Friday, 4 March 2011
Why I'm uneasy about World Book Night
This Saturday evening, people across the UK will be giving out free books as part of the World Book Night initiative. A brilliant idea – at least on the surface.
After all, everyone who writes has a vested interest in Getting People Reading. Books transform lives – they transformed mine. Access to the printed word can educate, inspire, set people in directions they'd never have dreamt were possible. With World Book Night, that access is being made available to everyone – and somebody else is paying for it.
Like most writers, I was really enthusiastic about this scheme when I first heard about it. It's only as time has gone on that I've started to have my doubts.
World Book Night was sold on the basis that, if your life has been transformed by a book, this is your chance to give copies of that book to others. But that's not really what is happening. There are only 25 books to choose from. OK, some of these are worthy enough to justify inclusion on the list. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time genuinely did transform a largely ignorant populace's understanding of how being on the autistic spectrum influences a person’s relationships with other people and the outside world. Love in a Time of Cholera, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and even Northern Lights are proper classics in their own right. And Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife is a rarity amongst poetry books, being both impeccably crafted and instantly accessible.
What troubles me is that the list stops here. You see, if I were giving out copies of the books that had transformed and influenced me, I'd be giving out different things altogether. The Armada Book of Young Verse, for instance. It's out of print now, which is a crying shame, because this was the book that first showed me the magic of language and the wonder of what you can do with it. I wish other people had the same chance to enjoy it as I did. The novels that'd be on my “giveaway” list would be stuff like Tolkien's Tree and Leaf, or the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Or, to bring it more up-to-date, perhaps Iain Banks's The Crow Road, Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players, George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time. There'd be short story collections too. The spell that Jeanette Winterson wove on me in The World and Other Places has been unsurpassed in 10 years.
And what about poetry? It's represented twice on the list – by Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Probably the only two poets in the world who don’t actually need more publicity. There are many brilliant poets writing life-transforming work, constrained only by the fact that people don't know about their work, and publishers can't afford to give them the sort of publicity that your blockbuster novelist – or even your Poet Laureate – can command. If I were a World Book Night ambassador, I'd want to be giving out copies of Diana Syder's Hubble. It's a book I'm utterly in love with. It transformed my vision of the power of poetry. And I wish with all my heart that more people had read it.
There are several books on the World Book Night list that I like. Even one or two that I admire. Some that I really ought to get round to reading one day (and wouldn't be averse to getting my hands on if a World Book Night ambassador happens to be passing). But none that I'm actually in love with. And that's where the whole concept makes me uncomfortable. The books on this list are loss leaders by major publishing houses. And it's the major publishing houses who are using this scheme to dictate the books that people are supposed to be in love with. Granted, they have endorsements from famous names who actually like and understand books; but it was the publishing houses who dictated what they could choose from.
The gamble, for the publishers, is that people will read the free books, enjoy them, and go out and seek other works by the same author. It's crafty; I can't help but admire it, albeit grudgingly. The handful of authors on the list can be justifiably proud of inclusion, and none of them will object to the ensuing boost in their sales figures. It's all the others that I can't help feeling sorry for. The real test of World Book Night's success is going to be whether or not it's a springboard for people to seek out other authors – the ones who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy the free publicity.