The General Reading Election

April 30, 2010

If you couldn’t get to Blackwell Bookshop to vote this week, we’ll be posting a poll so you can vote online next week. In the meantime, here are the results of the votes from the in-store ballot.

Celebrity Writers 5

Prize winners 15

Unknowns (discoveries you make for yourself) 35

Classics 20

Thrillers/ Crime 14

Special Offers (chosen for you) 4

Nice Covers (books you never finish but look good on your table) 1

Foreign Fiction 8

Supermarket Reads (books to go with your salad) 0

E-Books 1


The future isn’t Orange… part 1

April 30, 2010

Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who decided to forego a chance to see the tri-politician debate on television last night and came instead to Blackwell Bookshop in Broad Street, Oxford, to talk instead about books.

Chaired by the BBC’s Special Correspondent Razia Iqbal, the event brought together a panel of writers of fiction and non-fiction, Sir Ian Blair, Naomi Wolf, Ali Shaw, Roma Tearne and me, plus Blackwell’s own highly experienced bookseller Euan Hirst. As you might expect of Oxford, the audience had put forward many more questions than could be answered in a single evening and the debate could have gone on for several hours more than scheduled.

There were some pertinent questions. Among them: Is there a place for a women-only prize (The Orange) in today’s society? The answer from the panellists was a resounding no. There was a time when women needed such a spotlight on their work, but that time has passed and if we don’t believe there should be a men-only prize, why should such a distinction remain? This brought a supplementary question about the value of prizes and quality of judging – for example, do celebrity judges really bring anything extra to a panel? At this point there seemed to be a split into two camps. Those who write and those who read (plus Euan who buys). The readers felt a sticker telling them a book had been short or long-listed for a prize was a shortcut and helped their buying – especially when time was short. The writers, particularly those writing fiction, had another view, finding the process of judging and prize giving excruciating on the one hand and thrilling on the other. Prize nomination is fine for those on the list and soul-destroying for those left off it – a real roller coaster of a ride – though novelist Ali Shaw also made the point that he let the process (his book, The Girl with Glass Feet was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award) wash over him rather. It was an interesting insight into the world of fiction writing and a reminder to those of us who browse and buy to look beyond the obvious.

Another insight came from the results of Roma’s General Genre Election.

Knowing how difficult it is to persuade anyone to do anything in a public space, I was impressed that so many people in the bookshop took time to fill in their forms and votes. Though one audience member highlighted that actually, it was hard to choose between the candidates (where else have we heard that recently?) since one doesn’t categorise books and one’s buying in that way. The overwhelming winner was “books you have discovered by yourself.” Interesting, bearing in mind that as readers we also like to be pointed in the direction of good reads by the prize and shortlist stickers. Perhaps we also like the thought that we can find the lost gem in the dross. Roma’s face was full of glee at the outcome, since one of her favourite reads of all time was a Once Upon a River Love, Andrei Makine which she found in the secondhand bookshop in New Inn Hall Street in Oxford. It had perfectly fitted her mood and the moment and as a result she sought out his other books.

There was also  a comment about blockbuster novels and celebrity boooks (fiction and non-fiction). Is there a place for these in a bookshop like Blackwells? Sir Ian Blair nailed his colours to the mast and said he really didn’t like such books, but as Euan Hirst pointed out, it’s the sales of these that allow bookshops to champion less well-known and more niche books and authors. Though one member of the audience commented that the panel appeared to be book “snobs” another very well read member of the audience opined that she loved to read – anything, everything, comic, Grazia, literary fiction. And as someone who reads the back of the cereal packet each morning, I have to agree with her sentiment.

I’ll post more on this later and put up not only the results of the poll, but invite you to cast your own vote here in teh future.

Today is the last day that I’ll be at the residency and I’ll give you an update at the end of the day. Roma will be at the bookshop again tomorrow, so if you’re likely to be in town, why don’t you look her up.


