The Transformational Power of Literature

by Sharon Blackie

When I decided, three years ago in a dreary Sunday-afternoon Edinburgh café, that I wanted to set up a small publishing company, I had one idea in my head: to publish the kind of books that once upon a time had changed my whole way of thinking about who I was, about the world and my place in it. The kind of books I couldn't seem to find in bookshops any more - and certainly not on the High Street book chain '3 for 2' tables. Books of the kind that I kept being told weren't even being published now, because big publishers were abolishing the literary 'midlist' and were focusing almost exclusively on potential bestsellers instead. On books that weren't too risky; books of the kind that people might like to buy because they'd already bought that kind of book, and several others just like it, in quite large quantities. Books that were, above all, safe.

But those books weren't what I wanted to read. I wanted to read more of the kind of books that I began to discover in my late teens and early twenties: books that had something important to say about the way we live - or maybe about the way we die. What kind of books am I talking about? Well, let's start at the beginning. I grew up on a typical all-girls-grammar-school diet of Jane Austen and John Milton. With a hefty dose of Shakespeare, of course - but only the historical plays or the comedies. All that changed when I was studying both English and French Literature for 'A' level. In one fell swoop I went from Pride and Prejudice (I'm sorry, but I'm one of those irritating people who consider Jane Austen books as historical curiosities, no more taxing intellectually than the average light romance) to Hamlet and DH Lawrence's The Rainbow. From Molière's Le Misanthrope to Albert Camus' L'Etranger. In that heady summer when I was just turned sixteen, my whole view of the world shifted and tilted and has never stood still since.

This wonderful process of discovery continued throughout my twenties and well into my thirties. It included contemporary writers: Doris Lessing, Janette Turner Hospital, John Fowles. Every book I read by these authors and others like them showed me a new way of looking at the world; every one of them changed me in some way. Change and growth are essential; it's how we know we're still alive. Many of the books I bought during those years have travelled all around the world with me as I've moved from place to place. They're treasures.

And now? In these early years of a whole new century? Well, now I hardly know what to read any more. Instead, I wait avidly for a new novel by one of those old favourites - by Michael Ondaatje or Margaret Atwood - and while I'm waiting I read and re-read those old familiar books that once upon a time had the power of transformation. A power that I'm never going to find in the books on contemporary publishing lists, or by scouring today's book review pages, looking vainly for something that's going to even surprise me.

Two Ravens Press was born to try to fill that gap. To publish work that takes risks, whether with language or structure or - heaven forbid - idea. Work that steps out of the same old clichés we've now come to associate with North London suburbs or country houses or inner-city slums. Work that goes beyond the small and repetitive up-close-and-personal account of individual or family or work relationships and gives us a wider angle on the world. Work that tells new stories, presents new mythologies, new ways of living. As Two Ravens Press' fiction editor, when I look at the submissions that land in my email inbox I actively don't want 'the next Jodi Picoult', no matter how many books she might sell. So what do you want? is the frequently plaintive reply, from author and agent alike. And to me, it's very simple: as the photographer Diane Arbus said, 'It is what I have never seen before that I recognise.' I want to be surprised. I want to know that, even though I'm now in my late forties, I can still be shown a new way of approaching the world. That a book can still change my life.

Because a book can. It happened recently, while reading the entire collected works of Cormac McCarthy. A writer I'd never really thought of reading until now; a writer that, if I'd read him ten years ago, I would have responded to differently - maybe not at all. But a writer whose books have already had an enormous impact on my life and on the way to go next. On the way to be next.

That's what I want from literature. As my new hero McCarthy once said, if a book doesn't in some way deal with the bigger issues of life and death, I don't want to read it. I'm not even sure it's literature. I believe that the aridity of much modern writing springs from living in a world where most of us have so many options, where we are so comfortable, where there is so little at stake, so little that can impact on whether we live or die - for most of us who live in the western world, that is. And increasingly we find that we have to step outside that western world to find something new. Challenging fiction has gone east, has gone into war zones, or has vanished into the past - a phenomenon which may explain the increasing demand for intelligent historical fiction. But every time I open another email enquiring whether I'd like to publish a novel, I find it in me to hope that I'll find something unique. Something that is going to change me, or change others. And the greatest satisfaction of all comes from holding in my hands a Two Ravens Press book that I've picked out and published, that I believe has done just that.

Sharon Blackie’s roots are in the north-east of England and in Edinburgh, though she has travelled all over the world and lived in France, Ireland and America. She now lives on a lochside croft in the north-west Highlands of Scotland with her husband and a growing collection of livestock. Originally trained as a neuroscientist, Sharon has worked in a variety of corporate consultancy roles, practiced as a psychologist, and is now a publisher, having established Two Ravens Press in November 2006. Once upon a time in the great American south-west she struggled to obtain a pilot’s licence to overcome a fear of flying. This experience became the foundation for her first novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue. Sharon is currently the recipient of a Writer's Bursary from the Scottish Arts Council to work on her second novel, The Bee Dancer.

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1 comment:

George Polley said...

I couldn't possibly agree more with what Sharon Blackie has written about books that challenge the intellect and make one hungry for more. Each of the authors who mean a lot to me have done just that: made me think, challenged my perceptions and point-of-view, tilted my world view & occasionally set it on its head. Wonderful knowing there are publishers around like Ms Blackie who see the value in that kind of writing.

George Polley
Sapporo, Japan