First Annual Troubadour Poetry Prize

Angela Macmillan has drawn my attention to the first annual Troubadour Poetry Prize, judged by Helen Dunmore and David Constantine.

1st prize £1000, 2nd £500, 3rd £250 plus 20 commendations @ £20 each, plus a coffee-house poetry reading for all prizewinning and commended poets with Helen Dunmore and David Constantine on 3 December 2007. The deadline for submissions in English only is 30 September 2007 and they can be submitted by old-fashioned post or by email. For more information, competition rules and full submission instructions contact CoffPoetry[AT]aol.com (replace [AT] with @) or Troubadour Poetry Prize, Coffee-House Poetry, PO Box 16210, LONDON, W4 1ZP.

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Harry Potter and the Double-Edged Sword

The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 21st concludes one of the best-selling and most controversial children’s book series. After the first book appeared in 1997 “Pottermania” spread rapidly around the world. Reading became cool, children’s literature spread to adult commuters, booksellers rejoiced, and Bloomsbury, the publisher that stands to make around £7 million from HP7, became very rich indeed. The author J.K. Rowling went almost overnight from a penniless single mother to a millionaire celebrity.

With the hype machine only just beginning to churn for the seventh installment, curmudgeons everywhere are looking forward to a bumper summer of fun. Ali Karim at January Magazine claims never to have been impressed by the books and wrote an enjoyable and withering piece about the series:

I have taken cursory glances at the Harry Potter books, and found J. K. Rowling’s work not to my taste. I also find the sight of adults reading these works on packed commuter trains bemusing, worrying and, contrary to popular opinion, I feel these books do more harm than good for the book trade.

He’s right of course. But looking back to those heady days when Harry Potter was just a cute kid with an owl who seemed to be single-handedly raising a generation of readers, it all seemed harmless enough. In 1999 I even felt inspired to write about the series. I praised it for the way it celebrated mystery in ordinary life, and challenged the establishment. In truth there seemed a lot to be optimistic about.

But now the fear of Harry Potter runs very deep indeed. The Bookseller reported earlier this month that publishers are worried that a market in which a small number of blockbusters sold at heavy discounts by the supermarkets is sucking the life out of highstreet bookshops. Smaller independent bookshops in particular are dreading the release of HP7 because they will have to sell it at a loss, but even Waterstones and Borders are having trouble competing. And publishers and writers are also unhappy because competing books will be hidden by the piles of loss-leader Harry Potters out front. British Conservative MP Charles Walker is calling for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. The Evening Standard reported:

Mr Walker, MP for Broxbourne, added: ‘They do not care about the book or the effects of their pricing strategy on small retailers. It’s all about getting people through the door. Unfortunately, the essence of Harry Potter and the magic of the book is lost on some people who are just desperate to make a fast buck.’

When even a Conservative MP is complaining about market forces, you know something must be very wrong indeed. What started out as the saviour of the British publishing industry has turned into a Lambton Worm, poisoning the local well, terrorising villagers and eating their sheep.

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The Rushdie Knighthood

Over at the Kenyon Review blog Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky has written a provocative post reflecting on the implications of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood and the revival of the fatwah. The reluctance of British conservatives to defend Rushdie is, he thinks, in part a reflection of the desire to make challenging literature safe:

It’s always been my feeling that the most important literature is that which challenges those “home truths,” and in so doing forces us to step outside the ideology of a particular cultural moment to see what lies beyond those self-imposed boundaries of belief and literary form that the theorist Hans Robert Jauss has termed our “horizon of expectation.” It’s hard to imagine a writer who has done that more successfully than Rushdie, particularly in a novel like The Satanic Verses, which recasts the opening scene of Milton’s Paradise Lost – that beautiful line about Satan “hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” – with his illegal immigrant angel, Gibreel, and “buttony, pursed” devil, Saladin Chamcha, an East-Englishman whose soul is a monstrous hybrid of Indian memory and English aspirations, as shattered by its conflicting desires as the airplane from which he tumbles to earth after a terrorist bombing.

Here’s the link.

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The Patron Saint of Bloggers

It was probably inevitable that Samuel Pepys, the most famous diarist in history, should have a blog dedicated to him. Run by Phil Gyford, an actor, writer, and graphic designer, The Diary of Samuel Pepys presents the diary one entry at a time, complete with an RSS feed. Pepys was writing in one of the most turbulent periods in British history. The Civil War was a recent memory and the power struggle between republicans and royalists continued to rage. Pepys was right there in the midst of it all and many of his diary entries concern politics and major events as well as the trivia of everyday life in the seventeenth century. Gyford’s excellent site includes a Pepys encyclopedia, articles and links. There is even a Pepys discussion group.

Here’s the link to Pepys’s diary.

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Armistead Maupin in Liverpool on July 4, 2007

On Independence Day 2007, Armistead Maupin, one of America’s greatest living gay writers will be appearing at a special event as part of Homotopia, Liverpool’s homegrown LGBT arts festival. This is his first date in an exclusive UK tour. As a tribute to Armistead we will be hosting this very special event at the recently restored Small Concert Room in St Georges Hall. Armistead Maupin will be reading from his new novel Michael Tolliver Lives and will be talking about his life and work. This event promises to be one of the cultural highlights of 2007.

For all those die hard Tales Of The City fans this will be a trip down Barbary Lane. It is hard to believe that it’s over 20 years since the series ended. According to Armistead the novel is not strictly speaking a ‘Tales’ book but the insider news is that a ‘reassuring’ number of familiar faces will be appearing….

July 4th at 7pm
Small Concert Room – St Georges Hall
Tickets £6 On Sale At Unity Theatre or News From Nowhere
0151 709 4988 or 0151 708 7270.

