The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Target bookshelves – they’re a bugaboo of mine. I won’t deny buying books at the bullseye bonanza and I also won’t deny that this quintessential American destination sometimes stocks good ones. But in a country that prides itself on individuality and choice, Target book sales promote just the opposite. Tell me: Where’s the fun in that?! (Well, it is indeed fun when you look for themes in the store’s offerings, as seen below…)

So, where do you get your books when you don’t want to read about what Target (or Reese or Oprah) wants you to read about?

The Real Housewives of Target

Earlier this month, The Boston Globe published a piece about the Ashfield Film Festival, a “delightfully daffy” film festival in the teeny-tiny rural town of Ashfield, in Western Massachusetts. The five-minute entries – all from Ashfield residents, although the festival is being opened up to neighboring towns – range from an intergenerational Mamma Mia! tribute to a “country wisdom” tutorial to zany fictitious capers. (See, doesn’t this sound more, um, unique than Target books? However, as soon as there’s a trifecta of films about sneaky wives, I’m out.) This entirely community-led festival “has become such an impressive source of community-building,” according to the Globe.

I love that even something “delightfully daffy” can find an audience, and perhaps more importantly, that people are seeing something off the beaten path.

It me! (Or an author!)

In the “About” page of this blog, I share a quote by the novelist Julian Barnes regarding an author’s intent: “…writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same window-pane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it.”

In other words, authors have something to say and they seek out an audience. It’s as simple as that – minus the whole finding-a-publisher thing. Perhaps an author’s goal is kind of like this Bitmoji above although many times that clanging isn’t getting them anywhere.

It's All Come Together....
I posted this earlier this month on my new Instagram account. (Follow me at @alifelyread!)

This was true for Penelope Fitzgerald. I recently experienced a gentle, coincidental nudge toward her after my friend Rebekah forwarded me the newsletter from her local book store (Book Culture LIC) that had a little blurb about the film The Bookshop, based on Fitzgerald’s novel. A couple of years earlier, my parents had given me a biography of the author (very matter-of-factly entitled Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life) by Hermione Lee. And I knew that I had a digital copy of The Bookshop stored up on my Kindle from a few years prior. So I sat down with the two books and became enthralled. (The film came out this past weekend in the US.)

Penelope Fitzgerald was a British writer who didn’t truly get going as a novelist until she was in her sixties. (She did “enjoy” a long and haphazard career as a writer for the BBC, a teacher [her students included Anna Wintour and Tilda Swinton], and a biographer prior to publishing her first piece of fiction. [“Enjoy” is a debatable word choice because everything was always a stop-and-go slog for her.] Writing aside, she also was a fascinating character – a descendant of British intellectual and religious powerhouses who ended up living on a sinking barge in the Thames with two of her three children. (The eldest was away at school and her husband was “out” a lot.)

no bullies
Oh, I thought this was Target’s logo for a sec…

The plot of The Bookshop is quite simple on the surface: Middle-aged widow Florence Green moves to Hardborough, a fictional British seaside town, and wants to open a bookshop. (Lee describes the similarities to Fitzgerald’s own time in Southwold, on the Sussex coast; much of Fitzgerald’s fiction was thinly-veiled autobiography.) The compact book delineates the village’s cast of characters (à la Busytown) as most try to thwart her plan. Lee writes, “The moral questions raised by The Bookshop are not abstract, but carefully tied to the political and social world which the novel describes. Florence tries to take on ‘the establishment,’ and suffers the consequences. The place she is trying to operate in, like most places in England after the war, is based on a long-maintained class structure. The ruling classes will always stick together: ‘They were all of the same kind, facing one way, grazing together. Between themselves they could arrange many matters.’ If you are not part of them, you can be a parasite, or fight them, or go under, or accept your status as an outsider.”

Don’t we think that most authors would like to “take on the establishment” or at least pop out of the woodwork with what they believe to be a unique thought or take on the world? In the “By the Book” column in the New York Times Book Review last weekend, the writer Rebecca Solnit explains what “moves [her] in a work of literature”: “To recognize a pattern and a meaning and an order in the world that you didn’t quite see before is exhilarating, and sometimes even exalting…”

Fitzgerald’s novel – The Bookshop, her second – was, surprisingly, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. (Spoiler alert: Her novel Offshore won the next year, an achievement that startled a number of “experts” and forced them to begrudgingly welcome her to “the club.”) She had something she wanted to say, said it well, and then much of the “establishment” still closed its ears.

penelope fitzgerald
She gently took on the establishment…and now’s there’s a biography about her. You know, “slow and steady…”

From a 2014 New Yorker article, James Wood writes, “…she [Fitzgerald] proceeds with utmost confidence that she will be heard and that we will listen, even to her reticence. Her fictions sit on the page with the well-rubbed assurance of fact, as if their details were calmly agreed upon, and long established. And though you might expect work of irritating certitude, Fitzgerald’s confidence in her material is oddly disarming; she seems somehow to take life as it comes, as if we were always entering her novels in the middle of how things just are.”

The Bookshop film opened just a bit after a film that will undoubtedly outshine it, at least when it comes to the box office or popular opinions. Crazy Rich Asians, a film with a $30 million budget has netted over $75 million since it opened August 15. It has a popular book trilogy going for it –  as well as prominent Target shelf space. I’m sure the number of book clubs reading Penelope Fitzgerald is a minuscule fraction of those that are reading CRA.

But here’s where the two are similar: Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan had something he wanted to say and a world that he wanted to reveal to outsiders. Kwan wanted an audience, just like Fitzgerald: According to a piece in the Washington Post, “He [Kwan] said he aimed to give readers a glimpse into an otherwise exclusive way of life that many, especially those in Western cultures, aren’t even aware actually exists.” (Interestingly, though, the film has been receiving criticism about its representation of Asian minorities. Here’s the tricky part about releasing your words into the wild: They’ll be interpreted however the consumer – whether that’s an individual or Hollywood studio – prefers.)

Of course, the majority of people who want to get their words published…won’t. And given the fickle nature of the publishing industry (see here), what readers get is going to be filtered by what the publishers want, i.e. what sells.

Are you curious why you’ve most likely heard of Kevin Kwan but not Penelope Fitzgerald? They’re both great, but one is more sellable. One might just happen to tick all the right “boxes” – you know, “right place, right time” and all that. Yes, too many voices can cause an uncomfortable cacophony. But isn’t it nice to have the freedom to seek out stories wherever we want? Keep in mind the “delightfully daffy” Ashfield Film Festival and how residents are willing to sit – even for just five minutes – and hear a story not spoon-fed to them by the powers that be. This is what is amazing about the global and digital age we are living in. Here are a few ways to hear a wider array of stories:

  • Visit an independent bookshop or browse the social media feeds of a variety of publishing houses. You can find an independent book seller near you here.
  • Check out podcasts about reading. Here’s a compilation of  “25 Outstanding Podcasts for Readers.”
  • Blogs/social media feeds about books. Yes, I get it, there’s Oprah and Reese. And then you have a bazillion Instagrammers working on their behalf. Find something different. Here’s the New York Public Library’s list of some great ones.

read on



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