Whom Do We Write For? or The Hypothetical Bookshelf

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Whom Do We Write For? or The Hypothetical Bookshelf

Rinascita (Rome), November 24, 1967; contribution to a symposium entitled “For Whom Do We Write a Novel? For Whom Do We Write a Poem?”

Whom do we write a novel for? Whom do we write a poem for? For people who have read a number of other novels, a number of other poems. A book is written so that it can be put beside other books and take its place on a hypothetical bookshelf. Once it is there, in some way or other it alters the shelf, expelling certain other volumes from their places or forcing them back into the second row, while demanding that certain others should be brought up to the front.

If a bookseller knows how to sell his wares, what does he do? He says, “Have you already read that book? In that case you must take this one.” This is not unlike the imaginary or unconscious gesture a writer makes toward his invisible reader, with the sole difference that the writer cannot be content merely to satisfy the reader (and even a good bookseller, come to think of it, has to go a bit further than that); he must also assume a reader who does not yet exist, or else a change in the reader as he is today. This is something that doesn’t always happen. In all periods and societies, with the establishment of certain canons of aesthetics, a certain way of interpreting the world, a certain scale of moral and social values, literature can perpetuate itself by a series of confirmations, limited readjustments, and further studies. What interests me, however, is another possibility inherent in literature: that of questioning the established scale of values and code of meanings.

A writer’s work is important to the extent that the ideal bookshelf on which he would like to be placed is still an improbable shelf, containing books that we do not usually put side by side, the juxtaposition of which can produce electric shocks, short circuits. And so my initial answer already needs correction. A literary situation begins to get interesting when one writes novels for people who are not readers of novels alone, and when one writes literature while thinking of a shelf of books that are not all literary.

Let me give a few examples on the basis of our experience in Italy. In the years 1945—50 the aim was to write novels for a shelf that was essentially political, or historico-political, to address a reader interested principally in the culture of politics and in contemporary history but whose literary “needs” (or deficiencies) it also seemed urgent to fulfill. Set up in this way, the operation was bound to fail. Political culture was not a “given” thing, with values that literature had to flank with its own, or match up to (and with few exceptions the latter values were also seen as established, “classical” values). On the contrary, it was something that still had to be made. In fact, it is something that needs to be continually constructed and evaluated in light of the entire body of work the rest of culture is producing, which must be evaluated along with it.

In the course of the decade 1950—60 an attempt was made to bring together, on the bookshelf of one and the same hypothetical reader, the problem of European literary decadence between the two wars and the moral and civil sense of Italian historicism. This operation was fairly well suited to the situation of the average Italian reader of those years (the intellectual timidly becoming bourgeois, the bourgeois timidly setting himself problems). But right from the start it was anachronistic on a broader level, and was valid only for the limited range of things that various hegemonies and quarantines had assigned to our culture. In a word, the library of the average Italian intellectual, even with a series of later increments, no longer enabled him to understand anything much of what was going on in the world, or even amongst ourselves. It was inevitable that it should collapse.

Which duly happened in the sixties. The amount of information available to anyone who has studied in the last fifteen years is immeasurably greater than it could possibly have been in prewar, wartime, or postwar Italy. We no longer start by trying to link up with a tradition, but with open questions; the frame of reference is no longer compatibility with a well-proved system, but the state of things on a worldwide scale. (Arguments aiming to show that “we used to be better,” even in cases where they are true, are completely useless and serve only to prove the opposite.)

In literature the writer is now aware of a bookshelf on which pride of place is held by the disciplines capable of breaking down the fact of literature into its primary elements and motivations, the disciplines of analysis and dissection (linguistics, information theory, analytical philosophy, sociology, anthropology, a new use of psychoanalysis, a new use of Marxism). To this library of multiple specializations we tend not so much to add a literary shelf as to question its right to be there at all: literature today survives above all by denying itself. Therefore, to the question posed at the beginning, the answer becomes: We will write novels for a reader who has finally understood that he no longer has to read novels.

