The North's untold stories

Opinion - Books Monday, 09 December 2019

New Writing North's chief executive Claire Malcolm considers the role of writers and publishers in shaping public debate

At Durham Book Festival we're committed to offering our audiences a range of events that reflect their interests and enthusiasms. The emphasis is on the pure pleasure of great fiction and poetry, alongside the desire to explore the world that we live in more deeply through debates and discussions with leading writers and thinkers. As programmers, we find that two things frustrate these efforts every year - the lack of non-fiction and political "state of the nation" books written by women, and the dearth of serious non-fiction books about the North.

The publishing industry, and our culture more generally, would benefit from supporting more books by women that position them as thought leaders outside the realm of lifestyle and gender politics - there is a definite appetite from our audiences for work like this, judging by the large turnout for events that we hosted this year on a range of topics with Carrie Gracie, Selina Todd, Caroline Criado-Perez and Kerry Hudson.

"Is our non-fiction output as inclusive as it could be?"

We'd love to programme more events that support women's voices in contemporary political debate at a time when their views and ideas are often marginalised in the public sphere. Might there be an opportunity to commission a new, provocative series of books that champion new women thinkers across the political sphere, positioning them as opinion formers on issues from climate to post-Brexit Britain? North America has produced a number of leading female thinkers who are strongly published here too, but where are our home-grown Solnits, Kleins, Nelsons, Khan-Cullors and Zuboffs? I suspect that I'm not the only one noticing this gap.

If publishing is to support a vibrant and informed public debate, our non-fiction books do need to be genuinely inclusive. The debate around inclusive fiction for children and adults has been constructive, and progress is evident; but is our non-fiction output as inclusive as it could be? Those that sell and programme books know that local interest books meet the needs of local readers, but are we publishing enough books that explore the experiences and concerns of everyone in this country?

I'm interested in how the stories we tell can change the narrative of place, work for the people that live there, and change national perception. There are two reasons why not having representative non-fiction is problematic.

Unexplored lives
First, our history, society and culture go unrecorded, unconsidered and un-debated within the region itself - communities and lives go unexplored, readers never get to see their lives and situation as part of a whole, and many good stories go untold. Second, the wider country doesn't get to read about this place, to learn about why sometimes the region and its people feel left behind, misunderstood or unacknowledged.

There are some fantastic examples of good and often innovative books about the North: Madeleine Bunting's The Plot, Paul Farley and Michael Symonds Roberts' Edgelands, Benjamin Myers' Under the Rock, and Richard Benson's masterful The Valley, A Hundred Years of My Family; but I believe that there is room for many more.

The historian Robert Colls said: "The North is one of the great English stories", and that "northerness" is a fiction, but a "truthful fiction". We believe that in order for communities to thrive they need strong narratives and stories that help shape their imaginations.

New Narratives for the North East
As an organisation we are always predisposed to action rather than moaning, so we are embarking on a new commissioning project, financed by the North East Cultural Partnership and other public supporters and offering writers £20,000-worth of commissions, challenging them to write in new ways about the North East.

Our project, New Narratives for the North East, has a broader societal mission too - we believe that stories and storytellers have a pivotal role to play in helping powerbrokers to envisage the future. From next spring, we will begin to commission new work from writers. We will ask them to look beyond the flux and rhetoric of the moment to inspire us with new ideas.

This project happens at a point in time when many people feel uncertain about their personal and collective futures. The European referendum and the ensuing political fallout present an uncertain future for the whole country but especially for the North East, vulnerable due to our balance of trade and our economic inequality, and located as we are between a resurgent and potentially independent Scotland and the vibrant cultural and economic powerhouse of the South. And big, urgent questions need to be asked about what role our region, built on coal and formed in the heat of the industrial revolution, has to play in a greener future.

With the North East still on the receiving end of entrenched inequality, there are parallels with the 1930s, when the writers JB Priestley and George Orwell travelled here to document the landscape and its people and to ask questions about the future. At a time when the North East is reclaiming its political and regional identify, it is time to draw in voices that have not yet been heard clearly enough in our North East story: BAME voices, LGBTQ+ voices, working class voices, disabled voices and female voices.

Through the commissions we aspire to tell fresh stories about our region's connections to other cultures and to draw out the complex and diverse narratives that are threaded through the region. We want to celebrate and spotlight the contribution of people to making this place.

We'll use the commissioned work in different ways and share them through public events, podcasts and publications. We'll aim to put the North East on the map in new ways and to involve writers in influencing how our region develops and thinks about the future. We feel that writers, books and organisations like New Writing North have a positive role to play in influencing these aims.

Photo of Claire Malcolm by Richard Kenworthy

New Writing North's New Narratives for the North East project is now open for applications.

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