Jennifer R. Bernstein is a Seattle-based writer and co-founder of The New Inquiry.
Jennifer R. Bernstein is a Seattle-based writer and co-founder of The New Inquiry. Seattle/Shutterstock

A month and a half ago, Seattle’s literary community received the news that the city’s bid to be declared a UNESCO City of Literature had been rejected for the second time. Hand-wringing and garment-rending ensued—but it needn’t have.

The City of Literature program is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, an initiative launched in 2004 to promote the creative lives of cities that identify arts culture as a key element of their development. UNESCO selects cities based on quantity and quality of publishing, educational programming, literary events, cultural diversity, and more. In 2013, prominent members of the local literary community formed Seattle City of Literature, a nonprofit dedicated to composing a bid for Seattle’s designation.

In covering the bid process, the local literary media focused on process: making sure the right leaders compiled a thorough and persuasive application attesting to Seattle’s thriving literary culture. Now that it’s over (again), it would be easy to blame elements of that process for our failure to be recognized, to think: We just didn’t present ourselves in our best light.

But the question no one seems to be asking is this: What if Seattle is just not a world-class city of literature? And maybe more importantly: What would that mean for those of who live here and breathe books and arts culture?

Seattle is, in many ways, a superb home for book people: rich in well-curated, independent bookstores, small publishers, readings every night of the week, etc.

But it is still a small-to-midsize city, on the scale of world cities and in the grand scheme of world literature. We are not a central locus of the publishing industry. We do not host a critical mass of events around foreign literature and literature in translation. We have a now widely-acknowledged diversity problem. And we are dominated by a tech industry that largely ignores the literary life of its parent town—a dynamic that sheds doubt on the claim that we, as a collective population, foreground book culture. In a sense, if you have to work so hard to prove that Seattle is a city of literature, you’re fighting a deep-down instinct that we might not quite be there yet.

And that is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay; Seattle’s middle-ness is an essential component of its charm. Here, you can go see Rick Moody at Elliott Bay Books without snaking through a crowd of hundreds, and you can hang around afterward to chat with him for a while. Or, you can stay home, curled on your sofa with just a cup of tea and a doorstop-sized novel, and your own precious solitude. This too is a way of participating in the cultural life of a city.

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This is something I value deeply about Seattle: its lack of what the youngsters call FOMO. Here, we don’t have to attend mammoth networking events in order to feel our hearts and minds are alive with the truth and beauty of writing. That elbow-rubbing, ego-stroking, incestuous scene is the signature hallmark of literary life in larger cities. In Seattle, you can get away from it all and embrace the stillness and quiet contemplation necessary for a true life of the mind.

And anyway, would this kind of official blessing really matter? Does its absence imply that we are suffering for literary culture? Here are some other towns that have not been sanctified by UNESCO: Chicago. Los Angeles. Frankfurt. Paris. London. And, of course, New York, arguably the most literary city in the world.

Ultimately, no UNESCO designation or lack thereof is going to stop us reading, and writing, and gathering among other readers and writers to share what we love. Someday Seattle will win its bid, or maybe it won’t. In the meantime, we live and create here. Our town isn’t a City of Literature, but it is unapologetically itself, a distinct moment in place and time—and that is to be valued on its own terms.