Friday, April 11, 2014

Amidst the Soup of the London Book Fair – and how Malorie Blackman saved the day!




When I started planning my trip to France, the fact that the London Book Fair would be on when we arrived in the UK seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the other side of the book world — the hard-nosed business end — and it certainly has proved an eye-opener!


My dear friend Ann Neville, who has recently set up her own small publishing company ‘Create Books’ (http://createbooks.co.nz/ ), had organised a stand there to promote her own books plus several other writers’ work (including my own), sticking her toe into the soup of publishers, agents, distributors, scouts, printers etc., all of whom are touting for business or hoping to discover the Next Big Thing!

According to the official blurb from their website: From the giant houses to the smallest independent, there are the publishers of blockbuster novels and academic texts, and the producers of children’s books and graphic novels, mobile companies, gaming start-ups. Over 1,000 overseas companies are represented from 50 countries, and 25 international pavilions. 

Walking into the Earl’s Court Event Centre on the afternoon before the official opening was like walking into a messy teenager’s bedroom, but amplified by about 1000 percent! The place was in chaos — carpet still being laid across huge swathes of the building mid afternoon, booths being pieced together, and pallet-loads of books being delivered on small fork-lifts. It was overwhelming.

But by the following day, their first official day of business, all was in place, as if Mary Poppins had flown in overnight and set everything to rights. But, oh, the volume of people! It felt as though a small country had upped-sticks and decided to immigrate to Earl’s Court! After wandering around in a dazed state for a couple of hours, crushed by the roving hordes, I felt exhausted and deeply depressed. How on earth is one ever to be ‘discovered’ when the place is so awash with books?

My publisher at Random House had warned me that it was no place for authors and she was right! I had thought that perhaps I could make some introductory moves towards finding a UK agent there…
yeah, right! Agents and literary scouts (whatever they really are!) were relegated to a huge area upstairs – row upon row of tables filled with busy, unapproachable people who fiercely protected their turf and were not just unavailable to authors who had the gall to approach them personally without an appointment, but bit back like angry wasps when approached.

Maybe one of the most positive lessons to come out of this, for a small country/small town girl such as me, is how incredibly lucky we are in New Zealand. While most of us are never likely achieve the kind of fame and fortune (and sales) such a global event offers, our community of publishers and agents in NZ are open and friendly and, most of all, supportive and approachable. For this I’m extremely grateful.

This is not to say that all authors were unwelcome there. Every day there were sessions by a range of ‘top’ writers (from all corners of the world), including an opportunity to listen to UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. More of her in a minute – but, first, a slightly sad note: the opening day’s Author of the Day was Terry Pratchett. In fact, on closer reading, the session I attended was dubbed a ‘celebration’ of him — for, of course, he is now too unwell for public speaking. The speaker, instead, was his current co-author, science fiction writer Stephen Baxter (a very impressive author in his own right), who spoke about their collaboration, and touched on the tragic elephant in the room: Pratchett’s decline into Alzheimer’s Disease. They showed a prepared clip, with Pratchett answering a set of questions to introduce the session. To watch him fishing for words, even in the carefully orchestrated clips, was heart-breaking. 

On a more positive note, however, the session with Malorie Blackman was wonderful: full of laughter and down to earth honesty across a range of subjects. She was teamed with Melissa Cox, the children’s/YA buyer from Waterstones, who also shared some very interesting perspectives.
Blackman started off by clearly stating her agenda as Children’s Laureate: to encourage teens to read by talking about books with them — with an underlying belief that if a teen isn’t a reader, it’s only because they have yet to find the book to ‘switch’ them on. She also saw herself as a role model for cultural diversity — the idea that if she can be a writer then it is achievable by anyone.

She said she was fed up with the negative rhetoric around teenagers; that there are a lot of young people doing fantastic things and truly interested in making a difference in their world (something I agree with whole-heartedly.) She also said she has no problem with being seen as an ‘issues’ writer — that young people are hungry (my words) for information and agency in the real world. This, too, I support without hesitation. Young people, in her experience, are passionate about social justice issues and keen to see this reflected in the books they read. Good writing should be about raising topics for debate and discussion, and exploring a unique perspective on the world through younger eyes. When asked why she loved YA as a genre, she said that YA books have more story and are better written than adult titles — a comment that garnered much spontaneous applause!

