I was a little dismayed when I studied the latest Public Lending Right [PLR] figures over the weekend. I’m a great supporter of Public Lending Right; I remember when it was first set up thirty years ago. Originally campaigned for by authors like Brigid Brophy and Antonia Fraser, and more recently Andrew Motion and Monica Ali, its purpose is to make payment (from a fund awarded by the government) to authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. The Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society [ALCS] grew out of the original campaign. I met John Sumsion, its first director and the genius behind the system that computes how much each author should be paid, several times before his untimely death (he had previously worked in I.T. in the shoe industry) and am proud to be able to count its present director, Dr. Jim Parker, who has now been at the helm for twenty-five years, a good friend. He has not only worked tirelessly to support PLR in this country, but has also acted as its ambassador in many countries across the world. He is a published historian who has written brilliantly about the East India Company.
Back to this year’s figures, though. Unsurprisingly, crime novels feature prominently on the lists of books borrowed in 2011-2012. So far so good. I’m by no means a xenophobe when it comes to reading and appreciating the work of other authors, as my blog-posts will testify, yet I do find it a little disheartening to see that, of the twenty crime writers most-borrowed in British public libraries, American authors predominate and that only three British authors – MC Beaton, Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin – have made the top twenty at all. Yet more astonishing is that Ian Rankin, whose books account for 10% of all the crime novels sold in the UK (according to book-industry-produced statistics), ranks as only the twentieth most borrowed author.
Book trade research suggests that people who borrow books also buy books and therefore that libraries and booksellers are not in competition with each other, but have a symbiotic effect on each other’s activities. I wonder how the PLR figures fit in with this? Do people borrow books by authors different from the ones whose works they buy? Are the shelves of our public libraries more heavily stocked with books by American than by British authors and, if so, why? Or is it the case that people are so impatient to read the latest Ian Rankin, Stephen Booth or Peter Robinson that they don’t want to wait for it to become available in the library and so go out and buy it or order it online, at the same time taking out a James Patterson to tide them over? This last is the most optimistic explanation that I can think of, but I should love to undertake some proper research to substantiate my theory!
I’m not usually a big drum banger, but the announcement yesterday of a new version of Life in the United Kingdom, the handbook for would-be British citizens, has got under my skin. I’m familiar with the previous version of this publication, because my daughter-in-law bought it last year to prepare herself for her (successful) bid to become a British national. In the process, she learnt and understood much more about British law and customs (according to the handbook, that is) than any of the born-British members of the family and we were amused and slightly alarmed by the number of hoops through which we should have been unable to jump if we’d had to renew our own citizenship. The sports questions would have been a particular nightmare for me, who eschews ball games and much appreciates walking in deserted local woods and parks on Saturday afternoons when there is a ‘big match’ on. Love of the countryside would seem not to qualify me for being a fine, upstanding Briton.
However, as I’ve said, all that was quite funny. What is not funny is the selection of British authors that, according to Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, aspiring British citizens are supposed to familiarise themselves with. Prominent among these are Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling. I have no quibble with the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, but it doesn’t escape my notice that the two male authors have together been dead for a total of almost 100 years. Conan Doyle died in 1930, which was seventeen years before the British handed India back to the Indians; Kingsley Amis in 1995, the year in which this year’s first-time voters were born. I’m not sure what they have to teach newcomers to the UK about being British today. Conan Doyle is famous for Sherlock Holmes and a dogged belief in the existence of fairies; Kingsley Amis for an admittedly well-crafted series of novels which proclaim the benefits of casual sex, adultery and the flippant flouting of the institution of marriage.
But even this is not what makes me want to bang my drum. What I find really indefensible is that these literary choices take no account of the wonderfully-rich range of cultures and social backgrounds that British authors have come from and drawn upon in the past fifty years. I’m thinking of Monica Ali and Brick Lane; Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day; Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children: all books by British writers from different ethnic origins. Surely novels like these are more relevant to the aspirations of today’s immigrants and offer more to admire in our ethnically-diverse British culture and literature than fairies and infidelity? Besides, in the view of this reader at least, they are much finer works of art.