Speech to the Society of Young Publishers

A friend and collaborator just e-mailed to say he enjoyed my use of Hanif Kureishi’s formulation on multiculturalism, in my remarks at Goldsmiths College:

‘Multiculturalism’, he says, ‘is the idea that one might be changed by other ideas’. It is a movement based on the dialogic exchange of ideas, even traditions, based on ‘the idea that purity is incestuous’.

I have used it in another speech recently, to the Society of Young Publishers annual conference, in Oxford last December.  In the interests of posting something new to the blog on a Monday morning, here is the speech I wrote.  It is not necessarily the one that I actually gave, but until Jon S uploads a video of the proceedings, I’m safe. The discussion was on ‘The Responsibility to Publish’, and I shared the panel with Chris Brazier, Co-Editor at the New Internationalist, Sarah Totterdell, Head of Oxfam’s publications department, and Alan Samson from Orion Books.

The View from the Panel
The View from the Panel. Photo by yrstrly.

On being asked to speak at this event, I was terrified that I was going to end up speaking in tautologies. If you’re at the Society of Young Publishers, then you’re already speaking to a group of people who are, by definition, of the belief that publishing is a civic good, that they are part of civil society.
So, I want to say more. Let’s go the whole hog.  My first thought is this: That of The Arts, it is literature and publishing, that has by far the greatest impact on politics.

  • Films and music might tap in to the Zeitgeist. They might be the anthem of the summer, they might be the film that sums up the decade.
  • And the fine arts, and design, might capture something about the kind of society and where we are.

But I don’t think they can hold a candle to books, when it comes to defining, shaping, evolving political and social ideas. Only books have the space to really develop a thought. Books are the primary medium, for where philosophy happens.
Most explicitly in non-fiction books, of course. Behind all political movements are academic and political tracts. Investigative journalism which sets an agenda.
But also fiction.  I haven’t done a count, but I think you’ll all agree with me, that it is still the characters and the narratives of fiction that allow us the appropriate metaphors for political discussion, more so than films or TV.  I work for a Free Speech charity so Orwell is the obvious example. If you want to talk about social class, colonialism and race, sexuality, war, marginalisation and alienation, you’ll find that there are characters, narratives to help you describe it.   And those same books are what form our ideas and our values on these things in the first place.
Books also inform other arts too. I was looking at the top 20 grossing films of the 21st Century (so far), and twelve of them are adaptations of books. Maybe not the most high-brow books – they’re all superheros and fantasy – but its worth noting that these franchises started in print.
So let me draw that line in the sand.  Let’s all stand on the same side, we’re among friends here, let’s be arrogant about it: Literature has a unique power among the arts. It is the first and most effective of the arts to change society.  So rather than interrogate the question of whether we have a responsibility to society, I’m going right ahead and claiming that we have more responsibility than everyone else! I’m claiming a leadership role for publishers, amongst the arts.
I’m claiming a ‘meta’ role for publishing too. Its the medium by which we change everything else, from cooking, to environmentalism.  Because you don’t have the detail anywhere else.  If I talk about having the keys to the printing press, I think am mixing my proverbs, but there is something important about the custodial role, the task you are charged with.  In terms of publishing’s place in society, I would actually elevate it to the level of other great institutions: Like the police force, a healthy publishing industry is something that is essential if you want to call a group of people ‘society’.

Literature for the masses

Why the pep talk?  Well, because this participation in society is a long term project.  I produced a play once, by the playwright Judith Adams, and it was called Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden. Its a modern, twisted fairy story: think of Angela Carter.
There’s an architect, a designer of gardens, and at one point, he is musing, and he says

Do I have enough faith to design in yew?

And Lily, who is this elfin, red riding hood, man-eater, she says

Design what in who?
And the architect says
You have to wait so long for yew.
Worth it. In the end. But you’re never there to see it.
Takes a deal of philosophy. Just a dash of imagination!

I fear that publishing is a bit like that. You need to have faith that what you plant now, the ideas and the authors that you develop, will have an impact in the long term.
This is very much at odds with publishing for the mass market, which is powered and defined by short term success. “How many copies can you shift by Christmas day?” “We’re not publishing this now because we think its more of a summer book.”
Its difficult to engage in this debate about the narrowing of our reading habits. Because we know that the profits from the best-sellers fund everything else apparently (I’d like to hear more about whether that’s true or not) and also the feeling that its better to at least be reading something, than nothing, even if its Part V of Katie Price’s memoirs. I’d like to know what the panel and you all think about this time distinction. What’s your horizon? I’m saying, the longer the better.

