The gift of close reading

Last month, at the launch of A Restless Art, the novelist and campaigner Stella Duffy spoke powerfully about how much writers need readers:

‘It is in other people reading it, in other people using it, in other people agreeing or disagreeing with our thinking, in other people – every time in other people – that our work gains life. As artists we know this to be true, and yet we live in a slightly odd culture that would put books on a shelf and treat them as if it is enough to simply be a book. Without readers a book is dead. With readers it can make a difference.’

Stella Duffy

Stella was an early reader of drafts that eventually became A Restless Art, along with other friends and peers who, at various points in the past three years, have given me their time and close reading, extricating me from bogs into which I’d strayed, and pointing out the traps I’d failed to notice. Writing demands solitude, but it also involves collaboration, sooner or later. And the ultimate creative collaboration is between writer and reader – one mind connecting with another: creator and re-creator as I describe them in the book. It’s why, as I often insist, two people can’t read the same book. The same words, certainly, but filtered through our experience, imagination, beliefs and all the internal and external things that make us who we are. We re-write every text. Reading is a creative act. It breathes life into words.

This week I received the gift of close reading in two reviews, both by people who have worked in this field for decades. As you’d expect, they brought immense knowledge and experience to the task. More importantly, they read with creative engagement, testing my thinking, not to prove it right or wrong, but to understand what it might offer.

I didn’t know how spacious, grounded, illuminating, and original the book would be. If you are at all interested in this phenomenon — art and social change, social practice, community arts, community cultural development, or any of the other monikers in circulation — you owe it to yourself to read this book.

Arlene Goldbard, Medium, 12 February 2018

Arlene Goldbard is an artist, activist and writer whose own writing on community art practice have illuminated American pathways since the 1980s. I’ve long known her through that work, but we only made contact, and friendship, remotely, while I was working on the book. Her review can be read here.

I’ve known Kathryn Deane much longer, through her immense contribution to community music, at Sound Sense and elsewhere. the depth of her knowledge can be glimpsed in her chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Community Music, and her review, for Artworks Alliance is here.

Profound and detailed, beautiful and practical, text book and story: François Matarasso’s A Restless Art could be the only work on participatory art that you will need to own and want to read.

Kathryn Deane, ArtWorks Alliance, February 2019

Of course, every writer, every artist hopes for such praise, even as they brace for harsher reviews. Nice as it feels, though, it’s being understood that matters. When you have expended so much on a text, fretting about everything from the meaning of art to the placing of a comma, you hope above all that readers will understand what you’re trying to say. I think that’s why humans create art – to have their sense of what is meaningful recognised by others. Reading Arlene Goldbard’s and Kathryn Deane’s responses to my work, I am most grateful for the care and effort they spent in reading what I have actually written. I’ve sometimes described the text, perhaps optimistically, as ‘dense but not difficult’. Dense like a fruit cake – I was conscious as I worked that it contains a lot of material, which will be more or less unfamiliar. At the same time, I worked hard to use a language that would avoid unnecessary obstacles to readers. If it requires effort, it should be because of the content, never how that content is presented.

Arlene and Kathryn have been interested by different parts of the book, and seen different things in it. Their reviews are a dialogue between their own experience and mine which offers new insights and gives me pause for thought. Kathryn sees ‘a major stumble’, and she may be right. I need to review what she says and think further. And thus does a text come to life, as ideas move from person to person, in virtual and sometimes actual conversation that enables growth and change.

If you have been reading A Restless Art, thank you; I hope you get through the denser bits. More than that, though, I hope you find things that nourish your own thinking and work, and if you have thoughts about it you’d like to share, I’ll be glad to hear them.