Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What's Not To Write?

I wonder if Children's publishing is the branch of literature most beset by trends. It certainly seems that way. Over the last decade a stream of themes and archetypes have burst onto the bookshelf only to be dropped in the 'No-no' box a few years later – the point at which only the very well-established can get away with writing something new about them.

By my reckoning the contents of that box is very rich and becoming richer by the year, but how long before those themes become fresh again? A generation?

New writers, looking for their first book deal, obviously need to be aware of the contents of the 'No-no' box, even as they also opt out of the fools game of trend-chasing. It's a fine line to tread, especially as tastes amongst editors, agents and readers (in that order) can change while you're still beavering away at the keyboard. And what do you do if your favourite subject has become deeply unfashionable? The answer to that, I'm afraid, is write about something else, or self-publish and hope.

So what's in that box right now? What should an aspiring children's writer, hoping to attract the attention of agents and editors in 2011 and 2012, be avoiding like a plague of vampires?

Well, boy wizards must be somewhere near the bottom. Along with anyone else who discovers they have powers and need to go away to a special school to learn how to use them. Unless, I suppose, they have powers we've never read about before.

Somewhere just above magic would be pirates. I learnt just how unpopular they had become the hard way. Alongside pirates are similar historical archetypes such as highwaymen and Vikings. In fact, historic themes as a whole are a hard sell now, precisely because they were rumoured to be the 'next big thing' about eight years ago and weren't.

Just above pirates are all those supernatural creatures we've been seeing so much of. If a supernatural creature isn't there, it's because we haven't been seeing much of it, so get writing quick! You're too late for werewolves or hunky fallen angels, but you might just get away with a yeti with dreamboat eyes.

Then -- and last to go into the box -- we have steampunk, partly because there’s been a splurge of it in the last 18 months (and there's still a lot more in the tube), but also because it’s a dead end. A glorious, wonder-filled dead end, but a no-through-road nonetheless. This airship sailed last year.

And then... well, I don't know. Can anyone think of anything else? My guess is that zombies and demons are due to be dropped in the 'No-no' box pretty soon, though to look at the bookshelves they are still enormously popular. But that's precisely the point.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save Our Libraries Day -- Saturday 5th of Feb.

In Britain we now have something called 'The Big Society'. For those of you who don't live here, this is the government's Grand Idea, designed to stimulate local entrepreneurial flare while pulling back the role of central government. I'm all for giving new ideas a go, but looked at from any angle it's hard to see the Big Society as much more than a Big Sticking Plaster slapped hastily over the effects of even bigger cuts in public spending. Cuts that plunge painfully near an author's bone when they they cause the loss of public libraries.

Of course, it's not just writers who should be worried. Everyone has something invested in the concept of the free lending library, whether they have forgotten what that is or not. And don't take my word for it. Philip Pullman's recent speech in Oxford, where the local council has decided that Big Society means the proposed closure of 20 of the county's 43 libraries, does more than anything else I've read to highlight the value of what we may be about to lose. Please take some time to read it (though the chances are you have already).

I'm lucky because my local library isn't threatened. It's a bright, clean, modern place, and never empty. But I know that this isn't always the case. Some have been allowed to become 'gloomy old buildings full of unread books', and many respond to their possible closure with disinterest. You have only to read some of the negative reaction to Pullman's speech to find out what a part of the British population thinks of libraries. And as their use is allowed to decline, some local authorities -- invited by government to 'be creative' in their response to the Big Society – have deemed libraries to be irrelevant and unprofitable (!), dead wood to be hacked off. An easy way to save money.

So much for being creative. A truly big idea would see our less popular, shabbier libraries re-vitalised as centres of literacy and civic pride, designed to counter the numb-skull notion that we don't need them 'coz it's all on the internet'. Like Pullman, I want to live in a Long Society that remembers the past and invests across generations, not a short sighted one that can't see beyond next year's accounting and the vague positives of 'bigness'.

In 1994, Norwich central library burnt down. It was a traumatic event for the city, and I sensed the ruin and shock of it even though I no longer lived there. I used the library as a boy, and remember it as a grand and sober institution, a repository of local history stretching back a thousand years, a lending library stacked to its high ceiling with upright spines. It may not have been a very joyful place for a child, but there's something especially bitter about the stink of burning history and books, however old you are.

Norwich responded to this disaster not by rebuilding a cheap imitation of what was lost (as many called for), and certainly not by grabbing the chance to cut spending, but by finding the courage and foresight to create something innovative: a 21st Century forum.

The Forum is not merely a new, modern library, but a beacon of cultural and civic life, with conference rooms, caf├ęs and even (horror!) shops. But it's most emphatically not a Mall. It is what all libraries, even small branches, could aspire to be with the help of some genuinely creative thinking from local and central government: a crossroads and meeting point for ideas, friends, and all aspects of regional cultural life; an icon of local identity; a temple to information in all formats. In short, a place that will still be relevant when the 'Big Society' is nothing more than a passage in a history book. A book anyone in Norwich will be able to read because they have such a cracking library.

Thanks to Phil Bradley for the picture.