London Book Fair 2023: Colson Whitehead, class and community

London Book Fair 2023: Colson Whitehead, class and community

by Suswati Basu
London Book Fair

The London Book Fair 2023 returned this April at Olympia London, hosting a huge array of incredible names including Colson Whitehead, Leila Slimani and Dr Julie Smith. Among the major themes explored at the event included community and access to publishing for a wider range of people across the spectrum.

What is the London Book Fair 2023?

The fair itself is a global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. It is the world’s largest book fair, and is held annually in the capital. It brings together over 25,000 professionals from the publishing industry, including publishers, booksellers, agents, authors, librarians, and academics from over 100 countries. It is the second-largest by number of visitors, after the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The LBF was first held in 1971 as the Specialist Publishers’ Exhibition for Librarians. It was founded by Lionel Leventhal, a publisher and bookseller, who wanted to create a meeting place for the specialist publishing industry. The fair was initially held in the Berners Hotel in London, and had just 22 exhibitors.

Over the next few years, the fair grew in size and scope. In 1975, it was renamed SPEX’75: The London Book Fair, and in 1977, the word “Specialist” was dropped from the title. The fair moved to its current location at Olympia London in 1991. This year’s theme is about the future of creative content.

Ukraine in focus

Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska at the London Book Fair 2023
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska at the London Book Fair 2023

London Book Fair 2023 hosted a number of prominent figures including Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska who talked about the significance of books in the current war with Russia. She said: “Our books are under attack just like our people, books are our witnesses of what we have experienced.” She added that large swathes of books had been burned as part of a cultural erasure. Hence she is one of the key figures behind ‘Book without Borders’, which has reprinted and distributed 16,000 books to Ukrainian displaced children. The motto she said was Make the World better with the help of books.

Similarly Ukrainian Cultural Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko talked about the importance of the relationship with Britain, bringing up the upcoming Eurovision event being held in Liverpool this year. The former CEO and journalist claimed that demand for Ukrainian literature has doubled abroad. He added: “Ukraine remains a part of Europe and its European culture […] We are fighting together for true culture. I believe in our synergy.” According the the minister, more than 1,300 items of culture have been damaged in the war. As a result, some of the recovered furniture from shelled libraries had been turned into an art installation at the event.

Ukraine library furniture installation at the London Book Fair 2023
Ukraine library furniture installation at the London Book Fair 2023

Accessibility in publishing

Community and access was an important theme throughout London Book Fair 2023. This included several accessible-related events. One in particular with Richard Orme, from the DAISY Consortium asked “are we nearly there” in terms of accessible publishing. When asked about challenges to the industry, he said: “I’d like to answer this as what are the opportunities? Consuming text in a different way, is a core part of the market and a core opportunity. By actually thinking of this at the time of publishing, you’re making a better title for everyone and it has a longer shelf life.”

In response to a question about the upcoming 2025 The European Accessibility Act, Venu Prasad from Amnet ContentSource said there are still issues with certain aspects of accessibility. The Act identifies the product features and service features that must be accessible for persons with disabilities,

Prasad said: “Every publisher we’ve spoken to has a challenge with images and ALT text. A lot of the time it is based on compliance but that isn’t ALT text. AI may help automate this.” The Act is expected to use functional EU accessibility requirements.

Creating a writing community in the English PEN Literary Lounge

In the English PEN Literary Lounge, multimedia artist Zahed Sultan, writer and Class Festival founder Natasha Carthew, and author So Mayer spoke to Unbound publisher co-founder Dan Kieran about creating a writing community.

Dan Kieran, Zahed Sultan, So Mayer and Natasha Carthew in the English PEN Literary Lounge
Dan Kieran, Zahed Sultan, So Mayer and Natasha Carthew in the English PEN Literary Lounge

Carthew said community isn’t just about people she knew but also those she did not know. Her roots are deeply important to her growing up working class: “Growing up as a young writer, I didn’t have a community, it was just me. Reading books became my community until I was older.” As a result, she is the brains behind Class Festival, which is a celebration of working class writers.

For queer writer So Mayer, community begins in the act of writing itself, “but you have to go out and find it. Theres a constant back and forth between them.” They say: “Writing makes me less lonely in a world that makes us want to compete. We are sharing ideas. So listening is the art of being less lonely.”

Zahed Sultan is the editor of the anthology Haramacy, which brings the voices of underrepresented people. For him, the notion of community was a selfish act as he wanted to belong to a group when moving to the UK. What he found strange was the separation of groups, saying” why can’t communities speak to each other?”

