It was a bit disappointing to hear about a bookstore chain getting a bashing this week. Not least because I can’t wait to see my own book, The Story Collector, stocked there! I wrote a post last year about Book Snobs and how readers often feel judged for what they read as well as how they read, but with the recent WH Smith story, it seems there are those who will judge you for where you buy your books! A Which survey voted it the worst store on the UK high street (you can read The Bookseller article here) but authors such as Joanne Harris (or My Joanne as I call her!) have been quick to defend the retailer and its patrons, calling out an undercurrent of snobbery among those who have accused the store of being ‘a chocolate shop pretending to be a stationary shop’.
Literacy is, by and large, a class issue. So are education, poverty, health and diet. Shopping habits vary according to class. Those who say otherwise, or claim that “anyone who works is working-class”, or that acknowledging class issues is patronising, are part of the problem.
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) May 29, 2018
I’m not sure we have the same kind of snobbery here when it comes to bookshops – at least not that I’m aware of. In Galway city, Easons, Dubrays and Charlie Byrne’s all seem to rub along nicely together, it just depends what you’re looking for. And if you’re still book-hungry, you can pop across the road to the library where, shock horror, you can get books for free! I know that library services are being cut all across the UK, something which seems to be decided by people who have probably never used a library and fail to see the need for free access to books. So there’s a bit of a trend emerging which divides the haves and have-nots and when that kind of elitism invades the realm of arts and culture, we need to speak out.
As a writer, I couldn’t care less how people get their hands on my books (as long as it’s legal!). And I hate the thought of someone feeling intimidated by a bookshop, because that is not what the authors want. It reminds me of a gallery I went to years ago – it was very trendy and full of people with, as my mother would say, more money than sense. They were talking utter shite, like someone who’s taken a crash course in wine tasting just to sound knowledgeable and I kept thinking, the artist would HATE this! Art is created on kitchen tables, in cramped spare rooms, by people wearing crappy clothes and eight-day-old hair. They don’t want their audience to feel intimidated. Art should be inclusive and I love when places like cafes exhibit art or fill their shelves with books. Art needs to be out in the community where people can access it.
Because there is a knock-on effect when we judge people for how, what, when, why they read (or don’t read at all). It makes people feel excluded – like they’re locked out of a world that thinks they’re not good enough to be a part of. I read a great article recently by Kit de Waal in The Guardian in which she revealed that she read her first novel (voluntarily) at the age of 22. Not all authors grow up steeped in books or houses doubling as libraries. I think there is a perception there that most authors were complete bookworms, working their way through the classics before hitting puberty! She even admits that buying hardbacks is a treat she cannot always afford – same Kit, same. So when you hear people being snobby about books, as a writer, it makes no sense. Writing is an equal opportunities affliction – it’s just that you might not hear as much about the working classes in fiction. This is something Kit De Waal is trying to address and in fact, just this morning it was announced that newcomer Stephen Morrison-Burke is the first recipient of the Kit de Waal Scholarship that funds a place on the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, London.
We need to hear all kinds of voices if we are to keep books relevant and relatable. We want to engage readers, not alienate them. 1 in 6 adults has literacy difficulties in Ireland (www.nala.ie) so we need to focus on improving access to books and reading. Books and the possibilities that lie within them, are for everyone.