Last year Therese and I were both lucky enough to be involved in short-listing the books for the 'Our Story' program for the National Year of Reading. The idea was for a panel to read a selection of books that we would narrow down to a short-list that would be voted on by the public who would choose a book to represent each state or territory for the year. We were asked to use the following criteria to rate the books: how well the books conveyed a sense of place how effectively they portrayed the Australian experience to non-Australians how effectively they connected with readers how "unputdownable" they were; and how likely a reader would be to recommend them It was a great experience, and I had the opportunity to read some books like Ruth Park's A Harp in the South that I'd never read before. It was also an interesting experience because there were plenty of books on the list that weren't at all what I had expected. As I opened my box of books I realised that I had a preconceived idea of what they were going to be. It really made me stop and think about Australian Fiction, the way we define it, and what our customers are looking for when they visit the library.
The first book I read that was about an Australia I recognised was Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. It is a fantastic book, and I would have enjoyed it no matter where it was set, but the fact that I had recently been to the Rocks and seen the places it described added something to the book that made it extra special for me. These are just a few of the books that represent Australia to me, but of course this group of books is different for every reader. There are countless reasons that people might choose to read Australian books. We might feel validated by seeing own experiences reflected on the page, or we might develop our understanding of other cultures and communities by reading about them. Or maybe it is just what we like to read. It is not possible for a single book read on its own to portray a definitive national identity, but by listening to Australian story-tellers we can gain some insight into our country that we cannot find in works written overseas. This could come from exploring our unique landscapes, language and cultural references. The books that resonate and stay with us will be different for every reader.
Looking at recent lists of ‘Australia’s favourite books/ Authors’ it is interesting to see how diverse they are. While we can safely assume that these lists will always feature Tim Winton's Cloudstreet , they also feature many books that may not be what we typically think of as ‘Australian Literature’.
Authors who aren't considered literary heavyweights may sit along-side prizewinning authors, and the books are just as likely to feature stories set overseas as those set in the outback. If reading tastes are so varied, how do we promote Australian works that will appeal to everyone?
When The First Tuesday Book Club ran their poll to find the top '10 Australian books to read before you die' they announced the list on a special episode of the show. Some of the books on the list weren't to the panels taste, and they were pretty brutal about it. When they started talking about Craig Silvey I felt my husband lean away from me, and by the time they had finished talking about Markus Zusak he was right down the other end of the lounge. It's fine that they didn't like the books - but it bothered me that they asked people for their opinion, and then told them they were wrong. They made the discussion about themselves instead of about the books.
One of the first things we learn as Readers Advisors is that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ books – just books that people do or do not want to read. (Show Opening the Book Slide) The best book in the world is quite simply the one you like best and that is something you can discover for yourself, but we are here to help you find it. Opening the Book The only judgement it is appropriate for library staff to make is 'will this person enjoy this book' and 'does it meet their needs?'
We want everyone who visits the library to have a great experience, and to feel confident that they will find a book they will love. While some library staff may not read popular fiction themselves, it is important for us to remember that a book that is considered a 'lighter' read can offer a reading experience just as rich and valuable as prize-winning literary fiction. Authors like Bryce Courtenay, Di Morrissey or Judy Nunn will probably never win a Miles Franklin award, but their readers love them. Their books are carefully researched and most people would learn something about Australian culture or history by reading them. Generally speaking, public libraries do a great job of promoting literary Australian Fiction - these are the books that are short listed for awards, reviewed in journals and newspapers and discussed in the media. It is my experience that readers who enjoy these books are fairly self-directed in the library. They tend to come in looking for a particular book, and know what they want and enjoy. Often it is readers of popular fiction who are looking to us for more inspiration and guidance. Of course, we have customers with a wide range of tastes and needs, and this is why we have such diverse collections. I do not suggest that we collect and promote popular fiction at the expense of literary fiction, rather that we make sure we are meeting the needs of all of our readers. When they visit our libraries how are they going to find the books that represent Australia for them? If reading tastes are so varied, how do we promote Australian works that will appeal to everyone?
I'd like to suggest we look at appeal characteristics to do this. Librarian Nancy Pearl has proposed a set of attributes that characterise why certain books appeal to certain readers – she calls them ‘doorways’. Appeal characteristics speak directly to why a person may like or dislike particular books…. It is the elusive “feeling” a reader gets from a certain novel that is reflected in the appeal characteristics.
