one point, I rang a friend and shouted at her, "I wish some of these bloody writers would write about Iraq!" Or anywhere with a bit of politics or meaning. Luckily, we settled on a shortlist of books that featured Soviet Russia, Nigeria, Jamaican immigration to Britain, the second world war, the New Zealand gold rush and the end of the world, so I got my desire for substance in the end.

The second low point, I remember very clearly, was on February 9. I was way behind schedule, so took a day's holiday from work with the aim of reading three novels - one each in the morning, afternoon and evening. The first book was Anne Tyler's fabulous The Amateur Marriage, which was about mistakes and regret and which I found deeply affecting. I cried in my local cafe. The second book was Julie Myerson's Something Might Happen, a superb but cruel book about terrible things. I sobbed the entire time I was reading it. This was in a different cafe. That evening, at home, I read Stella Duffy's devastating novel about terminal cancer and death, and how it is worse to die than be left behind, and, well, I could hardly walk. The trouble with really good novels is that they make you engage, make you experience the emotions of the characters as if they were your own. It was a terrible day, and yet these remained three favourites for me throughout the judging process.

I remember feeling irritated by the judges of last year's Booker prize, who complained heartily about all the reading they had to do, even though they were all being paid and appeared to have summer houses and holiday destinations to retreat to. Judging a big literary prize is a privilege: you get to influence what the public reads, you can make people's writing careers, you learn about what works and what doesn't, and you get a snapshot of what writers are writing about right now. I discovered new writers; and found that some writers about whom I had preconceptions were better than I'd assumed. I had always considered Anita Shreve to be bland, for example - it doesn't help that all her novels seem to have the same painting of a distant barn on the cover - but I found All He Ever Wanted far more profound and enjoyable than I expected.

The judging, naturally, was the most fun part. For a start, we got cakes and champagne and big dinners. Sandi made some excellent charts with pictures, bound in a plastic folder. Choosing the long list made me realise how judging is not about your own selection but the group's, which is how a couple of books that I considered fabulous didn't make it. I couldn't quite believe that the other judges didn't share my enjoyment of one particular novel. And if you think it's tough arguing with Helena Kennedy QC, you should try arguing with Minette Walters.

For a while, I thought that Helena and I had a fine, femininst allegiance: Guardian journalist, liberal-lefty lawyer. But then we started to disagree, and I found common ground instead with Minette - crime writer from the countryside. Sandi and I agreed on quite a bit, though I sensed she's not one for rows. And as for Karen: well, her reaction to Helen Walsh's sub-porn Brass was to come over all Miss Jean Brodie. "I can't read about all this sex! Don't they know I'm a librarian?" That meeting was a lot of fun.

The shortlisting was edgier: there was more at stake. We met at the genteel University Women's Club in Mayfair, and had been instructed by Our Leader Sandi to arrive with our top three from the long list, a tough call with so many great books. We had a considerable fight. No book was favoured by every judge. One book was named by three judges, but never as their favourite. I was very disappointed that a great novel of my choosing didn't quite get on to the shortlist - but I comforted myself with its subsequent success on Richard and Judy's book club. We all agreed that we had an excellent and ambitious shortlist, swapped gifts (do other judging panels do this? Eggs and honey, mugs, notebooks, House of Lords trinket boxes), ate the big dinner, drank, swapped salacious tales, invited each other on holiday. (I thought this was a joke, until I heard that the 2002 Booker panel had gone away together to a house in France a year after they had judged the prize. Apparently they read books together. This is an addiction!)

Our shortlist of Atwood, Tremain, Slovo, Levy, Adichie and Hazzard was met with acclaim in the press; it was praised for its strength and impact and muscularity. I think it's a brilliant group. There was some controversy about the exclusion from the shortlist of Monica Ali's much-lauded Brick Lane; the Evening Standard suggested this was down to me, because of a spat I had last year with Ali's publisher. This wasn't true; I like Brick Lane, and was perhaps the judge most in favour of it - and anyway, nothing is ever down to only one judge.

As you might expect, the final round of judging was the most stressful. We met in secret at a Danish restaurant serving white tomato mousse. Not much drinking this time - too nervous. Everyone cared very much about what won; everyone felt that with such a shortlist, there would be no bad winner. There were no tears, but there were cigarillos, and strolls away from the table. And we found our winner, a superb novel about postwar immigration into Britain from Jamaica, and I am thrilled with our decision.

A few postscripts. The best novel won. My favourite sentences were written by Sarah Hall (The Electric Michelangelo). My favourite description was in Louise Dean's Becoming Strangers: "The South African pulled his short shorts back up from round his ankles and positioned his genitals gamely inside the fishing-net interior." Mavis Cheek and Maggie O'Farrell actually care if a reader enjoys their books. Toni Morrison is still queen of all she surveys, and she and Margaret Atwood don't put a step wrong because they don't know how. Atwood and Maggie Gee (The Flood) are the scariest. Andrea Levy is a great British discovery. Women's fiction is at a high point. And I'm looking for a new hobby.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Guardian Unlimited Books | Special Reports | Read 'em and weep

July 8, 2004
Fewer Noses Stuck in Books in America, Survey Finds

Oprah's Book Club may help sell millions of books to Americans, and slam poetry may have engendered a youthful new breed of wordsmith, but the nation is still caught in a tide of indifference when it comes to literature. That is the sobering profile of a new survey to be released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, which describes a precipitous downward trend in book consumption by Americans and a particular decline in the reading of fiction, poetry and drama.

