A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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The same but different

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Berlin

Berlin is not what you’d call ‘chic’. A lot of the city was flattened in the war and the subsequent Wall drama kept it on its toes, driven by practicality rather than aesthetics. It’s fairly square and industrial, with huge signs of corporations stretching over streets and into the sky. Occasionally, however, you find an old building that remains un-bombed – a relic from another age. I was there last weekend, with two old friends, Bex and Charlotte. Our apartment was in one of these old structures, above an Indian restaurant. Inside, there was a wide, shallow-stepped staircase, hidden by huge heavy oak doors.

Our host, Gesine, emerged from the darkness of the flat with a runny nose and sore throat.

‘I feel like shit,’ she said. ‘Also the apartment is very historical. Look at the bullet holes in the door. They are from the second world war.’

We dragged our cases back out to look at the holes. There they were. Then we dragged everything back in.

The flat was small and massive at the same time. There was a tiny, low-ceilinged hallway, full of piles of miscellany everywhere. Sewing equipment, boxes of beer, creepy dolls with cracked faces – if Gesine owned something, she stacked it, normally under something heavier. But if you could break through the hall, you reached the rooms prepared for us, which were huge and light but still weird, with cinema seats and paintings of wobbly fruit.

‘I did the bathroom myself,’ Gesine said. She had, as well. She’d signed the painted tiles with her name and gave us a bucket to take into the shower. I’m not sure why.

But we didn’t come all the way to Berlin to look at tiles and wobbly fruit. We came for food and culture and more food.

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Brandenburg Gate

Charlotte’s boyfriend, Andy, is a good cook who is picky about where he eats. He refuses to go to restaurants that have pictures of their food on posters outside or on the menu. In Berlin, Andy would starve. If it wasn’t a photograph of schnitzel, it was a portion of fries, or a burger or a pizza. Every restaurant in Mitte, it seemed, threw photographic evidence of their cooking at you. Of course, it’s our own fault. We can’t speak German. If they told us they served Hähnchen or Kartoffeln or Eintopf, we wouldn’t know what the hell that was, so of course they have to label everything. This became a recurring theme of the trip: language shame. The locals looked at us, knew we were English and started to speak in English. I’d downloaded Duolingo on my phone, brought a phrasebook with me, but I kept getting zwei and drei mixed up and they had to go back for another glass. I was causing pain and confusion, making everyone’s lives difficult, but still I persisted because I am English and ashamed.

The waiting staff were using a lot of English – the English seemed to be the only people out. The streets were wide and deserted. We walked a few miles a day, from one landmark to another, without seeing many people. Then we’d stop for lunch or dinner and hear someone at the next table order ‘two ham and mushroom pizzas, please.’ So where were the Germans? Probably inside because it was freezing. It was only the English, in their bobble hats, clogging up the Straßen.

It got me thinking about the ways people are the same and the ways people are different. When I lived in Paris, I met a guy from a tribe in Indonesia. He was in my French language class and wanted to show us pictures of the particular kind of batik (dyed cloth) his tribe were famous for producing but he couldn’t because the projector wasn’t working. He pressed a few buttons, shrugged and sat down with his arms folded in a way that reminded me of the boys at my high school in Lincolnshire. Now, when I travel, I like to spot the domestic arguments in languages I can’t understand. Mitsuko having a go at Akihiko because he’s put the hand sanitizer in the wrong pocket of the rucksack and now she can’t find it, daughters getting ratty with their fathers in Swahili. It makes me feel good, the idea that no matter where we come from or the language we speak, we’re all basically the same. It makes me feel good but I don’t know if it’s true – not anymore.

A lot of things have happened recently that have made me think my comfortable truth is a lie. I was in Paris when the Brexit vote was announced, had a depressing meal out with friends where we all stared into our pizza and wondered what the hell was happening. And now, thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, we have a man in America trying to put another one up. We’re not all the same. People think insane things, do terrible things as a result, and from the outside, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who they are.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just along the road from the Brandenburg Tor, so we did both in an afternoon. The Memorial is next to a building site which, to be honest, is the same for most things in Berlin. It’s a load of grey blocks of various shapes and heights, assembled in a dip so they look more or less level from the top, with a museum underneath.

‘The vibe’s a bit off,’ Charlotte said, as we stared out at the cubes. A group of tourists were taking selfies as they stood on the blocks. ‘It’s a bit weird. The way it’s just here, in the middle of everything.’

