Sir David Attenborough in town

In Oxford right now a subdued conga line has wrapped itself around Waterstone’s bookshop on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket Street. It’s quite long. It’s got itself at least halfway up Ship Street and seems to be growing. Six feet deep in parts. Thankfully those taking part are not jumping up and down and kicking their feet from side to side and inappropriately touching the hips of the stranger standing in front of them. They have a certain dignity. Several hundred of them, I’d say, though I can’t be sure. But it’s not one of those pseudo ‘protest’ groups, certainly. Which is probably just as well because they are seemingly waiting for Sir David Attenborough who is promoting his memoirs, Life on Air, and is due to arrive at 4.30pm.


Jane Austen and the £10 banknote

We now know the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has decided the next £10 banknote will feature the image of Jane Austen. The issue of a new banknote doesn’t normally get much press. But not this time, for two reasons: that Jane Austen was a woman, and that a few odd people thought the best way to greet this revelation was to tweet incriminating obscenities, which resulted in the arrest of at least one of them. And the importance of her being a woman was raised a notch because Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, is soon to be replaced by yet another bloke on the £5 note – good old Sir Winston Churchill.

And that’s fine. If male-female ratios are how we measure right and wrong, then it’s a good thing that we shall be using Jane and not John-notes to buy books from quaint, old-fashioned bookshops. There is, however, a more significant reason than sex for choosing Jane Austen. It is important – or appropriate, considering the many other historical figures that would do just as well – because she is, above all, a great figure in English literature.

We wonder what we can do to earn our national living in this age of growing international competition. Whether we think EU membership, monetary stimulus, sound money or deregulation (or all, or some, or something else entirely) are the policies best able to help us do this, it is essential that we also recognise what it is that we do well – and celebrate it. That, among other things, is literature, not least because of our great British literary tradition, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Byron, Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot and many more.

There’s a lot of men in that list, I admit, but women do feature more prominently towards the end – and I stopped in 1880 with the death of George Eliot (her name being Mary Evans at birth). Successive years since then have seen a continuing shift upwards in the prominence of female writers; and, today, seven of the thirteen nominations for the 2013 Man Booker Longlist are female. I know it’s not an exclusively British prize, but the balance shows how the literary landscape has changed.

The cynic might say the male-female balance achieved by the judges is suspiciously close to fifty percent, with the error in favour of women just to make sure no one can cry discrimination. But this is absurd. A brief look at the fiction bestsellers list shows that the top five books are all written by women. This should not surprise us. Women, we are told, are now about a third more likely to start a degree course than their male counterparts. They are also, so the surveys suggest, more avid readers of fiction than men. Soon we might need a movement to redress this new imbalance!

But if literature is what is important, could the figure chosen by the Bank of England to adorn the £10 note not have been a man – say, Dickens or Shakespeare? As worthy as Jane Austen is, these two figures are surely more significant in terms of international recognition. Another way for Britain to earn a living is tourism. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside, along with Dickensian caricature bring ‘em in, so to speak. I’m not so sure Jane Austen has the same pull factor.

The answer, however, is no. It is entirely fitting to have a literary figure on the note, but it is better that it is Jane Austen and not another man. It would be absurd to have not one female – excepting HM The Queen – on the four major notes in circulation. No, really, it would. The reason is not one of equality. Equality, other than the one about equality under the law, can lead to strange and often patronising outcomes. The reason is much more simple: Why on earth not? Just as children like to see a mummy and a daddy in the home, why would we think they would not like to see a mummy and a daddy figure (By that I mean a man and a woman, not their actual parents) outside the home and, for instance, on their money – when, of course, they are old enough to get their little mitts on the loot.

One word of caution, though. We are told that Jane’s portrait is ‘adapted’ from a rough sketch. In other words, we don’t know that it’s a true likeness. I’m not saying it’s a fake, rather it’s not entirely real – a fiction you might say (Yes, you can take that as a double pun). Let us, therefore, hope our new monetary guardian, Mark Carney, knows how to look after the value of our currency as much as he knows how to make it look attractive and appealing to a cross-section of society. Let’s hope the new, Jane Austen-adorned notes are not going to end up a mere fiction.

