Characters are the author’s puppets, but they’re people too

There are different ways to read a novel. There are different reasons that we read, different levels on which we engage, different things we get out of it.

Reading through editorial eyes, can be a complicated process. Especially when it’s your own work you’re editing…

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When editing a book you tend to think of it as something functional, a creation with surfaces to be polished and tools to be applied. A construction to be arranged and critiqued until well oiled.

In this endeavour everything to do with the novel becomes equipment. The characters aren’t people, they are tools, puppets to be manipulated. The setting becomes a Paper Mache set, to be painted and filled with props. The plot becomes a series of events to be arranged and rearranged until they’re as romantic, or fantastic, or thrilling as desired.

And it’s easy to get into a habit of reading like this, so that even when you’re not editing or thinking critically about a book, but reading it for pure enjoyment, this same approach creeps through.

It’s certainly a useful way of reading. It allows you to consider the purpose of the book, all of its elements and what it has been made to say, to mean. But long ago literary scholarship determined that the creators of a book and the reasons for its creation, although there to be mined from the book if you wished, certainly didn’t need to determine what a book could say, or what a book could mean.

There’s another, completely different way of reading a novel than that of the critical editor. It involves seeing the book as a world in which to immerse yourself, a world of places, and people and events, devoid of a puppet master who controls them. The novel’s world simply exists, without an author having to create it. Viewing it in this way brings it vividly to life, and allows for endless possibilities of perception and meaning.

Like many readers, fan pages and book clubs do, it’s intriguing to consider the characters as people. To think about what motivates them, what is important to them, and how they interact with others. They are beings within themselves. This is of course the logic that accompanies things like fan fiction.

I’ve been writing a book club pack for a novel Odyssey has helped with. I’m putting together a series of questions that can help stimulate discussion about the characters, setting, themes etc. at book clubs. So I thought about what I would want to talk about in relation to this book, or any book really. What was engaging and exciting?

The book I was writing the pack for, The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns, is really well written. It jumps between various time periods and characters, from a 19th century bishop to a present day archivist, taking the reader on a tense and exciting journey.  A story of history, discovery and genealogy, The Bishop’s Girl also tackles the pressing issues of the everyday, like marriage, kids, friendships and self-discovery. You can find the book here.

With books as well crafted as this one, it seems a waste not to consider the literary tools used to construct it. Similarly though, some of the most captivating discussions about books come out of their ability to create characters and worlds that are so real that they stay alive even after the author has finished writing them. The ability to imagine and debate what could have happened, why events did happen and what they meant, hints at the captivating authenticity of a well-written book. I thought this approach was especially important given the vivid characters and environments that appear in The Bishop’s Girl.

When writing the book club pack then, I tried to work in questions that asked the reader to look at the book as a device, having a function for the reader, but also as a world in which the people, places and events truly existed.

It made me realise the importance of achieving a balance between styles of reading, between critical and immersive approaches, that I hope I can cultivate better in my future reading. Books are incredible in the many different ways they can be read. You can write a whole PhD thesis on a novel, or flick through the sandy pages on holiday, imaging yourself in the character’s shoes. And I will endeavour to remind myself, as put into words by this blog, to remember, and value, both of these styles. May my reading ever be analytical but also fanciful, constructive but also immersive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is the publishing industry still being conceptualised as about to go up in flames?

I often peruse the news in search of any articles about books. Partly because it’s something I’m interested in and always happy to read about, but also because it’s a section of the news that is pretty guaranteed not to ruin my mood. New books are always exciting. And let’s face it, the news doesn’t tend to report the raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.

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(Maria doesn’t mention books explicitly in the song, but we know what’s in the brown paper packages tied up with string.)

So comparatively, the books section is nearly always a source of the good. But in perusing recently I was struck by the way a few different articles all engaged, on some level, with a dialogue that seems to dominate how we think about books and the publishing industry in general. And it was a theme that actually, when I thought about it, wasn’t rosy at all. My bubble of happiness was burst. Let me explain my dilemma. 

The first article I read is about a new regional 24-hour library. It reports that a rural community in the Central West, called Tullamore, has recently been trialling a system where the library can be accessed 24 hours a day, you just need to sign up for a membership and become a key holder. Prior to this new arrangement, the library was only open a few hours a week, which made it very difficult for residents to take out and return books. Now that the changes have been made, significant increases have been shown in borrowing. Compared to the last financial year, borrowing is up 80%. A pretty substantial increase. The article quotes residents who are delighted with the changes, local Pam Mortimer calling the upgrade a “new freedom” for the area. While before books and borrowing them was unpopular and inconvenient, the library barely serving its purpose, now it seems the tables have drastically turned.