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Philip Pullman–Favourite Children’s Novelist

To mark the 70th award of the Carnegie Medal, the annual award for children’s writers, Philip Pullman has been voted by readers the best of the 70 Carnegie award winners. His Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, polled 40% of the total votes, making it by far the most popular of the Carnegie winners, which include books such as Tom’s Midnight Garden (1957) and a personal favourite of mine, The Borrowers (1952). The first winner of the award, in 1936, was Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post:

It is without any question the most important honour I have ever received, and the one I treasure the most,” said Pullman. “Personally I feel they got the initials right but not the name. I don’t know if the result would be the same in a hundred year’s time; maybe Philippa Pearce would win then. All we do know is that librarians will continue to choose well and to celebrate the best of writing for children and young people.”

More from The Guardian.

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Are you deciding what to read?

As an inveterate browser of bookshops I’ve only occasionally allowed myself to be sucked in by the 3-for-2 deals on the front tables and I usually make an effort to head for the main shelving at the back. It has been known for a long time that shops such as Waterstones charge publishers to place favoured titles in the prime spots. And why wouldn’t they? Waterstones is in business to make money first and foremost and the books could just as well be garden gnomes for all the accountants care. It’s tough on authors and publishers and it may well have a bad effect on the choices available to readers, but it’s hardly a big surprise that a retailer should act in its commercial interests.

The Times featured an article yesterday about what the book chain charges publishers and the headline figure is high: up to £45,000 to place a title in a Waterstones campaign.

The most expensive package, available for only six books and designed to “maximise the potential of the biggest titles for Christmas”, costs £45,000 per title. The next category down offers prominent display spots at the front of each branch to about 45 new books for £25,000. Inclusion on the Paperbacks of the Year list costs up to £7,000 for each book, while an entry in Waterstone’s Gift Guide, with a book review, is a relative snip at £500.

What can we make of this? It certainly doesn’t look good, but given the need to make profit Waterstones simply can’t use “bungs” alone to decide on which books to promote. Bad books make readers feel bad and the last thing a retailer wants is for its customers to lose confidence. Front table books remind me of Donkey in Shrek, who jumps up and down shouting “Pick Me! Pick Me!” John Sutherland, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free blogsite agrees:

The new, commercially skewed, “buy-me-buy-me”, layout in Waterstone’s is, of course, coercive, and harks back to the “subliminal advertising” scandal of the 1960s (messages would be flashed on cinema screens – too fast for the eye to catch, but picked up by the brain). It’s Stepfordisation. Zombiefication. It’s wrong.

But you know, Donkey does get picked and that after all is what publishers and writers want. Isn’t it?

Coverage of the “Best pitch on the market costs money” scandal continues at The Bookseller and The Daily Mail.

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Meeting the Prime Minister

Last Wednesday Jane Davis and Kate McDonnell were invited to a reception held by the Prime Minister for public sector champions. Mr Blair said that he wanted to thank people who had done something special. Jane and Kate’s invitation came in recognition of the ground breaking Get Into Reading project, which works at the cutting edge of reading and health practice.

Along with Doctor Shyamal Mukherjee Kate and Jane were invited to have a few minutes with the PM who was interested to hear about Get Into Reading. He told Kate that his favourite book is Ivanhoe. He also said that he hadn’t enjoyed reading at school, despite having an inspiring English teacher, it was only in later life that he came to enjoy it.

Doctor Mukherjee invited the Prime Minister to visit Wirral’s Get Into Reading project once he has had a rest. If you would like to watch the moment Jane and Kate met the Prime Minister, just select the video footage below.

Strangers and Strange Worlds: Readers’ Day Saturday 7th July 2007

Hosted by The Reader in association with Archbishop Blanch High School. If you love reading then you’ll love the Readers’ Day – workshops, panel discussion, readings and a lunch. Guardian journalist Hannah Pool reads from her book, My Father’s Daughter and offers advice to would-be journalists whilst children’s writer Brian Jacques gives a lively talk about his life as a child in Liverpool and Dr Andrew Hamer humorously discusses the accents of Merseyside and the North West to answer the question; do you speak scouse? Plus, Brian Nellist investigates the law of the jungle in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Jane Davis looks at why Lily Bart is a stranger in her own world in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. To download a copy of the booking form in pdf format, click here.

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Michael Rosen on Reading for Pleasure

Michael Rosen, who was appointed Children’s Laureate yesterday, is well known as a critic of British education policy, especially when it comes to reading and literacy. One problem that seems to be emerging is that British children are taught to read in a highly structured and specific way which allows very little flexibility either for teachers or the children they are teaching. This is a personal worry of mine because my daughter, who is still in nursery, loves stories and is starting to teach herself to read; she is motivated, as children should be, by the sheer joy of it. This is certainly not the way she will be expected to learn in school and her mother and I are becoming wary of the way we help her in case we do the wrong thing and mess up her early years in school. No doubt there are plenty of parents out there who feel the same way. Rosen has written about this issue on his own website and The Guardian carried an article stating his agenda for the two-years he will serve as Children’s Laureate:

I utterly resent and reject the notion that you can teach reading without books,” he told journalists after his appointment.

“There is a huge push on to create an environment – in nurseries, and reception, and year ones and year twos – where books are secondary to the process of reading. This seems oxymoronic to me. We must, must have at the heart of learning to read the pleasure that is reading. Otherwise why bother? You could learn phonics, learn how to read and then put it behind you and watch telly – you’re given no reason to read. There are many ways in which people learn how to read; the idea that there is one way is an outrageous fib.

Here’s the link to the article. The Children’s Laureate post is administered by the charity Booktrust.

[Edit] The Guardian’s Michael Rosen obsession coverage continues today with an interview. Read it here.

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