A Decalogue of Literary Activism

7 January 2022

I have been working with literature for many years: I write about it, I lecture about it at university, I discuss it with readers, I run workshops and host literary festivals. Although words are at the core of all these activities, everything I do requires a slightly different approach and tools. However, I believe they all have a common goal: promoting reading as an essential element of our lives.

Grzegorz Jankowicz

A while ago, a student asked me to formulate a few rules of literary activism which I always follow regardless of institutional context. This was the origin of this annotated “decalogue”. The list can – and should! – be expanded, so feel free to add to it as you see fit.

Literature was developed at a particular point in time, which means it depends on social processes and one day it may not exist. If you think it’s important, tell everyone!

The concept of literature as we see it today arose rather late, at the threshold of the modern period, when people involved with reading and writing started to form a distinct social group. You’d be forgiven for thinking that literature has been around forever, since all human societies have cultivated the art of storytelling. In reality, this artform – and the collection of works we call literature and all associated activities, including reading – are historic phenomena. If our society changes, if we change our customs, literature could disappear as a cultural practice forever. In order for it to remain, we must constantly care for it in myriad ways.

❷ Literary language can be any language we want it to be. That’s why we mustn’t dismiss texts penned by people who aren’t involved with literature on a day-to-day basis.

In the early 1980s, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière published an important (to me) book La nuit des prolétaires [Proletarian Nights]. It is a collection of paraphrasing, quotations and summaries of worker writings from the early 19th century. As they struggled with terrible working conditions and restrictions such as no free time and limited access to culture, oppressed workers took to literature. Joining clandestine discussion clubs and writing and critiquing one another’s texts gave them a sense of fighting for emancipation and freedom from the constant toil. In contrast to his predecessors, Rancière treated their writings as legitimate literary texts rather than random notes taken by amateurs. I think the text reveals an almost revolutionary potential of literature and how we think about it.

There is no such thing as readers and non-readers. There are declared and potential readers, so we should talk about literature with everyone.

We should never complain that a given society doesn’t read, because such complaints are usually rooted in snobbishness and a misplaced sense of superiority; and we can only encourage and support reading when we are free from either. People who currently don’t read may well start at any moment.

If you’re under the impression that everyone is writing and no-one is reading, reach for a book.

A publisher told me recently that no-one is reading books any more because it’s impossible in the current climate. Everyone is writing yet no-one is interested in reading and discussing books. I suggested that he could make a revolutionary gesture: read a book, if not before publication then after. Let’s remember the first point: the sense of literature comes from a community of participants in culture. Before we fall into despair, let’s check how our closer and more distant circles respond to our setting the example by reading.

Literature teaches us that equity between readers isn’t the goal – it’s the starting point. If you come across self-appointed guardians of literature, especially those claiming that everyone should read but only a select few are up to the task, give them a wide berth.

Jean Joseph Jacotot, the French pedagogue working at the turn of the 19th century, believed that teachers should not be guardians of knowledge restricting access to it but individuals supporting their students in developing agency. A similar approach could help promote readership. Independence and agency of readers is always greater than literary scholars, critics and publishers imagine.

By reading, we are never stuck in a single place and doing what we are told, even if that is our task.

The workers in my example above found that reading and writing freed them and allowed them to leave the niche allocated by the system. They were surrounded by barriers, both physical and emotional: they were meant to spend their entire days working and the short rest was only so they could return to work the next day. Reading and writing started a process which led to a shift in the social parameters of their lives: it became a way of expressing their protest against the system, and, later, to open rebellion.

It’s perfectly possible for books with extreme viewpoints to share a bookshelf. People who think differently aren’t your enemies – they are opponents.

In her Agonistics, the Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe writes that by seeing others as our enemies, we will always strive for open contact, because enemies have no right to co-exist with us. However, when we see people who think differently to us as opponents, it opens the possibility for argument. Literature is a collection of languages which can be used for this purpose.

Even the most impressive of your thoughts could contribute to a disaster. Even the most hated idea could bring about a positive result.

One of the protagonists of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a lecturer in critical theory. In one of his classes he analyses an ad for a new product which encourages people to attend cancer screening. His polemic crushes the manufacturer, accusing them – quite correctly – of manipulation and cynicism. However, one of his students counters by saying that people from her hometown have been inspired by the ad to have their symptoms checked. Even the most progressive thought runs the risk of becoming an empty slogan and a stereotype concealing reality.

Even though a long time has passed since this thought was first formulated, it’s worth repeating and adding to: do not fall in love with power, even if it is the power of books.

Literature is for everyone, but even though it includes you, you do not need to embrace it all.

The last two points are closely linked. Those of us with a professional interest in literature should always be aware of the privilege which allows us to do what we do. Restricting it should be our intuitive way of communicating with people we want to encourage to read. This is particularly relevant when they have a limited access to culture for financial or other reasons. (Grzegorz Jankowicz)

Together with the Tygodnik Powszechny Foundation, organiser of the Reading Lessons social campaign, Grzegorz Jankowicz prepares extensive commentaries on the individual items of his “Decalogue of Literary Activism” as films recorded in independent and second-hand bookshops in Kraków. They will be shown on the foundation and “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly's Facebook pages from January 2022.

Grzegorz Jankowicz – he is a literary activist, philosopher of literature, essayist, editor, publisher, critic and translator, and author and editor of numerous books. Programme director of the Conrad Festival and jury member of the Conrad Award. Editor of the cultural section of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly. Initiator and co-leader of the social campaign Reading Lessons organised by “Tygodnik Powszechny” and featuring workshops for children, elderly people and prisoners. He lives in Kraków.

The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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