Anna Gutowska: Claire, for many years you were head of books at The Guardian, and now you are the associate editor for culture. You present The Guardian’s very popular weekly book podcast. You interview writers and sit on book prize jury panels. Many people would say that it is a dream job: you’re essentially getting paid for reading books, talking to writers, travelling to literary festivals. What steps led you to this point in your life where you are now?
Claire Armitstead: I read English literature at university. I graduated in the early 1980s and decided I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. As a first step towards this, I got a job in South Wales as a trainee. I wanted to cover the mining industry there, but they wouldn’t let women into any of the miners’ lodges. You couldn’t really be an industrial correspondent in Wales at that time as a woman, and that’s how I got dragged back towards culture – though culture was I suppose where I would always have ended up.
The good thing about my start was that I am a craft-trained journalist. That means I know how to do shorthand and typing, how to interview people. In a way, my training makes me untypical for a literary journalist. A lot of literary journalists and reviewers come from academia and they have no background in journalism. In fact, this is what makes literary criticism different from other types of art criticism: they have jobs attached to them, whereas literary criticism really often doesn’t. So people who do it need to have other jobs. They tend to be university lecturers or writers.
As a craft-trained journalist, what I bring to my job are my investigative skills. Another thing that comes from my early training is knowing how to tell a story. I really think it is such an underrated part of journalism: the basic ability to construct a story that people want to read. Particularly in culture, we have to be interesting. Otherwise, we will vanish.
We have to accept that literature now is a niche. Film has definitely much more traffic, much more currency today than what we do. It needs a lot of energy and enthusiasm to read books. It is very exhausting. And that is another reason why I believe we should be as generous as we possibly can in our interpretation of what reading is. For example, my son doesn’t read books, but he knows a lot about films, and together we can talk about literature and films and find common ground.
I accept that people can have perfectly good intelligent lives without reading novels. But if there is any way in which I can have a conversation with them and introduce them to a novel, I would do that. If I can draw them in, that’s great for me.
Book readership levels are declining both in the UK and in Poland. Fewer and fewer people say that they have read “one book or more” in the course of the previous year. Do you think that it’s a real problem, and something should be done about it? Or maybe it doesn’t make sense to quarrel with the zeitgeist?
I think it’s a real problem. It’s not just the fact that we read less books, but also that we just read less of any kind of text. I believe that reading is entirely important. The school theoretically teaches children numeracy and literacy, but we mostly use the two terms in a very conservative, narrow way. In fact, when we talk about literacy, it has two meanings. Primarily, “being able to read” just means the skill itself – not being able to read would make one’s life in the modern world near impossible.
It’s not just the fact that we read less books, but also that we just read less of any kind of text.
But – to define it more broadly – “being able to read” also means being able to read critically. If you can’t do this, if you can’t recognize certain types of texts as manipulative or persuasive, then you’re lost in this world. Advertisements for example try to manipulate you into doing things they want.
So in fact this is the kind of literacy that should be taught in schools? Reading critically? Decoding manipulation?
Yes. Personally I think it’s important to teach children at a very young age how to read critically. They should be taught how to do it very early, and also they should learn to enjoy it. They may never read a novel as adults, but they’ve learned about the power of the word, and how to interrogate the word. That’s a crucial modern skill. It would also be useful for other areas of culture, like films, graphic novels or advertising.
How much do you read yourself? In one of your previous interviews you said that you get four hundred books on your desk every week.
Yes! All addressed to me, personally!
So how can you cope?
Well, as for the four hundred books, of course I don’t read them all. They are all addressed to me and they land on my desk, but then they are subject to our sorting system – we divide the spoils among our specialists.
But there’s no denying that I read an awful lot. I tend to read between 6 and 8 o’clock in the morning, and I read at night. I also read a lot on the weekends. Reading two or three novels on a weekend is quite normal for me, and it’s the same for my team of course. So together, we can get through a lot of reading during a week.
How do you know which books out of the four hundred you should read personally?
Of course I want to read all the big new releases, all the books that are listed for literary prizes, and the books by people whom I’m interviewing for my podcast. But my choices are also down to instinct. If you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you have an eye for things that are important.