For Carthew, her success meant spreading the good fortune. She said: “If I can throw down a ladder or rope, (even if it’s frayed) and I can do that for one person or 1,000 people, it’s important to be doing this for others.”

For moderator Kieran, publishing has been an untouchable institution and that “the word ‘quality’ was used to deny other people”. Mayer quoted the infamous saying by English literary critic from the last century that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway,” which they said was the general attitude of the publishing establishment. Thus community was vital to showcase other voices, even if this meant showing up for others in different ways to help them write.

London Book Fair 2023 author of the day: Colson Whitehead

On day one, Colson Whitehead was presented as the author of today speaking to I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be writer Colin Grant. Whitehead, who is an American novelist, spoke about his newest book Crook Manifesto which is the second part of the Ray Carney trilogy. Whitehead is the author of several critically acclaimed and award-winning novels, including “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days,” “Sag Harbor,” and “The Underground Railroad,” which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award in 2017. The author is known for his ability to blend genres and explore complex themes related to race, history, and identity in his work. He has received numerous honours and awards for his writing, including the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”

Speaking to the British author, Whitehead said about the new book: “I felt very energised as a New Yorker and as an artist working in the 1970s”. Crook Manifesto is set in 1971, ten years after the first book Harlem Shuffle. He talks about corruption in the NYPD and organised crime at the time. In the middle of this is the character of Ray Carney, a furniture-store owner and ex fence, who is trying to keep his head down. Unfortunately this does not last for long.

Whitehead said Carney’s character faces prejudice from both outside and inside the group he belonged to. As a result, the author found a fascination with the Mason-Dixon line, which is a demarcation line separating four US states, forming part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. He said the line reminded him of the demarcation lines that we cannot see even within groups. Speaking to Grant, he talks about Carney’s character facing colourism prejudice but said that this is common in any types of groups.

How I Write session on finding different paths to creating a book

In the How I Write session, authors Dr Julie Smith, Juno Dawson and Janice Hallett spoke about their distinct ways of writing and their different processes. Clinical psychologist and Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? writer Dr Smith talked about being methodical about her process “especially as a debut author”.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven author Dawson said for her it is both, as she let her characters lead her. She said: “I had to plan ahead. So when I pitched it I had already knew it was a trilogy. All the best bits are all the bits I hadn’t planned. The beginning and end was carved in stone.”

Whilst The Appeal author Janice Hallett said her characters come first and themes come later. “I can’t plot and I tried. I just let the characters take me where they take me. When I tried, it takes all the joy out of it. So I just pants it. I don’t even know how they’re going to start.”

When asked about dealing with the media, Hallett said as an introvert “it’s been absolutely terrifying. But it’s a privilege to be able to hear from people. It’s been a wonderful surprise for me.”

Surprisingly, TikTok star Dr Smith was in the same boat saying she had preferred not to be on screen. She said: “Doing the videos, I didn’t enjoy it in the early days. I didn’t like being out there. I felt hugely vulnerable but nothing as vulnerable as publishing a book. Putting it out there is more important than yourself.”

Dawson on the other hand said she was a stage child and enjoyed the limelight, which proved well for her previous career as a teacher. She said: “If you can keep a class of seven-year-olds on side, you’re doing well.” As a trans woman, she admitted she had received horrific threats online however. She added: “In 20 years we’ll have a totally different conversation on social media about this time.”

International Booker Prize 2023 at the London Book Fair

Among the major events, the 2023 International Booker Prize shortlist was announced by this year’s judges which included prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist, Slimani. The panel also included Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukrainian; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times. It is intended to promote literary excellence and the appreciation of literature from all over the world.

Not only does the prize celebrate the vital work of translators, the £50,000 prize money is divided equally between the author and the translator. In addition, the shortlisted authors and translators will each receive £2,500. The prize has helped to bring international literature to a wider audience. Not to mention it has recognised some of the most important and innovative books of our time.

The Perfect Nanny author Slimani announced the six shortlisted:

Speaking about the selection, Slimani talked about books that were “bold, subversive and nicely perverse.” Asked what was important about the selection, she said: “I also feel these are very sensual books where the question of the body is important”. She also reiterated that the books were tangible and less abstract than previous years, focusing on being grounded.

International Booker Prize 2023 longlist

The longlist was announced on March 14th. The full list included the additional books:

The winner will be announced on May 26, 2023. The 2022 International Booker Prize was won by Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell.

The London Book Fair is on from April 18th to April 20th, and is considered the publishing event on the year.

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