Do we need them? Judging by the fire hazard I call an office, I certainly seem to think I need mine. Oh wait, half of those papers are bills. Still, I like to keep them around to remind me of the paper cuts I got opening them. Sigh… What’s that? You have to PAY them? Explain this “pay” concept of which you speak, Earthling.
It is a market that has been created by vainglorious American universities that, in recent years, have been trying to buy themselves some scholarly heft. The competition between these wealthy institutions is such that even writers whom one might kindly call “middle-ranking” can find a munificent buyer. Arnold Wesker got ÂŁ100,000 from the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, which has unrivalled spending power. Julian Barnes sold his manuscripts to the same omnivorous institution for what is rumoured to have been $200,000. David Hare and Penelope Lively are amongst others who have tapped the Harry Ransom acquisition fund.
The British Library’s bid for Pinter’s papers is surely fuelled by fear that the Americans will get them. But all the talk of “saving them for the nation” is baloney. It is not like a great painting, which can only truly be appreciated in the flesh, so to speak, and which can be made available to anyone who chooses to visit the right art gallery. The manuscripts of an author are, in reality, available only to a few scholars. It matters that an author’s papers be kept together: a scattered archive is real hindrance to scholarship. But otherwise it is no tragedy that a modern literary archive ends up over the Atlantic.