The second article is about a new, and very different type of novel, which comes in eBook form.  Richard Lea explains that the book, A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow, requires you to add one word and remove two from each page. Only after making these changes to the novel can you then pass it on to it’s next owner. And thus a process of transfiguration is enacted. Lea notes that while at first the experience is strange and uncomfortable, it becomes a very interesting project as each new reader contributes new aspects to this ever-evolving work. The idea is intriguing and engaging. It forces you to be a part of the development of the novel itself, something you can’t achieve in the same way with traditional press. Again innovations and changes have been made to encourage reader engagement. An important element to note about the idea and how it was conceived is that this experimental type of reading was not, as you would assume, for the sake of being experimental. Actually, as Uglow explains, the drive behind the idea was making eBook’s more similar to their printed counterpart. By making this eBook more physically accessible, changeable and personal, it becomes more like the beat up novel in your bag and less like the digital novel you can only own the licence to read. So in doing something quite different to the traditional book, Uglow is actually striving to replicate the traditional reading experience. 

The third article I read is about the resurgence of consumer preference for printed books over eBooks. Much like my last blog post, Alex Preston looks at the change in the market and consumer choices and why this could have happened. He similarly notes the beauty and intricacy of printed covers and the importance of appreciating cover art. Cheers for backing me up 😉

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At first these three article seem to be quite different. They look at distinct and separate news-worthy things that are happening in publishing and reading communities, one as simple as giving keys to borrowers, another totally transforming the very process of reading itself. But despite their differences the major similarity between them, that I couldn’t help but notice, was the sense that these changes and new ideas were necessary, even crucial, developments that were needed to keep the industry functioning and to keep books being read.

The library changed it’s hours so that people would actually engage with the neglected books in their library. The strange structure of the eBook A Universe Explodes aims to bring something new to the reading experience, to jazz it up and encourage interest, but also to mimic the new demand for traditional print. And the conversation about eBook versus traditional printing is hinged on discovering how to get and keep consumer interest. All these areas are tapping into the idea that we must keep frantically striving to achieve interest in books. What underpins all these articles is the knowledge of potential failure without adaption. The idea seems to run through the back of your mind while reading, that this is yet another attempt to curb the the loses of the industry. 

Sure the publishing industry has had it’s fair share of challenges. The last article was the most outright in its recognition of this background consciousness of failure. Alex Preston writes, “the appearance of e-readers seemed to flummox a publishing industry reeling from the financial crisis and Amazon’s rampant colonisation of the market.” He lists the issues the industry has had to face in recent years so that they’re there for us to see, blatant and unquestionable. And with this knowledge now in the forefront of my mind, all these different attempts to promote reading that are discussed in the articles, became tinged with desperation. Like the end of the industry is nigh. Like there’s a real possibility it could all go up in flames. 

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Suddenly, all these changes seem to come off not as art evolving, or creative people trying new creative outlets, or simply extending library opening hours, but more like a lifeline, a defibrillator for the heart of publishing, willing readership back to life. All industries change and develop over time, it’s the nature of society, the nature of creativity, the nature of humanity. So why then does the publishing industry seem to be painted with the sense of it’s imminent death? A paranoia of possible failure seems to loom over us. I think it’s about time that the bleak, outdated fallacy is rejected for what it is, and that we come to celebrate the tenacity of an industry that will always survive. After all, it’s an industry of invention, of imagination, of introspection, of observation, of originality. Of course it’s going to change, and of course it’s going to survive.

 

 

 

Judging a Book by its Cover

Recently it was revealed that ebook sales, once booming, have now slumped considerably. Simultaneously, more consumer interest is being shown in traditional printed books. In an article titled “How eBooks Lost their Shine” which you can find here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/how-ebooks-lost-their-shine-kindles-look-clunky-unhip- Paula Cocozza examines why this might have come about. She suggests that you just can’t do all the tangible things like dog-earing a page, or cracking a spine with an ebook, that ebooks are becoming more expensive and thus not worth it, and that things like children’s books just tend not to work as well in ebook form.

But one aspect which I found particularly engaging about her argument was her hypothesis that ebooks simply can’t be as beautiful as their printed counterpart. Cocozza writes “Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty.” She emphasises that the cover art, the font, even the binding, can be things of great aesthetic joy; something an ebook could simply never achieve.

While the criticism and dialogue surrounding books tends to focus on what’s inside the cover and what is typed across the pages, Cocozza reminds us that what’s on the outside, this time, does in fact count. The visual appeal of the book is something we experience, in different measures of consciousness, each time we pick it up, open it, close it, and put it down again (despite the often long period of not putting it down in between).