Cultural Colonialism vs Multiculturalism

I’m taking a very confident attitude about the value of publishing, the inherent value of publishing. That’s why PEN was constituted, so I’m following the party line, I suppose… but I do mean it quite sincerely.
And by extension, there is a belief in the value of literary exchange. For each of you, if you’re confident about the merit of the stuff you’re publishing, then there is nothing wrong with having the – shall we say – ‘cultural confidence’ to publish in other markets too (this addresses one of the questions put to us at the start).  There’s no sense in refraining from entering certain markets, because of some sort of protectionist approach to publishing. Books are very different from other commodities, other products. They are ideas as well, and I think PEN holds as self-evident a principle that the more ideas in the mix, the better.
At the Canon Tales event in September, you only have 20 seconds per slide, and I spent about that trying to recall a quote from Hanif Kureishi, which I’ve had the sense to write down this time:

Multiculturalism is the idea that one may be changed by other ideas; the idea that purity is incestuous.

This idea that cultures should be allowed to evolve by themselves I think is rubbish. We’re a global culture now, the internet connects us all, ideas are merging, and we should all simply get stuck in there. The criteria for publishing should simply be if its good.  And then, if you’ve got a commercial mind, whether people are going to buy it.  I think its patronising to say that the best writers from developing countries should be fenced off – Just publish the best people, and some of them will be from these emerging markets. Crucially, many of them will be influenced and changed by the books you publish. And that’s good, that’s right, and its also how culture has always worked since we invented ink.
If we do want to be responsible, and take on the task of fostering literature elsewhere, then I don’t think its as valuable to wilfully publish people just because they’re of a particular nationality, or group or sex or whatever. That too is a short term approach.   Far better to spend efforts on improving literacy and access in these places, so that what literature that does emerge is better.  If we are thinking about the CSR responsibilities of publishers, then you should focus your activities in these areas. And when the literature that arises is of better quality, well, you’ve fostered a whole new set of resources to publish and profit from. Its that long term, strategic approach again. And again, you need the faith that it will work.


A final thing is that, if you’re going to take this multicultural approach, if you believe that there is an inherent good in spreading your literature overseas, then I think you have to believe that the door swings both ways, that we need – we desperately need – to publish the best literature from overseas in this country, much of which will be work in other languages.
I think the figure for publishing in translation in the UK is something like 3%, which is bizarre and low and morally wrong. I heard that the percentage of literature (i.e. not including technical manuals and textbooks and such) is even lower.
Now PEN have a dedicated Writers in Translation Programme, where we fund the marketing of books in translation in the UK. We supported The Siege by Ismail Kadare, which won the International Booker Prize. We also support sample translations for agents and writers, so new authors can find themselves publishers for the English language market. And such work must be of profound importance, I feel.
If any of you want to donate to that programme, then that would be a good use of your CSR budgets, such as they are! Either that, or the promotion modern languages in schools, should be something YSP stick their oar into, I think.

Free Speech

To wrap up, I will tick the free speech box – That’s what I spend the bulk of my time doing. We can’t get good literature without free expression, and freedom to receive information. Your chosen industry doesn’t work without it.
Sometimes, supporting free speech is as simple as getting membership of PEN, but sometimes it actually means taking a stand for a book against some pretty powerful people. We’ve just launched a libel report, looking at cases like Slave, published by Little, Brown, and House of Bush, House of Saud, published by Gibson Square. People actually taking a stand for free flow of ideas. I think that those publishers find their courage in their faith in the importance of their industry.

3 Replies to “Speech to the Society of Young Publishers”

  1. Brilliant speech Rob, couldn’t agree more.
    I do take issue with Hanif Kureishi though. He may be right, but forcing “other” ideas on people can never be right, can never be a good thing for the uptake of those ideas either.

  2. I loved this article. I think the one point I would labour is the importance of reading alongside publishing…ideas feed the soul so a belief in reading: the web, magazines, newspapers, books, billboards, film, television ( visual reading) is crucial. Reading is a kind of faith so I think publishers should promote the pleasures and rewards more. Instead they often go for the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to publishing. Publishing is not the same as selling tins of beans because the buyer knows what the taste is as they buy. Books are mysterious and that is their potency, the new mediums should just give us more ways in…to the magic! Books are like friends so more multiculture books are more multiculture people in one’s imagination and more understanding and empathy of the world around us.

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