There were 160 000 books published in 2015, the last year we have full statistics for, and this is only in the UK. And it doesn’t even include self-publishing. Of course, only a very small portion of those come to us. Very often the publicists just know that it’s just no use sending them to us, for example cookery books, which have a better chance to be reviewed by other outlets. The industry has a very good sorting system that makes sure that books will find their way to media outlets that will be interested in reviewing them.
Sometimes you just have to say “this is a good book, and we’ve missed it – that’s fine”.
However, we also miss books all the time. I can say that now we really have no pride: if we miss a book and it comes up on a prize list, we will pick it up late and review it – we wouldn’t pretend that it doesn’t exist – this is how things were sometimes done in the past, out of misplaced pride. Now the market is just so huge, that sometimes you just have to say “this is a good book, and we’ve missed it – that’s fine”.
How is the books team organized? How many people work at the books desk at The Guardian?
The books desk used to be ten people, now it has gone down to around six. But I can always ask people from other departments to write for us. One of our ideas is to push books beyond the books department – to have books mentioned in the comment pages, in the political news, in the lifestyle section. If I can make connections like this, I will be pushing books in their direction.
This approach is again connected to my background: I’m a journalist who happens to write about books – I’m not predominantly a book critic. I want to build connections between journalism and books. It’s important that there’s a two-way relationship. It’s also really important to me that the rest of the paper should think that books are sexy. Anything that I can do to make that happen, I’ll do. If it means interviewing EL James or writing about Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll do it.
I want to build connections between journalism and books.
Sometimes pop culture can be a great point of entry: I’ve actually interviewed Sarah Waters in connection with the Korean film The Handmaiden, as the film is actually a very loose adaptation of her novel Fingersmith. The film is very erotic, it’s actually all about pornography. The success of the film has allowed me to interview Sarah Waters and talk about Fingersmith, which was published in 2002, so on its own it is really old news. But the film has given it a new lease of life. We play these tricks all the time in order to get ourselves a wider readership.
Because of your job and of how much you read, you are ideally placed to notice trends on the book market. What do you think is going to be fashionable two years from now?
I have two answers to the “futurology of publishing” question. One is what’s going to be fashionable, and the other’s what’s going to be published – and that’s not the same thing.
What’s fashionable in terms of themes is going to be literature that reflects the changes happening in the world. What does it mean to be in Trump’s America, what does it mean to be in post-Brexit Britain, what does it mean to be in Europe at the point when the European Union might be breaking up… or at least weakening… after so many years of expanding.
We have rediscovered our love of the book.
And in terms of technology, in the short term I think we are going to see continued investment in the book as a physical object. We have rediscovered our love of the book. Everybody was very frightened about digital technologies, and then they’ve realized that the traditional publishers will have to up their game. And now everybody is falling in love again with the book as a beautiful object, and as a fantastic piece of technology.
The second part of my answer is what’s going to be published. I think that’s more problematic. Especially in our part of the world there are these big conglomerates, and they are getting increasingly centralized. Their willingness to take risks is getting smaller and smaller. There’s a particular problem with mid-list mid-career writers. Sometimes a writer will have one success, and then they will write five books which are less successful. Such writers need somebody to believe in them. If they don’t have somebody to back them, they will disappear. And we will never get the sixth book that is the masterpiece.
You’ve mentioned the big international publishing houses and their unwillingness to take risks. But don’t you think that self-publishing is pushing in the opposite direction? With self-publishing, niche writers or niche books can have a presence on the market and find their audience.
Personally I think that self-publishing has yet to prove its relevance. There are hundreds of thousands of genre novels and high school novels that are being self-published, but they have no lasting significance. I tried very hard for three years on The Guardian to discover great literature that was coming out of self-publishing, and I have failed so far. We don’t have the algorithms to find it – there is simply too much. That is not to say that some of these books will not be popular – but people who read them read them for other reasons than interest in literature.
When it comes to traditional publishing, the novel as a form is very much dominant. Which sub-genres of the novel are fashionable now, and which have fallen out of fashion?
Crime is massive at the moment, also because of television. Crime has found a very good niche for itself, because of psycho-geography. In England we read Nordic noir partly because it gives us the feeling of being transported into a very cold, foreign country. What the travel writers were doing in the 1980s, the crime writers are doing now. They show us the different landscapes, the different ways people live, their different psychologies and different sorts of societies.
Crime has found a very good niche for itself, because of psycho-geography.
