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Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

3 comments

  1. I think you’re looking at it wrong. She’s not saying don’t write. She’s not saying writing is less fulfilling than reading (she said attempting, and I have to agree that an unfinished manuscript is far less fulfilling than reading a book all the way through). I feel what she’s truly trying to tell us in point three is listen. She wasn’t saying these people shouldn’t be writing, but that instead of jumping into writing, they should read. There are masters out there at the craft, women and men, but most of what we have out is drivel from people who never took the time to listen (read), and all they did was talk (write).

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