The Writer in the World

In March, I was honoured and delighted to be asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Roehampton’s Creative Writing Soiree, an annual evening of fiction, memoir and poetry readings done by the English and Creative Writing students. The suggested title of my talk was ‘The Writer in the World’ which gave me the chance to speak about creativity, literature and the work of English PEN in broader and grander terms than the speeches I am usually asked to give.

I confess to being quite pleased with the end result. Not, I must stress, in the delivery, which comes across as extemporised rather than pre-planned. But rather, the broad idea of what it means to be a ‘writer in the world’ and the pragmatic suggestions for how one might go about living as such a writer.

The speech included a potted history of English PEN, some thoughts on the moral obligations of free speech, my earliest memories of learning to read, and the grind and grit required to be ‘creative’. Its a good statement of what I believe.

A video of the speech is embedded below, followed by the prepared text, which the eagle-eared will notice differs slightly from the words I actually spoke.

The Writer in the World – 23 March 2017

Before I begin talking about English PEN and what writers can do in the world, I want to say a couple of things about creativity, because today is a celebration of that.

Something I often think about is the film director Steven Soderberg’s Oscar acceptance speech in 2000 for Traffic. He said:

I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating.  I don’t care if its a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theatre, a piece of music… anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us, I think this world would be unlivable without art, and I thank you…

Now for a long time that was my lodestone. I pursued a creative career, working for 59 Productions. We produced film, graphic design, and made a success of ourselves doing video design for theatre productions.

Ever since I stopped working for them, they have to come stratospherically successful! In fact they have two shows on at the moment: They won a TONY award for An American in Paris which is playing in the West End right now, and their adaption of Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass has opened at Manchester HOME and will move to the Lyric Hammersmith in April.

So while I was working on these creative projects, and ever since while working for English PEN, I have held up ‘The Creative’ as a sort of idealised person. The pinnacle of evolution!

That’s all well and good, and you probably agree with me, but there is more to creativity than a simple desire to do it. As you will be aware if you have been studying creative writing, it requires a certain discipline and dedication, and there are plenty of people who will explain to you that ideas and creativity flourish through hard work and grit, keeping at it, rather than some inspiration on the proverbial Road to Damascus.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell is famous for popularising the idea, in his book Outliersthat you can become an expert at something if you spend 10,000 hours doing it. This prompted other people to test the theory, by spending 10,000 hours playing golf and then complaining that they didn’t win The Masters! If you hear Gladwell talk about that concept now however, he actually gets very annoyed that he has become famous for that idea. First of all, it wasn’t his, but paraphrasing the work of other academics. And second, he only cited the 10,000 hours figure as a way of making the point that to get very good at something you need to invest a lot of time, and moreover you need an infrastructure of support that will allow you to spend 10,000 hours doing that thing.

For the creative life, that very often means that you need some kind of support network, whether that is a spouse, or parents, or friends to indulge you.

This is something we must not forget, and we should pay tribute to, whenever we see someone achieving in a creative life: In addition to the ‘talent’—the writer, or whatever person is at the centre of a piece of art—we must remember all the people who support the production of that art.  In the case of writers, you have editors, copy editors, typesetters, designers, bookbinders, e-book coders, and of course publishers.

I remember the very first perfect-bound book (a book with a spine) that I read. It was called the Eggbox Brontosaurus by Michael Denton. And Mark Shinwell, a boy in my class who was learning to read alongside me aged six or seven, or however old I was, had got the book first! He was ahead of me. And I was very jealous of him and of the book, which looked like a real book because it had a spine and not staples.

As an aside, Mark Shinwell had no recollection of me at all when I tried to friend him on Facebook, much to my annoyance.

Anyway, in the Eggbox Brontosaurus, a prince wants to make a brontosaurus out of egg boxes. And he has a obsession with having a label on the artwork that says that he made this all on his own. And of course over a series of adventures, he realises that he needs help from his friends. And when the eggbox brontosaurus is finished, the sign reads ‘with help from his friends’.

This is really just a long way of saying what I believe, which is that art created in collaboration is almost always better than art created in solitude. That has certainly been my experience: everything I am most proud of in my limited creative career, has been made so much better through the input of others. I think in particular of my novella, and the input of my editor Jared Shurin.