Another big trend now is that serious writers are flirting with genre, especially with historical novel. It all started with Hilary Mantel and her two Bookers for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In her Thomas Cromwell novels, Mantel has really reinvented this period, which was mostly the domain of bodice-rippers, as a literary form. I think this connection between the historical novel and literary fiction is getting stronger and stronger. What Hilary Mantel is doing is very revisionistic. It’s well researched, of course, but it is really not the kind of fiction that comes out of the library. It is first and foremost fiction.
There are also other writers in that strand. There is an annual prize for the best historical novel in the UK, called the Walter Scott Prize. We don’t usually take very much notice of it, but when I had a look at the 2017 shortlist, these were some of the best novels that had been published. There is Graham Swift for example, with his excellent short novel Mothering Sunday, a coming-of-age story of a young woman set in the 1920s. His protagonist is a housemaid – she looks at herself in the mirror and suddenly you can see the modern body awareness coming into being.
Another shortlisted writer is Francis Spufford. He has been a respected non-fiction writer for many years, and now he wrote his first novel, set in eighteenth-century New York. It’s called Golden Hill and it’s set in a New York which is a tiny little frontier town. It references Swift, it plays with the sensibilities of the eighteenth-century novel, but it’s not antiquarian. It’s telling a contemporary story, and it’s very radical in its way.
And the writer who won the prize in 2017 is Sebastian Barry. The novel is called Days Without End. It’s about a two young men in American Civil War. They are both gay and one of them is a transvestite, which might seem far-fetched, but it’s totally credible as a piece of historical fiction. It brings a modern sensibility to a story set in the past. This cross between historical novel and literary fiction is I think very exciting.
All of them sound fascinating. Let’s hope Polish publishers will also start paying attention to the Walter Scott Prize shortlist.
One should always pay great attention to shortlists. I know I do. Award lists have a way of showing you trends.
How do you see the responsibility of the literary critic today? Should they champion new authors and new books, or should they act more as curators, telling their readers what is worthwhile?
I would definitely say that book critics who do their job well are also curators. They shape the public taste and they are responsible for what they promote. They also have a role creating “salons” – spaces (usually virtual spaces now) where people can talk about literature, where they can exchange their opinions. Many book bloggers are very good at this, they could be called the modern day salonistes.
Many book bloggers could be called the modern day salonistes.
The role of the book journalist or book blogger as a saloniste is very important. During my visit to the Big Book Festival I met a Polish journalist called Anna Dziewit-Meller, who was very clear about how careful she is with her public persona, and how responsible she feels for what she recommends to her readers. I think people like her do a very impressive job.
Personally, I see myself more as a curator than a saloniste, because my readership is wider and more diverse. You always have a sense of what you think is culturally valuable, and also what is not valuable or even culturally dangerous.
We’re not producing the same books pages at The Guardian that The Daily Mail is producing, because we come from different political and ideological places. Our worldviews inform what we see as valuable: what we review, and also whom we commission to write the reviews. Another important decision is how much space we give to a particular piece. For example, at The Guardian we are not great on genre. We review a lot of genre literature, but we give it rather short reviews.
Do you think that is going to change, seeing that genre literature is increasingly entering the mainstream?
I don’t think it will change soon: for us it’s also an economic decision. At The Guardian we still pay our critics properly, and we can only pay for a few reviews per week. It’s also tied up to the amount of pages we have – these decisions are still based on the print version of the paper. What would happen if the paper version was completely phased out? I suspect the money would disappear completely, but it would also free us in a way.
The Guardian’s business model is really unique in that you don’t have a paywall. You just ask people to contribute whatever is think is right for the content that they enjoy reading.
It has been very successful so far. Two years ago we had 60 000 supporters and now we have 800,000. But it still doesn’t replace advertising. Newspapers now are under serious threat, as most of our revenue still comes from advertisements in the print version.
Newspapers now are under serious threat, as most of our revenue still comes from advertisements in the print version.
The “death of the newspaper” has been predicted for at least twenty years, but the print newspapers are still very much around.
The advertising revenues are going down all the time. If you imagine an airplane coming down and a missile coming up to meet it, you need to keep the nose of the airplane up enough for them to meet, because the gap is bankruptcy. The problem is that the digital revenues are flatlined – they are no longer coming up. However, we are heading in the right direction. Luckily, because we are a trust, we still have five or six years to do it.
