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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.

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Literary snobbery, bookshops, libraries and books that people want to read.

I’ve been working as a Library Assistant for six months now. I had imagined that my bookselling knowledge would easily transfer to library work and it’s true that my customer service skills have helped, but that’s about it. Of course I’m still handling books all workday long. l unpack books, shelve books, find books. These things are similar and yet not at all the same. Other skills have been needed. The library wonderfully provides up to two hours free internet access for all users each day and I gladly assist people to use computers. People also need a lot of help with photocopying (which was unexpected and my heart sinks when they ask how to enlarge and scan and so on; I’m getting there though.) Often people want someone to chat to while they collect their Blue Badge, or drop off their borrowed books. Many times customers come in hesitantly and ask questions. It’s so good to be able to find them answers and see them leave the library satisfied. From Baby Rhyme Time to Knit and Natter groups the library service offers something for everyone. It’s a remarkable thing and vital as libraries provide equal access to information for all. I am proud that I am playing my own tiny part in it. You can sense a but though, right?

But…

But, it’s a really big reality check for a book snob like me. Contemporary literary fiction is my thing. I read it, write it, review it, discuss it. For years I sold it. My social media feeds are full of likeminded people. I read broadsheet reviews. I have writer and bookseller friends with whom I chat about books. Sometimes it’s easy to believe literary fiction is as important to everyone as it is to me and I have to remind myself that it’s not. For every person that used to come into the bookshop looking for the latest literary must-have there was a customer proudly stating they never read at all. Hey, I have pals who aren’t into books. I’m married to a man who only reads graphic novels. It’s not how I judge people, but it is something I’m deeply passionate about. I thought that my years of working in the fiction section at Waterstones would be invaluable in recommending books to library users and helping them find what they want. In the six months I’ve worked in the library I have not needed this knowledge. Firstly, people don’t seem to ask for recommendations often. I suppose when you’re not paying for the book there’s less at stake. The library demographic in this county seems to be overwhelmingly children and old people. There are far fewer teenagers through to people maybe in their late 50’s. All the stereotypes that I try to avoid are true; the older women like sagas and romances and the men like crime novels. The latest Peter James novel is the book that’s had the biggest interest and people jostled for places on the reservations list. There is literary fiction available, but it doesn’t get out so much. I have awkward conversations about books with colleagues. They ask if I’ve read XYZ and I have not. I would not. I don’t want to be this awful judgmental bitch, but oh wow, there’s a lot of frothy shite being read. And that’s absolutely fine, isn’t it. We all like what we like. I do miss shiny, new fiction and go to Waterstones and lovingly tidy the tables, patting the delicious litfic, reassuring myself.

What it says to me as a writer is interesting. I worried initially that it meant there simply isn’t a demand for litfic, but now I think it’s likely that readers of this style of fiction are bookshop buyers rather than library users, as I was for years. A library will source whatever book it’s asked for, if it can, so I assume nobody is asking. Of course on the shelves you can find good quality novels, I’m not saying they aren’t there, however, they are nowhere near as popular as I imagined. I have tried adding them to displays to see if they get checked out as a consequence and maybe one or two have, but overwhelmingly the preference is clear. This may only be true of my area; I’m working in small village libraries, not city ones.

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And of course I’m well aware that fiction is fiction and to label something as commercial fiction/genre fiction/literary fiction isn’t always helpful, but my preference is for quality literary fiction and as my husband said when I discussed it with him and called myself a snob because I don’t read the books my colleagues have mentioned to me, “It’s like someone assuming you’d like a Boyzone song because you told them you like music.”

Anyway, libraries, whoo, excellent places and it’s great to enjoy my job and get to feel all glowy from being helpful, I just won’t expect to have a conversation about the fiction I adore.

Bookshops are shops that sell books

When people come into the bookshop and ask for a specific book the ideal is that we will have that title in stock and be able to sell it to them there and then. If the book is not in stock we can order it and get it in a couple of days. (Unless the book is out of print, or the publisher is out of stock, or the book does not have a UK distributor.) Customers sometimes act incredulously if we don’t have the book they want. They are shocked that such a large bookshop does not have a copy of “Whatever The Book Is” and wonder why not. We can’t stock every book in print. Even though we have five floors we do not have enough room. But, we will order it. We will obtain it for you if it’s at all possible. We are happy to do that. We want you to have that book. We love books. We are booksellers.

A guy asked me what he had to do to get his book on our shelves. I asked him who his publisher was and he said “Me.” We could not stock all the self published books, could we? Where would we put them? Who would buy them?

I still find it astonishing that so many authors think the secret of success is getting their book on to a shelf in a book shop. They imagine then it’s just a matter of customers seeing their book and ta-dah, they will buy it. I’ve seen books, good books, books I have read and enjoyed, sit on the shelf for years. I’ve seen them promoted and discounted and still not selling. (And yes, there are others, the ones that sell and keep on selling with no promotion or fanfare, because they have that indescribable something that works, but I’m not talking about them today.)

Here’s the thing – bookshops are shops. They exist to sell books. They are a business, so they need to sell books to keep their business going. It seems to me that some people ignore that fact and view bookshops as a public service. A bookshop is not a library, and it does not HAVE to sell any book it does not choose to, does it? Perhaps the bookshop did stock that book at one time and it took months to sell. Perhaps we just sold out of it? Perhaps it’s an interesting new title that we will pass details of to the buyer.

To those that say there should be more books about  *insert person’s pet thing*, I want to ask why? Because you say so? Because you happen to write books like that? Because you like them? I happen to really like Tivall vegetarian schnitzels. When I lived in London it was easy to find them, but here in West Sussex it’s not. A large branch of Waitrose sold them for a while, but they stopped. I did enquire in store and I filled in an online stock request, but they never got them back in. I assume it was a decision based on sales. It would not occur to me to insist that they should stock it simply to please me and any other customer that might share my taste. Recently my local Holland and Barrett has stocked them. They are way more expensive than they were at the supermarket, but it’s my choice whether or not I buy them.

Similarly, if you go to the bookshop and they don’t have the book you want, you have choices, you can order it from them, or online, or shop elsewhere, so where is the Big Bad?

What if there is no conspiracy? 

 

(Of course, these are my personal musings and are in no way meant to represent any official view from the company I work for.)