Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Craft of Blogging – (7) Finding Readers

Is anyone out there? Is anyone reading my blog? I sometimes wondered, especially when I started, but even after nearly two years I check my blog readership most days. One reason to blog, for me, is because it is a kind of ‘citizen publishing’. So there’s no point unless I find readers.

138 google logoThanks to Google Analytics I know quite a bit about how many people read my blog each day, what they are reading and whether they are new readers or returners. I know that if I write about books, the physical objects, I get many comments. Acquiring books, arranging books, decluttering books, art made from books and books for prisoners – these have always provoked responses. My most recent post on this theme is Abandoning Books, which is still attracting interest.

Last SeptemberAnd I also know, thanks to Google Analytics, that some of my book reviews are ‘stayers’, that is that they are read steadily – every week they appear in my top 10 most-read posts. Occasionally another review will join the standards: recently my comments on The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen became even more popular than the evergreen review of Mrs Palfrey in the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Other reviews rise and then fall away again, like Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

mrspalfrey greenThis feedback is very helpful to me to understand the blog’s readership. The statistics are useful, especially as I am not interested in simply maximising the number of readers, for this is not a commercial blog. Rather I want to know which posts are being read.

Getting readers

Here are six things I have learned about building readership in two years of blogging.

  1. Quality matters

138 Oblique bookshelfThe advice from successful bloggers is to post quality items at regular intervals. One reason I am a slow blogger is that I want to be sure of the quality of my writing, after all writing is the subject of my blog. Not only do the books I write about deserve good attention but so do the readers of the blog. Sloppy writing on a post can easily put readers off. I have not returned to blogs where I have suffered this.

And good quality posts include interesting pictures and links.

  1. Post at regular intervals

Regular intervals? Well, I am not sure about this. Do they mean frequent? I’ve said I am a slow blogger. I vary posts irregularly between five and six days. I don’t have any evidence that the variation affects my readership. Some people say that there are good days for posting. Certainly I know that the day fewest readers visit my blog is Saturday. But I doubt whether the day of posting makes much difference to bibliophiles.

  1. Have a subscription button

138 subscribeI encourage readers to subscribe at the end of every post. [Have you signed up?] This means that a steady group of people receive notifications of new posts.

  1. Use twitter to promote the blog

I follow and am followed by many more people on twitter than on my blog. Many of them declare bookish interests. I use hashtags to promote blog-related tweets including about my posts and often they pass them on … hooray for social media. The bookish ones I use are described by blogger Paula Read Nancarrow. I also use #readwomen2014 because I like to promote women writers. I blogged about that here.

  1. Use other connections

When I started blogging two years ago I sent all my friends the link via email. I now have an http link in my e-mail ‘signature’ which I rarely remove. Sometimes I send a friend a link to a post I think will interest them. And I do the same with my reading and writing groups. I try to comment frequently on other blogs. After all I can’t expect comments on my blog from readers unless I do.

  1. Other suggestions – websites, wider social media eg Facebook,

You will read advice to get yourself listed on bookish websites that list blogs, and to use other social media (especially Facebook). I am sure these can be useful. Anyway, I think they may be beyond my current technical capacity!

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Bloggers with large followings: what have you done to promote your blog? What advice do you have to give bloggers who want to reach more readers? What am I missing?

 

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The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

137 LofGG coverThe Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion.

Winifred Holtby came from Yorkshire and knew something of women’s lives. She was also a pacifist, conscious of the damage done by the Great War on the men who fought and the society they defended. I reacquainted myself with her through her poems, which I mentioned in a recent post about women poets of the First World War. The effects of the war echo through this book, in Teddy’s illness, in the Paul Szermai’s long story, in the grinding rural poverty of the Dales. It was first published in 1927.

137 St signThe Land of Green Ginger keeps the war in the background and is mainly concerned with the restrictions upon a young woman’s life. Joanna is a flawed heroine and I think a very believable one. Joanna has spirit and imagination, but they lead her into trouble and she is unable to make the best of them until the end of this novel. She suffers the restrictive view of what her neighbours believe is proper behaviour, their condemnation of her lack of ability to fulfil her roles as mother, housekeeper and farmer’s wife. Her ambition and lack of consciousness of what is proper scandalises them. She struggles to rise above her difficulties, especially as she and her family live in desperate poverty, dogged by the ill health of Teddy and their oldest child.137 Virago green cover

Those things that she wished for – travel, excitement and exoticism – come to her life as mixed blessings. She finds love with a young man, because he impresses her with a single comment:

‘I’ve just been given the world to wear as a golden ball.’ (18)

We might understand Joanna’s enthusiasm for Teddy a little more if he had been referring to her, but in fact he has just been passed fit to join up as a soldier in 1914. Later we find out that he was tubercular and being passed fit makes him briefly believe that he is cured. They marry and he returns from the war to Joanna and their two daughters with his health ruined and facing a slow death on their unsuccessful farm.

