March 14, 2014

Seattle campaigns to be named a UNESCO City of Literature


Named in 2012, Norwich is the newest UNESCO City Of Literature, and the first in England

Named in 2012, Norwich is the first and only city in England to have the UNESCO honor. Iowa City is the only American city on the list.

Seattle’s got the Space Needle. Frasier. The reigning Super Bowl champions. Macklemore. And one of the very best literary scenes in the country. Stores like The Elliott Bay Book Company and University Book Store, local luminaries like Nancy Pearl, and event organizers like Town Hall insure that the best and brightest literary talent are always making their way through the city. But is it a world-class literary scene? Some locals think so, and have organized a campaign to have Seattle named a UNESCO City of Literature.

The UNESCO criteria would seem to make Seattle a natural choice:

The campaign to join Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik, Norwich, and Krakow as a City of Literature has been spearheaded by Ryan Boudinot. The Seattle-based author of Blueprints of the Afterlife and The Littlest Hitler truly believes in the cause, and it’s gathering steam, having been approved by the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray.

According to Mary Ann Gwinn at the Seattle Times, a meeting at Town Hall scheduled for last night was set to include Murray, as well as “Chris Higashi of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library; Gary Luke, Sasquatch Books publisher; Nancy Pearl, NPR books commentator and uber-librarian; Tree Swenson, director of Richard Hugo House; Elissa Washuta of the University of Washington; and Rick Simonson of the Elliott Bay Book Co. Brian McGuigan of Richard Hugo House will moderate.”

As of yesterday’s meeting, money was still a sticking point. The city has not set aside a budget for the requirements that come along with being an official City of Literature. Boudinot told Gwinn in an email, “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing — the city can’t give money to an organization that doesn’t exist yet, and the organization needs the backing of the city before it can exist.”

Paul Constant at The Stranger thinks that there is no excuse for the delay in providing a budget.

Part of being a UNESCO City of Literature involves introducing our artists to other UNESCO Creative Cities around the world, and to bring other artists to Seattle to interact with our own artists. It would also install someone in the city government whose job is to oversee and connect all aspects of Seattle’s literary culture, from the open mics to the libraries to the bookstores to all the great literary non-profits in town. This is not a large sum of money; even Paducah, Kentucky, which is a UNESCO City of Craft & Folk Art, managed to supply a budget in their application….Boudinot isn’t just begging for cash. He’s committed the entirety of all money earned from his books for the rest of his career—royalties, advances, and so on—to the budget of this office. He believes in Seattle so much that he’s willing to devote his career to it.”

For his part, Boudinot told KPLU, “I’m just a guy who wants cool things to happen in his city, who loves books and loves reading, and loves talking to writers and learning about new voices.” The application is due to UNESCO at the end of the month. The story, as they say, is developing.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.