Creatives in profile: interview with Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Library of the Future

Hovind, Anne Beate

In Norway, a thousand trees have been planted in a forest just outside Oslo. In 100 years’ time, they will be used to make the paper for an anthology of books, which will form part of the so-called ‘library of the future’.

Conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, the project has captured the attention of great authors across the world, including Margaret Atwood, who was the first writer to pledge her story to the future collection.

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Planting an entire forest that will one day help make the books of the library of the future takes time. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch.

Yet 100-year art projects, by their very nature, take time. When you work with timescales longer than the average human life, the focus of the work shifts: it is no longer about outcomes, or about critical reception from the artistic and literary communities. Rather, it’s about the experience, and the journey, that takes everyone involved in the project along with it.

Of course, there are also certain logistical necessities that go hand in hand with creating a project of this nature. How do you convince authors to write books that will never be read in their lifetimes? How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books, and not cut down to make way for some new highway or housing development?

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How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books of the library of the future, and not cut down to make way for some highway or housing development? Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud.

To try and iron out some of the answers to these questions, the Nothing in the Rulebook team caught up with the project manager and curator of the project, Anne Beate Hovind.

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

So tell us about yourself and your involvement with the Future Library project

ANNE BEATE

I’m the commissioner and the producer for the project. It’s a magical sort of idea that really challenges our concept of time, as well as of trust, and I think ultimately has a lot to say about our world, and the way we interact with it as human beings.

What I think is extraordinary about the project is the opportunity to work so closely with the artist, Katie Paterson. In a way, I sometimes have to pinch myself when I talk about how I became involved in the artwork because in a way it’s crazy – because just imagine the pitch that begins ‘I have this proposal: but it’s going to take 100 years’. That’s when you panic. Because you think ‘100 years?! Oh my god”. Then the artist says, ‘and, we’ll also need a forest’. And you know, you immediately ask yourself – where will the forest grow? Because I work in the Oslo harbour development area – where and how do you grow a forest in a harbour? And then, on top of all that, the artist says, ‘one more thing – we need authors, famous writers, who are willing to participate, because it’s their work we’re going to print, a hundred years from now’.

But even though it’s a little crazy it really is extraordinary and I actually think in my role, it’s an interesting one to see how you have the relationship between the artist and the commissioner or producer, because where the artist is creative in that kind of traditional artistic way, I’m creative in making it happen!

INTERVIEWER

The project wouldn’t happen without you!

ANNE BEATE

Well I think it’s an interesting relationship – I was actually talking about this with another friend of mine, a Norwegian artist called A.K. Dolven, and we were discussing what it means to put an artwork into the control of the producers and so on who make art ‘happen’. Because you need both the creative idea and inspiration and also that inter-displinary competence and almost entrepreneurship to make those ideas into a reality.

INTERVIEWER

You’re the curator, in a sense

ANNE BEATE

I wouldn’t call myself a curator because I’m not an artist in the traditional sense – I’m an entrepreneur first, I create start-ups. And I actually spend a lot of my time working in the construction business, which is quite crazy, but I always get into this situation where I get into the exploratory work; the ‘make things happen’ kind of work; so even though I’m in a different field of work professionally, there are elements where I work in the same way – it’s about attitude; methodology; it’s a way of working exploratively. And it’s quite similar to the way artists create art. And this is what I like to share and talk about when I give talks and stuff.

INTERVIEWER

You were in Austin, Texas, recently for the Southwest by Southwest festival. Can you tell us a little more about the talks that you give?

ANNE BEATE

I was invited there as a speaker for their official programme, and actually on the way out I was a little nervous because I’d never been there before and on my plane out the Crown Prince of Norway was on the same plane and there was a band on board and the fanfare was a little overwhelming. But once I got off the plane I realised quite quickly I was actually the only Norwegian speaker in the official programme, where I was set to appear on their ‘live’ show.

I didn’t know what to expect but it was really interesting to be a part of. I shared a few of my thoughts about what leadership is about when it comes to making things happen.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by that?

