What Do Writers Do?

Earlier this year I was asked to take part in a writing project in the UK's second UNESCO City of Literature -

I live in the world's first UNESCO City of Literature but I worry about that title. I think I'd rather live in a City of Words. Literature, to me, isn't necessarily a good thing - it's exclusive, for a start. It doesn't sell to ordinary people in mass-market locations. It tells people what they ought to want to read, rather than simply grabbing readers by the imagination (which to me, has always been a writer's job, whether they are literary or not). The mantle of literature hangs heavily on a writer's shoulders and many of my favourite Edinburgh authors from the past were not considered literary in their day. Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, was a man known more for a good yarn than anything worthy.

That said, we're rightly proud of our writing heritage in Edinburgh - we have a Writer's Museum in the heart of city's Medieval Old Town and the City of Literature office runs a monthly salon to bring the capital's present-day writers together on a regular basis. It's formed a community. Edinburgh is home to some of the world's top bestsellers - JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith to name three. Beyond that the writing talent of the city is textured - we have poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, dramatists and more. The place is alive with words and has moved from the analogue to the digital era with a lively writing scene around graphic novels and computer games as much as traditional outlets for writers like novels and periodicals.

Earlier this year I was asked to take part in a writing project in the UK's second UNESCO City of Literature - Norwich. 26 writers from the collective 26 (named after the letters of the alphabet - the tools of our trade) were paired with writers from Norwich's long literary history and asked to write anything up to 1500 words about them. The list started with Julian of Norwich and ended with contemporary talent - George Szirtes, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. I was struck immediately that 7 of the 26 Norwich writers were women - and all from earlier in history than it was normal for women to be educated. Landmark figures like Elizabeth Fry (with whom I was paired), Harriet Martineau and Julian of Norwich were not only famous in their lifetimes but had left a tangible and well-recognised legacy. If I think of Edinburgh's literary heritage from the same period I come up with considerably fewer female writers who can make that boast. The project spawned stories, poems, statements of fact. When you give writers freedom you get quite an array. Read what transpired here.

Visiting Norwich I found both a heritage and existing literary scene quite different from the one I was used to. The emphasis, admittedly, was more on 'literature' and less on writing but there was a both a charm and a wildness to the place. I got to know Norwich through its words. As Chris Gribble, the Chief Executive of the newly formed Writers' Centre Norwich says,

'While it's nearly impossible to capture the diversity of writers and thinkers who have come out of or spent time in Norwich, I suspect that some of the family resemblances they share include a questioning nature, an unwillingness to run with the pack and a tendency for the line between reality and imagination to be as blurred as our landscape is with the sea: we are explorers rather than colonists, prophets rather than disciples.'

Coming from the home of the Enlightenment that changed the political, theological and economic landscape of the late 18th century in a way that still reverberates in our culture today, I found those contrasts exciting. There was an inherent bravery and rebelliousness in the collection of Norwich writers that I don't see in the same way in their Scottish counterparts.

In researching Elizabeth Fry I was struck, for example, by the bravery of her refusal to stand by and say nothing about the inhuman prison conditions to which 19th century convicts were subjected. For several years she visited every prison hulk that left London with women and children on board. Every one. It is, to my mind, a crime that Elizabeth Fry is to be removed from the Bank of England £5 note. We honour few enough women from our history (to say nothing of writers) - we should not be deleting them.

This month Edinburgh hosted the biggest arts festival in the world, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival where we discussed another 26 project that took place this year - writing about Modern British Childhood at the V&A's Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The Book Festival itself focuses another debate, though, about the landscape of writers, not only in Scotland or in Britain but worldwide. Writers are a product of where we come from but by looking at alternatives to the culture in which we live, we can find ways to change and hopefully improve it. Our business is communication oftentimes through the medium of stories but our capacity has a far greater scope - to entertain certainly, but also to stimulate debate, to mark up changes and differences and that way, to maybe, just now and then, to change the world.


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