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Monday, January 25, 2010
WRITERS: ON NOT ALIENATING YOUR MARKET
I found the above image on a blog called The Physics Geek, which had got it from somewhere else, while I was looking for a cliched image of a librarian, but couldn't resist. Of course, there's always Terry Pratchett's wonderful Librarian...
I wear two hats - well, three if you count the reviewing, but then, I have always thought of reviewing as an extension of my work as a teacher-librarian. I get excited when a new box of books arrives from the publisher, just as I do when there’s a book display at school - what goodies will I find this time? And when I have donated the beautiful new book to the library, I can tell the kids what it’s about, because I have read and reviewed it.
Writing for children is one of my hats, the other is librarianship. Both have to put up with folk who don’t understand what it is they do and why. As a children’s writer, I’m always hearing people ask carefully, “So - are you planning to do an adult book at some stage?” Translation: “When are you going to write a real book?” My answer to that is always:Never! I love what I’m doing and I enjoy the company. I remember one time when I went to a party at Allen and Unwin. When I arrived I chatted politely with those I saw there, but there were no familiar faces. The writers I met seemed nice enough, but the party was very dull, as far as I was concerned. Then Ann James, illustrator extraordinaire, appeared on the stairs and said, “The children’s writers are upstairs.” Up I went and there was a REAL party happening.
Most children’s and YA writers I have met are delightful. They know how to party. They know how to talk to kids. They share information about markets. They’re fun to be with.
But there are some, a minority I should add, who just don’t seem to understand that they are depending on the schools market for a large chunk of their income, who make clear their contempt for teacher-librarians, in their writing or in person. Their publishers really should explain it to them.
For example, there are those who whine about “gatekeepers” at conferences and writers’ festival panels. It seems that these library “gatekeepers” are preventing their works of genius from reaching what would be their adoring public if only...
Has it ever occurred to these folk that maybe their books aren’t going into the libraries for other reasons? Maybe Book Club wouldn’t take them, or Australian Standing Orders, so they didn’t turn up in schools as much as otherwise?
Or maybe the librarians just didn’t think their particular students would enjoy them? Any teacher-librarian worth his or her salt knows about this stuff - some of us write it ourselves. With an annual budget the sze of the average Grammar School’s petty cash, I can’t afford to buy books the kids are unlikely to read. I invite students in to help me choose from the book displays brought to the school and if they are choosing this book rather than that one, it’s the kids themselves who are the “gatekeepers”, not me. Only occasionally will I reject a book for my own library that I have read for reviewing, and that usually goes to our senior campus, so we're not actually keeping it out.
Tell you what, though, I have no complaints of school libraries with my own books! My Education Lending Right payments have always been about three times my Public Lending Rights. I expect a very good ELR payment for Crime Time:Australians behaving badly when the time comes, from what booksellers tell me.
If schools are not buying your book, perhaps a survey might help to find out why. If nothing else, it will bring your books to the attention of people who might not have come across them. But publicly calling librarians “gatekeepers” definitely won’t help!
Then there are those whose idea of a school librarian is based on one they remember from their childhood, who perhaps didn’t let them borrow from the adult shelves or maybe told them to be quiet. You know - the cliched woman with glasses and a bun? I wear glasses myself and ended up haing to get a haircut to avoid the cliche. In summer, of course I had to put my hair up!
The worst offender, in many ways, is J.K.Rowling, with her Madam Pince, whose first name you never learn, unlike the school nurse (Poppy Pomfrey). Madam Pince works her guts out, day and night, every day except Christmas, with no assistance (unless there’s a house-elf doing the shelving) and never even appears at Christmas dinner. (Maybe she has a loving family to spend it with?) She is described as thin, irritable and “vulture-like”. Talk about cliches! Of course, I love the Harry Potter books, but I wish she hadn’t done that. It jars me every time I re-read the series.