The physical cover of a book is something that can be incredibly striking and meaningful, and this new appreciation of printed books and their clothing is encouraging us to finally allow ourselves to judge a book by its cover.

Social media is certainly on the bandwagon. In fact, there are whole Instagram pages dedicated to displaying the beauty of bookcases, reading nooks and books themselves.

On the gorgeous page Foldenpagesdistillery (https://www.instagram.com/foldedpagesdistillery/) books (always closed and with their covers on display) are integrated into carefully constructed scenes. The backgrounds tend to either mimic the setting or themes of the book itself, as with the tartan and rustic items surrounding Outlander by Diana Gabaldon below…

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Or create a setting which evokes the act of reading itself, the space adorned with flowers, hot cups of tea and reading paraphernalia, like notebooks and glasses.

The colours and shapes of the cover art are mirrored in the surrounding elements of the photo. Here the significance of the cover is truly recognised and considered. It’s not just the ideas inside the book that are important, but also its physical form.

The page Bookotter (https://www.instagram.com/bookotter/) is full of character and similarly adorns the book with objects which relate to its fictional world, reconstructing the narrative in real life objects and images. Again the images and colour scheme of the cover art are mimicked in the surrounding objects, like the wooden board that pairs with the hazel eye, or the pink flowers that match the titular font. This page often brings the natural world, usually in the shape of plants, into shots like this one:

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Another breathtaking page is OliverSkyWolf (https://www.instagram.com/oliverskywolf/) who seems to forever walk around with a book held out in front of him. He captures striking scenes, again often within nature, where the backgrounds imitate the colours and resonances of the book’s cover.

Like this one for example:

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On these Instagram pages book covers integrate themselves into our world, and the foreground book and background world interact with each other through colours, shading, shapes and feeling. The books come to life in a setting which expands the cover into life itself.

In our evermore visual world of social media, so dominated by the immediate distribution of images, it makes perfect sense that Instagram pages like these ones have come to revel in the physicality, the aesthetics and the beauty of the book.

And it’s not just the book itself, its the whole library. A Buzzfeed article simply lists images of beautiful home libraries – https://www.buzzfeed.com/tabathaleggett/home-libraries-that-will-give-you-serious-living-room-goals?utm_term=.tpn0KrXBG#.qj56rbvw7

And they are stunningly beautiful. These home-decorators have used their books to decorate and embellish their rooms. Something I noticed about these different rooms is that without the books it would just be a fairly ordinary space. A lounge room, a bedroom, a study. But in these spaces the books are the focus, their arrangement on the shelves is not just storage, it is expression and style. The delicate shaping of the shelves, the use of light and focus, the arch over the reading chair – all these techniques take books as a design tool in their own right, as pieces of art.

There are multiple methods by which books are displayed – by author, by genre, or the beautifully visual choice of by colour. My personal favourite is the colour-coded wall below, designed by 7 Interiors. It’s so beautiful I can feel tears welling up. I mean who needs art when you have a bookshelf like this?

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I thought about my own apartment and the time I’d spent making my bookshelf look good. And actually, I realised, I’d spent probably the most time of all decorating that one small space, figuring out how to separate the books, how to display them, and which ornaments to adorn them with. Two of my favourite things in the apartment sit on top of my bookcase: my fern and my typewriter. It’s the area that I think looks the best in my whole apartment, and while I would like to take the credit for the breathtaking decorative skill, I’m sure about 90% of any aesthetic beauty is simply down to the books themselves, their colours, shapes and images.

There’s something very special about cover art that takes what a book is about and means and reconstructs it into a 2D image. It must be eye-catching and different. It must be commercial but also aesthetic. It must fit the genre and style but also make its mark so that particular book will standout. It’s a complicated process. The clothing that a book wears can become a work of art in itself, visually stunning and semiotically loaded.

With the decline of ebooks, and the resurgence of printed books, coupled with the highly visual, online culture we live in, this really is the time to appreciate and explore the beauty of our bookshelves. And even better, we now have yet another reason to keep buying books: they’re great for decoration.

 

Editing Reveries: Things I realised editing my first manuscript

This week I was given my first editing task as an intern. I’m helping to edit the third book in a fantasy series published by Odyssey. I really enjoyed reading the first two novels in the series so I feel pretty darn lucky to get to read the third before it’s even published and to have the opportunity to help out with it. Editing exciting new manuscripts seems to me like the very bread and butter of publishing, a real taste of the industry, and I was pretty keen to get started. I felt like a proud and protective new Godparent to this novel (even though so far I’d had nothing whatsoever to do with it’s upbringing…but then neither do the Godparents until they’re God-parented).

