Saturday, 22 May 2010

Library fury

I like libraries. I really do. They are like bookshops where nobody taps you on the shoulder if you accidentally walk out without paying. You can saunter round for hours, collecting books, trying to look clever, and when wander off happily without causing irreparable damage to your wallet. Sometimes they sell their spare stock at absurd prices (I picked up Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers the other week, and it cost me 15p. Spending that elsewhere I could have bought a tomato, or possibly a banana, if I was lucky and nipped round to a supermarket that wasn't on the middle-class guilt bandwagon (organic, fair trade fruit that chose to be picked, etc)), there are as many people wearing glasses as in the optician's next door, and you can peer at what other people are looking at, and have fun judging them for it.

So on the whole, they're great. There are, however, some minor downsides, usually involving shelving. I was planning on having a good-natured grumble about the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, the bizarre amounts spent on local history books that nobody ever looks at, and the occasional bursts of madness that seem to afflict whoever does the 'quick choice' bit in Putney library, where a few weeks ago I found Finnegan's Wake, probably the least suitable 'quick choice' ever, apart from whichever Derek Raymond book it was that made his publisher throw up on the manuscript.

However, while I was thinking about this, I realised that something much worse was going on - something actually rather unpleasant. Now I'm all a-bubble with righteous anger, and this seems like the easiest place to explain things.

You see, all the libraries near me (and I'm a bit of a library hussy - I flit, entirely faithlessly, from one to another as the whim and my burgeoning collection of London library cards takes me) have sections called 'Gay and lesbian writers' and 'Black writers'.


This confuses me in so many ways. For a start, they seem to have named the shelves after the writers, rather than what they write. That means, presumably, that all the novelists who end up in the gay writers section are, themselves, gay, no matter what they write about, and that anyone who isn't gay won't be, again regardless of their work. So, say, Truman Capote would there, but Michael Chabon wouldn't. Yet if you read their books there are clearly stronger homosexual themes (whatever that means) in Chabon's work.

Then again, that paragraph itself is misleading, because of course you wouldn't find either of them in the gay writers section, and nor would you bump into Jeanette Wintersen, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin or Alan Hollinghurst there. Because they're in 'fiction'. So according to the London library system, none of these lads and lasses, despite their personal lives and despite their books, are gay writers. Why? If you're going to have a 'gay writers' section, why would you not put gay writers in it? Is the point that these are gay writers with mainstream success, plaudits and critical adulation, who therefore shouldn't be hidden away in a corner which nobody goes to because nobody should have to out themselves in a public library?

That, of course, is another assumption: that anyone looking at the gay writers section must be gay. This would be ridiculous if you could reliably find brilliant writers there who happened to be gay, but as it stands, I, as a straight browser, assume that anyone I'm likely to be interested in reading will be in the 'fiction' section. As a result, I'm presumably missing out on some ace books because a librarian, somewhere along the line, has made the decision about who is or is not gay enough to be put on a separate shelf. What madness is this? Librarians, on the whole, are pretty wise people, but making them the official interpreters of gender issues seems a bit beyond their remit. Or anyone's, for that matter.

Perhaps 'black writers' will be more straightforward? Here your morally unsound shelf-stacker has an easier job. They don't need to delve into the author's private life or terms of self-definition - they can just look at a picture. Presumably there's some kind of racist colour chart that decides at what point you're black enough to go on the black shelves. Sorry Toni Morrison, you're just too darned white.

No, really. They take possibly the most famous black writer to date (alright, very arguable, but she's clearly pretty major) and put her in the generic fiction section. So who on earth is in the 'Black writers' corner? I have absolutely no idea, because again, I assume that if I want to read Zadie Smith, Octavia Butler (no, of course she isn't in the science fiction section - she's a black woman - how could she write sci-fi?) or Ben Okri I just go to 'fiction'.

Whichever way you look at it, this is offensive to the writers. A writer, trying to make a living from their work, might be pretty irritated at being dumped into an abandoned, weed-ridden corner of the library. This could leave gay writers and black writers in the bizarre situation of not wanting to be identified as gay or black, because otherwise their great book, which might have been defined as gay or black because it's about segregation of one kind or another, will end up being segregated. Welcome back, the 1950s.

Equally, an acclaimed, successful book about being gay or black by someone who happens to be gay or black (such as all the authors I've mentioned above) will end up in general fiction, losing any identification of it as a gay or black novel. The straight, white literary mainstream will claim anything it likes the look of, further obscuring the shelves set aside for gay writers and black writers. This means that being a gay writer or a black writer is made equivalent to being a bad writer, because if you were any good you'd be 'fiction'. What was that about our modern, liberal society?

Even if this were a noble intention, wouldn't it make more sense to put little labels on the books that fell into certain categories, and then put them all on the same alphabetical shelves? Surely it would take less effort to put little black spots or pink spots on certain books than to try to arrange them on an entirely separate set of shelves? Okay, they might get in a bit of trouble when they start sticking stars of David on the Jewish books...

And there's another point: why only black and gay? There are plenty of other minority groups that write, whether defined by ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, philosophy or anything else you can care to come up with. Why not match shelves to each of the protected categories under discrimination law? I'd particularly enjoy watching someone try to define a bookshelf of age-related literature. Or is that the large-print section?

Leaving aside sinister conspiracies about London libraries being run by crypto-fascists, there must be a reason for the distinctions made. I can see two possible explanations, neither of which are very pleasant.

First, perhaps these divisions are merely there so that people who enjoy reading books by gay writers and black writers can find others like them. If you find something you like, you can work your way down the shelves, presumably discovering more things you'll enjoy along the way. Fair enough, perhaps, but when you've already taken out all the novelists who've been co-opted by the mainstream, this reasoning starts to look a bit ropey. Worse, though, this assumes that because the books on these shelves are linked by origin, or by part of their subject-matter, they will be similar. This is, to put it bluntly, wrong. Will someone who likes Alan Hollinghurst automatically like Jeanette Wintersen? Equally, should someone who dislikes Ben Okri automatically discount any possibility of enjoying Zadie Smith?

The second possibility is rather more horrific: that it's somehow designed to protect mainstream readers from things they don't want to have to deal with. You know, like darkies and poofs. Whether this is the library telling its members that they won't be interested in certain books, or, even more unpleasantly, the members telling the library that they'd like all those 'other' books taken to one side, this is a pretty disturbing thought.

I'm sure this isn't the case. I'm not saying that south west London or its librarians are a bunch of racist homophobes. The real reason is almost certainly the first one I mentioned, which, although a bit iffy, isn't quite so nasty. However, like the interview advice brochures tell you, appearances do matter. Even if there's no malignance behind it, this bookshelf apartheid leaves an undercurrent of unease and a slew of unanswered questions. Why the separation? How is it defined? What does it say about the supposed progress that's being made against racism and homophobia?

Oh, and what happens if you're a black, gay writer? Does the library just grind to a halt, crashing like a computer that's just confused itself to death?

Sorry this is a bit disordered. Anyway, would definitely welcome comments on this - what justifications or objections have I missed out? Is this a fairly standard complaint that's already been done to death in the media? I'm fairly tempted to organise this into a proper article and get in touch with some right-on magazines, but I'd like to make sure I'm not being too much of a berk first.

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