Contrary to the popular myth, we don’t all have a book in us and pretending otherwise devalues great writing

(As published in Books Blog)

She might look ordinary … Catherine Cookson

We’ve all got one book in us." At one point in my life this was my mother’s mantra, with one eye, I reckon, on what at the time was the phenomenal success of Catherine Cookson.

Sorry mum, but that just isn’t true. Subsequent adventures in literature have led to my firm conviction that although we all have stories to tell very few of us have a book worth writing in us. I am with John Milton when he argues in Areopagitica that "a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life". Very few of us are great poets. For most of us art and literature is about standing on the shoulders of giants, enabling us to see beyond, and understand more, than our own little slice of time and space.

I’m guessing I’m going to have to defend this stance on art and literature when I join a Question Time panel at Bolton at Home’s Housing Percent for Art conference tomorrow, which poses the question "What’s Art Got To Do With It?" in relation to community arts. One project funded by the Housing Percent for Art scheme that caught my eye was the Broadman Street Library of Unwritten Books.

It grew out of the long running project of the same name founded by Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown in 2002, inspired by Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, in which a librarian catalogues all and any books that come his way. Following Brautigan’s suicide, fans started libraries of such books that had-never-been. Jupp and Brown took their cue from this and started an archive of the books we-all-have-in-us-but-never-write. "People are prompted to spontaneously record their unrealised ideas, fictional tales, and personal histories", they explain. These are then transcribed, printed, bound and – bob’s your publisher – everyone has their very own book.

It was the "non-selective" element of this endeavour that particularly excited Jupp and Brown. This is precisely the element that appals me and I think shows up the shabby, narrow horizons of too many "community arts" projects. Sure there are some interesting, touching stories here. But personal tales and pub philosophy are not what books should be about.

What I cannot stand is the way the "community" prefix curtails judgment: it produces an any-tale-will-do attitude that says "leave the Dostoevsky in the boot, mate – none of these plebs would get it anyway, so let’s play make-believe that they are all authors". What is this? Vanity publishing for proles? People aren’t that stupid.

I’ve mentioned Joseph Skipsey on the blog before, the Northumbrian poet and editor who started work as a trapper when he was seven and taught himself to read by candlelight in the pit. Skipsey is at his best when he writes about other poets and what it means to stand on the shoulders of literary giants.

This is what he has to say about personal experience and culture in relation to Edgar Allan Poe: "True all great poets have a vast personal experience from which to draw the rarest poetic symbol; but they have over and above a culture which gives them possession of other eras; and it is as much owing to the rare ability with which they utilise this [my emphasis] in the working out of their grand designs that their pages possess the luminosity that arrests and ever must arrest with delight, the attention of the intelligent reader".

There’s an idea. Instead of peddling the lie that we are all authors now and that the only tale that matters is our own, why not put trust in that literary culture? Beyond the individual, beyond community, society needs to believe in and recognise great literature. This belief is about reading not writing, it is about society rather than community.

Community tales are all well and good but society’s belief in literature is not about chasing your own tale in a circle of solipsism. It is about opening up an individual’s horizon, beyond self, beyond immediate community, and sharing in the "rare ability" of great authors to illuminate the page with language and tales we never could have imagined in our own small worlds.


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