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National Library of Scotland

Saltire Society Literary Awards 2011

December 1st, 2011 by Claire_Squires | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Alasdair Gray's award winning A Life in Pictures

Professor Claire Squires, Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication, has this year been one of the judges for the Saltire Society Literary Awards. The Awards were made today in a ceremony at the National Library of Scotland. She writes here about her experience of being a judge:

For a while now, I’ve had a research interest in literary prizes. I organised a conference on the topic in 2003, at which James F English gave a keynote lecture which would eventually end up as part of his impressive book on cultural awards, The Economy of Prestige. I’ve also written about literary prizes, including in my book Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain. In this, I traced the role of literary prizes in validating books, establishing authors’ careers, promoting literature, and – all important to the publishing industry – selling books.

More recently, I’ve been acting as the administrator (this year, with the able assistance of  MLitt in Publishing Studies student and intern Helen Lewis-McPhee) for the DeLong Book History Book Prize, which the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing runs, and wrote a blog for them about literary prizes over here. Back when I worked at Hodder & Stoughton, I had the responsibility for submitting our books to prizes (and I remember our excitement when William McIlvanney won the Saltire Book of the Year Award for The Kiln.)

But this year for the first time I’ve been acting as a judge, for the Saltire Society Literary Awards. This has meant, since June, reading over 100 books for the First Book of the Year and the Book of the Year. As you can imagine, this proved both a fantastic experience and a challenge, to the point where I actually felt physically sick from reading so many books at one point. (Don’t worry – I’ve recovered and am reading again.)

Today, we made our awards: to Luke Williams for his brilliantly assured debut novel The Echo Chamber, and to Alasdair Gray for his wonderful A Life in Pictures. Awards were also made for the Scottish History Book of the Year to Emma Rothschild for The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth Century History and for the Scottish Research Book of the Year to James McGonigal for Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan. His publisher Sandstone later celebrated with deluxe chocolate brownies, I hear.

The experience of judging literary prizes is always going to be slightly different from that of analysing or commenting upon them, but nonetheless the two awards I was involved with backed up some of my knowledge about how they work. Luke Williams’ publisher Hamish Hamilton confirmed after the ceremony that they’ve brought forward the release of the paperback of his book to capitalise on sales. Fancy a prize winner for Christmas? (I’d recommend it!)

And then: controversy! The judging panel had decided (unanimously) to award Alasdair Gray the Book of the Year. However, just before the ceremony, we found out via his publisher Canongate that he had decided to refuse the award. We quickly reconvened and – although we had a very fine shortlist (including one of my favourites, A L Kennedy’s The Blue Book) – we decided (as BooksfromScotland.com reported it) to refuse the refusal. Will this refusal end up having a greater publicity impact than accepting? We’ll see. There’s almost bound to be an article in the Scotsman about it tomorrow…

“Publish and Be Damned”: Banned Books at the National Library of Scotland

November 15th, 2011 by Nuria_Ruiz | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on “Publish and Be Damned”: Banned Books at the National Library of Scotland
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A selection of Banned Books from the exhibition.

‘Banned books: Censorship of the printed word’ was a major exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, running from 24 June to 30 October 2011.  Although the exhibit has now ended, all of the books on display are available for consultation in the Library.  For those who missed their chance, Jan Usher and John Nicklen have produced an excellent guide in the current issue of Discover NLS.

Bring me your blasphemous and raunchy, your libellous and seditious, your controversial and vitriolic.  A trip to the “Banned Books” exhibition which ran at the National Library of Scotland until 30 October 2011 promised an afternoon of thought-provoking displays and analysis on a subject which has existed almost as long as books themselves have existed – censorship.  It did not disappoint.  The history of banned books is indeed a tale of the unexpected and the uncomfortable.

Arranged around the juicy themes of sex, religion, politics and society, the exhibit threw up some familiar old favourites – and some surprising additions.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Satanic Verses, the ‘official’ biography of Linda Lovelace, these I expected.  But Bambi? The Bible?  Housewives’ favourite Woman’s Weekly? Surprising too was the sheer number of children’s picture books and stories.  Sometimes it is not profane language and incendiary politics that offend the most, but the simple introduction of different worldviews.  Three books selected for special attention were And Tango Makes Three (2007), The Rabbit’s Wedding (1960) and Daddy’s Roommate (1991).  All three are children’s stories which to this day are attacked because of their perceived alternative messages on lifestyles and relationships.  Yet taking time to read them, I was struck more by their captive storytelling than anything else.  Banned Books posed the question, what role should editors play in censoring an author’s work?  To author Garth Williams after all, The Rabbit’s Wedding was “only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden message of hate”.  To this I answer that the point where a story becomes something else is highly subjective; perhaps no editor can ever prevent a book being misrepresented somewhere along the line.

What moved me as I walked between the glass cases was the preservation of these books and magazines.  From Republicas del Mundo, written by Jerónimo Roman y Zamora in 1575, to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho from 2007, all of these books were in excellent condition.  They may have had their words mutilated and obscured, their pages stamped with brands of shame, and their covers confined by shrink-wrap to protect innocent eyes, yet someone, somewhere had loved this book enough to keep its dangerous words safe.  They may not have liked its content, but perhaps a respect for the written word is culturally ingrained in all of us?

My optimism lasted precisely for the minute it took me to walk from the themed displays to the ‘Living with Censorship’ section, where I was confronted with the history of book burning and the growing violence of censorship.  For every book the National Library had on show, a hundred thousand more have been ceremonially destroyed in the name of censorship.  I can understand, in a historical perspective, why books have been banned and entire libraries have been burned.  While I may not agree, I can understand.  But the trend for individualised violence against books is not something that I can comprehend.  There have been books considered so controversial that they have become living things to these societies, to be issued death warrants, burned alive with their authors, and actually hanged.  Mass book burning is acknowledged as a public event that makes a political statement, but just what kind of statement trying and hanging a lonely book makes is another matter entirely.

Heinrich Heine, the German poet and essayist, noted in the nineteenth century that “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also”.  This led me to ponder on the vogue publishing development of the moment, the electronic book.  How does the digital word fit into the centuries-established tradition of literary censorship?  You cannot burn an electronic book, nor does it carry the connotations of personification that so characterise the printed word.  Moreover, while you may ban citizens from buying a book, it is infinitely more difficult to stop them downloading an illicit copy.  As this exhibit clearly illustrates, for much of their history, books have been contentious because of their ideas.  The twenty-first century however, has rather different concerns: the book’s physical form.  Yet in the furore about an e-book not ‘being a book’, perhaps we are missing a new and exciting chapter in the history of censorship.