The Industrialisation of Words? And a Revolution.

30 Jul

Continuing my focus on library-adoration and generating more love affairs with the lit, in today’s blog I wanted to focus a bit more about the challenges facing the great British public when it comes to getting your mitts on a decent book.

First of all – let’s start with the schools. Now, I realise that I might differ from a lot of parents when it comes to The Big Choice of ‘which high school should I dump the kid at?’ – because for me, postcode, number of A-starred qualifications achieved and whether the uniform matches the girl’s eyes isn’t really of much importance. What is at the top of tick list is … The School Library.

So yes – Mr and Ms Headteacher – if you want me and mine to truck up and place bums on your seats thereby ensuring your future survival, you really will need to cough up some good library offerings. Because not only do I want my kids to be surrounded with a sea of books, I’m also acutely aware that for those outside-of-lessons times, the library can offer a sea of tranquility and a place of safety. Especially if the bigger and nastier kids keep trying to flush your head down the loo, during the lunch hour as a result of your Ma’s very public blogging-habit.

But sadly, the odds tend to be stacked against school libraries. I happen to know someone who works in one of them and who tells me that the budget for purchasing new books *for the entire year this year* was a staggeringly pathetic £300! Three hundred measly pounds! What on earth will that buy the school in terms of books? (well actually… I’ll allude to this issue again in a minute.) And with such a low amount to play with, trying to draw in the kids who are not natural readers, who may not venerate books and shriek ‘Mind The Spines!’ at others as I’m rather want to do – must feel nigh on impossible for staff.

Hogwarts School Library. (We can but dream...)

Hogwarts School Library. Bet this lot cost more than £300

For the purpose of this blog  I’ve been speaking to the Schools Library Association – a registered charity that supports schools who want to provide great libraries for kids. The charity provides advice, training and reviews of recent books for schools. And to be honest, they didn’t have to try very hard in order to persuade me of the benefits of a school becoming a member of the SLA;  as I’m already a bit of a born-again Bookie. But I was definitely sold on the organisation, when I saw the range of information available to members on how to engage the more reluctant reader. Schools Library Association

So I reckon that if you’re a parent and you want your kid to grow up to become an adult with a life-long love of books, you really should be persuading your school to join the SLA if they aren’t already members.  And if you’re not a parent – then the very least you should be doing is re-writing your will and bequeathing everything to the SLA. Or volunteering to work in a school library. You know it makes sense…

Good news then! That the likes of the SLA exists. But then the inevitable bad news; that the resources available to schools for stocking the libraries, well. Don’t exist.

In my previous blog, I mentioned that my daughter – a child with dyslexia who has learned to at least *enjoy* (if not froth at the mouth over books, as I do) – has become very dispirited with the type and range of books on offer at school. I’ve also heard from many other parents who were saying exactly the same kind of thing – and these are all folk whose kids don’t have any kind of issue in terms of reading or literacy. The dissatisfaction with the range of books on offer is now at the stage where I decided to set up my own informal little lending library – using the old-fashioned, second-hand but brilliant stories that have captivated my own children (although we do operate a fierce system of fines for overdue books – a ruddy great big bar of Galaxy and a bottle of Bulmer’s might just about stop us from sending The Tyke Lads round.)

But why did I feel that I had to do this? Why are so many of the books available *not working* for so many of our kids? Why are we still being told (see previous blogpost) that literacy rates give enormous causes for concern in the UK? And yet – conversely – the UK book industry publishes more books per head than any other country in the world?  Publishing Too Much Tosh?

And meanwhile, why are our kids (and boys especially) telling us in a recent survey that, “I cannot find things to read that interest me,” (with 35% of boys claiming this.)

Give boys GOOD BOOKS. Or they might do this to their toys. Boredom has that effect...

Give boys GOOD BOOKS. Or they might do this to their toys. Boredom has that effect…

The depressing truth is this; the UK book industry is completely controlled by humongously proportioned publishing houses who are continually re-branding, merging and jockeying in order to be the fellas who can sell the most.

These publishing houses work through a tiny number of distributors  and in order to *maximise profit* (which let’s face it – is far more important than literary quality or a rollocking good read, a brilliantly unusual story) books are bought and sold at ridiculously discounted prices.  The simple economics of 21st century capitalism mean therefore, that massive amounts of certain, selected titles have to be stacked high and flogged off; cheap as chips.  Hence the product placing, the ‘Summer Read Same-Olds’ – of a very selected number of titles in our high street shops and even our supermarket chains too, which on pain of death (i.e. profit margins) HAVE to be sold to us unsuspecting reading public.

And this means that an independently published (or self-published) ‘unknown’ author (read; ‘non-celeb’, or alternatively, ‘not well-connected in the literary world already’) finds it utterly impossible to access the high street market -or to be able to offer the kind of discounts that the distributors demand.  They cannot compete. Originality and innovation is stifled. Bland formulas and the approach of ‘hey – it worked for 50 Shades!’ rules the day. Hence the watering down of new styles, of content, of quality.

