On the democratisation of writing

There have been outrageous scenes at the British Library. Arriving at the start of a working day, authors have been shocked to find that on some days one of the world’s greatest research libraries is full of students, reading, relaxing, socialising, texting one another. Lady Antonia Fraser queued for 20 minutes to leave her coat and then for half an hour to collect her books; Claire Tomalin was disturbed by schoolgirl giggling among fellow users. Tristram Hunt complained that the library had become “a groovy place to meet for a frappuccino”. Christopher Hawtree was obliged to perch on a window-sill.

In its way, this stand-off between distinguished writers and students is a perfect story for our times. Business ethics is behind it. Access, one of the buzzwords of the moment, has been deployed in its justification. And rumbling behind the row is an ever-renewing debate about elitism and expertise, snobbery and what exactly it takes in 2008 to be an author.

According to a report in The Times, the directors of the library had a powerful reason for changing its rules: they receive performance-related bonuses based on the number of visitors to the library. As a result, what used to be rather an exclusive institution, requiring authors and graduates to produce a letter from a publisher or university to prove their seriousness before being granted a reader’s pass, has loosened up somewhat. These days, undergraduates are welcome at the British Library to read, and revise. According to one irate oldster, many of them spend their time answering their mobiles, having loud conversations, eating and even playing music out loud on their laptops.

It is a matter of justified public access, apparently. “We are dedicated to delivering excellent services and carefully managing the increase in reader number during vacation periods,” its director of operations and services Phil Spence has said. “There are currently no plans to restrict the number of users.”

The result of this open-door policy is a perfect image of democratised Britain, a place where a public institution is available to the public, where everybody – authors, academics, undergraduates – is equal. The acclaimed biographer stands in a queue of students. The man of letters perches on a window-sill while media studies undergraduates lounge in chairs. For their part, students using the library have been genuinely baffled by the annoyance of their seniors, detecting in it a whiff of ageism and prejudice. The objectors may have been writers but then, the argument goes, students write too. “The great demand for the library’s resources should be held up as a sign of a publicly funded British institution’s success in providing an excellent service and appealing to all members of the public,” said one of them, in a letter to The Times.

“What is a mum?” the old Persil ads used to ask. Today’s question, brought into sharp relief by the British Library row, is more difficult to answer. What is an author?

The answer for many, in this great age of access and entitlement, is simple: it is anyone who wants to be. The barriers are down. Those who believe that, say, a professional historian like Tristram Hunt has a greater right to research material than a first-year history student, or who believes that a published novelist is different in any real sense from an unpublished one, is likely to be seen as part of the elitist, closed world of the “old media”.

These days, it seems, almost everybody writes. The blogging revolution has blurred the concept of what constitutes a published author. Many of those engaged in the “new media”, pouring billions of words into cyberspace every day, writing short stories on mobile phones, see themselves as part of a liberation movement. They believe that a writer of fiction does not have to be paid by a publisher in order to describe himself as a novelist, that someone who writes opinion pieces about issues of the day does not need to be employed by a newspaper or magazine to call herself a columnist.

In fact, according to the accepted wisdom in the kingdom of Blog, the new media is not only equal in significance to the old, but is actually superior: less shackled by tradition, uncompromised by personal ambition and the need to make money, free of pressure from editors and proprietors, outside the establishment.

There is a speck of truth here. The world of publishers, agents and reviewers was – to a large extent, still is – snobbish and reactive. It is difficult to break into. The internet has given a few good writers a break they would never have had in the old pre-screen days.

But all this glorious equality has a price-tag attached. There is no longer any formal difference between the intelligent and the stupid, the interestingly opinionated and idiotically bigoted, the writer of a serious memoir and the self-obsessed doodler. The idea that anyone can write, that good and bad are merely matters of personal opinion, is seeping dangerously into the culture.

Professional authors, who have a wobbly view of their own merit at the best of times, are bad at arguing that it takes talent and sweat as well as luck and contacts to make a living from writing, but someone needs to do it. It is no more snobbish or elitist to differentiate between Claire Tomalin, or any other members of the British Library angry brigade, and a student, however bright and keen, than it is take a premier league footballer rather more seriously than someone who can bounce a ball on his foot rather well in the park.

There was a time when talent and experience spoke for themselves and earned certain small privileges but, when a leading research library treats anyone with a pen or a laptop as an author, that time would seem to have passed. Culturally, it is harmful; professionally, it is bloody annoying.

Summer 2008