Some thoughts from Ali Shaw on last night’s reading election question time

April 30, 2010

Last night I had the great pleasure of sitting on the panel for the question time session that concluded Roma Tearne’s reading general election.  Despite competition from a certain other debate taking place on the BBC, the discussion was lively and passionate.  The assembled panellists were a diverse bunch, with very different experience of what it means to be a writer but Razia Iqbal, our host for the evening, did a great job of unifying these viewpoints into a bigger picture of where writers find themselves in today’s publishing industry.

I permitted myself an I-told-you-so when the winner of the reading election was announced.  It was the unknown talents: discoveries that you make yourself, and a peek over Razia’s shoulder at the number of votes cast confirmed that the category enjoyed a healthy lead, with classics behind it in second place.  I’d said to Roma in the build-up that the unknowns would be victorious on the night, something that I think demonstrates a very healthy streak in the reading tastes of those who voted.  Reading is such a personal and internalised experience that people enjoy making a connection with a piece of writing from scratch, without the involvement of marketing campaigns and review coverage that tells them what opinions they should form.  As long as reading remains a process of discovery in this way, the book trade should be able to find the energy and novelty required to see it through whatever grim economic realities hit it during the tenure of whichever government is elected in the real general election next week.


What makes a reader buy?

April 29, 2010

Names can sell books in a way good writing rarely does. How else would you explain the success of Jordan’s tomes? She at least, has the good grace to be blunt about the process – to paraphrase what I once heard her say – Of course I’m not going to pretend I wrote them. Then there’s the Richard and Judy effect – I’m sure many a good book has been missed by the programme’s researchers, just as many a good book has been passed over by the reading public just because it had one of those wretched stickers on it. Oprah has even greater power. Occasionally a good book develops a following by word of mouth – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres, was one of these, I believe.

I like to be guided in my book reading because life’s too short to browse bookshop shelves for every read and besides, who wants to pay £7.99 for something they can’t get through? Occasionally I’ve selected my reading material on the basis of the book jacket design (among my husband’s many talents is the creation of some of these). Sometimes this method of buying has worked out for me, but twice it has proved a disaster. I’m thinking of Twelve Bar Blues, Patrick Neate, and Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer. I admit, I do look for prize winners when I’m buying, that method served me well for Possession, A.S.Byatt, one of my all-time favourite reads. I have to say though, there’s nothing quite like a recommendation from someone whose taste you admire, (I’m thinking of Caroline, if she’s reading this) for a foolproof buy. Whatever she has chosen for our book group has been a success with me. Another friend raving about reading Dickens, from whom I’d been switched off as a child because of his “paid by the yard” approach to fiction writing, persuaded me to give him another try. I’m hooked. Just as you can be switched on to a writer’s other works by one good book, you can be switched off by a single bad offering. I bought two follow-up novels by a prolific modern author only to be disappointed. I now have her name etched into my brain to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again. I’m over her, dear reader. Another, mentioned elsewhere in my own blog, has disgraced herself in my view, by penning a work sold as historical biography, only to later admit it was fiction, based on an invitation she’d had to write up an ordinary woman’s diaries. I, who had loved the book, recommended it to others; they, buying later copies, were enlightened by an admission in the epilogue that my own early edition didn’t have. Her writing is no doubt still brilliant, it’s the duping I object to. I’ve neither bought nor recommended her work since, though I have three of her books on my shelves.

Tonight there’s a chance to debate book buying at Blackwell’s and as I write this I understand there are still tickets available for the event. Sir Ian Blair, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, will be up for questioning, so will feminist writer and speaker Naomi Wolf. Modern day fairy story teller Ali Shaw will be on the panel, and of course, Roma Tearne – broadcaster Razia Iqbal will be chairing and keeping order.

Doors open at 6.45pm for a 7pm start.


A chance missed…

April 29, 2010

It was surprising that there weren’t more people queueing to see Julie Wheelwright yesterday. Perhaps Roma’s right, the cult of celebrity affects Oxford just as it affects the rest of the country.