And all of this is because of simple economics; if you want to get rich off of the back of a book jacket, you have to pile ’em high and take NO risk on a new author. Risk aversion is the mantra of the marketing moguls in the publishing industry.  And if you don’t want to be part of the chain stores who have to play to the tune of the Big Fellas, you’ll also struggle. Our precious little gems – the indie book stores are subsequently having a hard time of it. In February 2014 – for the first time ever – the number of Independent Bookstores dropped below 1,000. Go Love an Indie Bookstore Bluemoose logo (2)

Kevin Duffy – founder of the north’s best independent, high quality publisher ‘Bluemoose’ always has plenty to say on the Londoncentric and ruthlessly profit driven literary establishment that now dictates what ‘tosh’ (in the words of my daughter) is all too often published and bulk-bought by both high street stores  and strapped for cash public and school libraries.

He and I got chatting about what his views were with regards to the range and type of books available as essential reading within school curriculums. He told me of an additional, worrying trend;

“The problem is this; that the school curriculum is so prescribed now, that it doesn’t allow for ‘peripheral’ reading – as teachers seem to only ask students to read passages and not the whole book, in order to pass the exams. The pressure on teachers to teach to the ‘exam’ is also limiting. The love of words and the rhythm and insight of novels is therefore lost – to this – the ONLY objective in state schools … to get the best possible grade in the exams.”

One of Bluemoose Books most compelling publications is ‘STOP – Don’t Read This!’ – the true story of what Leonora Rustamova, otherwise known as ‘Miss Rusty’ – a secondary school teacher from west Yorkshire faced when she tried to furnish the most disruptive kids in the classroom with a love of literature and of writing (clue: she was sacked. But go read the book anyway. Even though it’s title tells you not to. It’s ace.)

leonora-rustamova--stop-dont-read-this--paperbackAnd in relation to this rather famous incident which made the national news headlines (and the high court), Kevin says that Miss Rusty’s approach in order to engage these lads; “meant tramping into unchartered waters” in the sense that bringing in different books and references outside of the prescribed methods/materials met with *more* than strong disapproval; that a teacher who tries to do this is asked; “‘What does it add to the curriculum? And will it help them pass an exam?’ If the answer is no, then it exits stage left. Literacy in today’s education doesn’t mean the love of words and books and a lifelong gift of beautiful stories that transcend the everyday – but league tables and grades. It is the industrialisation of words.”

So should we feel depressed about these funding cuts, the dumbing-down of literature and stifling of innovation due to a horribly profit-driven market and the threats to our public libraries? Or should we count our blessings; for example – in comparison to

A blanket, pens, food AND A Beano. Poor wee chap was a bit disconcerted.

A blanket, pens, food AND A Beano. Poor wee chap was a bit disconcerted.

where I used to live (Namibia) we seem to have got it made eh? We have oodles of gubbins to read.  My own kids decided to start collecting and sending comics and magazines to these children, when they saw them happily sitting at the edge of the roadside, content to be reading empty food packets … Because these little ones are desperate to read – to scan anything that entertains or informs them. (And yeah – if they get to eat the contents of the food wrapper first, then they’ve had a damned good day.)

But perhaps we have too much choice. Perhaps we need more literary direction for the youtube generation who feel rudderless when faced with all of the books and therefore just give up and watch telly/youtube instead. A bit like me when I returned to England after living in Namibia and horrified my mother when I stood in the middle of Morrisons and screeched; ‘I DON’T KNOW WHICH ONE TO GET! HOW MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHEESE DOES ONE COUNTRY NEED? FOR GOD’S SAKE!!’

Too many books? Too much cheese?

Too many books? Too much cheese?

But on the up-side, we do have an increasingly assertive and savvy band of high quality indie publishers and self-published sorts who are giving the big publishing boys a hell of a run for their money in terms of the craft of writing, quality of output and in being able to produce their own books. This means that a lot of publishers and agents are now doing their best to trash indie-publishing because quite frankly –  they are piddling their pants over this change; scared to death about what their own pension pots are going to be looking like in twenty years time. I kind of like famous literary agent Johnny Geller’s quote in relation to the sheer volume of new books being published in the UK; “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide.”

The times are a-changing indeed for writers and publishers;  we are talking about a revolutionary landscape here.

So take heart, dear devotee of the written word! But don’t forget, that as a discerning adult, it’s much easier for you to control the kind of stuff that you read. Less so for the nippers. And now – more than ever – our kids need us to swot up ourselves about what constitutes a good quality book. To see beyond the headlines, the chain-store teetering piles that want to devour your cash, to think further than just the same-old same-old famous names, the literary establishment circles and to start asking your more bookish friends for some rip-roaring reading recommendations.

And you can always ask me. And I’ll ask a much more clever, more literary-sort for you.

‘Cause I’m dead well-connected, me I am.


 I kid you - we ARE very well-connected here in west Yorkshire. *True* Literary Establishment...

I kid you actually – we ARE very well-connected here in west Yorkshire. (*True* Literary Establishment…)




2 Responses to “The Industrialisation of Words? And a Revolution.”

  1. juliathorley July 31, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    Another great article. I know all about the SLA. I once did some very peripheral work for them on research into school library resources, which was a real eye-opener.

    • funnylass July 31, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

      They are an incredible bunch. Wish we could bottle them and just give them away to schools. Makes me so cross n’ crabby that the first thing to get cut when they tell us ‘we need to tighten our belts’ is the key to learning and developing your mind and (yeah) your future career!

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