Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Reading the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize Shortlist

Last year I set myself the task of reading the Guardian newspaper’s Not The Booker Prize shortlist – you may read my roundup here. The exercise left me feeling a little jaded, the reading not always being as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. I did enjoy attending Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. Not many in the audience had read the complete shortlist so this at least provided a sense of satisfaction for my efforts. It did at times feel quite an effort.

Nevertheless, when summer rolled back around and nominations were invited for the 2017 prize I once again became caught up in the excitement of promoting lesser known works – something I always enjoy doing. This year, at the initial stage, I waited to see what titles others would nominate. To gain a place on the longlist only one nomination is required and some of the books I would have considered putting forward had already gained a place. I added The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel (Salt Publishing) which richly deserved consideration.

Voting on the longlist proved challenging as so many good books were included amongst the 150+ to get through to this stage. In the end I gave my two votes to The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (Salt Publishing) and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books). Sadly, neither made it onto the shortlist.

It was, however, an interesting looking selection which I therefore decided to read. Grateful thanks to the publishers who supported my efforts by providing copies of their books.

On each of the past six Fridays I posted my review of the book Sam Jordison was to discuss in the Guardian during the following week. You may click on the title below to read my thoughts.

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin (Honno Press)

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li (Legend Press)

The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald (Aardvark Bureau)

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society by Ann O’Loughlin (Black and White Publishing)

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige (Bluemoose Books)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)

I found this a stronger shortlist than last year, much more enjoyable to read. The final book, Anything Is Possible, was not selected by public vote but rather chosen by last year’s judges as a wildcard entry in a new idea being trialled this year. Having read it I was surprised by the choice. It is a follow on to the author’s critically acclaimed novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I have not read. Comments on my review suggest that it will be well received by the author’s fans as it builds on characters previously referred to. It does not, in my opinion, stand alone. Anything is Possible is also the only book on the shortlist not published by a small independent press, something that may be indicative of the sort of prize Not The Booker has become. In my view this is a good thing.

I made a conscious decision to post each of my reviews prior to Sam’s appearing in the Guardian that I may not be influenced by his thoughts. I was then able to add my views BTL and consider points made by other readers. I enjoyed this process and was only sorry that more comments, especially from those who voted the books onto the shortlist, were not submitted.

Last week, in what I believe may be an unprecedented move, Ann O’Loughlin requested that her novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, be withdrawn from the shortlist. You may read her statement here. Whilst respecting her right to act as she sees fit I have mixed feelings about an author reacting in this way to a negative review. One of the other authors, Sara Gethin, gave her thoughts on the withdrawal here.

And so the process continues with the remaining five books. Although I have a clear favourite – Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige – I am glad to have read each of the first three, which I may never have discovered had they not been included. This is a strength of the contest.

If you would like to attend this year’s Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop on Thursday 12th October you may book a ticket here. Sam Jordison will chair the event where those authors who accept the invitation will read from their books and may then respond to his Guardian reviews.

The winner will be announced in the Guardian following a public vote and then a meeting of the chosen judges which will be broadcast live by the paper on 16 October. The winner will receive a rare and precious Guardian mug such as that pictured above. They may then bask in the glory that goes with winning this inimitable literary prize. Despite the withdrawal it has been a fine year.

The Competition is powered by the collective intelligence of Guardian readers. Enough said.

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live

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Regular readers will be aware that I have been following this year’s Guardian newspaper Not The Booker Prize with interest. Having read each of the six shortlisted books, I summarised my thoughts here. I mused:

“After the initial euphoria of selection I do wonder what the authors and their publishers have made of all that is being said about their work”

On Saturday I had the chance to find out when I travelled to London for my first visit to the Big Green Bookshop who, for the third year running, were hosting Not The Booker Live. This is a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison and featuring as many of the authors on the shortlist as can get there on the night.

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The three who came along – Jemma Wayne (Chains of Sand), Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Dan Clements (What Will Remain) were those who are based in England. Dan M had travelled with an entourage from the far north. They contributed to what turned out to be an interesting discussion.

To start proceedings each author talked briefly about their book and gave a short reading.

Jemma considered her characters, although brought up within differing cultures and privilege, to feel a lack of control over their destinies. The cause they were expected to support was, to some of their family and peers, more important than truth. Their rebellion against expectation was the beginning of free thought.

Dan M explained that his initial idea had been to produce a reworking of Don Quixote. He read out the first chapter of his book as he felt this best explained what it was about.

Dan C considered through his story whether the damage caused to people by experience can sometimes not be fixed. His story of war looks at the lasting impacts on soldiers’ lives. He suggested that certain actions that appear foolish – such as blowing a compensation payment on a sports car or trip to Vegas – can also be life affirming. Good things in life may sometimes be denied to those who live too earnestly.

Sam then talked of the unique process this prize offers for readers. Unlike other literary prizes, the discussion of the shortlist is open to anyone who wishes to comment and is available for all to read. He asked how the authors felt about their books being selected.

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Dan M told us it felt like a really public workshopping of his novel.

Jemma appreciated the opportunity to reach new readers but felt it was best for publishers and new authors. She admitted to inviting friends and family to vote for her at the earlier stages. She wondered if certain commentators agreed with Sam’s reviews because they wished to be chosen as a judge. The process offers no filter. She found the comments interesting but bruising. It was only after returning to them after a few weeks that she could see the positives.

Sam asked about the choice of subject matter for each book.

Dan C had not initially wished to write about his experiences in Afghanistan. When he decided to write a war novel he read widely around the subject. He feels that the way war is currently viewed has changed readers expectations of the genre.

Jemma sees opinions about Israel polarising and extremism increasing. She was concerned that people were losing the ability to empathise with those considered other. They give impassioned views on whatever is going on but see issues in black and white. She wished to present some of the grey.

Dan M suggested that his story came together when Don became Donna. He chose to include fairytale imagery, to explain how when reality becomes too difficult fantasy offers an escape. His protagonist is not a distressed damsel locked in a high tower – she has chosen the isolation to keep others out.

Sam asked about each author’s experience of being published.

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This is Jemma’s second published novel, her first was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Her concern for this one was if it would be as well received.

Dan C considered publication to be an astonishing anticlimax after the intense work required to get that far. He felt a sense of exhaustion, almost bereavement when the book was released into the world. The pleasure he gets from writing is the work he puts into his next novel.

Dan M talked of the pressure he felt after devoting so much time to the book, and the cost of this. He felt relief but also found it hard when he got to the stage where nothing could be changed.

The audience were invited to ask questions which delved into the authors’ writing processes and advice they would give to others.

Dan M wrote the first draft of his novel over an intense eight day period. Although he subsequently worked on the content, the heart of this remains. He was accepted by the first publisher he approached, a few hours after submission. (Is this a true fairytale ending?)

Jemma advised writers to get their ideas down first, ignoring their inner critique.

Dan C commented that he writes slowly and methodically which leads to less editing at the end. He did not recommend such an approach.

The final question to round up the evening came from Simon of Big Green Books who asked if the authors would like to be shortlisted for Not The Booker again.

Jemma suggested that she may prefer to be longlisted as this offers an opportunity for marketing without the public discussion.

Dan M pondered if the prize were best suited to early novels as it was a good way of gaining attention.

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I was grateful for the opportunity to chat briefly to the panel as they signed books purchased. Sam commented that he was pleased I had disagreed with his reviews, prompting me to comment that he critiques like an English teacher and we seemed to have different tastes. Afterwards I realised how daft I must have sounded. Sam is also co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and they have yet to publish any title that I have not absolutely adored.