It’s a massive relief, after the debacle that was World Bollocks Night 2014, to be able to talk more positively about World Book Night 2015. Applications for volunteers are closed for this year, but you can still take part by giving out copies of your own favourite book it you want to.
For those who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, the whole point of the project is to get more people reading for pleasure. Each year, a short list of books is assembled and teams of volunteers distribute them. WBN try to target people who are not as active in reading for pleasure, so they give away copies of books to encourage reluctant readers. This year they have chosen some absolute corkers! A good mix and a fairly even split of male/female authors. Some fantasy, some crime, some comedy, some real life, some historical, a couple aimed at children/younger readers (I remember teaching Skellig in school) and also an anthology of poetry! What riches!
I am delighted beyond measure to see Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb on the list. I was lucky enough to win an advanced copy of this last year on Twitter and I could not put it down. My husband laughed at me trying to steer a canal boat one handed while keeping my place in the book with the other. I’m also really pleased to see Street Cat Bob on the list too, as this one has been on my to-read list for a while. I have higher hopes for WBN2015 than last year’s because they seem, at first glance, to have accepted that all writers and all genres have an equal appeal and that reluctant readers can be snagged and turned into avid readers by the widest choice of books imaginable.
The full list of books to be given out in 2015 are as follows:
1. After the Fall by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)
2. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M C Beaton (Constable, Little, Brown)
3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (HarperCollins)
4. Chickenfeed by Minette Walters (Quick Read) (Pan Macmillan)
5. Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts by Mary Gibson (Head of Zeus)
6. Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle (Quick Read) (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
7. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Pan Macmillan)
8. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, Neil Astley (ed.) (Bloodaxe)
9. Honour by Elif Shafak (Penguin General, Penguin Random House)
10. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Orion / Hachette Children’s)
11. Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante (Simon & Schuster)
12. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House)
13. Skellig by David Almond (Hachette Children’s)
14. Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind (Hesperus)
15. Street Cat Bob by James Bowen (Quick Read) (Hodder)
16. The Martian by Andy Weir (Ebury, Penguin Random House)
17. The Moaning of Life by Karl Pilkington (Canongate)
18. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Transworld, Penguin Random House)
19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Two Roads, John Murray)
20. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline)
There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there.
However… I was disappointed to see one thing that all of the authors on this year’s list have in common. Without exception – they are all white.
Now yes, admittedly, UK government research has found that White teenagers have a less positive attitude toward reading for pleasure that teenagers from Black or Asian backgrounds, so that might provide some context for the uniformity of the authors’ racial profile this year. But, assuming that white readers will only read, or be more likely to read, works by white authors as a blanket judgement is a little stupid and short sighted. In fact,it’s almost as stupid and short sighted as the assumption that men will be more likely to read books written by other men.
Race and cultural difference are hot topics in the UK today. The subjects of immigration and integration of communities from different faiths and racial backgrounds will be a prime campaigning factor in the General Election this year – not least because of the rising popularity of UKIP, who want to close the UK borders, leave the EU, cut benefits for migrants and reduce overall immigration to the UK, not to mention refusing to offer any amnesty to illegal immigrants who are already in the UK.
If we continue the assumption that white people only want to read books by white people and about white people, then we continue to foster an atmosphere of exclusion and segregation. We continue to imply that people should stick to their own experiences. Or, even worse, that people should only be satisfied with a white cultural experience. The importance of providing a platform for diversity in terms of authors and characters has been highlighted beautifully by the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, which I support 100%. Why is this not being picked up by the biggest ‘free book’ literary event of the year in order to encourage not only reading for pleasure, but wider reading for pleasure?
People of colour are surrounded by books by and about white people. Our school curriculum is dominated by exactly that ilk of books. When are we going to start encouraging white people to read more books by and about people of colour? The best way to tackle ignorance and fear is through education. Through exposure to new ideas, new information and new knowledge. There are a wealth of fabulous authors writing excellent books which capture and define experiences of those who are not white, which more white people would do well to read!
White authors are still defining the experience of living as a person of colour in literature. Here’s a little thought experiment that I tried – the results of which I am not proud of.
I think of a book about what it is to be a black person in America and the book that comes to mind is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Who is white. (admittedly that association might have been fuelled by this week’s news, but still – the fact that Harper Lee comes to mind before Toni Morrison or Alice Walker dismays me).
I think of a book about an Indian protagonist and the first book that comes to mind is Life of Pi, by Yan Martel. Who is white.
I think of a book about Japanese culture and the first book that comes to mind is Memoirs of a Geisha, written by Arthur Golden. Who is white.
In addition to this, off the top of my head, without resorting to Google to make myself appear more widely read than I am, I cannot name you a single book by a Chinese Author. Or a Brazilian Author. Or a Mexican Author. I hold a 2:1 degree in English, a masters in literary studies and am qualified to teach English literature. I am woefully embarrassed about the gaps in my knowledge of international literature, or at the very least, literature which was written by non-white authors. And I’ve had access to a higher education in the arts. What chance does a reluctant reader, who is non-academic, have of encountering and experiencing literature written by authors who are not white? Dismally small, would be my bet.
The works of white people are not to be dismissed, the standard of writing is excellent in many of them and they are on various curricula for a reason. But it is telling that those curricula are selected and judged by white standards of excellence and they’re not the whole of the story. Not the whole of ANY story.
There’s more that we can do to promote and encourage the reading of authors who tackle the non-white human experience from a first hand perspective rather than a place of outside observation. So my next challenge to World Book Night has to be to include a greater variety of authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds. We’re not short of examples of excellence. A short prodding of my brain has brought to mind examples such as Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Malorie Blackman, Meera Syal, Toni Morrison, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard, Imtiaz Dharker, Grace Nichols… I can’t bring myself to stop the list. There are hundreds more. Thousands more. And they need to be given equal promotion in terms of reaching out to reluctant readers, if we are ever going to successfully foster a society which is truly multicultural and integrated.
For the record, my current choice of novel is Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I welcome all recommendations for other books of note by non-white authors. I clearly have some catchup reading of my own to do. Better still, write me a review of your recommendations for The Shandy Media Club and let’s give these books the attention and publicity that they thoroughly deserve, and obviously need, outside of the standard literary circles.
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