At a reading to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Elliott Bay Book Company, local author Ryan Boudinot made a proposal "for the benefit of not just Elliott Bay Book Company, but the whole city." His pitch: "Let's seek formal recognition for Seattle as a UNESCO City of Literature." Boudinot explained that, as part of their Creative Cities program, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization launched the City of Literature designation to "recognize cities around the world that honor the literary arts through public and private means."
A few Cities of Literature that have been named since the project's inception in 2004 include Reykjavik, Dublin, Melbourne, and Iowa City. In his speech, Boudinot shared UNESCO's criteria for the program:
Quality, quantity and diversity of publishing and editorial initiatives
Quality and quantity of educational programmes
Urban environment in which literature plays an integral part
Experience hosting literary events and festivals, promoting foreign and domestic texts
Libraries, bookstores and cultural centres
Active effort to translate literary works from diverse languages
Use of new media to promote and strengthen the literary market
The only real question after reading that list is why Seattle isn't a City of Literature already. Our publishers range from a certain global behemoth located out of South Lake Union to small quality publishers like Dark Coast and Chin Music. From the UW to Hugo House to Jack Straw Productions and Clarion West, we have prestigious educational programs galore. Our bookstores and libraries are plentiful and robust. We bring international writers and translators to town on a weekly basis.
Which is all well and good. But what's in this City of Literature thing for us? In an interview, Boudinot clarifies, "The first thing that it does is it kind of formalizes your obligation to literary arts," he explains. You agree as a city to commit to your role as a world hub of literature. Secondly, the program "introduces you to a network of other cities. There's an annual [Creative Cities] conference that happens in cities around the world," which means Seattle would be invited to (and perhaps one day could host) an international cultural exchange celebrating the best of the world's visual art, literature, and music. We'd see "a greater diversity of writers visiting Seattle," and local organizations would see more "opportunities for collaboration around a shared goal or status" with other cities in the program.
Since his speech, Boudinot says, the response has been "overwhelmingly positive." He was approached that night by somebody from Mayor McGinn's office expressing support for the program. Arts organizations have already committed to assisting with the application process. Boudinot is in conversation with people who helped coordinate Reykjavik's appointment. He's applied for a grant for the application process and is hammering out a strategy for the days ahead.
What can you do to help? "We're going to have an informational meeting," Boudinot explains, "where I'm going to present what the Cities of Literature program is in greater depth and how we can put the application together." He wants to make sure that everyone can be included in the process. (We'll publish the particulars of the planning meeting when Boudinot announces them, on Slog and in The Stranger.) One of the most important benefits of the Cities of Literature program, Boudinot says, is that it would inspire "the world to look at Seattle in a different way." They'll see Seattle as we already know it: a worldly, vibrant, enthusiastic home for literature.