Deciding what to read.

Every now and again, when something new comes along, it is natural to ask how it will affect what already exists, and whether any subsequent change will be for the good. It applies to practically anything: scientific discovery, commercial innovation, political edict, cultural transformation and much more. For example, what did television do to radio, and how did theatre cope with the new picture houses? Of course, we know the answer to these particular questions, but it is not difficult to imagine the predictions of disaster for radio and theatre when the upstarts began to challenge the old-timers for our attention.

Similarly, we can imagine the same fears for the written word each time something new and ostensibly more interesting came along: photography, radio, film, television, video games, computers, web applications and now it seems social media. Yet with each innovation in the entertainment world, the written word survives. Through a mixture of stubbornness, adaptation and, in some cases, enduring superiority, it remains central to our lives. In many ways it is as strong as ever, if altered somewhat. Books are rarely published without e-book versions, and one sees in bookshops an increasing number of special-edition hardbacks, designed for the gift-buyer and collector alike; just about all newspapers and periodicals have digital editions; and letters are still with us, sort of, although increasingly in the form of emails and instant messages. Writing continues; it has simply adapted to changing times.

Perhaps the written word is always changing in some small way. Take the most recent quarterly release of the Oxford English Dictionary Online; it records 1,700 new and revised entries. The persistence of the written word, along with the persistence of all those older forms of entertainment mentioned above, shows that evolution is just as likely as substitution. And because books and magazines adapt rather than die, we are faced with an ever-growing selection of publications from which to choose. As we get older and hopefully wiser, we come to realise that the more we read the more there is for us to read. Ergo, a method for choosing one item over another is required.

How, then, do we decide what to read? Or is the decision not really ours as we think it is? For a while I put my trust in the Divine. I would stand in my room under the cupboard stuffed with Oxfam bargains, open the door, gaze upwards with a look of devotional glee and see what fell on my head. Not a very sophisticated method, I admit, but it did come with several advantages: No more worrying I was reading the wrong things; no more worrying I wasn’t reading the right things; and no more worrying about how unread and ignorant I was.

But then came the discovery of two things: a limitless supply of free classics on the Project Gutenberg website, and an even-more-limitless supply of free stuff on the internet. A cheap, immediate and practically endless source of reading material had arrived, which made the Divine and the Oxfam cupboard suddenly seem a rather inadequate way of choosing what to read. A new form of discrimination was required, and failure to come up with one would lead to being overwhelmed by this new and voluminous cascade of electronic words.

Traditionally speaking, and for the non-electronic reader, there are two ways to discriminate between one piece of writing and another. The first comes from paying for it, which forces the reader to prioritise; the second in going to the library. True, the free and numerous nature of library books threatens to overwhelm the reader nearly as much as the internet; but the mind is concentrated by the very act of travelling to the library, defeating its encrypted shelving system, using the shiny, exclusive membership card which makes you feel a part of the club, and then returning the book under threat of a fine.

Literature, however, will continue in both electronic and paper form – there is no doubt of that. But there is also no doubt, until the new Dark Ages begin, of course, that the supply of reading material will continue to expand with the universe. Discrimination therefore, or choosing between one piece of writing and another, is going to become more and more important to the discerning reader. And it begs the question: Why exactly do we read what we read, and what determines our reading habits?

We read for all sorts of reasons: to satisfy academic inquiry; to imagine excitement and adventure; to sate anger; to alleviate boredom; or to find our way about the streets of the metropolis. And comprehensive deconstruction for the purpose of answering the question is probably impossible; the reasons are too numerous and too unique to each reader.

But we can try. Is there not a certain logic that says our choice of reading material represents, in part, a desire to balance something in our mood? For instance, if we are feeling downhearted by the realisation our lives are dull and predictable, we might pick up a fantasy novel or an adventure; or perhaps, if we are feeling lonely, we might go for a spirit-warming romance or some Darcy-inspired piece of chic-lit.

