Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Talking with Readers: Choosing Summer Reads

I wrote the following blog post for Vintage Books blog to promote Summer Reads 2014, a reading programme I run at Writers' Centre Norwich.

Last month I met a friend for dinner. We had some proper work to do, but as usual we got distracted and ended up talking about books. Two hours later we had discussed every winner of the Booker Prize since it launched. I came away with a reading list of books she had completely sold me on, vivid memories of all the Booker winners I have already read and loved, and all I wanted to do was get home and read some more.
I’m lucky. My job at Writers’ Centre Norwich means I spend lots of time talking to readers. Our Summer Readsprogramme is now in its fifth year and offers an annual guide to some of the most exhilarating writing and storytelling from around the world. This year we are featuring 8 fantastic and varied books: there are novels, short story and poetry collections, and works in translation. We will be going out and meeting readers in bookshops and libraries, hosting events, and supporting bold, confident and adventurous reading for everyone. 
Through doing all this I’ve come to the conclusion that readers are the great untapped resource of literature. By involving readers not just as consumers of what is written, but as shapers of their own experiences, we could harness the incredible power of word-of-mouth recommendations, and create a movement for reading broadly.
That’s why, two years ago, we decided to throw open the gates to Summer Reads. Anyone who wanted to help us select the books was given the opportunity to do so. We currently have a group of 50 readers of all ages, male and female, and with different levels of literary experience. These volunteer judges are in charge of what we choose.
Their task isn’t a small one! We had 129 books on our longlist this year, and 6 months to work it down to a final selection. More than 750 reviews were written, debate was intense, and our monthly meetings were standing-room-only with readers Skyping in from holiday to be there. 
Only one book was easy to select: All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Every single one of the readers who read it fell in love with and heartily recommended it. Jake Whyte is an unforgettable character and Wyld’s gritty and brutal prose brings her sparse island-home alive. We’re by no means the only people to think Evie Wyld may be the next great British writer. ‘The Culture Show’ and Granta have each named her in recent lists of the best of young British novelists, while the Bailey’s and Costa prizes each identified All the Birds, Singing as one of the books of the year. 
The choice of every other book came down to a hotly debated three-hour selection meeting in the icy days of January 2014. Over spiced cider and mulled wine, we gathered to fight it out. I went in joking that I had two fists, each named after the books I was backing. But I was outdone: another group of readers mock-threatened suicide if their favourite book – Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell) – wasn’t selected. We loved it too and decided not to test their resolve. Six other books joined the list, includingTenth of December by George Saunders (which later went on to win the fabulous new Folio Prize), and two collections of poetry because each was too good not to include!
And, through it all, what continued to strike me most clearly was that readers were pushing us to be braver with our choices than we would have been otherwise, that these readers craved the new and the exciting over the familiar. And that they revelled in being able to influence the programme. Their contribution of time and energy and creative spirit amazed and humbled me. And it is to these readers, and every other reader who picks up one of these books, that Summer Reads belongs. 
Whether you are looking for a great book to read, eager to begin your next reading adventure, or want to join in with our events and online chat, Summer Reads is for you. Do check out www.summerreads.org.uk for more information and to get involved.
As for me, I’m about to embark on another project to travel the UK talking to readers and telling their stories, uncovering what reading does for us personally, socially, emotionally, and as a society, investigating different approaches to reading, and representing the insightful, inventive and committed reading that takes place everyday by articulate readers everywhere. 
I hope one day I can talk reading with you too.

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