British children’s author Terry Deary, of Horrible Histories and Truly Terrible Tales fame, has in recent years made a second career of curmudgeonly, controversial statements. The Guardian once called him “proudly anti-establishment”. A bigger cynic than I might smell a regular effort to drum up publicity to sell more books.
Deary, a one-time teacher, told The Guardian 10 years ago,
I’ve no interest in schools. They have no relevance in the 21st century. They were a Victorian idea to get kids off the street. Who decided that putting 30 kids with only their age in common in a classroom with one teacher was the best way of educating? At my school there were 52 kids in the class and all I learned was how to pass the 11-plus. Testing is the death of education.
Kids should leave school at 11 and go to work. Not down the mines or up chimneys, mind, but working with computers or something relevant. Everything I learned after 11 was a waste of time. Trigonometry, Boyle’s law: it’s never been of any use to me. They should have been teaching me the life skills I was going to need, such as building relationships, parenting and managing money. I didn’t have a clue about any of these things at 18. Schools need to change.
In 2010, the author, who writes children’s history books, took on historians, whom he called “nearly as seedy and devious as politicians”: “They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves… . They don’t write objective history. Eventually you can see through them all. They all come with a twist.”
Then, he spoke out against the use of his history books in schools: “Horrible Histories writer Terry Deary said he does not want teachers to recommend his books, and would prefer children to discover them themselves. … ‘I shudder when I hear my books are used in those pits of misery and ignorance’.”
Latest up on Mr. Deary’s hit list, and also Vilely Victorian, are libraries. In Sunderland, where Deary was born and where libraries now face the threat of closure as councillors get ready to vote on proposed service reforms, last week Deary told the local newspaper, The Sunderland Echo, that the future of reading belongs to ebooks. And a few other choice words, unlike the other Sunderland authors who spoke in favor of saving library services:
Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age. They either have to change and adapt or they have to go.
I know some people like them but fewer and fewer people are using them and these are straightened times. A lot of the gush about libraries is sentimentality.
The book is old technology and we have to move on, so good luck to the council.
Left here, the matter might have raised eyebrows. But The Guardian picked up the story, with Alison Flood speaking further with Deary, whose additional comments have raised a furor,
I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant. Because it’s been 150 years [since the passage of the UK's Public Libraries Act in 1850], we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.
And of course we know how he feels about that.
People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense. Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.
Enid Blyton seems a curious choice, and possibly one of the worst examples to choose. In fact, it’s hard to come up with an English children’s author in the past century who was more ruthless about her own writing success, willing to throw husbands and daughters under the proverbial bus. Which seems rather apt, under the circumstances.
As one of the most popular library authors – his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times during 2011/12 – Deary will have received the maximum amount possible for a writer from the Public Lending Right scheme, which gives authors 6.2p every time one of their books is borrowed, up to a cap of £6,600. “If I sold the book I’d get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?” he asked.
This is probably where all the American authors’ heads’ whipped around. Public lending right? What public lending right? Because the concept doesn’t exist in the United States.
(By the way, and because I can never leave well enough alone, I hopped over to Deary’s website, where actually he seems quite pleased to announce,
Stop Press …
The Public Lending Rights figures for 2012 have been released. They list the number of times books are borrowed from British Libraries. Terry Deary is the 12th most borrowed author last year and the 7th most borrowed children’s author. His titles are more borrowed than Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton in childrens’ books or Lee Child and Harlan Coben (Terry’s own favourite writer) in the combined lists.
Take that, Enid Blyton. And now back to The Guardian article,
Bookshops are closing down, he said, “because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell. What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches … Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry. They are putting bookshops out of business, and I’m afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century.”
Deary is calling for a public debate around libraries, and for an end to the “sentimentality” he believes has framed the issue so far. “Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses?” he asked. “We can’t give everything away under the public purse. Books are part of the entertainment industry. Literature has been something elite, but it is not any more. This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it. But because libraries have been around for so long, people have this idea that books should be freely available to all. I’m afraid those days are past. Libraries cost a vast amount … and the council tax payers are paying a lot of money to subsidise them, when they are used by an ever-diminishing amount of people.”
On the one hand, Deary is asking for a public debate about libraries. And yet. And yet…
On the other, he seems to want an end to “giving away” “free” books, which sounds more like an edict than debate. As he told The Sunderland Echo after The Guardian article appeared,
I never attacked libraries, I said we need to think about people’s access to literature. I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.
It rather sounds as if he wants that £173,400 back, doesn’t it? Well, that and, erm, maybe the renewed health of the British bookselling industry? Yes! That!
Not surprisingly, the article had 364 comments last I checked. Not nearly as much fun, though, as the comments over at Mumsnet, which are veddy, veddy British and veddy, veddy funny.
Terry is a Card-carrying, old-school renegade. He’ll make a stand against anything that looks like authority just to make a bit of noise. I’m afraid that Terry, is just “being Terry.” You have to remember that Terry is an actor first and foremost and he loves a bit of drama.
Terry is more a manufacturer of commodities than what one imagines an author to be. At the height of the Horrible Histories fame, he set his researchers going at a new subject on the first of each month. Then, together they cobbled up a new book with a snappy title and added it to the production line. Librarians loved them, bought them in droves and promoted them like nothing else. Now they don’t have the funds to buy more of Terry’s books, Terry rails at them for lending out his books. He claims to have lost £180,000 a year in lost book sales because Libraries lend them out! Well, of course that’s not true. People who borrow books for free wouldn’t go out and buy them. And it’s a little ungracious of him, he would have to spend that much every year in marketing and publicity just to buy the promotion that Libraries have given him for free all these years.
But all the same Terry is expressing the little voice of doubt that nags away at all authors and librarians. Authors, publishers and librarians don’t know what to do. The Tsunami of the internet, for so long a problem that would have to be dealt with one day, is building a giant wave in front of our eyes and it is starting to crash all around us. Libraries let the computers in a long time ago. Appeasement hasn’t worked – it never does!
Ah, so it’s just Terry being Terry, the manufacturer of commodities, making a bit of noise. But there are consequences when one is a best-selling author, and when councillors, cabinet meetings, and consultation periods are seeking informed advice. Do they really need to be distracted by “noise” at this important time, with some of the city’s 20 libraries on the line?
And perhaps another round of Blitzed Brits is in order as a refresher course, since libraries accommodating to the internet in the 21st century are in no way akin to Neville Chamberlain on the road to Munich. Sometimes, an umbrella is just an umbrella. (Does a reflex appeal to horrors of appeasement still work with Britons, 75 years on?) Yes, the world, and libraries, are changing. Budgets are smaller. But the answer isn’t to do away with libraries entirely. Moreover, in another bit of news, many keen readers check out books at the library and then do buy them, having ensured they’re something we’d like to spend money on. We just don’t like buying a pig in a poke.
No, I’m not going to use any more space and time here to explain how I feel about libraries, other than to say, we are not amused. But I will mention something else interesting I found on his website, under “Latest News”, which does indeed make me smell a publicity ploy: the tidbit that at the beginning of this month, as of February 1, “Terry start[ed] a new career — as a writer of adult books. He has been contracted to publish an entertaining new series of history books for adults. Over the next two years he will be writing the first four books in the series, starting with The Roman Empire to be published this November.”
Is this the part where we congratulate Mr. Deary and wish him every success on his latest endeavour? Or just wish him well with the gladitorial combat…
* with apologies to Harry Graham (1874-1936), author of the “cheerfully cruel” Ruthless Rhymes