Boys, books and football

Published on: 15 Chwefror 2013 Author: Matt Haig

Matt HaigHere's a depressing fact. Boys, as a species, aren't as into reading as girls.

This has been the case for a long time, but apparently the gender divide among young readers is widening. Only last summer the All Party Parliamentary Literacy Group revealed that an estimated 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected level of reading by age 11, and that three out of four schools are worried specifically about boys' underachievement in books.

This is sad, and obviously the route towards getting more boys into books is a long and winding one that involves homes, schools, libraries, bookshops, authors, publishers and culture at large.

However, a very dark cloud passes across my soul when I hear that footballer Frank Lampard has been commissioned to write five - five! - kids books. Why does it bother me? Because it is patronising, that's why. Just as it is patronising when Theo Walcott or any other footballer or B-list celeb is commissioned to write a book.

Why is it patronising?

Okay, here goes:

It is patronising to boys to think they'll be interested in something just because it has something to do with football/celeb world. They like footballers playing football. They might buy a pair of trainers because a footballer tells them to, but are they going to sit through 50,000 words of drivel? Doubtful.

It is patronising to writers because yet again it confirms the myth that anyone can be a writer, and that the creation of brilliant stories is far simpler than playing football. I am waiting for the call from Manchester United, but apparently this football-to-writer thing operates on a one-way system.

Most of all though it is patronising to books and literature as a whole, to say that they need added value from the world of celebrity. If you are a publisher or bookseller who seriously believes that a good story isn't what is important then I have to wonder why you are in the business of books, and why you aren't working for Heat magazine or for Match of the Day or something.

The way to get anyone to read anything is to write and publish and sell good books that appeal to actual and potential readers. As a twelve year old I discovered the power of books via the brilliance of S E Hinton, a woman who understood the teen boy mind better than anyone ever. Would I have been made to love books more if I had been reading stories written by Gary Linekar instead? I seriously doubt it.

People don't love footballers randomly. They love them because they are good at playing football. Likewise people don't like a book because of the author's brand identity. I can think of hundreds of examples of people turning away from authors they once loved when they start to write stinkers.

It may sound like a novel concept, but the route to readers is through writing. Good writing - just like good football or good TV - will always be valued on its own terms. So let's not be insecure. Let's not wish books were more brash and shiny. Let's be proud to love books, and let's not try and turn them into yet more throwaway artefacts of celebrity culture. It may be a sure-fire way to short-term book sales to put a celeb on the cover, but in the long term books will suffer if stories are being commissioned for the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, the most sure-fire way to stop people reading is to stop making books that people enjoy reading.

And if boys end up loving books they will do so because there are books worth loving. Let's make more of them.

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Matt Haig

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