I do hope that you all recognise the benefits of a collaborative practice. In this modern world, this sharing economy, with new digital technologies, it is much easier to have this kind of career and make that kind of art.

So perhaps to be a ‘Writer in the World’ is be a writer who collaborates in that way.

English PEN was created as a response to solitude. In 1921, Amy Dawson Scott—a social networker of her day—realised that there was no club for writers, who are a solitary bunch. She envisaged weekly literary dinners and co-opted John Galsworthy, who wrote the Forsyte Saga, to be the inaugural president.

Although he agreed initially to come for one meeting only, Galsworthy ended up staying as president for 12 years. Literary PEN clubs sprung up quickly all over the world, guided by a common principle of sharing  literature across frontiers.

The founders of PEN, which included Dawson-Scott, John Galsworthy and the second president, H.G. Wells, quickly realised that for the free flow of literature to take place, you needed a healthy stance against censorship. And so 96 years (so far) of campaigning for free speech began: For Arthur Koestler and Fredrico Garcia Lorca, imprisoned by the Fascist regime in Spain; for the Jewish writers we were fleeing Nazi Germany; for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and those trapped behind the iron curtain; for Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro Wiwa, and Salman Rushdie. At every free speech moment, you will find the PEN club, PEN supporters there standing up for the right of writers to write; for freedom of expression accross frontiers.

In the present day English PEN is a proud campaigning for freedom of expression, founded on this love of literature. We fight against the legal barriers to writing.  We fight censorship,and persecution of writers around the world.  That might be what we are best known for.

But we also fight other barriers to literature too.

Such as language. What is your favourite book is in a language you do not understand? That’s certainly true for me: my favourite book is Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges and I wouldn’t be able to read it if it had not been translated.  So we run a translation programme, promoting literary translation in various forms, with cold hard cash for books to be translated into the English language, the best of world literature.

Literacy is also a huge barrier to literature too: if you cannot write, and you cannot read, then you are unlikely to be able to express yourself through literature.

And finally, there are issues of power and of platform—the kinds of things I’ve already been arguing about this evening—that are very important to the spirit of freedom of expression. Cultures and structures mean that ‘some animals are more equal than others’ and unless we take strides to redress those structural imbalances then we will get a very narrow literary culture.

So, for PEN’s part, we run outreach programs, giving people without opportunities to be published a chance to do so. And of course we campaign for, and offer our support to initiatives that foreground new and different kinds of writing and writers, seeking to make our literary ecosystem more diverse.

I want to say something else about the value of all these programs, and why I am particularly proud of them. It is a tangent, into the realms of free speech philosophy, so I will be brief.

A commitment to freedom of expression does mean a commitment to defending the rights of people to say and write offensive things. That’s what I was defending over at Goldsmiths. Defending freedom of expression also means defending bad art, and also unpleasant, racist political speech as well.

This is very difficult for many people to do, because they see the defence as an endorsement of the unpleasant, racist, homopobic, sexist speech.

But it is not. I am sure you are all aware of the Voltaire principle… although it is not Voltaire, it is Voltaire being paraphrased by a woman, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who said of Voltaire’s philosophy: ‘I hate what you say; but to defend to the death your right to say it’. I think you might have heard of that.

I certainly try to abide by that principle. But I also like to flip it on its head. Or rather say the clauses in the other way direction: I defend your right to say something; but I hate what you say!

First we affirm the right to freedom of expression; then, once that is ‘banked’ and we set the parameters of the debate, we can engage in political condemnation or scathing artistic criticism if we need to.

The philosopher Kenan Malik goes even further, and says that there is a moral demand on anyone who promotes freedom of speech. It is not enough simply to defend the rights of other people to say offensive things. You must also use your free speech to counter that speech you do not like. To fail to do so is sort of a moral avoidance or abrogation of responsibility.

So this is how I justify defending the rights of unpleasant people to write speak and publish: because we use our own free speech to condemn them when necessary. And we use what resources available to us to put other kinds of speech and expression into the world. So that’s the PEN translation program, and that’s the PEN outreach program.