Allow me to explain, Julie is a freelance writer, besides being the Course Director for the MA in Creative Writing, non-fiction, at City University, London. She has written two books and she’s a regular contributor to The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, Red Magazine, BBC History Magazine and many others. And yesterday, she was in Blackwell’s waiting to speak to people who might like to tap into her knowledge and experience.

In the two hours we spent together yesterday, though, only two people approached her. Knowing the huge numbers of people interested in genealogy and their own family histories, I had expected to find several hovering in Blackwell’s hoping to make use of her knowledge. Where else can you speak to someone about starting to record your own findings into your family?

So many of us have little family tales to tell that we think we ought to record for future generations, if not for the general public. My own include a great-uncle who revealed on his 50th wedding anniversary that he had been in the Secret Army when he was young. How I would have loved to talk to him. If anyone reads my own blog, they will know that my paternal grandmother, who died earlier this year, had a life that took her from Constable’s East Bergholt to the wilds of Kenya and beyond, turning her from little country girl to sophisticated well-travelled woman. If you’ve always wanted to get the story of your family down on paper (or on screen) Julie would have been the perfect person to talk to about it. Disappointed, she went back to London. I’m sure many people in Oxfordshire would have loved to meet her, but without a whiff of celebrity about her, she remains relatively unknown. there was no fanfare in the local paper, no display in the bookshop window, no trumpeting of her arrival at Oxford railway station. I wonder what would have happened if Katie Price (aka Jordan) had been in the shop telling Oxfordians how to write.

I rarely buy and read non-fiction. For me reading is an escape, so I prefer to read fiction, but I recognise the skill that a biographer or historian brings to their craft and I hope I have the chance to meet Julie again. I hope you do too. I’m sorry you missed her – perhaps you are as well.


Meeting and eating

April 28, 2010

It’s the end of a busy day and I haven’t got time to write too much here tonight, though I promise a full post on today’s activities first thing tomorrow, before I get stuck into my other work.

It was a delight to meet Julie Wheelwright at Roma’s residency in Blackwell’s bookshop today – more of which tomorrow, I can’t believe how quickly the time flew by as we talked.

Tomorrow evening is your chance to throw questions at novelists and writers at the great book debate, chaired by Razia Iqbal. Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair and the feminist writer and political commentator Naomi Wolf will be joining Roma and Ali Shaw. If you haven’t got tickets and would like to attend, you can get them through the Blackwell website events page here... Do come along!


Day two: afternoon

April 27, 2010

Part of the residency display

Notes, tickets and even a croissant have been left for Roma

Lunchtime chez Blackwell’s has passed but the café is still full, I’m surprised to find when I arrive today after 2pm. There’s a buzz in the air, loud laughter as those who can, revel in flexible working hours or retirement or free leisure time. Perhaps this is doing some a disservice, since plainly a few students or professors, or perhaps even writers, are working in the café, ignoring the chinking of cup on saucer and the loud knocking of coffee grinds being emptied into bins, to say little of the volume of conversation. To the right of me, a green-highlighted manuscript is being re-written, further into the café I can see a book being read. Laptops are open and note-taking abounds. Who are all these people who find a café the perfect place for inspiration? Behind me a strange man is moving his table, apologising (he’s British) and asking us all to budge up a bit so he can have more room.

“I’m sticking out into the aisle,” he says by way of explanation. This washes with me, I stop and shuffle along, tucking an empty chair underneath my table to accommodate his request. The man on the next table is unimpressed, pointing out that he will have to move his companion out into another aisle to comply, like Newton’s Cradle knocking one end of a line of ball bearings through to have an equal and opposite effect at the other.