The weakness of this position does not, as many claim, lie in the nonliterary influences that preside over it, but, on the contrary, in the fact that the nonliterary library posited by the new writers is still too limited. Antiliterature is too exclusively literary a passion to meet our present cultural needs. The reader we have to foresee for our books will have epistemological, semantic, practical, and methodological requirements which he will constantly want to compare, even on the level of literature, as being examples of symbolic procedures and the construction of logical patterns. I speak also, and perhaps chiefly, of the political reader.

Having got to this point, I can no longer avoid two problems that are certainly pertinent to this inquiry promoted by Rinascita.

First, doesn’t the act of supposing an ever more cultured reader detract from the urgency of solving the problem of cultural inequality? This problem exists equally dramatically today in the advanced capitalist societies, in ex-colonial and semicolonial societies, and in the socialist countries. Cultural inequality threatens to perpetuate the social disparities from which it originated. This is the conundrum facing education throughout the world—and, immediately after education, politics. Literature can make only an indirect contribution: for example, by firmly rejecting any paternalistic solution. If we assume a reader less cultured than the writer and take a pedagogical, educational, and reassuring attitude toward him, we are simply underlining the disparity. Any attempt to sweeten the situation with palliatives such as a literature of the people is a step backward, not a step ahead. Literature is not school. Literature must presuppose a public that is more cultured, and more cultured than the writer himself. Whether or not such a public exists is unimportant. The writer addresses a reader who knows more about it than he does; he invents a “himself” who knows more than he does, to speak to someone who knows more still. Literature has no choice but to raise the stakes and keep the betting going, following the logic of a situation that can only get worse. It is up to society as a whole to find the solution. (A society, needless to say, of which the writer is also a part, with all the responsibilities that brings with it, even when opposed to the internal logic of his work.) Certainly, in taking this road, literature must be conscious of the risks it is running, even the risk that in order to create an initially egalitarian program the revolution will outlaw literature (along with philosophy, pure science, etc.)—an illusory and disastrously self-injurious solution, but one that has a logic of its own and therefore crops up and will continue to crop up in this and subsequent centuries, at least until people find a better or equally simple solution.

The second question, put in elementary terms, is this: given the division of the world into a capitalist camp and a proletarian camp, an imperialist camp and a revolutionary camp, whom is the writer writing for? Answer: he writes for the one side and the other. Every book—not only of literature, and even if “addressed” to someone—is read by its addressees and by its enemies. It is perfectly possible that the enemies might learn more from it than the addressees. Strictly speaking, this can hold good even for books of revolutionary propaedeutics, from Marx’s Capital to the manuals on guerrilla warfare. As regards literature, the way in which a “revolutionary” work of art is taken over in a short time by the middle classes and thereby neutralized is a theme that left-wing Italian writers have discussed several times in recent years, coming to pessimistic conclusions that are hard to refute. The argument can be carried forward by putting it on a different footing. For a start, literature has to realize how modest is its impact on politics. The struggle is decided on the basis of general strategic and tactical lines and relative strengths; in this context a book is a grain of sand, especially a literary book. The effect that an important book, literary or scientific, can have on the general struggle in progress is to raise the struggle to a higher level of awareness, to add to its instruments of knowledge, of foresight, of imagination, of concentration, etc. The new level may be more favorable either to revolution or to reaction, depending on how the revolution learns to act, and on how the others act. It does not depend except to a minimal degree on the intentions of whoever wrote the book. The book (or scientific discovery) of a reactionary might be a determining factor in a step forward by the revolution, but the opposite might also be the case. It is not so much the book that is politically revolutionary as the use that can be made of it; even a work intended to be politically revolutionary does not become so except in the course of being used, in its often retarded and indirect effects. Therefore, the decisive element in judging a work with reference to the struggle is the level it is on, the step ahead it enables awareness to take; whereas belonging to one camp or the other, and motivation or intention, are factors that might have a genetic or affective interest, especially as regards the author, but will have scant impact on the course of the struggle. Whether explicit or not, some form of “address” is nearly always discernible in a work, and a writer who thinks of himself as involved in the struggle is naturally led to address his companions-in-arms. But first he must bear in mind the general context in which the work is situated, he must be aware that the front line also passes through the middle of his work, and that it is a front in constant movement, forever shifting the banners we thought had been raised in place for good. There are no safe territories. The work itself is and has to be a battleground.