Deftly, Winifred Holtby paints their declining situation and Joanna’s response to their difficulties. We are being invited to admire her spirit, even if her lack of realism will cause problems.

Scatterthwaite lay two and a half miles from Letherwick in Lindersdale. Like many other farms in the North Riding of Yorkshire it had a house built of grey stone, with a steep roof of dark slate. The house faced a narrow strip of garden with some gooseberry bushes, a mossy path and a weed-grown flower-bed. The back opened onto a yard entered by two gates: one from the high road over the hills, one from the low road round the Fell. …

Joanna used to think that the house was like a ship, and the rolling curve of the moors like great ocean waves. Its windows at night shone like the port-holes of a tramp steamer, ploughing its way up the North Sea in dirty weather. She had never seen ships except in Kingsport Docks and from the esplanade at Hardrascliff, but she felt they were like this …

[They] had been here for five years, and he had lost money every year. (36-7)

Their poverty and difficult farm grind them down until a friendly neighbour supplies them with a lodger. The young man is Hungarian, and provides temporary financial security and some exoticism for Joanna. Foresters from the continent have been brought over to create woodland and their manager Paul Szermai invites Teddy and her to a camp dance. Joanna is captivated by the dancing of these men from unfamiliar countries. Paul has his own sad love story to which Joanna listens with sympathy. The villagers believe she and the Hungarian are having an affair, (even Teddy came to believe it) especially when it is known that she is carrying a third child after Teddy’s death.

This part of the book sits uneasily with present day sensibilities, for Teddy raped her before he died, an act she sees as his bid for life. Marital rape was not a concept in common use in the years between the wars. But we are left in no doubt that it was rape, even if Joanna ‘understands’ Teddy’s motivation.

Joanna eventually attains her ambition to travel and in doing this finds calmness and a companionship in the excitement of her younger daughter. And in a delicate touch, Winifred Holtby also indicates that Joanna was able to influence another younger women to embrace braver futures. Here is the description of a young girl looking at Joanna as they prepare to board a ship to South Africa.

Without being beautiful she conveyed an impression of beauty, and the young wife, watching her, felt new conviction that life was a wonderful and fine adventure, and that her voyage to Africa was going to be the cumulating experience of her youth. The sorrow which had marked the older woman’s face held no fear for the girl, and when, as the tender drew up to the side of the ship, the young wife accidentally knocked against her and apologized, she received a smile so friendly and assured, that the nervousness and emotion of parting from her family left her, and she climbed onto the ship behind her husband with a sense of confidence and freedom. (274)

The novels of Winifred Holtby deserve to be better known. Her women are real, have a vision of a better life and the energy to do something about it. But they are flawed and had to face economic, social and health problems of the inter-war years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Three other book blog reviews of The Land of Green Ginger

Juxtabook also liked Joanna – ‘one of the most startling and memorable heroines that I have had the pleasure to encounter in a long time’.

SheReadsNovels found it dark and emotional but it left her feeling hopeful.

Fleur in her World had mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about it.

The novels of Winifred Holtby

  • Anderby Wold (1923)
  • The Crowded Street (1924)
  • The Land of Green Ginger (1927)
  • Poor Caroline (1931)
  • Mandoa! Mandoa! (1933)
  • South Riding (1936)

 

Have you read this or other novels by Winifred Holtby? Or her poetry? What were your reactions?

 

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Books by women that changed my life

Guess which book written by a woman was voted the most influential! Following the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize this year (Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) the organisers launched a campaign to find novels ‘that have impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’. The top 20 were reported in the Guardian in July.

136 Mockingbird coverTop of the list was To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I suspect that some of its influence is due to the 1962 film of the book, starring Gregory Peck. It’s also a book that is often on the school curriculum, despite Michael Gove’s attempts to promote British fiction over all others. (For readers outside the UK, Gove was the Conservative Secretary of State for Education until recently.)

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

  1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

136 Pride & PrejI loved To Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it. But it is not my first choice for the ten most influential books. Indeed my choices are very different from the full list of 20.

