War of words as cities vie to be literary capital

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It is the city of Alice in Wonderland, of Lyra in His Dark Materials, and the stammering Anthony B-B-Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, but does Oxford deserve to be named as the next World Book Capital? Does the city of dreaming spires really think itself more intrinsically "literary" than London, Dublin or New York?

It is the city of Alice in Wonderland, of Lyra in His Dark Materials, and the stammering Anthony B-B-Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, but does Oxford deserve to be named as the next World Book Capital? Does the city of dreaming spires really think itself more intrinsically "literary" than London, Dublin or New York?

Oxford's municipal bigwigs have applied for their city to be considered by Unesco's selection committee for the title of World Book Capital in 2007. This title has been awarded every year since 2001, when it went to Madrid, followed by Alexandria (2002), Delhi (2003) and, this year, Antwerp. The capital thus honoured holds the title from 23 April (World Book and Copyright Day) to the following April. Last month, Unesco announced that Montreal had been chosen for Book Capital in 2005.

Oxford will have its work cut out, competing against Paris, Prague and other, more literally "capital", cities. And today, at the Oxford Union, its merits and those of its nearest rivals will be the subject of an intense debate convened by the Oxford Literary Festival. Baroness James of Holland Park, better known as the whodunnit writer P D James, will champion Oxford. Ruth Rendell, the crime novelist, will urge the mighty claims of London. James Naughtie, the presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, will cheer for Edinburgh, while the case for Dublin will be made by your humble scribe. The winner will be decided by a vote, although this will not affect Oxford's application for world renown.

What, though, makes a place a "world book capital"? The number of bookshops and libraries it boasts? The public visibility of its writers? The city's devotion to its literary heritage, and nurturing of respect by younger generations for the great writers of its past?

Well actually, none of the above. The criteria announced by the Unesco judges are stolidly prosaic. The judges want to see, they say, "municipal, regional, national or international initiatives aimed at enhancing the impact of books and fostering reading during the period between one World Book and Copyright Day and the next". They want "specific or ongoing activities organised by the candidate-city in co-operation with the professional organisations representing writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians". The title, in other words, will go to whichever city can promise to get more people reading.

At the Oxford Union, other criteria will probably apply. London can lay claim to be the birthplace of so many literary figures, to have featured in so many novel plots, to have seen such a multiplicity of bookish associations, from Dr Johnson's coterie in the Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street to the deliberations of the Bloomsbury Group, it seems bound to win. But it suffers, perhaps, from too much inclusivity. When a thousand bad writers can be lumped with Shakespeare and Blake as "London writers", it does none of them any favours.

Oxford has allegedly spawned (or "inspired") no less than 600 novels, along with oceans of poetry and volumes of reminiscence. Does that count? The fiction we think of as quintessentially Oxfordian tends towards debased romanticism - Zuleika Dobson, say, or the early chapters of Brideshead Revisited. A myriad writers have passed through its honeyed walls as undergraduates or dons; but then a myriad people pass through Paddington station and Charing Cross hospital without a lasting connection with either. On the other hand, Oxford can boast the finest bookshop in the UK - Blackwell's of Broad Street - and the unmatchable resources of the Bodleian Library.

Dublin's roster of famous born-and-bred writers includes some of the key names of the Western canon - Swift, Burke, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett - although it could be argued that many found success once they'd left the city. Others were abused by their home audiences - most famously J M Synge, whose 1907 drama The Playboy of the Western World was greeted with catcalls, missiles and public riot. This may be seen as part of the close, passionate, familial relationship between Dublin's writers and their readers - a relationship seen in the annual celebrations of Bloomsday, when hundreds of fans of Joyce's classic novel Ulysses follow the route taken by the book's characters through the city streets on 16 June 1904, the day on which most of the book's action takes place.

Edinburgh's distinguished writers include such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, R M Ballantyne, J M Barrie, R L Stevenson, Compton Mackenzie and Irvine Welsh. Doppelgangers and schizophrenia have been a constant theme in Edinburgh fiction, from James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde right up to The Divided Self theories of R D Laing. Edinburgh's poets, from Robert Burns to Hugh McDiarmid, have brilliantly combined the local and the universal.

Given the passions that this debate will arouse, it is ironic that the result will not affect the outcome of Unesco's deliberations. Nor will they start to rethink their ways of determining what constitutes a literary city? How about Dublin for 2007, Oxford for 2008, Edinburgh for 2009 and London for 2010?

What the rival contenders have to offer

Edinburgh: Scott to Ian Rankin

There's no mystery about the association of Edinburgh with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, even Toad and Ratty.

Walter Scott, the author of Waverley, Marmion, Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian is given pride of place in the city's heart with the famous monument in Princes Street Gardens.

More recently, Edinburgh has made writers of soul, mystery and success, including Muriel Spark, JK Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin.

In the words of Irvine Welsh: "I've always loved Edinburgh. But Edinburgh was the first city in the world to create its own suburb and its own ghetto when it created the Old Town and the New Town."

Dublin: Wilde,Yeats and Joyce

Dublin's literary heyday was in the last century, when WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett won Nobel prizes and James Joyce penned Ulysses, his portrait of a day in the life of the city.

Writers were, however, thriving in the Irish capital as far back as the 18th century. In between, there was the poet James Clarence Mangan, Bram Stoker (even though he wrote Dracula in London), George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Dublin writers have continued to prosper in the 21st century, with contemporary literary alumni including Seamus Heaney and Maeve Binchy.

In the words of Jonathan Swift: "This town ... I believe is the most disagreeable place in Europe, at least to any but those who have been to it from their youth."

London: Shakespeare, Dickens & Greene

London's literary tradition stretches back beyond Shakespeare and Marlowe and has produced poets, dramatists and novelists ever since. Charles Dickens set most of his novels in London, and in the early 20th century an influential literary circle, the Bloomsbury set, included Virginia Woolf. The century also produced TS Eliot and Graham Greene. Modern-day literary figures include Martin Amis and Zadie Smith.

In the words of TS Eliot: London's a slick place, London's a swell place, London's a fine place to come on a visit (Sweeney Agonistes)

Oxford: Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkein

Since the first book was published there in 1478, Oxford has been the home of a succession of illustrious authors including John Betjeman, Matthew Arnold, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. The city claims to have more published writers per square mile than any other.

The birthplace of the Oxford English Dictionary and home to the Bodleian, its streets boast dozens of bookshops, including the famous Blackwell's.

In the words of Oscar Wilde: "One cannot live at Oxford because of the dons - in all else it is a most pleasant city."