Monday, 9 July 2012

Imagining a Literary Olympics

(English PEN campaign)
The world’s poets have come to London.  Did you notice?  You could be forgiven if you didn’t, as the week of events passed by with barely a ripple of interest from the national media.  The event formed part of the ongoing Cultural Olympiad, 'the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements'.  But if this Olympian effort has not quite managed to capture the public imagination, what might a literature-based Olympics actually look like?

Essential to the appeal of sport is its immediacy - the demonstration of outstanding skill under competitive pressure.  To that end, the most obvious analogue might be spoken word poetry, particularly in the competitive format of the rap battle, exemplified in the YouTube video of rapping school teacher Mark Grist which went viral in the spring (video below, which includes strong language).  Purists might sneer at the association of such contests as 'literary', but such claims date back at least a decade now, and in terms of re-creating the atmosphere of competitive sport it has no obvious rival - the top YouTube comments even suggest international rivalry could feature, although 'LOL UK rap scene is the best in the world, simple.' might not win over those aforementioned purists.

On the other hand, as no doubt the instigators of London's Cultural Olympiad would point out, literature is not about competition, except in the rarefied world of the Booker prize judges.  Such a statement might superficially render this entire article futile, except that (for all their competitiveness) the Olympic Games itself is more than simply a competition.  The world's eyes will be placed on sport to an extent that is unimaginable for literature; a billion people watched the opening ceremony in Beijing four years ago; even Fifty Shades of Grey has only shifted 20 million copies.

The root of this is clearly that reading and writing are solitary activities; excepting the days when a new Harry Potter novel was released, the chances are that most of the world is not reading what you're reading when you're reading it.  This is where books lose ground even on competitors in other media - you need only check Twitter during an episode of X Factor to see the importance of the watching community, which sustains itself in much the same way as a large sports event; to participate in office conversations this morning you had to know how Andy Murray fared yesterday.

Perhaps this element of the Olympics experience cannot be replicated in literature, except in the isolated circumstances of a live book reading, or indeed of a rap battle.  But there is another element of the Olympics which might provide more fertile territory.  Almost uniquely, the Olympics sees competitors from every country on earth demonstrating their athletic prowess, often in events which ordinarily would attract less attention than a new poetry release.  Speaking personally, I'm lucky enough to hold a ticket to a kayaking final in London (or rather Eton) next month, something which ordinarily you couldn't pay me to watch.

Clearly, the Poetry Parnassus attempted to mirror this element of the Olympics, and its bringing-together of over 200 poets from as many countries is a staggering achievement.  Too often we are guilty of being culturally narrow-minded - it was not so long ago that the English Literature course at Oxford only covered writers based in the United Kingdom, let alone literatures in other languages.  When we do access foreign literature it tends to be both in translation (for obvious practical reasons) and from a very small talent pool - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who has had to give up writing now for health reasons) is a very talented writer, but is clearly not the only South American novelist, as the Waterstones shelves might suggest.

We might thus revisit the earlier suggestion that competition is unrelated to literature.  That is not born out by the history of the novel in this country, let alone across international boundaries.  On a personal level the dispute between Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson as to the morality of literature is fascinating to uncover, while Walter Scott's depiction of a Scottish rebellion in Old Mortality (writing from a supposedly enlightened British perspective) drew such ire from fellow Scots that the same events were novelised by rivals such as James Hogg, who wrote his own novel The Brownie of Bodsbeck in Scots dialect, emphasising its claim to represent the true history of the rebels.  In that latter example especially, it becomes clear that the power literature can have lies precisely in its disputation, and its ability to give voice(s) to cultural tensions, and to let us understand one another.

Yet if Poetry Parnassus, simply by providing an arena for talented poets from around the world, was unable to capture the public imagination, does this simply mean that such idealised ambitions for literature are now outdated?  Perhaps.  But if we believe in the power of the written word in personal and cultural expression, then maybe we ought to question why these grounds for despair have come to be.

To finish where we started, perhaps there is something in the whole rap battle idea after all.  Poetry Parnassus, for all its live readings and book bombings, was clearly an elite cultural event, where a largely intellectual audience could sample the offerings of a cherry-picked group of elite poets - less Olympics, more Henley Regatta.  A rap battle might be contrived and generic, but at least it manages to cross the gap between lyrical skill and popular appeal, capturing the imagination and bringing together an audience.  Perhaps if, rather than sneering, we celebrated such skill, the written and spoken word might regain some of its power.

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