My list of 10 most influential books by women:

Some of these I have mentioned before in a post called Ten books that made me think. That list included books by men, but this list is confined to women. It is #Readwomen2014 after all.

These are in chronological order, rather than reflecting any hierarchy of influence.

  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge: a manual for growing up a good girl, now rejected!
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: perhaps the source of my enduring love of history and the reason it was the focus of my first degree.
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden: adolescence anticipated.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: nothing to be said except it is #6 on the Baileys’s list.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: a world where gender was not predominant fed into my growing feminism.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: another classic and #16 on the list.
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: more feminism.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French: yet more feminism.
  • Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun: see my post about this one, here.

49 Golden nbook

What I like about this topic is that it bypasses any notion of favourite. What would be on your list of influential books by women?

 

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Books for Prisoners

I saw that every night that I read I was being cleansed of my sins, and that if I didn’t read I would rove the narrow, basalt-stoned, dank streets of the Castle of Sinners. I learned that not reading was to summon one’s sins. I learned that reading was the thing that tied me to life and rendered me sinless. As I read I saw that six-square-metre cell transformed into the world’s biggest centre for hermetic seclusion: a sanctuary, a colossal temple, a school where wise sages sat and debated.

As I read in prison I became myself, I returned to being myself, I added colour and harmony to my stagnant life. As I read I became myself.

(From Reading in Gaol, by Muharrem Erbey, translated from the Turkish by Erda Halisdemir. Published in The Author in Autumn 2014.)

Why does the Minister of Justice in the UK, Chris Grayling ignore the impact of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP), which limits prisoners’ access to books. And why does he ignore the effects of staffing cuts on prisoners’ access to prison libraries? Access to books in prisons is part of a dubious behaviour control policy. I have written about this before, in March 2014, see Books in Prison.

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

And why do Conservative MPs (my MP anyway) not engage with the issues? Actually I know the answer to that question, but it’s still frustrating! And why is Simon Hughes, Lib Dem minister at the Justice Department openly challenging Chris Grayling about so much of his prisons policy, including limiting books to prisoners (reported in the Independent on 7th November 2014).

Why does it matter?

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

I care passionately about books and education. In Norah Colvin’s phrase I am a meliorist. They are civilising influences in a world where powerful forces seem to want to revert to the worst of human nature. This government seems to represent the view that a prisoner forfeits all rights to be treated decently, as if the person is the crime.

I do not believe it is wise to make prisoners resent their treatment. Rather we should provide all possible opportunities for them to read and learn and reflect on life, their own as well as their victims, and the lives of others – in short to return to their best selves. Everyone can benefit from reading about the world, how it is, how it could be and how people live in this world.

Muharrem Erbey kept his best self alive and provides the eloquent vindication of reading in prison quoted above. He was in Diyarbakir High Security Prison for more than four years as a result of his Human Rights activities in Turkey. He determined to turn his situation to advantage by reading.

In the new worlds open to me by the books there was beauty beyond my wildest fantasies. I was free in that world. And everyone was equal. There were no walls. There were no doors that shut on people.

I wrote to my MP

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

I try to take action when I adopt a strong position on an issue. In this case I did what active British citizens can do – I wrote to my MP – Anne Marie Morris. I complained about the reduced access by prisoners to books and libraries as a result of staffing cuts to the prison service. And I asked some pertinent questions about my local prison – Channing Woods.

In February 2013 an inspection report suggested that some prisoners were spending up to 20 hours a day confined to their cells. Since then there has been unrest among the prisoners. And this summer staff voiced their own worries about staffing levels.

I would like answers to the following questions:

How often can prisoners visit the library at Channings Wood Prison?

Who runs the library at Channings Wood Prison, and what is its budget?

From which outlets can prisoners buy books in the prison?

Can prisoners get specialist books from the library if they have a hobby or are doing a course?

I received no answer to these questions, no reference to Channings Wood at all in her letter. Rather my MP responded to some points I had not made, including this statement.

There has been a considerable amount of misinformation on this issue recently. Books are not banned [this I know] – indeed all prisoners have access to the professionally run prison library service.

That’s why I was asking about access to the library at Channings Wood, especially in the light of the prison staff’s own concerns about staffing levels.

I shall have to write again.

Can you take some action?