ANNE BEATE

Now, I think what it comes down to is approaching a new project with a kind of explorative attitude – you kind of have to have this tacit knowledge of where to start: what doors to keep open as long as possible, which ones you have to close. In my day job, there’s a lot of risk assessment involved. There’s a totally different risk-mind set involved compared to what I do in my daily life in the construction business; because in order to be innovative – in order to make innovations happen, you have to take risks, you have to be risk taking – and though you might be aware of some of the potential challenges or risks, you have to strike out and lead from the front.

INTERVIEWER

How do you identify what sort of projects you’re going to pursue with that vigour? How do you maintain the energy for it?

ANNE BEATE

I think what it comes down to is more about your attitude. In any job I do I try to make the most I can out of it. So I can do things that other people might find quite boring or not really very ‘arty’ but I don’t mind. I’m very curious. I learn everything about hospitals when I build hospitals. I worked in shipping classification for the shipping bureau and I learned a lot about that and I’ve worked at the main airport in Norway and I learned lots about that and the aviation sector and I do art – and other things – I think, because of that curiosity. If I’m curious about something or something grabs my attention, I want to find out more and I want to see where we – the project and I – can end up.

If you’re not curious about something, how can you have the passion for it, how can you find that energy? You know, that’s what it’s about. You have to know how to run a business or a project; but you also absolutely have to know how to stay with it.

INTERVIEWER

Surely that’s a really important point in this day and age because, in, for instance, London alone, there are so many different free presses or websites and magazines that start up, and they might be around for a year or two years, and then they die off – or they print one anthology and disappear. Because it’s really hard to sustain a project and keep it going, especially in the world we live in where it’s hard to keep funding coming in. And so often there’s a difficulty in building in a sustainable, long-term view to your project. That you can keep building on.

ANNE BEATE

Oh absolutely and you know, I think we might have a similar approach to you at Nothing in the Rulebook, because I like to ‘put bricks on bricks’ – that’s a saying I often use. This whole ethos really resonates with the Future Library project. What we say in Norway is ‘all wood’ – it’s wood all the way through. It’s an expression that basically means something is authentic; it’s true; it’s solid; and it has good correlation between what you say you are and what you do. And building this sort of thing takes time, it takes time and conscious effort. You have to pour yourself into it in a way and make sure your idea doesn’t just stop.

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“‘All wood’ – it’s wood all the way through” – Anne Beat Hovind. Photo credit: Giorgia Polizzi

This whole attitude can be seen in the way we approached the project too, I think. Because we don’t spend anything on communication. And Katie Paterson, who is the incredible artist behind the idea, the two of us work very intimately and very closely together. Even though the Future Library project is quite big and quite well-known in the world; it’s mostly me and her.

INTERVIEWER

So how does that work? How do you do it? Especially when it comes to first launching the project and getting people involved like Margaret Atwood.

ANNE BEATE

How do you do it? How do we do it? We just ask! It’s such a fascinating story – people ask, ‘why don’t you make e-vites when you invite people to the handover ceremonies – but I said, ‘no – I’ll do it personally’. Because I think; that’s what fascinates people. We’re not part of a big organisation. The project does not have a lot of money behind it. It’s small and grounded and goes slow. It’s personal. It’s not like this big stuck up thing. It’s exactly what it says it is.

I think when you are living in this fast living world, with all this start-up thinking it’s like something gets blown up and then just as quickly it’s like PUFF – gone. But the Future Library isn’t like that at all; it’s totally different. And I think this aspect of the project is what people really respond to and connect with, you know, because it has real meaning and authentic content and impact.

INTERVIEWER

It’s this idea of longevity being built within the project from the outset – the entire ethos of it. We live in an age where thoughts around cathedral thinking has disappeared – the idea that we used to build something that would last hundreds of years for future generations, and now, it’s the opposite…

ANNE BEATE

Precisely. And it’s interesting you mention that idea of cathedral thinking because this notion is so important. I was thinking a lot about what Stephen Hawking says about this and I totally say the exact same thing about it.

And you know the day before I was due to give the talk in Austin, Texas, Stephen Hawking died – and I was quite touched by the timing of it because I always mentioned cathedral thinking whenever I talked about the Future Library project and Hawking has been the spokesperson for this idea that we need to invest in ideas for the future, which are made and built for the generations that come after us. And so the night before I gave this talk I totally changed the start of my presentation and I started out with a quote from Hawking about cathedral thinking. And people got really emotional here – and some actually cried. It was very moving.