On the other side of the monument I could see the light of a Subway sandwich shop. We went down into the museum and it seemed clear, then, that that was the point. The people getting murdered were ordinary and the people doing the murdering were ordinary too. You stare into the faces of these people and you see shop assistants, student, doctors, teachers. Then you come out of the museum and you’re back on Ebertstraße, buses rolling past. We like our evil at the edges of the city, where we know where it is, but it walks among us, sits at the next table, gets on the train behind us. You’d think we’d have learned by now that evil doesn’t come in a uniform. It’s in that moment, when we reduce a person to one thing, rather than a load of contradictions, that we do the damage.

The more you learn about nationalism and monarchy and all that, the more you realise what a huge mess it is. On our final day, we went to Charlottenburg Palace which is basically the German Versailles and was even built by the same architect, Dutchman Johann Friedrich von Eosander. Charlottenburg was built in the 17th century under the instruction of Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Fredreich I and sister to George I of England. It’s just the one family tree, you see, spanning the whole of Europe. It gets even worse when Queen Victoria starts having children, planting them in every royal dynasty she can. They all copy each other’s interior design skills too. It’s all impressive, but there’s no escaping the fact that these palaces do look the same. They share architects, employ the same engravers, all dabble in chinoiserie and have whole rooms devoted to their porcelain. One room in Charlottenburg resembled Gesine’s flat, with chinoiserie ornaments piled high one on top of the other, duplicated a million times over by the mirror panelling and reflections in the golden gilt.

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Charlottenburg Palace. “Waiting for it all to come crashing down.”

‘I’m just waiting for it all to come crashing down,’ Charlotte whispered.

Up at the top, near the ceiling, was a stuffed stag lunging down the wall towards the vases. No placard or segment in the audio guide – just the corpse with glassy eyes.

 

Upstairs, there was an exhibition about the origin of the Prussian royal family. In order to pad out their lineage, they made up a person called Otto who was a great fighter and won a load of battles. There were painting and engravings in his honour. He was amazing, Otto. He just didn’t exist which, when you’re establishing a royal house, apparently doesn’t matter.

Finally, on our way to the airport at the end of the trip, I got my domestic argument. Behind us on the train was a woman with two small wailing children, one of which was brandishing a fully-functioning toy shop till, complete with flapping receipt paper. At one point, the woman, who I assumed to be his grandmother, grabbed it off him and shouted. When this did not silence the children, she FaceTimed a man who must have been their father or grandfather, who screamed at them in Arabic. She then shouted at them again and they disembarked with us at the airport, till training behind. Perhaps us the kid was going to charge us for his screaming? We got a move on before we ran up a bill.

If there’s one thing that’s going to unite people, it’s bad service from an airline. Our airline of choice seemed keen to strip everything right back to basics, doing just enough to keep you airborne, while a member of cabin crew wheeled a trolley of cut-price cologne down the aisle. Before we even boarded, they told us our flight would be delayed, then that it wasn’t, then kept us all cooped up in the tiny area beyond security for an hour. When we finally got on the plane, the ice on the wings had to be thawed. They did this slowly, with a truck that seemed to be powered by a single AA battery.

‘They charged us an extra thirty quid so we could sit together,’ the couple in the row in front muttered to the German woman next to me. ‘We’re never flying with this lot again,’ they said.

‘We always say that and yet we always do,’ said the man next to them. He’s right – we’re all the same really. Except for the ones of us that aren’t.

About the author of this article

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

Let’s keep our windows on the world

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It is 2006 when I enter a small branch library on Victoria Road, Swindon. On first sight it is stuffed with books and there’s a public computer – hooray! One of the two library assistants notices me and we get chatting. Thus begins my integration into the Old Town – people to meet, books to choose and discuss, reliable information readily to hand and all the advice I need from our librarians. Within days I am greeted by name. And so the uneasiness of settling into a new location is dispelled.

In those halcyon days small branch libraries up and down the country served millions of people, answering millions of queries and providing a focal point for each community.  Free of charge, it has been a special, accessible and safe space to be enjoyed not only by newcomers, but everyone else. What’s not to like?

Swindon opened its first public library in August 1943, in the middle of World War II.  The public library was at that time and until recently recognised by politicians and public servants as an institution essential to the public good. Townsfolk enjoyed a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile service. It is, however, the sad reality today that, in spite of the town’s expansion and so many new people moving in, the mobile service is defunct and all but four of its public libraries have been divested out of the statutory service, their future sustainability uncertain.