See what writers and others concerned about this issue have been doing:

  • Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Wilson, Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Maureen Freely and Joanne Harris have called for the justice select committee to consider the impact of the IEP scheme in November 2014 (details from English Pen here);
  • There was a silent protest during a House of Commons justice select committee hearing in June 2014;
  • Leading writers (Mark Haddon, AL Kennedy, Rachel Billington), protested at Downing Street, also in June 2014;
  • Publishers led by Pavilion Books organised a fundraiser event called A Night in the Cells in May 2014.
Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Campaigning has brought a small concession: prisoners will not in future be limited to 12 books per cell.

See also The Howard League for Penal Reform and English Pen for details about the campaign activities.

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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The Samuel Johnson Prize Winner

129 Hawk coverYesterday it was announced that the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction is Helen Macdonald for H is for Hawk. You can find my review here.

I loved it. It fully deserves to win.

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald.

And great to hear BBC Radio 3 announcing it on the national news this morning: announcing a literary non-fiction prize winner! A book makes national news.

 

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Retiring with Attitude in Leatherhead

My father only had two jokes. One was about a golden screw that replaced a tummy button (much loved by small children) and the other referred to Leatherhead. Neither is very funny. So Leatherhead has childhood resonances for me and until last week I had never been there. On Wednesday evening, Eileen and I were at a library event to promote our recently published book: Retiring with Attitude.

101 RWA cover

Why do we do it?

Yes Eileen, why do we do it? I had to come up from Devon. Our journey from Eileen’s house took place in the rush hour (which had a special flavour as Eileen was deliberately pushed from behind because she ‘slowed down at the ticket barrier’). Why do we wrap our selves up and go out on a wet and windy night to address complete strangers? This is how we answered our own question:133 EC & I

We have something to say to people about retiring

We want to engage with others about our ideas and their responses

We want to extend our ideas about retiring, to be stimulated

We enjoy doing things together

It’s more exciting than knitting in front of the telly

It’s part of publishing a book

It’s a pleasure being involved with people who do their work so professionally

To support libraries

We get paid.

The money wasn’t the thing, by the way. But we do believe that writers should be paid for their work, which includes events to promote their books.

Preparation

We always approach these events with a learning model in mind – in this case reviewing what we have done previously, reflecting on how well it went and then planning with these points in mind.

So on this occasion we decided to read from the book – seems obvious really, but we hadn’t done it at the Ways with Words Festival; to be more explicit about our reasons for writing the book; and to be ready with nuanced, flexible and analytic responses to points raised.

We wrote our scripts and practised on each other in the morning, bolstered by the publicity on the web that said …

they will be presenting their take on retirement warmth and humour.

What happened?

The library in Leatherhead is in an old manor house and the library staff were rightly proud of the premises. It was like visiting a second hand bookshop which houses its enticing collection in different rooms and you can wander through them expecting to make discoveries at every moment.

The library staff were well organised and very supportive to us – such a pleasure to work with such competent and charming people, especially Liam who picked us up at the station and Tom, who took the photos.133 EC

The audience were responsive, especially to the anecdotes in our book, and added their own – who can forget the battle of the fridge? Some of the audience had already read our book and came because of that. Others were being introduced to it.

The session went as we hoped, starting with the general (why we wrote the book, how retirement has changed) and focusing later on a few particulars (need for new connections in retirement, making the transition out of work, the ‘could-you-just syndrome’).

It was fun to sign some of the copies being sold, talking to people about their retirement and their hopes for the future.

Feedback from participants

A message from the library told us:

The feedback from the audience is overwhelmingly positive. They really enjoyed how you brought their discussions into it – one person said it was ‘refreshingly different’. Another says, ‘it gives us hope!’ and someone else, ‘Good to talk about the ‘problems’ of being retired which don’t usually get discussed …’

Refreshing? We want our book to reach the parts other books don’t reach. So that’s good.

What did we learn?

Preparation is important, especially working together on this and adjusting and monitoring the way we introduce our book.

It’s easy and good to interact with people in a small group (about 30 people on this occasion).133 EC &I laugh

People are enthusiastic about what we have to say. Well several people said they found the session and the book helpful. That’s why we write.

On the train home, we thought we should have finished with another last story from the book: Mavis (you know who you are) and her daily champagne! Next time!

The Leatherhead joke?

I did warn you.

During the war, in Britain, all road signs were removed to confuse the enemy if they invaded. Of course lots of residents were confused as well. A man in a car was lost, so seeing a local person he rolled down his window and shouted: ‘Leatherhead?’ Back came the reply: ‘Fishface!’

You’ll have to wait for the other joke.

 

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