Can literature be harmful?


[MUSIC PLAYING] Very, very important question. Do you think literature,
poetry, fiction can be harmful? My short answer
is, I don’t know. I think anything can cause
harm, but I would never have found it so. We don’t administer
literature on a drip. Everyone can close a book. Or they can go back a line. One very useful
tool is an anthology because it gives them a chance
to choose what they want. I think agency and
choice is very important. So Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar might
be life-changing to someone, and actually very unhelpful
and possibly destructive to another. There is the
potential to do harm if you’re in a very
vulnerable place and you’re sort of reading some
work that either romanticises or glorifies suicide
or self-harm. But you’re absolutely
right, Paula. It’s exactly the same with all
of the drugs that we prescribe. I know that drugs
can be harmful. So let’s not forget that
antidepressants, any other drug we give, can be harmful. There are no side
effects of poetry, and I’m a believer in that. There are no side effects. What’s the worst
that can happen? I think it might be
harmful if someone in a position of
authority, like a teacher or an undergraduate
tutor or a doctor, says you should read this. This will help. I mean, do you think
poetry can be harmful? It can be harmful. It could get in the way of, why
did that doctor give me that? But poetry can be
extraordinarily helpful and beneficial. I mean, we know
that historically. I know that through practise. Philip Sidney said
the aim of poetry is to teach and to delight. I think if anyone’s
reading responsibly, then I don’t see the harm in it. I would hope– I’d vouch for it
healing, rather than hurting. I think that it’s
such a reservoir of– the whole of
literary history, there’s so much there
for us to dip into and to find what we need. And it would be
a bit devastating to imagine that it could hurt. I think it’s more
likely to help. Helps me.

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