Monday, 9 November 2009

We Need a Literary Sensation

Books are sexy

Getting people excited about books is clearly something writers care about very much. At the weekend I blogged about the need for charismatic curatorial types, the literary equivalent of Jay Joplin, to do for literature what Sensation and White Cube did for art in the 90s. It provoked one of the liveliest debates I’ve had in a while. And when I asked how we get the public interested in literature – what our “Sensation” moment would look like – during Sunday night’s #writechat, the @replies lit up like the Vegas Strip.

As writers, we care. The problem is, many of the public don’t. so what’s the answer?
I should probably explain, as I realise that not everyone was around in the balmy days of the 1990s. Back in the mid 1990s a group of artists, mainly out of Goldsmiths & Central St Martin’s (yes, the St Martin’s College of the immortal Pulp lyric), started doing stuff that was new and cool. They became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs). Nowadays we think of them as rather staid and fogeyish, and of what they do as rather yeah yeah yeah, but it’s hard to overstate just how damn cool it was before some idiot went and used the phrase Cool Britannia.

And it was Jay Joplin, and his White Cube Gallery, that brought Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread, Gavin Turk and their like to the world. And when Damien cut a cow in two, and Tracey forgot to make her bed, and a whole bunch of them got together to produce an exhibition called Sensation that included a portrait of Mira Hindley painted with children’s handprints, there wasn’t a bus stop or a shopping queues or a, well, they didn’t have watercoolers really back the, but you get the idea, where people weren’t asking each other “yes, but is it art?”

People didn’t just care about this painting or that sculpture – they cared about art.
So how do we get people talking like that about books? How do we get them caring not about this or that book – there’ll always be a book du jour, and that’s great, but it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to secure the future – but about books. Full stop?

The answers to the question have proven somewhat more elusive than the desire to keep asking it and for there to BE an answer. Catch them young, work with libraries, get celebrities to say books are cool. All of them valuable points. But what we really need is our own Sensation. We need an “event”.

And for that we need two things. We need a group of writers doing something that hasn’t been done before. We need our very own Jay Joplin to bring them to the world’s attention in one place at one time. And maybe we need a third thing, for the tabloid press to be offended.

I want to go on a little diversion before ending with a clarion call to action. It’s not – pardon the heresy, books we need to get people excited about, lovely, wonderful objects though they may be. It’s what books contain – stories and ideas and, to be kitsch and sentimental for a moment – the alchemy of the communal soul. Books on their own are just pieces of paper. Sentimentalism and nostalgia for them are understandable, but they’re not what I’m about when I say I want people to be excited about literature. Just like the stockists are wrong to want people to be excited about paintings rather than “art”.

What we need is for people to care about ideas, about stories, about communicating our innermost fears and hopes; articulating our questions and seeking answers; having our insecurities reflected back with reassurance, and our securities questioned; being brought together by narrative. It is because they do all these things that books matter – and not vice versa.

So what will our event look like? I’ve had some great suggestions over the past couple of days. A second Blur v Oasis, trading heavyweights; a second Beat Poets tour; and, of course, our own Sensation. I don’t know what form it will take. But it will be an Event. And I won’t stop asking the question till I’ve found the answer – and tried and failed a few times along the way.

So, who wants to explore with me?

(Dan Holloway is a founder member of Year Zero Writers, a collective devoted to creating a direct relationship between readers and writers, and described by Nylon Mag as “cool”. The Year Zero website has new original fiction and articles about literature every day. Dan is also organiser of the Free-e-day festival. He is an outspoken self-publisher and futurologist of publishing, and an advocate of live performance prose. His current novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, about a girl growing up in Hungary after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, is free to download in all e-formats, and £8 as paperback.


  1. What a perfect day for you to blog. Can't believe it is 20 years since the wall fell. Anyhow... Great post. Very thought provoking. Love this:

    What we need is for people to care about ideas, about stories, about communicating our innermost fears and hopes; articulating our questions and seeking answers; having our insecurities reflected back with reassurance, and our securities questioned; being brought together by narrative.

    Thanks for the post.


  2. Thanks, Rebecca - yeah 20 years today. I was a first year undergrad in 1989 - it was one of those defining moments of my youth. There was also a considerable amout of opportunism involved in writing a book about it that came out two months ago :)

    Thank you SO MUCH for having me. Look forward to answering any and all questions as ebst I can.

  3. I'm always up for a good adventure, exploring new things and gaining knowledge.

    I applaud Dan on his efforts as it is of great importance that we connect with the public.

  4. Hi Brian. It's also fun. Reading live and seeing readers' faces as you speak - you can't beat it


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