Grateful we still have novels

My son tells me I have to stop lecturing people at book events about only buying at independent bookstores. I guess he would also admonish me for glaring at bookclubbers who have bought online (and are caught redhanded because they have another country’s cover). It’s not that I’m wrong, he said, but lecturing people won’t make them do it and the way I approach the topic is just sad. I think he may be right. My dour Scottish heritage always leads me to death and doom, but in this case, I’m starting to understand, I might even be wrong. Novels are still in the world, and so are bookstores that sell them and writers who write them, even if everything is changing and times are tough. Because readers. There are still readers.

When I do my ‘buy at independent bookstores’ schtick, I start with Fahrenheit 451, the novel by Ray Bradbury about a society in which novels are banned, and go on to say I thought it would be Nineteen Eighty-Four that led to the death of novels, totalitarianism, but it’s instead been Brave New World, the instant bliss of the internet our soma. We’ve been lulled by dopamine. I tell people that we’re what’s left of book-reading. We’re the people of the book, and we must keep books alive. Blah blah blah. It is rather sad. I go on to say that if people want a reading community, they must buy their books from the few independent bookstores left. Geez! Readers don’t need me to tell them that nothing is free in this world, that when you save your pennies you sometimes spend your lifeblood.

I could be more grateful. Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be invited to Anna’s Shop Around the Corner in Cronulla south of Sydney to talk about my novel The True Story of Maddie Bright. Anna’s is a second-hand bookstore and cafe run by Anna Loder who loves to read. Anna has gathered a local community who love to read too (and also cake). After Anna’s partner (in a kilt!) piped a sweet, mournful song in the park next to the shop, Anna and I chatted (more giggled together) and then people asked questions I haven’t been asked for years, how I do research, how long a book takes to write, what I enjoy about writing (I had to think about that one). The enthusiasm, not just in Anna but in all of the people there, would reassure even the most dour Dugald of the MacColl clan.

There are hardly any novels reviewed in news media these days—about which we writers complain bitterly—but readers meantime are busy blogging and Goodreading and eating banana cake at Anna’s to share their reading experiences. Since The True Story of Maddie Bright was published, readers have availed themselves of various online forums to interact with Maddie’s story. Many love the book (AS THEY SHOULD!) and one or two don’t. Although my publisher tells me I shouldn’t read negative reader reviews because they will upset me, I don’t mind as much as you might expect.

I’ve just finished Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’s novel about life, death and what our short time on earth might mean. I don’t know how it got published. I try to imagine pitching it! “Okay, so Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid and Lincoln visited the boy’s tomb and held his body in his presidential arms, so this is a book about ghosts and a quest to see Willie safely to the other side.” But there you are. It’s published, won the Pulitzer Prize and I got to read it and it affirmed my total besottedness with what makes us human. It changed me.

Research is confirming what we already know, that reading books, novels especially, makes us bigger, more empathetic humans. I would go further. When we read a novel, even if, like some of my Goodreaders, we don’t relate to it too well, we mostly still get on board and go on a bit of a journey of understanding (or resisting understanding) with the characters. Novels are a way to explore human experience deeply, using nothing but characters in action over time dealing with whatever is in the unconscious of the writer that speaks to the reader. So while Maddie Bright gets her wisdom, her story ranges over fame, celebrity and the profession of journalism in the sweep of history as well as lost babies. It does this without once shouting at you. Perhaps especially because of what the internet has become, the novel’s utility is far from spent in our world.

As for my colleagues, I know our lives are harder than they were twenty years ago when I set out. Some who ought to be published can’t get published and those who do get published are not doing very well. There are many more titles but fewer copies of each title sold. You can’t make a living. Mirroring the wider society where there are the uber-rich and then that big gap that used to be the middle class, there are writers who have made millions and then pretty-well the rest of us. So what? I say. We can find other ways to eat but what we get to do with our lives, to live in the world and then create stories people want to hear, is worth something. 

Same goes for the local community-based bookstores, also doing it tough. Physical bookstores provide places for communities of readers to meet, and that matters. But I’m not going to lecture anymore. It seems apposite to finish with a gift from one of the ghosts who inhabit Lincoln in the bardo: “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact...” 

I will be at the delightfully graffitied Books@Stones next Thursday 2 May at 6pm, signing books and talking about dear Maddie, like I was at Anna’s, and I know I will find people who love to read novels. Hopefully, I won’t give them a lecture. What a good old world I live in.