As long ago as 2007 we learned that our own much-appreciated facility was threatened with closure. Margaret, over eighty years of age, said she’d chain herself to the railings in that event, while other users of all ages and backgrounds were similarly distraught.  Roisin had brought her children, then her grandchildren to this little library. Peter had made friends, he says, and it gives him something to look forward to, keeping his brain active. The friendliness and buzz of our branch library, so professionally run had invigorated young and old alike, linking us to the community around us.

Such a threat to it, then, must surely be challenged. Who would petition the council?  How could the library’s closure or the loss of its staff be tolerated?

To gather signatures on any physical petition is a salutary experience, uniting disparate people around a local issue perhaps more than any e-petition can. As we cheerfully roamed the local streets, we became aware that few people knew the library was threatened. It had had such a low profile that a few did not even know it existed. Our presence on street corners in the bitter cold, we hoped, would put an end to that. Note the young mother who signed with alacrity. I recall her particularly because she needed to take her autistic son to a smaller space than the central library. He’d not be able to cope with that, she said. The elderly were worried, too, being less mobile. They were accustomed to visiting the library often (on foot) to load themselves up with enough books or audio-books to read at home.

Appeals to Culture ministers and Secretaries of State, most recently in 2015, met with assurances that our concerns were legitimate and would be investigated. They have actually done absolutely nothing!

On the upside, the support of The Library Campaign, a national charity, has been crucial to our morale and small successes, as we fought long and hard to retain what we felt was ours by right. As a result our branch library and its paid staff were saved for ten years or so. Result!

The threat, however, expanded in 2016 to become borough wide, so there was a massive reorganisation of folk across the Town. Users and campaigners united as Save Swindon’s Libraries. As a result, four excellent libraries continue to serve the town within the statutory service, but the remainder, though open, do not enjoy their former status.  Although it could have been far worse, the loss of staff expertise and the general hollowing out of what is left leaves a woeful legacy for future generations.

Consider, where does the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer go when he’s told to claim online? What about the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school to read or study, when the gates to the library are closed to him? What of the gentleman who has had two strokes; his isolation only eased by trips to the library.  Councils like ours need to think how much they will have to spend picking up the pieces when all these people lose all these lifelines. Health, literacy, education, social services, even crime prevention are underpinned by the public library. Yet at least seven hundred have closed since 2010 and many others have been robbed of staff and have an increasingly precarious existence.

A public library is the local authority’s window on the world. Must it be curtains for them, due to the decisions of philistines and the withholding of investment, or can the public unite again to demand a comprehensive service? I’ll carry on asking for this and I hope you will, too.

About the author of this article

ombudsman3Shirley Burnham is a library campaigner who established the Friends of Old Town Library group in 2008 that became the Save Old Town Library Campaign in 2009. Latterly she has supported Save Swindon’s Libraries which was organised by Sarah Church to protect threatened libraries across the borough of Swindon.  Shirley also campaigns for accessible, professionally-run public libraries in other parts of the country.  You can follow her on Twitter @ShirleyBurnham

 

A novelist’s guide to waiting

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The type of intensive, cloistered work of writers can lend itself to solitude. Sometimes, this can be accompanied by activity – such as running  – but it can also be just as much about stillness. In this article, author Tim Leach reflects upon the art of waiting; of embracing these moments of stillness to help aid your writing.

The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.

Most of my writing time is spent waiting. Waiting before the half empty page, staring at one of the endless problems to be solved. A minute passes, another and another. Half an hour, perhaps even an hour since last a word was typed. A frightening boredom sets in and seeks to drive me from the chair, to do anything but keep still, hold on. Then a sudden flurry of fingers on the keys, the words springing to the page, the problem solved. And then the next problem, and once more, the waiting.

There is passion in this still, quiet patience. “Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting,” says Roland Barthes. “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” It can have the quality of trance or prayer. And there is courage in waiting too, for learn it well enough and you may outlast anything.

Outlast loneliness, for if one has mastered time what is there to fear from the absence of love? Wait out sadness, for the black waters always recede if you can be patient enough for the turning of the tide. And those other more murderous thoughts that circle the mind like jackals – they too must sleep, if you can stare them down for long enough. The hand that quests for the razor grows old and idle, the rattle of the pill bottle fades to silence, the eye that looks hungrily to high places and the third rail droops and grows heavy.

If writing has taught me anything, it is how to wait. It has been a year of hard waiting. I’ve waited with people and for people, waited out a draft of a book, waited out a madness too. Everything is begun and nothing is finished, much more is broken than is fixed.

But that does not matter. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing,” says Rilke, because poets know how to wait, too.

I hear the tick of the clock and the sound of the sea, and that particular silence in the concert hall before the pianist first lays their hands upon the keys. I am waiting.