But this I think is what makes people feel such a connection for the project. Because people are longing for slow, cathedral thinking projects that are grounded; that are not ‘tech tech tech’.

INTERVIEWER

So what influence does technology have on our modern lives and culture, do you think?

ANNE BEATE

Well I think firstly I should say that I love tech. You know. I drive a tesla – I was the one of the first persons in Norway to buy a Tesla. In our household we have two electric cars – we don’t have gas or petrol fuelled cars. We Live in a three-generation house run by solar energy and a thermal well – we have a lot of technology. But for me, technology should only be used to facilitate my life.

INTERVIEWER

Technology is an enabler.

ANNE BEATE

Yes, exactly. It’s about being a human being and keeping hold of that. And I think people are longing for that – to be reminded of what it is to be human, forget about the other tech stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Yet we live in a world where you only have to walk down the street to see almost everyone always on their phone. Living their lives plugged in constantly to the digital world. And it can seem difficult to separate the technology that can do brilliant incredible things that bring us closer together – speeding up communication and living our lives more effectively – while of course avoiding the danger that we get sucked into this world of technology where it’s all we think about – and our social media lives take precedent over our social lives; which are actually the real, authentic parts of our lives that allow us to build real relationships with other people that last years; not seconds.

ANNE BEATE

This is why projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.

INTERVIEWER

We are designed in our society to be constantly stimulated – To constantly go out and get things for ourselves and gratify ourselfs and just go, go, go, all the time. We’re constantly walking through our cities plugged into our headphones, but you can’t get away from the music in waiting rooms or shops and supermarkets. We don’t even have time to sit and be bored anymore, let alone think about building forests.

ANNE BEATE

And this is the world where this Future Library artwork comes in, that’s entirely based on the idea of planting trees – it’s about walking in the forest; doing rituals!

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Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

And how important is the relationship between nature and art? Especially in a world where we now have eBooks, rather than physical books. How important is it for us to keep creating these projects that entwine physical ‘real’ nature with art?

ANNE BEATE

It’s interesting you ask this question about the relationship we have with nature and how we connect to it, because it’s actually a very personal topic to me.

I grew up on a farm. I carried the farm name – which is 1000 years old. It was once a Viking farm. And when my father died when he was young, I was supposed to inherit it. And in Norway, this is almost taken for granted as a rite of passage, that you would take on the farm and run it as a farm. And you are in fact obliged to run it as a farm if you take it.

And my father died when I was 22 and I really had a difficult decision to make; about whether I would take it on, and I said ‘no’. So it’s no longer part of the family.

And this is a decision I haven’t regretted. I realised I wasn’t a farmer, and that that was okay. It was maybe a brave decision, but the right one. And oddly enough what the whole experience has taught me – is that life, in a way, is about planting trees. And planting grains – because my other project is about planting farm crops in the middle of Oslo. And when I first heard about these projects and became involved with them, they both confronted me with how disconnected I had been from nature, even though I have such a long family history of living and working on a farm, which is so connected to the natural world.

And so when I think about this, I realise that both of these artworks are about sustainability. They’re both about the importance of protecting our environment; about living in this world and our collective futures, and having to protect what we have for the long term. We really need to reconnect with nature and the world.

So it’s amazing how both these artworks are so rich in the way they communicate a very fundamental message about being human, which is that no matter how much technology we have, we are still the same animals that evolved over millions of years and thousands of years of modern civilisation to live as part of nature – not apart from it. We need to save our world and our planet. So artworks that speak to this fundamental need are really important.

INTERVIEWER

But of course, we live in an era of catastrophic climate breakdown – do you think these artworks have a call to action in encouraging people to take better care of our planet and our environment? Do we need to each start planting more trees?

ANNE BEATE

So even though Margaret Atwood is kind of quite ‘black’ in her writing, she really isn’t when it comes to her outlook. And when I spoke to her she said “this is a hopeful project” – she’s the one who really knows what it means when it comes to environmental activism. She’s there, on the front of it – and she’s been there all the time; but we haven’t necessarily been listening. And it’s partly her environmentalist background that made her say yes to participating in this work – it took her maybe only two minutes to make up her mind, she said.