Naturally, I wouldn’t boycott her books, they’re too good in every other way and Hogwarts is a fantasy school. And at least there is no doubt that Madam Pince more than pulls her weight at the school and she only kicks out kids who are eating in the library. Well, wouldn’t you? How would you like to remove half-eaten sandwiches from between the books and banana skins from the carrels after every lunchtime, before going off to teach your own class?
Other writers are less kind about their library teachers. I’m thinking in particular of one whose first book I read and loved and showed to all the kids. I even recommended it for a class text.
Then her second book came out and I bought that for the library and opened it eagerly to read it.
I was horrified and disappointed to find her portrayal of the school librarian in her novel. The woman lurks in the library like some sort of spider and throws out any student who dares to enter, let alone want to borrow a book. Pardon me? Any librarian who behaved like that wouldn’t last a week in a modern school! (Well, maybe Rupert Giles of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer would, and he does kick out kids who aren’t there to look up monsters for slaying, but he’s cute. You can forgive him)
And it shows a huge misunderstanding of the role of the modern teacher-librarian which I will come to shortly.
Call me a gatekeeper if you like, but I don’t see why I should spend my precious budget on a writer who has shown not only a misunderstanding of my job but contempt for me and my colleagues. If a student requested one of her books I would buy it, but fortunately I have received some for reviewing, so those are the ones on my library’s shelves. I won’t go out of my way to look for her books othewise. That said, I have never allowed this to affect my reviews of them. I just won't buy them - and if I feel that way, there may be others. Is it worth alienating your market for one moment of satisfaction getting fictional revenge on the horrible librarian who terrified you as a child?
Contrast this with Australian SF writer Sean McMullen, whose first novel featured a world ruled by librarians. Word got around and suddenly Sean was a bestseller. And libraries have continued to buy his books ever since.
Nobody says your librarians have to be heroic, but for heaven’s sake, check your facts before subscribing to the image of the cross woman in bun and glasses! Would you buy books by someone who sneered at what you do? Hey, think of all the people who do sneer at children’s writers! Think of the adult novel image of the fluffy children’s writer. Yet you’re doing a job that requires skills that few people possess. So is the teacher-librarian.
Which brings me to my next point. Teacher-librarians don’t just process books and check them in and out. They work with their colleagues to design curriculum. They use their knowledge of children’s and YA literature and what kids are reading to choose books and match them to readers. They teach research skills, something that is vital in this day and age. They teach literacy skills. They arrange writer events - yes, the events to which you might or might not be invited. They run reading programs.
Yet since Principals got access to the purse strings in the state system, they have mostly had the responsibility to save money and the first place they always save it is in the library. In Victoria, Australia, where I live, you can’t even study teacher-librarianship any more, unless you study it on-line through an interstate university. There is a perception that you don’t need anybody in the library or that any idiot can stamp books when needed.
Pity I didn’t know this when I was one of thirty students chosen out of five hundred applicants to study librarianship. It was the toughest course I ever did, harder and more exhausting than my Honours degree. And you have to keep up to date, as in any other profession.
Of course - it’s all stamping books! Why didn’t I realise this?
Some primary schools have no one at all; a friend of mine is currently fixing up a library abandoned since the school got rid of its library staff altogether. It’s her son’s school, she’s a volunteer and she’s a qualified librarian. Lucky school. At least until he goes to high school.
Of course, there are those who think hard copy books are already out of date; I recall one of our Principals who was furious when a librarian bought a set of encyclopaedias, because “they look it all up on the Internet now!”
So watch out - you could be next.
If you want libraries to keep buying your books and inviting you to speak and run workshops, you should be fighting to keep professionals in them - they are the ones who know what you do and work with you to keep literacy going and get the school to buy your book in multiples for reading circles and class sets. If you think it can all be done by English teachers, forget it - they are busy with their own teaching and I wish I had a dollar for every English teacher who admitted to me that they read very little outside of the class texts because they just have no time for anything else. It’s true, too, they don’t, really they don’t have time, with all the things expected of teachers these days. If they do take on this job because the Principal got rid of the professionals in the library, then something else has to go.
And the few books they read may not be yours.
Think about it.