For some years now we have been thinking about different ways to adjust to the changing reality, and one of them was actually the move of The Guardian to a new building. The new office plan actually reflects our journalistic vision: the editors said that we have to move to the footprint of the future, not of the present.
The new vision for The Guardian, that we started to work toward maybe ten years ago, is for a multimedia, multinational, global media outlet. When I went for my first site visit, I suddenly saw that the space for multimedia and audio is as big as the entire space devoted to the culture departments of two paper newspapers. So I immediately saw that we need to commandeer that space, we need to be out there.
So it was a bold move that has paid off?
Absolutely. And that was because we had a visionary editor. The way that we operate now is tied up with the architecture, but it comes from the original journalistic vision.
And what is the role of social media in The Guardian’s global presence?
When I started, I was a traditional books editor. My job was to commission reviews for the paper. Then we decided that we were going to become “web first”. It was at the birth of Twitter, and I realized that because books have a communal aspect to them, we have to go big on this. We invested a lot of energy into the social media. So now on The Guardian, Books are second biggest or maybe third biggest account – after News and Technology. We have 2.4 million followers. And that’s part of the strategy to make ourselves heard in the global conversation.
What would be your recommendations for book journalism and book criticism in Poland?
That’s a difficult question for me, I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the situation in Poland to fully answer this. But I think I actually have one recommendation. After my conversations with the Polish journalists during this trip I understand that the Polish book market is all about the most recent releases. Books have a very short shelf life in terms of sales, but also in terms of reviewing and criticism. In daily newspapers and in literary magazines you will only find critical pieces on books that have just been released, there will be nothing on older books.
All the clever boys want to be Joseph Conrad!
At The Guardian, we are really good at re-readings – we will publish new pieces on the classics, that reevaluate them, or that can introduce them to new readers. We commission modern writers to do this. We had AS Byatt do a piece on George Eliot for example. And I just remembered a Polish connection: Joseph Conrad seems to be having a moment now. All the clever boys want to be Joseph Conrad!
Why do they want to be Conrad? Why not Dickens or Hemingway?
Because Conrad hits the sweet spot of both being very popular, but also serious. All those political and philosophical ideas wrapped up in an adventure story. It’s very fashionable right now, among very clever young men. Another thing that makes Conrad so of-the-moment is his African connection, his view of colonialism. Conrad uses the exciting, exotic settings, but he is not as naïve about them as for example Rider Haggard or other popular writers. Conrad can somehow make everybody happy: both the old colonial readers who want an adventure story, and the geeky university readers.
It’s time for my final question. You came to Warsaw to give a talk about the future of reading, and about reading in the times of post-truth. What is your most important message regarding the future of reading?
I feel I’ve come here under slightly false pretenses. Because my talk here at the Big Book Festival was on the future of reading, now everybody treats me like a prophet. Of course it’s impossible to say with certainty what “the future of reading” will look like. I can only say that I’m very optimistic about reading, I think it’s going to survive no matter what.
I’m very optimistic about reading, I think it’s going to survive no matter what.
And there’s one thing I do know about the future: we are living at a time of intense technological change. Culture moves forward. But in the middle of the digital revolution, I’m fascinated by the resilience of the old technologies. I talked before about the resurgence of interest in the book as a physical object, and this is very much happening right now in the UK. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but the paper book is just an amazing piece of technology: it is relatively cheap to produce now, it is very versatile and very resilient. It can last for centuries.
Another good case in point is the humble pencil. In its present form, it was invented in the North of England in 1565, when large deposits of graphite were discovered in a mine. The advantages of writing in pencil as opposed to pen and ink are obvious: you don’t need to worry that you will run out of ink, you can rub out what you wrote. The pencil is cheap and reliable. Actually, when in 2005 the Forbes magazine made a list of twenty greatest inventions in the history of humanity, the pencil was number four. And the first three were the knife, the abacus and the compass.
It’s the pencil that will save us in the end!
Like the book, the pencil is a very fine piece of technology: you can use it underwater, or up in space. After the apocalypse, when all technology crashes, what will survive will be books and pencils. And the pencil will probably survive the book, because books will be burned for warmth. As for pencils, they will not make very good firewood, because they are so small. So after we’ve burned the last book, we can start making new books again with the pencils. So as you see, it’s the pencil that will save us in the end!
You say it waving your pencil in the air!
Yes! I simply love my pencils!
Thank you for the conversation.