Of course, we were SO happy, when she said she was willing to get involved. I can still remember where I was when I got the message saying she would do it. I was so happy! Because it was at this moment that I realised ‘this project is actually going to happen’.

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Anne Beate Hovind and Future Library contributor, Margaret Atwood. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

Did you have doubts that the project might not take off before you got Atwood’s backing?

ANNE BEATE

Not necessarily doubts, but I knew it was a challenge, because, as we said earlier, there aren’t many projects or ideas these days that are built around cathedral thinking – we don’t even build monuments or buildings that won’t be finished for 100 years, let alone art. So how do you talk to a board about this? How do you convince them that 100 years is nothing?

But it’s been a fantastic journey so far, and it is fantastic still. I’m so happy and grateful to be a part of this work, and it has changed me – it’s been life changing.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think this project resonates so much with so many people, including yourself?

ANNE BEATE

Some researchers should do some research on this, you know. When I saw the article had been upvoted so many times to the front page of Reddit, I thought, what is it that makes people upvote it so much? What is it all about?

INTERVIEWER

There’s a core essence, perhaps, that the project has which has the capacity to capture people’s imagination’s in a really quick way.

ANNE BEATE

And it’s so positive: the engagement people have with it is so built on hope and trust and empathy and compassion. I think it’s really basic human things that we need and are in need of.

I don’t have the answer of course; I can only try to imagine. But when I hear people say things about it, or when I have people ask me ‘how can you be sure that someone will take on this project after you are dead’ (so there’s even an aspect of mortality here that is intrinsically involved), well, I say it’s all about trust.

But when you say that – people have a really shocked reaction – they think ‘that’s so crazy’!

INTERVIEWER

So how do you sustain the project for the future? In 70 or 80 years time, how will you make sure it’s still running?

ANNE BEATE

Trust! It’s all about trust. You know we have set up a formal trust and intention agreements with the relevant municipal authorities in regards to the forest and the room at the Oslo Library, so we have kind of rigged up that admin aspect of it. But to run this project is also about energy – its about respect for the artwork and how it’s set up; and it is about loyalty.

There will be things the board and the trustees will have to solve that me and the artist couldn’t forsee. So there will be people who have to take on my job and fulfil it.

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Oslo Public Library, where the books of the library of the future will be kept. Photo credit: Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem.

The great thing about this artwork now is that I’ve seen there is a whole world protecting it. So if the forest is threatened by anything – the whole world will make sure to guard it and the books.

I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.

INTERVIEWER

Art is about what brings people together and the connections that this kind of project can form. Do you have any hopes for yourself about how this might turn out? If you could see the ceremony that takes place 100 years from now, what would you like to see?

ANNE BEATE

I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional. I hope some of my great grand-children will be there and for them to maybe think ‘it was crazy for my great grandmother to take on this idea 100 years ago’, and I hope they think about that and what it means. Because it’s about building bridges between now and the future – but to turn it around, it’s also going to be about the present in the future and the past.

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Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writers

margaretatwood

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like,” writing legend Neil Gaiman said. But of course, the main rule of articles and lists of tips and rules about writing and for writers is that there will never be just one hard and fast rule: quite the opposite, in fact. So while Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing is that one should never “use semicolons”; Zadie Smith takes a different view, arguing that you should “make sure you read a lot of books.”

When there are so many rules and pieces of advice out there, which ones do you follow? This is a question perhaps best suited to another article; yet a good place to start is – as it so often is when it comes to writing and literature – with one of the true literary greats: Margaret Atwood.

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. So without further introduction, we bring you Margaret Atwood with her personal writing commandments:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!   

Not the Booker Prize: An alternative literary reading list

Christopher-Booker-prize-001 - Photograph George Monbiot Guardian

Photograph: George Monbiot/Guardian

Mired in controversy since it began, the Man Booker Prize has long held the attention of the literary world. In its time, the Prize has witnessed what is as close to an authorial punch up as can be – when William Golding squared off against Anthony Burgess. It was once described by Richard Gott as “a significant and dangerous iceberg in the sea of British culture that serves as a symbol of its current malaise.” And has faced accusations of its listed books being both “too high brow” and “too readable.”

Yet irrespective of the claims against it, the prize has endured. And, as the shortlist has now been announced, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook thought it would not be out of place to suggest an alternative literary list for our fine readers to contemplate.