That is the grand answer to what a writer can do in the world. I think for most PEN members, being a member of our organisation, and being a writer that participates in the world, are synonymous!  They encourage freedom of expression. They encourage and support the idea of literature across frontiers. And then, using their own writing, seeing it as a responsibility to defend those rights.

Normally I get irritated with politicians who say that “with rights come  responsibilities” because actually, no, human rights are rights that we have however bad we are, and they should not be contingent on anything. They come with no strings attached.

But having said that, I do like the idea that people might consider the fact that they have the right to free speech, to also entail a duty to use that free speech as well, to stand up for what they believe in.

My favourite kind of PEN campaigning is when our members use the creative act as a way to express solidarity with fellow writers who may be in deep trouble in other parts of the world. I will just highlight three projects quickly. I am very proud of each of them, but I think they are also the kinds of projects that you all can emulate in your own practice.

The first was a book called Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot. There is a brilliant pun in there, if you can get at it. In this case, following the imprisonment of four members of the punk band Pussy Riot in Russia, after they had staged civil disobedience in a cathedral in Moscow, 101 British poets gathered under the PEN banner to write new poetry in the style of Pussy Riot. The punk, feminist sensibility and aesthetic. These women had been silenced, but these poets put their voices and their ideas are back into the world. We created new culture. We even won a Saboteur Award for best anthology that year.

A similar project we did the following year was called Jail Verse: Poems From Kondengui Prison by a Cameroon writer named Enoh Meyomesse. He had inexplicably been able to publish a set of poems while in prison in Cameroon. We got hold of it—It was smuggled out in some way—and our members translated it into English. When we sold the book, the profits went to Enoh’s legal fees.

Again, a creative act in solidarity with an imprisoned, embattled writer. Using our own talents and freedom of expression to defend the free speech of someone in trouble.

And finally, the English PEN Modern Literature Festival is now in its second year and will take place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch on 1st April 2017. This is another brilliant example of literary campaigning. We have 30 poets who have all been ‘assigned’ a writer at risk, an international writer who we campaign for. And the British poet is writing new work in response to the work, and the plight, and the life and times of that international writer at risk. Last year the output was incredibly moving, so I recommend that to you.

I’ve been very high-minded and grand with my ideas for what it means to be a writer in the world. But before I end I want to give some practical suggestion for what you might do now you have a creative writing qualification (if you have indeed graduated!) or for when you finally consider yourself to be a ‘writer’, whenever that might be.

The first is, as I have said, to collaborate. And to experiment with the form in ways that the new digital technologies might offer.

Second: Translate, if you can. It doesn’t always need to be your words and your ideas that you put out into the world. And anyway, the act of translation is a supremely creative act, because of course you are rewriting the novel completely while keeping the story and the meaning the same!

So try that if you can, and also correspond with writers in other countries.

I know a lot of people on creative writing courses go on to work in publishing. If that is your destiny, then seek out those embattled, under-represented voices, and publish them, platform them. In this era of Brexit and Donald Trump, we hear so much about the politics of distance and division. There is no better way, I beleive, to bring people together and to create empathy than through literature. I am a chauvinist for the written word above all the other art forms! Literature has, uniquely, the potential to create empathy. I’ve been speaking about literature across frontiers, and I truly believe that literature can break down the barriers between us and build bridges between people.

I will finish with a poem by Ali Smith that appears in, and was written for, Catechism.

Song

Every time you say no
to something that’s wrong
a crack the size of a hair &
a single note of that song
inserts itself in the stone

the meaning of strong

it might take a short time
it might take long

no
no
no

listen, millions of us
singing along.

Thank you very much.

Yrsrly in conversation with author Tom Pollock at the University of Roehampton Creative Writing Soiree. 23 March 2017. Photo by Leone Ross.
Yrsrly in conversation with author Tom Pollock at the University of Roehampton Creative Writing Soiree. 23 March 2017. Photo by Leone Ross.

2 Replies to “The Writer in the World”

  1. Rob, I loved this. Great to be able to hear you speaking even though I wasn’t at the event. An excellent summary of what Pen does and why we should all support free speech as well as some other interesting thoughts about creativity. Well done, as always !

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