But that’s when I realised that this amazing task is also sort of scary. I realised the importance of what I was doing. For an author, writing a novel is not only a long and laborious process, but it’s also a very personal one. I’ve just started writing my own novel for my PhD and it’s still a wee baby novel that I can’t let out of my sight, let alone give to someone else to hold. It’s new and fragile and uncertain. Hopefully when my baby novel has grown up enough to take it’s first steps out into the world, and be read by other eyes, it will be big enough and strong enough to take it. But right now I am acutely aware of how sensitive writing is to the person that’s written it; that really it’s an extension of yourself. I know the manuscript I’ve been given is certainly not a baby novel, and that it’s nearly ready to take on the world, but for the author will it ever stop being their baby?

When I started reading the novel I imagined how much work had gone in to every paragraph, every sentence, every word, and I crumbled at the thought of making any changes at all. Who was I to critique what had been so laboriously crafted and nurtured? This was my chance to edit a real novel about to be published, and I was scared to edit it. Not a great start. I emailed Jen asking for a bit of advice on how to approach the editing process, which she kindly gave, and I felt better. I decided to treat it like the grownup novel it is and stop being so tentative.

Then it wasn’t like I had anticipated at all. The point of editing is to polish what needs to be polished, but what I found was that it was already pretty shiny. I’d definitely been blessed with a novel that is well structured, well proofread and well written. There were some little alterations of course, minor things, but nothing difficult or major. Moreover, the little things that I did suggest I wholeheartedly thought would enhance the novel in some way, and it didn’t feel fussy or overbearing but instead it felt cooperative and helpful.

The more I read through it, making my little notes as I went, the more I realised that while editing is in essence about criticising, it’s not about being critical for the sake of it. I think the editing process can sometimes seem malicious or disparaging, that it’s mistakenly taken as the act of searching for the negatives, that every edit is like a slap in the face of the author. But in fact, the right sort of editing is actually a kindly hand, one that simply helps to mould the story like a piece of clay, shaping it into a piece of art. This delicate, personal piece of art is not at the mercy of editing; it’s being honoured by it. Like the kindly godparent, editing nurtures the novel, and I hope that I will too.

 

What is a Real Writer?

This is not the blog I had intended to write and post today. You’ll get one about beautiful immersive worlds next week, I promise, but for this week, it’s another riposte, that can be alternatively titled “Svetlana Alexievich wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and people are jerks.”

While many people took to social media to congratulate Alexievich and commiserate with the runners-up (Roth and Murakami perhaps most notably), there was an unfortunate strain of comments that serve no purpose but to scorn both the winner and runners-up, saying that the Nobel Prize is only for “real writers”, accusing Alexievich of being a mere propagandist and Murakami of being a commercial “non-writer”.

I don’t normally heed comments like these, having gone native on YouTube in my adolescence, but the comments dismissing those who write commercial books got me steamed – P.S. world, “steamed” is back. “Real writers” is such a derogatory phrase and it belittles literature, and writers generally. It doesn’t raise certain people up, it is just divisive, tearing down anyone who wants to write and make a living. Because let’s face it, “real writers” are literary, they don’t commercialise their fiction, but instead chase writing as a pure art form. They don’t pander to a larger audience because sales = food, rent money, etc.

I know that last bit doesn’t apply to those in the running for the Nobel, but when you set up the distinction between a “real writer” and a – what? A fraud? A fake writer? – purely on your subjective literary taste, you’re dumping on the writers that it does apply to.

A study released by Macquarie University this week put the average writing income at $12,900 for Australian authors. The study also made it clear that most authors have another career to support themselves, which undoubtedly eats into their writing time. So why should we belittle those who want more time to write by earning more money from their books? Why is there a hierarchy where some books are considered more valuable than others? The idea that great literary texts make a great contribution to the world is well and good, but for those books to have a considerable effect today, they have to become widely read and hence commercially successful. The scorn for commercial drive in the literary world is contrary to the continued functioning of the literary world.

If only we had robotic slaves, so we could all devote our lives to this concept of pure art. What an uninteresting utopia. Without the struggle there is a lot less flavour in the literary world. Those writers out there, working to make a dollar, writing works for commercial audiences ought to be praised for the way they practise the craft. It’s a tough slog.

So why should we divide the system into “real writers” and “non-writers”?

We shouldn’t. It’s simplistic, offensive and elitist.

Throwing around elitism when discussing the Nobel Prize for Literature seems kind of idiotic, but I’m okay with that because I’m done with the rankings. I don’t want to read books according to tiers that the writers fit into, and I definitely don’t think that someone should be considered simplistic for not being interested in a “literary” work while preferring “commercial” titles.

Books are books. Just read them.

Also, let’s pay writers more. Please and thank you.