Supposedly, the Booker Prize aims to recognise the best British or Commonwealth authors. Yet here there undeniably seems to have been some bias toward the English. Despite a population of just 2.5% of the commonwealth, over half the winners of the prize have hailed from England’s shores. And, while there have been notable winners from former colonies, including the South African novelist J M Coetzee, it should not escape our attention that an overwhelming number of Booker judges are middle class English people, who are perhaps likely to prefer their own nation’s literature.

With this in mind, we will therefore endeavour to correct this imbalance in our own shortlist. While we have no funds to actually offer the authors on this list any prize money, we can offer a potent cocktail of hopes, dreams and admiration – and that’s probably just as good.

The list in full:

Reading in the Dark – Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

trainspottingConsidering two Man Booker Prize judges successfully pulled Welsh’s Trainspotting from the 1993 prize shortlist by threatening to walk out, it seemed especially apt that we list the novel here. For readers who do not come from lowland Scotland, one of the particular pleasures of this book is becoming totally immersed in the language and dialect of the novel’s characters. Ostensibly the plot follows a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, and through its rawness, Welsh draws the reader into a world of urban depravity, Aids, drugs, and individualism – the latter an ironic homage to Thatcher’s neoliberalism, where we see in action what it’s like to live in a world where “there’s no such thing as society”.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

margaret_atwood_the_handmaids_taleCanadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic tells the chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America. Almost 30 years since it was first published, the book is perhaps more vital than ever. Atwood’s lyrical prose is the vehicle used to transport readers to a world where facts appear to merge into one another, and history appears immaterial. This is a fiercely political novel and, while bleak, remains both witty and wise. Arguments continue as to whether this can be classified as a work of science fiction, yet to get caught up in such debates ignores the unarguable fact that this is a truly brilliant novel by an excellent author.

Blindsight – Maurice Gee

BlindsightWidely acclaimed when first published, New Zealand author Maurice Gee’s Blindsight offers readers a complex but knowing portrait of siblings who were once close but are now completely estranged as adults. As the novel evolves, Gee brilliantly draws readers into the past histories of his main protagonists slowly revealing the hidden reasons Allice Ferry and her brother Gordon now live such divergent lives. Deserves to be regarded as one of the best novels published in New Zealand in the past couple of decades.

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

thingfallapartPublished first in 1958 – the time Britain, France and Belgium finally began to recognise the failure of colonialism and begin their unseemly withdrawal – Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history. Setting the book in the late 19th Century – at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by European powers – Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected member of the Igbo clan. Through his eyes, we witness a village that has not changed substantially in generations become utterly transformed upon the arrival of the English. Yet it is the Bible – not the gun – that becomes the most violent weapon of choice by these “clever” white men. Set to remain on of the great novels of the colonial era, and the book that announced Achebe to the world as a most brilliant writer, it would be a disservice not to include this masterpiece on our humble list.

Sheepshagger – Niall Griffiths

SheepshaggerDespite being born in Liverpool, Niall Griffiths’ strong familial ties to Wales earned the dubious honorific “the Welsh Irvine Welsh” for the stunning vernacular monologues in his books ‘Grits’ and ‘Sheepshagger’. Though there are linguistic and political similarities, it’s a disservice to think of Griffiths’ book as an imitation of ‘Trainspotting’. Here we follow anti-hero Ianto – a near mute “inbred” savant with a mystical connection to nature, who divides his time between roaming the mountains of his childhood and accepting whatever drug or drink is offered by his circle of friends. As the novel progresses, we witness near Bacchanalian horrors, a distorted but nonetheless sublime depiction of the natural world, and Ianto’s ultimate downfall. It’s vivid and compelling, a modern sensibility informed by Greek tragedy and the Blakean sublime.

Not just an ordinary reading list

So, there we have it. A finer shortlist of novels than you’re otherwise likely to find today. We may not have the excitement of guessing which of these great books will emerge the ultimate, victorious winner, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. After all, in a way, we’re all winners here. Because we’re the ones who get to go out and read these books and enjoy doing so, without ever having to carry out the agonising process of actually writing the damn things. Some might say such thinking is a bit of a luvvie-duvvie cop out; but nobody wants to treat writing like a competition, right?