As a rule contemporary literary prizes don’t much interest me and generally I pay no attention, currently the Booker list is a mystery to me (though I do know it’s out there because I’ve been skimming over several posts about it). This isn’t a stand or anything; it’s just that at the moment I don’t get very excited about these lists long or short. However a (very disappointing) visit to Waterstones and the inauguration of The Green Carnation prize are making me reassess how I feel about prizes generally, and niche prizes in particular.
The Green Carnation is a prize for fiction or memoir written by gay men partly organised by Simon Savidge from Savidge reads. He’s rightly excited about this, and though again in all honesty this might be another long list that doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me I think it’s important because it seems to me it’s getting harder than ever to find books outside of our comfort zones.
Now let me start complaining. My financial status over the last couple of years has left a bit to be desired so for books I’m mostly dependent on charity shop finds, and the kindness of publishers who are happy to support a blog like this (to whom I owe a great deal of happy experiences with the postman), but when I can I want to buy books. From a bookshop. That I’ve browsed for. It’s been one of the great pleasures in my life for as long as I can remember shopping and so I resent the state of provincial bookselling as it exists for me.
In my city we have a few charity bookshops which are pretty good, we have an average W H Smiths, two Waterstones, and that’s about it. It’s not very inspiring and in reality it means Waterstones. I’m still waiting for their improvements to appear (which will presumably be after the clearance 3 for 2 they have on at the moment). I would be a lot happier about this if it wasn’t for the fact that both my local branches, neither large to start with, have been steadily cutting down on shelf space. Because of the aforementioned offer and in proud possession of some actual cash I went to buy some books.
This was my wish list: Any of the new Bloomsbury Group titles – ‘Mrs Arris goes to Paris’, ‘Mrs Ames’, ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’, and ‘Henrietta Sees it Through’. Any or all of these would have done. None in stock. The River Cottage ‘Hedgerow’ book (featured heavily in ‘The Guardian’), not only not in stock, but no plans to get it in either. Capuchin’s new release of ‘Highland Fling’ – out of stock on amazon, and no I didn’t really expect to find it, but still it’s Nancy Mitford for heaven’s sake – it will sell. Wilkie Collins – I was looking for ‘The Dead Secret’, ‘Man and Wife’, or ‘Poor Miss Finch’ – none available, presumably all space taken up by the three different editions of ‘The Woman In White’. Anything by John Cheever, anything by Alice Hoffman. Gladys Mitchell’s ‘The Mystery of a Butchers Shop’.‘The Hurricane Party’ by Klas Ostergren – part of the Canongate myths series, or for that matter ‘Girl meets Boy’ by Ali Smith in the same series, neither in stock. And that would be where I gave up, because not only were none of the books I wanted available, there was nothing tempting that I didn’t already have.
I can’t help but feel that off a list of currant books with everything from classics to your actual contemporary fiction I should have been able to find something. In the end I hit amazon, got two of the Bloomsbury Group titles, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ and Collins’ ‘Hide and Seek’. I’m pleased with this lot, I spent the same give or take as I would have off line but it’s not how I wanted to do it.
Which is where I come back to ‘The Green Carnation’, when bookshops can’t inspire it’s left to the internet which I find brilliant when I know what I want, but frustrating when I don’t, which in turn is why I read so many blogs, and why it seems a few more awards, a few more ways of bringing new and old books to our attention are needed. I hope ‘The Green Carnation’ is a successful enterprise and I hope it gets some attention offline as well as on – I want a utopian idyll of vibrant bookselling back on the average high street, and I want it soon please, before I start buying shoes!