A(nother) Rambling: Majority Report

I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.

 

For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.

 

My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers.  There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.

 

The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.

 

Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.

 

For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.

 

In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand.  The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.

 

The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.

 

ONE.

 

Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.

 

Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written.  It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.

 

If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.

 

Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.

 

Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?

 

Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.

 

With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?

 

Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?

 

As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.

 

Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.

 

Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.

 

We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.

 

From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.

 

It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.

 

I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

I’m trying to catch up on my Sky Box at the moment… I have about three months worth of Holby City and Casualty, and I think even a flight to Australia wouldn’t give me enough time to watch all the episodes of Neighbours I have backed up.

 

But this week, of all the things I could have chosen, I put on Miriams Big American Adventure, in which, as the name suggests Miriam Margolyes travels around American trying to understand what it means to be an American in Trump’s USA.

 

The first episode saw her visit Chicago, specifically the South Side, one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Indeed, while she was there, there were three injuries in a shooting, and nobody in the area seemed overly surprised.

 

She spoke to young men who said it was kill or be killed. She talked about Michelle Obama who had lived on O block but had gotten out. That was the American Dream they said, to get out, to make their lives better.

 

In the same week, I’ve been reading Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It’s about one weekend on an estate in London, where, following the murder of a British soldier riots are beginning to sweep through the area, and tensions are high

 

We experience the action through the eyes of Yusuf, Selvon and Ardan. They’re all native Londoners, it’s their home, but the white skinheads of Britain First want them to go home.

 

At first, I felt a bit of an outsider myself, reading this book. I’m a white man in my very late twenties (the decade has not only rung last orders, but they’ve turned out the lights, turned off the music and threatened to call the police if I don’t leave immediately) and I do not live in London.

 

I visit London regularly, but only certain areas of it for work, or to see shows. I’ve not been to the estates that Gunaratne talks about. That’s not my London. My London is very safe and comfortable and full of gin and tonics.

 

But the more I read, the more I started to realise this isn’t a story about London. Nor is it a story about a muslim boy, or a black boy, or an Irish boy. It’s a story about the state of the world.

 

We don’t just see things through the eyes of the boys, we also have Nelson, Selvon’s father and Caroline Ardan’s mother. Neither of them are native to London – Caroline grew up in Ireland and move to London to escape the clutches of the IRA; Nelson came from Montserrat in search of a better life and found his own race riots.

 

Gunanatre subtly reveals all of this across forty-eight hours, building up to a Britain First march that ends at the foot of Ardan and Yusuf’s tower block. I struggled at first because there was nobody like me in the book, they were in a part of London I didn’t recognise, I didn’t think it was for me.

 

But then I started to notice the similarities and I started to understand the differences, not just in race and culture but in age as well. That’s the point of books. To explore new worlds, to broaden our horizons. To help break down barriers.

 

Caroline and Nelson came to London looking for a better life. They found what they were looking for, but it was tougher than they hoped. Selvon and Ardan and Yusuf are all trying to find their better lives – they’re trying to build on what their parents gave them.

 

It’s what we all do, or at least try to do. My parents weren’t rich, we didn’t go on regular jaunts abroad and we didn’t have all the new toys or get taken on days out every weekend, but we didn’t exactly struggle, we lived within our means.

 

I’ve always wanted a better life. Wanted to not have to worry about money in the same way my mum might have.

 

The kids in this book, they want a better life, to not have to worry about the things their parents worried about. It’s the same thing I wanted. It’s the same thing those young men on O-block in Chicago want.

 

I’m luckier than most, the life I want to better was not a bad one at all, but we all have the same driving force. The mad and furious city isn’t London. It’s the whole world and it’s time we started to recognise not just our differences, but our similarities as well.

 

Books are written for many different reasons, and mostly we hope people enjoy the story, but every now and then there are books described as ‘important’. I sometimes think that’s a bit pompous, and a way of saying, “you won’t enjoy this, but it’s about controversial subject X, so you can’t say you don’t like it”.

 

 

Here’s the thing. I DID enjoy this. Yes, it had a message, but it delivered it in a way that took me on a journey with the characters. It didn’t change them, there’s not much you can change about characters across a weekend, but it changed my perceptions of them, it changed my understanding about them.

 

In Our Mad and Furious City is published by Tinder Press on 3rd May 2018.