What’s noticeable from my vantage point today is the number of people who are curious about the residency arena, without Roma’s presence. They sidle up to the pillars, point at the pictures, peer at the newspaper headlines she has posted and gingerly pick up the manuscript she has left for them to read, as if not quite sure they should touch. One girl remarks on the beautiful bunting, which has been lent by Licious Interiors for the purpose of dressing up the area. Three visitors have left Roma notes on her “desk,” disappointed not to have come across her. Someone has left her a croissant, like a cryptic clue. Roma has returned home for lunch and to write part of her residency publication, Between The Lines, which she has invited me to contribute to. This has already brought about a very strange experience for the pair of us. Not knowing what the other is writing and with no brief, she’s come up with chapter one, while I’ve written chapter two, and on comparing notes we have found three elements that exactly delve into each other’s thoughts.

“They’ll never believe we didn’t plan this,” says Roma as we exchange print-outs after reading aloud. Our explanation for the cross-over involves a little cod pyschology. Roma is renowned for blindfolding statues; we’re working in a bookshop café and we both like cake. More than that I cannot reveal, you’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the week.

If you want to vote for your favourite kind of book don’t wait to be invited or feel fearful of stepping up to the hustings to take a ballot paper and register your view. It’s the book-buying public who have the ultimate say in what gets stocked on the shelves, though you might not believe it if you read newspaper reviews. You, and I, and anyone else who ever enjoyed a good read deserves to make their mark and express an opinion on what’s on offer.

In all this, the business of selling books continues in the shop. Basil Blackwell hit on a great idea here in the centre of Oxford. A bookshop with a homely feel, with staff that obviously love what they do and a range of titles second-to-none. You only have to breathe deeply to feel the inspiration being drawn down into your lungs. Perhaps that explains all the writing in the café.

Don’t forget Roma is holding a memory clinic tomorrow at Blackwell’s. See you there?


The Polling Station

April 27, 2010

From Julie Wheelwright

Roma’s idea for a polling station in Blackwell’s bookshop is nothing short of brilliant, a great innovation on the rather static job of being a writer-in-residence. The whole point of an author working in a bookshop is to see them in action and interacting with the reading public so this is a wonderful way of drawing people in to discuss and vote on their favourite books. The only challenge will be in finding just one to nominate, unlike the real election. Since I live in Kennington, London which is within the Division Bell and thick with politicians, the contest is gaining momentum, especially after last week’s televised debate.

And when I’m not pounding the streets of Kennington dodging pamphleteers, I’m often found working in a little cabin in my garden where I have just finished off the manuscript to my forthcoming book, (working title) Captive: The Remarkable Story of Esther Wheelwright which will be published next year. This story about my ancestor who was taken captive by Native American Indians as a child and later became a Mother Superior of an order in Quebec City, came down through generations of my Wheelwright family. I’ll be at the Memory Clinic with Roma on 27 April to help you shape your family story through using photographs or other images. Or maybe you have a keepsake — a spoon, a plate, a toy — that might help you bring your family member to life. They can all work as important triggers.

Day One, morning.

April 26, 2010

And – we’re off! The appearance of a car full of props heralded Roma’s arrival at Blackwell bookshop in Broad Street this morning, and with the opening of a car boot and a bit of heaving by some hefty helpers, Roma’s secret store of bunting, photos and subversive messages was revealed to a wondering and wandering public as they stumbled, bleary-eyed for the most part, to the first-floor coffee shop for their first caffeine shot of the day. “What is going on?” they were asking, not too obviously, obviously, in case they were roped in to something they neither understood nor cared for. All became clearer, then more obscure again, then clearer. A ballot paper appeared, and some boxes and invitations to choose their favourite kinds of book.

It’s surprising what those early morning coffee drinkers are doing. I’m sure I spotted a novel being written, and a proof being checked. A secret diary appeared to be squirrelled away on my approach, and a dissertation, or maybe an essay, was being pored over – lots of red pen there, I noted. A quiet moment with a newspaper in a corner, a chance to finish reading a few pages of a book and a moment’s reflection before the week begins, that’s what some of the bookshop’s coffee drinkers are after. There were also people buying novels – at nine o’clock in the morning, whatever next!

