A stand against biography & self-expressive writing – Judging the Koestler Awards

July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The last two days have been filled with looking at and judging entries for the Anthology Prizes for this year’s Koestler Awards. The Koestler’s are a range of prizes for written and visual arts given to people in prisons and secure units, in the knowledge that engagement with the arts is one of the best ways to nourish the human soul and lead to rehabilitation. Far too often arts and writing programmes often tend to focus on biographical writing, in the belief that telling your story helps some how. I differ in my thoughts on this, knowing that to keep on telling stories over again, over focussing on the self when one hasn’t got a well defined/developed sense of self and empathy with others actually can cause a sense of the person creating these pieces to see themselves as hero/victim.

Art needs an object of focus, even the most abstract art tends to focus on a specific thing. Think of any work from the Mona Lisa to a Mary Oliver poem, the eye of the artist is engaged in joining with the thing observed, which brings a sliver of objectivity to the artist, and then further down to line to the empathetic reader/viewer of the art. Of course there is a place for biography, but the biographic writer needs to be able to look at the subject of themselves with this greater view. There is in fact space for getting all your emotions out on paper too, but more often than not this therapeutic style writing should be left in notebooks as it has served its purpose to give voice to something which needed to come out, it must not be mistaken for literature. 
On reading all the anthologies for this year, I was so glad to see that at least two thirds of the work had moved towards the connective, looking outwards approach. This sense of movement was all I was looking for in the work, to me it is more important to a nice design, to spelling and grammar, though I do prefer those things are part of the coalescence as well. I often get in trouble arguing against self-expression as raison d’etre for creative work. It has its place as I say, but if we are going to be human beings, and if these writers are going to stay out of prison there are three things they need, the language (widened by reading and writing, and engagement with stories,) empathy, and compassion – little else is worth anything without these. I’m so pleased that many of these things are at the heart of what the Koestler’s are about.

Note: of course I chose the title of this piece to get a reaction from you. I’m grateful for your stopping by, and thank you for taking the time to think about what is really being said here.



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