SETTING- The novel is very much specific to its location in time or place. We are talking about Aussie fiction, but is this outback or urban, historical or contemporary. Is it about the Aussie experience in a different location?
STORY The reader is eager to turn the pages of the book to find out what happens or becomes enrapt with the complexity and surprising twists of the story
STYLE/LANGUAGE - Literary fiction tends to appeal to people for whom style and language are high priority. Reader might also like hearing unique Australian language. Reader might also like hearing unique Australian language. Helen Garner - Spare & witty; Gillian Mears - Lyrical & using dialect from a particular time and place; Tim Winton - descriptions of the landscape; Peter Fitzsimons - conversational style;
CHARACTER - In these books, the character tends to be the focus of the story. Exploring the idea of the australian character – who are we?
TONE - what are you in the mood for? Bleak, suspenseful, ominous? Or Funny, heart-warming and reflective?
PACE- Would you like a fast paced ‘page-turner’ or a more leisurely read?
How do we take these ideas and use them to help customers find great books? When we create displays and reading lists, what value are we adding to the collection, and what is the payoff for the library? We are all time and resource poor, so it is our responsibility to make sure that all the time we spend is worthwhile. In his workshops, Kevin Hennah often asks “if you got $1.00 for every loan that was a result of RA work that you did, how would it affect the decisions you make.”
Get your staff involved – staff picks display with titles included from ALL library staff gives a sense of ownership.
Choose displays with broad themes so they are easy to keep topped up and can include stock from all collections. Suggest “Australian Favourites”, “Read your way around Australia”
If you spend time compiling a reading list, make that time worthwhile – tie it in to a display, tag the titles in the catalogue so they are easy for staff and customers to find, keep the list up to date by adding new titles as they come to your attention, have links into the catalogue on your website (don’t do ‘dead’ lists of titles that don’t go anywhere).
Identify Australian authors with stickers etc. Promote local authors, and build a good relationship with them. Talk about Warringah and CBCA North
BookClub Pinterest page – Australian Stories board.
There are many books by Australian authors that are not what we think of as ‘Australian” that our customers might enjoy. They might not discover these books if we do not promote them in the library.
It's important for library staff to be familiar with a range of Australian titles because they are often not included in the RA tools we use, because they are produced overseas. It is difficult to find the time to read broadly, especially to read books that do not appeal to you, but there are ways to stay in touch with what books are being published and reviewed. Newspapers are publishing fewer reviews, and customers are not coming with lists of books mentioned in the paper the way they used to. It would seem that professional reviews are becoming increasingly irrelevant as people turn to social media sites like Good Reads to get their inspiration. It makes sense to look at the thoughts of people who read the books by choice, for whom the book matches their appeal characteristics
Booktopia online Bookstore has an Australian stories page
The Indie awards have a history of selecting books that are well written and appeal to a wide audience
The Australian Review of fiction published short stories –a great way to familiarise yourself with a range of Authors
Twitter is a great way to scan the news – I read it on the bus on the way to work. You don’t need to tweet yourself for it to be useful.
Aussie fiction by Melanie Mutch
Australian FictionTherese Scott Melanie Mutch Ashfield Library Warringah Library Service
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WEBSITES MENTIONED:National Year of Reading - Our Storyhttp://www.love2read.org.au/our-story.cfmThe Book Club - 10 Aussie books specialhttp://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3671230.htmBooktopia Blog - Australias Favourite Novelisthttp://blog.booktopia.com.au/2013/01/26/australias-favourite-novelist-the-full-list/Booktopia Blog - 50 Must Read Australian Novels (the popular vote)http://blog.booktopia.com.au/2011/01/11/50-must-read-australian-novels-as-voted-by-you-in-2010/Your Favourite Australian Book - ABC Radio, ABC Online and the Australian Society ofAuthors (ASA) invited you to celebrate the rich tradition of our literature by helping unearththe nations favourite bookhttp://www.abc.net.au/radio/book/default.htmReading Australia 200The Australian Society of Authors Council list of 200 classic Australian titles studentsshould encounter at school and university. They plan to take the 200 works and matchthem with materials from the National Librarys Trove archive to create a rich set ofresources.http://www.copyright.com.au/assets/documents/top-200-australian-literary-titlesOpening the BookA reader-centred approach has lots of advantages. It allows people with differentpreferences in reading to talk to each other on common ground.http://www.openingthebook.com/reader-centred-library