The survey, called "Reading at Risk," is based on data from "The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts," conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002. Among its findings are that fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry; that the consumer pool for books of all kinds has diminished; and that the pace at which the nation is losing readers, especially young readers, is quickening. In addition it finds that the downward trend holds in virtually all demographic areas.

"What this study does is give us accurate numbers that support our worst fears about American reading," said Dana Gioia, the chairman of the endowment, who will preside over a discussion of the survey results at the New York Public Library this morning. "It quantifies what people have been observing anecdotally, but the news is that it has been happening more rapidly and more pervasively than anyone thought possible. Reading is in decline among all groups, in every region, at every educational level and within every ethnic group," he said, calling the survey results "deeply alarming."

The study, with its stark depiction of how Americans now entertain, inform and educate themselves, does seem likely to fuel debate over issues like the teaching and encouragement of reading in schools, the financing of literacy programs and the prevalence in American life of television and the other electronic media that have been increasingly stealing time from readers for a couple of generations at least. It also raises questions about the role of literature in the contemporary world.

The survey also makes a striking correlation between readers of literature and those who are socially engaged, noting that readers are far more likely than nonreaders to do volunteer and charity work and go to art museums, performing arts events and ballgames. "Whatever good things the new electronic media bring, they also seem to be creating a decline in cultural and civic participation," Mr. Gioia said. "Of literary readers, 43 percent perform charity work; only 17 percent of nonreaders do. That's not a subtle difference."

Still, in a world where information is more readily available than ever, where people know more than they ever have, and where visual acuity is becoming ever more crucially utilitarian, it is worth asking: What, if anything, does literature's diminished importance to Americans represent? The study has already produced conflicting reactions.

"It's not just unfortunate, it's real cause for concern," said James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University. "A culture gets what it pays for, and if we think democracy depends on people who read, write, think and reflect — which is what literature advances — then we have to invest in what it takes to promote that."

On the other hand Kevin Starr, librarian emeritus for the state of California and a professor of history at the University of Southern California, said that if close to 50 percent of Americans are reading literature, "that's not bad, actually."

"In an age where there's no canon, where there are so many other forms of information, and where we're returning to medieval-like oral culture based on television," he said, "I think that's pretty impressive, quite frankly." Mr. Starr continued: "We should be alarmed, I suppose, but the horse has long since run out of the barn. There are two distinct cultures that have evolved, and by far the smaller is the one that's tied up with book and high culture. You can get through American life and be very successful without anybody ever asking you whether Shylock is an anti-Semitic character or whether `Death in Venice' is better than `The Magic Mountain.' "

The Census Bureau study upon which the survey was based measured the number of adult Americans who attended live performances of theater, music, dance and other arts; visited museums; watched broadcasts of arts programs; or read literature in the past year. The survey sample — 17,135 people — makes it one of the largest studies ever conducted on the subject of arts participation, and the data were compared with similar studies from 1982 and 1992. In the literature segment respondents were asked whether they had, during the previous 12 months, without the impetus of a school or work assignment, read any novels, short stories, poems or plays in their leisure time.

Their answers show that just over half — 56.6 percent — read a book of any kind in the previous year, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier. Readers of literature fell even more precipitously, to 46.7 percent of the adult population, down from 54 percent in 1992 and 56.9 percent in 1982, which means that in the last decade the erosion accelerated significantly. The literary reading public lost 5 percent of its girth between 1982 and 1992; another 14 percent dropped away in the following decade. And though the number of readers of literature is about the same now as it was in 1982 — about 96 million people — the American population as a whole has increased by almost 40 million.

The survey found that men (37.6 percent) were doing less literary reading than women (55.1 percent); that Hispanics (26.5 percent) were doing less than African-Americans (37.1 percent) and whites (51.4 percent); but that all categories were declining. The steepest declines of any demographic group are among the youngest adults. In 1982, 59.8 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds read literature; by 2002 that figure had dropped to 42.8 percent. In the 25-to-34 age group, the percentage of literary readers dropped to 47.7 from 62.1 over the same period.

"This won't be news to publishers," said Jim Milliott, senior editor for news at the trade journal Publishers Weekly. "It just confirms what we've known from other fragmented surveys all along."

Last month the Association of American Publishers released worldwide sales figures for 2003, indicating that total sales of consumer book products increased 6 percent for the year. Much of the increase can be accounted for by sales of audio books, juvenile titles and nonpaper e-books, sold online. Adult hardbound books, adult paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks all showed relatively flat revenues, in spite of price increases.

The one category of book to rise markedly was that of religious texts, with total sales of $337.9 million, 36.8 percent over the previous year.

The New York Times > Books > Fewer Noses Stuck in Books in America, Survey Finds

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