Later, in came the serious social crowd, old friends, former colleagues and long-since graduated students from decades ago, catching up on gossip and looking askance at Roma’s Residency Arena with its too-bright flags and provocative statements about reading and writing.

And in the middle of it all, a small novelist sits blinking, chatting, smiling, watching. You can learn a lot from the sidelines. All human life is in Blackwell bookshop in the morning. It’s just, normally, we’re too busy to see who’s doing what as we whizz through our routine.


Reading, residencies and Roma Therapy.

April 23, 2010

The phone is ringing, it’s Roma.

“Sandra, I’m worried,” she says, in a worried-sounding voice. “What if no-one comes next week?”

“I think they’ll want to see what’s happening in the bookshop,” I say, in what I hope are soothing tones, thinking of how many weeks and how much time she’s devoted to this residency, the first of its kind at Blackwell’s. We’ve been considering whether to ask BC&C to join in – that’s Brown, Clegg and Cameron – though the BBC might also like a look-in, not to mention the local newspapers.

Still with an election coming up and less than two weeks until the big day their newsdesks might be hard-pressed to cover the story, though I’m sure they would be interested if “he who lives down the road” drops by. Perhaps that’s not likely with all the canvassing and pressing of flesh going on, not to mention the live TV debates on the political agenda. Will there be a good turn-out for the Great Genre Election rather than the General Election – who knows? All the usual factors might have to be taken into consideration. Weather, whether people think their vote will make a difference, what’s on the tellie that night. The votes for books and votes for MPs will be counted one week apart, the only difference is you’re not stuck with a genre you don’t like if your particular favourite doesn’t win at Blackwell’s, unlike the Parliamentary elections, after which you’ll have to wait years to make a change.

Roma’s got this idea that we can all vote for our favourite kind of book. Romantic, historical, crime, thriller, biography, none of the above, e-book. She’s got ballot boxes and bunting going up outside the shop but there’s no obligation to stop browsing the shelves and spending a relaxing lunchtime in Blackwell’s, it’s just a bit of fun, in the main, though I like the thought and can’t help but speculate about which will come out on top.

What the tourists will make of it, you might ponder, will they want a say too – and if they do have a say will they skew the results? All those Inspector Morse and Alice in Wonderland fans who visit the city each week, not to mention Lyra and Harry Potter fans who want to see where their favourite films were made. Imagine, for a moment, if the police really did have Colin Dexter’s murders to deal with. Oxford would be the killing capital of Europe and the local politicians would have more than refuse collection and rats to think about. Perhaps it’s a good thing we can distinguish between fiction and fact.

Roma thinks we can’t, not always and she’s out to prove that the lines are blurred between truth and lies, fact and fiction. She’s provocative like that, I’m discovering. This I find a little worrying. Reading is my great escape. As a writer, I realise the latter looks odd in print. No-one I think, would find Reading a great escape, reading yes, Reading no.

Perhaps we should also be asking where people read. Bath, bed, train, café, desk, sofa, kitchen table, library, airport lounge, queue for the last boat home? Part of me thinks that reading is about getting away from thoughts of the EU and volcanic ash clouds and taxes and politicians. But that’s because I naturally gravitate towards literary fiction – there’s so much of it and so little time. How do you choose when you go into a bookshop and why go to a bookshop when you can buy on-line or in a s-u-p-e-r-m-a-r-k-e-t? Why bother with books at all when there’s an app for your i-Pod and The Kindle and you can download reading material virtually. Why bother buying when you can (whisper it, because the New Bodleian is next door) go to a library?

Bookshops can make your head spin, all those titles, covers and spines and wondering why some books face outward and whether it’s good or bad to choose from a three-for-two deal. But bookshops can also be a place of sanctuary, somewhere to recover your good humour, like going to The Priory, but without the Slebs.

“I’m holding a memory clinic, you know,” says Roma, sounding more like her usual self.

“I hadn’t forgotten,” I say, coming out of my reverie. “It’s a kind of Roma therapy, this residency.”