But there is more to it than that, surely? How many times have you read and finished a book just because you were given it and would have felt guilty if you didn’t? And are we to believe that the recent spike in sales for the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey is down to legions of women looking to escape a caricature of 1950s-style repression? Hardly. If anything, western culture has been steadily normalising the complete opposite. Continuing the logic would suggest that something called One Shade of White should be topping the bestseller lists right now. But I don’t think it is.

Books sell, in the end, because of marketing as much as anything else – that’s marketing in its broadest sense: the carefully orchestrated campaigns of the large publishing houses; the hype of a Hollywood blockbuster (Preferably a series with teen-vampires, or, for that matter, a series with teen-anything.); and the viral capacities of the Internet. But the luckiest marketing break is, perhaps, nothing more than the fact of something being the thing. Friends or celebrities saying, ‘You simply have to read this, it’s just the best,’ even if it reads like one of the earlier monkey-Shakespeare experiments.

Indeed, it would be a surprise if the Gideons and Samanthas of the marketing world never wondered how they might present their latest book as ‘the thing simply everyone’s reading,’ with subtext: ‘and you should read it, too, or you’ll be missing out on the literary event of the year.’ Or something along that vein.

Perhaps on occasions this works, I don’t really know. But my suspicion is that finding a hit novel is a lot about luck – for the publishers, that is. They’re constantly on the lookout for something they think will go well, but they don’t really know what that is. They know what they like, they think they know what the public might like, and they work hard at getting the book out there; but beyond that it’s up to the Gods and the whim of the reading masses.

All things considered, perhaps it’s better not to think too hard about what it is we are reading. Perhaps the cupboard wasn’t such a bad idea after all. If we are going to be overwhelmed by volume, powerless before our fluctuating moods and cajoled by the invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) hand of marketing, why not simply open the door and see what falls on our heads. The only modification that might improve this method is, perhaps, for it to be made into an app. There would be a button, obviously, and on pressing it we could have a random but appropriate book delivered to us in whatever form we preferred. There, problem solved.

The Literature Prize is up and running, but is now called The Folio Prize

Good news. There’s a new literary prize in the firmament. It used to be known simply as the Literature prize when Andrew Kidd, a literary agent, thought up the idea in 2011. There’s something Ronsealesque in the name, in that it does what it says on the tin. Write some literature, win a prize. Simple. But now it’s got itself a sponsor and is going to be called The Folio Prize, which seems a bit more obscure, unless you know The Folio Society specialises in publishing beautiful books. Not that this is a genuine issue for complaint; where else is the money for the prize going to come from if not sponsorship? Some anonymous philanthropist? An ultra-successful author who has already made their millions? Well, perhaps, but that obviously didn’t happen, so The Folio Prize it is.

No doubt between now and March 2014, when the first winner is announced, there’s going to be a lot of chat about how the new prize is sticking two fingers up at the Man Booker for being inferior and generally more downmarket. After all, the two most recent winners are Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes, who, as we know, specialise in airport junk*. If they can win the Man Booker then I can for goodness sake. We must therefore make a stand for proper literature and support The Folio Prize. We might think differently if we were now talking about The Ryanair Prize, but we’re not so we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads on that one.

Yet I’m not sure we need to concern ourselves at all with potential rivalry or corporate compromise. This represents neither of those things. £40,000 is being offered, and that’s good money to any author, even already successful ones like Mantel or Barnes. It’s the recognition for literature, in all its forms, that is important here. Authors need encouragement and a bit of a pat on the back to keep going. And if the publicity generates more book sales, even through Amazon (although there are other places to go), then that’s got to be good news, and is probably the point of the whole exercise anyway.

Which leaves just one thing to say: if I start now, have I got time to bang out a brilliant novel and submit it before entries close?

*Given recent hullabaloos, which I think should be referred to as MantelGate from now on, if not already, I should just make plain that I don’t think they write junk; just so we’re clear.