About the author

Tim Leach

Tim Leach is a historical fiction author and creative writing teacher. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was published by Atlantic Books in Spring 2013, and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A sequel, The King and the Slave‘, was published in 2014. His most recent novel, Smile of the Wolf  was published in 2018. He teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, and he lives in Sheffield.

Found in the Crowd – the case for crowdfunding anthologies

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. In this article, Dan Coxon examines how the social financing can bring new book ideas to life. 

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Image by tai11/iStock

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing as proof the phenomenal success of George Saunders, or the unlikely appearance of Tom Hanks’s debut collection. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is that publishers don’t know what to do with short fiction. Occasionally, the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. (Hanks is the obvious exception – but there’s no need to explain the marketing decision behind that book.) New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies. I’ve now crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), a collection of stories inspired by British folklore and local history. Increasingly, independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they didn’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually, I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant. There is still an element of resistance to the crowdfunding route, especially among older writers and readers. It’s sometimes seen as being worryingly close to vanity publishing – you go cap-in-hand to your friends and family, beg them for money, and then pay a publisher to print the book. At one end of the scale, this is certainly the case. As in any industry, there are unscrupulous businesses that are only too willing to take your money.

But in all the cases cited here, it wasn’t a matter of funding a book outright via ‘donations’, but rather a means of generating publicity and interest ahead of publication to ensure its success. I find it useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that crowdfunding a book is a long and arduous process. What has struck me most forcibly, however, is the interest we have received – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends backed the books I’ve crowdfunded, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we’ve received pledges from complete strangers from all corners of the globe – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these constituted the vast majority of pledges. With both the books I’ve been involved in, we were able to pre-sell much of the first print run and the projects very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique. Last year Unsung Stories crowdfunded 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and the final total was almost ten times the original target.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn’t, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you’ve got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project – they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they’ll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’ve found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, and with their combined fan bases they are able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim and was shortlisted for a number of awards. Following that, they also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund the next year’s publications, which met its target with ease. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 and This Dreaming Isle are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.

About the author of this post

Dan Coxon author picDan Coxon edited the anthologies Being Dad (Tangent Books, 2016) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), and is a contributing editor at The Lonely Crowd. He also edits and publishes a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in SalonPopshotThe Lonely CrowdOpen PenWales Arts ReviewGutterThe Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He runs an editing and proofreading business at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, and can be found on Twitter at @dancoxonauthor.

 

The duty of writers

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Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

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If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.

Book review: The study circle, by Haroun Khan

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘The study circle’, by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink Books.

The Study Circle

This debut novel by Haroun Khan follows two friends from a South London council estate. Ishaq is devout and well educated, a regular at the titular Islamic study circle. His education at a university may give him a way out of the brutal poverty of the estate. His friend Shams is less fortunate and is obliged to make ends meet anyway he can, even if the means are not entirely legal or safe. The pair are caught between the gentle and wise Ayoub, the leader of the study circle, and Mujahid, who justifies his own criminal activities with radical politics and mangled religion.

Khan, writing from some personal experience, gives an unrelentingly grim portrait of the estate. It’s a hopeless and forgotten place, where violence is never far away, and the police are more of a threat than a source of protection. Choices and opportunities are impossibly limited; the characters wonder if it is possible for them to ever truly leave the place behind. Again and again, it is emphasised that outsiders simply do not understand the everyday challenges faced by young people in such an environment, abandoned and alienated while at the same time demonised and discriminated against by the society they live in.

This is a very timely, of the moment book that deals with issues of Islamophobia, racism and poverty in modern Britain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with them in the context of an always engaging novel, but sometimes heavy-handedly in the form of extended essay passages between minimal slices of here and now events.

The last third of the novel is the first time that I had any sense of interest in what would happen next, any sense of drama. This welcome change of pace redeems at least some of what has come before, but how many would persevere to this point? It is not a long novel, but it would benefit from some editing.

The writer himself admits to feeling uneasy while writing this and says, ‘There is a lot I have said here that people can take issue with.’ That’s unavoidable when dealing with such heavyweight issues of race, religion and class. It certainly gave this reviewer uncomfortable things to ponder.

About the reviewer

tandrews

Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Crime and punishment: rehabilitation through reading

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“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.

3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Transformation and metamorphosis

Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.

And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.

A great escape

An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.

This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:

“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”

The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.

That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.

As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.

This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”

Real rehabilitation

This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.

Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.

Freedom through literature

What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.

Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:

“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.