According to her, one of the other reasons she chooses to write YA is its possibility for subversion! She welcomed the teenage desire to question everything and to talk about the issues that make adults feel uncomfortable! On the question of ‘appropriateness’, she said young people never say ‘this isn’t suitable subject matter for me’ (!); that it’s only ever adults laying their own values onto it. She believes it’s better for young people to be thoroughly informed than purposefully blinkered or misinformed – and that, as parents (or other gate-keepers) we have to trust young peoples’ ability to handle the issues; that we under-estimate their ability to cope with challenging situations and ideas. It is the young person’s role to question the world, she said; they want to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit into it.

It’s about a balance of perspectives, she explained; that kids need to know all the different kinds of opinions and issues out in the world in order to form their own views. For this reason, young people should be encouraged to read widely, while writers should canvas the breadth and depth of subjects (though avoid gratuitousness), and both her and Melissa Cox agreed that a book/issues/subject matter could be deemed YA if the events and feelings in the plot could happen to a teenager (in other words, they are capable of relating to it in some way), for it is out of this that empathy, understanding, and self-identity grows.

When asked about the propensity for YA/children’s books to end hopefully, she said that she believes this is very important. It’s not necessary for a book to be tied up with happy endings, but that the message has to be that it’s possible to go through hardship and emerge out the other side.

Both women agreed there is a distinct lack of diversity — few culturally diverse authors and protagonists (i.e. not white and middle class) – and that this is one of the big problems currently facing all fiction, esp, YA/children’s (and that the problem is growing worse again, after tentative steps forwards in the past). They both also believed it’s a problem in terms of publishers and booksellers who, because of their own social-economic, class and culturally dominant position, do not necessarily recognise this dearth of perspectives. When asked if there was a failure of ‘nerve’ within these industries to seek out more diversity, she answered ‘probably’ — and said that at the beginning of her writing career she had been told that no white person will ever read a book with a black person on the cover (i.e. would sell more books with a white person depicted there.) This blinkered thinking was one of the reasons she decided to start writing – to provide an alternative cultural narrative and to challenge such stereotypes.

I think all these are incredibly important points – and ones we, as writers in the genre, should be having our own robust discussions about — noisily and dogmatically! Anyone who has found themselves either writing for, or trying to be published within, for instance, the US market, will have encountered this myopic lack of cultural diversity. I am always amazed when told one of my books isn’t suitable for the US market because it is ‘too New Zealand.’ As a reader I revel in reading books authored by people from a different culture/country to my own. Surely it’s how we come to learn tolerance and empathy?

So, despite leaving the book fair feeling like one tiny salt crystal in the ocean of the publishing world, I find, in retrospect, much to mull upon and celebrate. Just listening to Malory Blackman validate everything I feel about YA fiction was worth the assault on my small colonial writer’s ego!

5 comments:

  1. Is the negative 'press' about teenagers only because the press report bad news? I can't think of another job (i.e. being a high school teacher) I would rather be doing than hanging out with a hundred-odd kids each year ranging in age from 13-18, watching the 13 year olds as the grow into 18 year old, learning from them, (without them, it would have been a lot later before I discovered John Green and Vlog Brothers and Macklemore and Divergent and many other really cool books, authors, movies, songs.) And, yes, we ARE lucky that we can be so kindly embraced by our publishers here in NZ. Letting go of the hope to one day 'make it big' is the best thing a writer can do, IMHO. Our books are read and loved Mandy. We make a difference with the words and worlds we create. We may be one or two tiny salt crystals but even that adds flavour.

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    1. Thanks Tania - I agree, the teenagers I've had the luck of spending time with always impress me. It always grates how kids get blamed for bad behaviour/attitudes when they're only reflecting what they've been taught by the adults around them! As for making it 'big', yep, I'm more than happy with my lot!

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  2. O! I loved reading this Mandy, thank you! Especially like the picture of you in front of the two men, looking intrepid!

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    1. Thanks, Marian! It was quite something, after the peace and serenity of home!

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  3. I'm a huge fan of Malorie Blackman. I look forward to the day NZ has its own Children's Laureate. Happy writing in Menton! What a perfect way to start.

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