Friday, 25 May 2012

Conservation for the Nation

It's back to normal for this blog, and thank you to Max Tastic for his contribution last week. Maybe you saw it as a lively satire on an over-indulged, over-stimulated generation of children, or perhaps you agreed with Mark Jones, who called Max "a little *%!$"

Anyway, this week, I was lucky enough to have a tour of the OUP archives and chat to one of the archivists. I've never worked in a company before where they thought it was worth archiving stuff (except for legal reasons) and we have a fascinating challenge ahead of us to find the best ways of preserving digital material for future scholars. It got me to thinking about writers and their archives – anyone who has done a PhD on a famous author will be very familiar with the piles of material that they often leave behind. But in an increasingly ephemeral age, what will we be able to leave for future generations? And more than that, have we got anything worth saving?

One of the challenges of conservation is trying to guess what might be significant. At OUP, we have a thirty year embargo on material, so I'll be retired before anything that I contribute to the archive is available to the general public. At this distance, I have to err on the side of caution and assume that what I produce has some value, and perhaps it's the same with my writing. I might have very fragile self-confidence, but who's to say that I won't write something of significance? There may be a generally snooty attitude towards children's fiction, but that could change. If we are indeed living through some kind of golden age (as people like Barry Cunningham frequently assert), then others will want to study that in the future.

My gut feeling is that what I've previously called The SCBWI Scene in the UK will be worthy of that attention. When I look at all of the book launch invitations I've had for this year, and the mushrooming size of the annual conference, I have to think that we're really onto something. Within that group, there will surely be authors who are more worthy of future attention than others, but no-one can know who that might be. Some books that were hailed as literary masterpieces thirty years ago are long forgotten, and yet some commercial fiction from that time has acquired its own literary significance.

This sign outside an Oxford pub always gives me pause:

How strange to be one of those "fellow writers," now mostly remembered as some kind of literary crutch to their more illustrious friends. Yet in their time, the likes of Owen Barfield and Charles Williams were important and well-regarded men. The caprices of history are impossible to predict and therefore not worth fretting about.

Consider this a licence, then, to start creating your own archives. Don't worry how good or bad the material is (and the early stuff is probably quite stinky), what will be important to the historians of the future is your growth and evolution as a writer. How wonderful to be able to unearth a plot outline scribbled on the back of a shopping list and then to compare that to the published novel that resulted from it. When you consider what to keep, ask yourself the question "What would I need to repeat the process if I started all over again?" If you're really lucky, maybe they'll also preserve your brain in a jar, Futurama style.

Paper is still the most dependable way of archiving anything, so get an acid-free storage box and fill it with all those abandoned drafts and deleted scenes. Hell, why not print out all your tweets and shove them in there too? You can even do what this guy did and type all of your twitterings onto index cards and keep them in a special oak box. Don't worry about what you're going to do with it all, just shove the whole lot in the loft and let your kids worry about it when they're clearing the house after you're dead. You paid for them to go to university, so preserving your genius for the nation is the least they can do in return.



  1. Sebastian Gnomeface25 May 2012 at 13:17

    I wrote the first draft of 'My Absolutely True and Definitely Not Made-Up Journal' on a pub toilet wall I'd dived into. I'd better go back there with a hammer and chisel to preserve it.

  2. Maybe I could get the early stuff 'archived' onto some toilet paper...

    But I expect the whole of SCBWI's output will one day exist on some dna storage medium that looks and acts like a mouse.

    1. I was rather hoping that mine could look like some kind of cybernetic grapefruit. Besides, I'm already fearing the archiving Darwinism when the SCBWI's mouse gets caught and eaten by the Society of Authors' tabby cat.

  3. Great subject this - thanks Nick - but it touches a nerve. As an active SCBWI-er, illustrator-author and daughter of an artist, who had to make sense of, sell or store over 50 years worth of my artist father's archives, I can only say please don't let's leave our archives to our kids to sort out, for their creative sakes! It's lopped off a big chunk of my own career, in any case.

    1. That's what I get for being flippant! So maybe the message should be: archive now and use your retirement to sort it all out? In which case, perhaps a room accessible without ladders would be better :-)