Research Blog: Katy Shaw – Literature Changes the World

Prof Katy Shaw, Director of Creative Communities, spoke to Phil Treagus about research, reading and recognising the value of literature as a force for change.

This blog post was initially published in The Reading List, 24 September 2022.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day in my job/s which is probably why I love what I do. The only thing I could ask for in a job is that it’s never boring and every day here is totally different. As Director of Partnerships at Northumbria University, my days involve working with students as a teacher and PhD supervisor, and with academics and arts and heritage organisations to direct our university’s cultural partnerships.

We have formal partnerships with a range of regional and national organisations that reach into our teaching and learning, research and impact, and knowledge exchange and public engagement. Levering our joint resources and shared goals we work together to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing society at the moment including skills gaps, health and wellbeing and net zero and the environment.

It’s inspiring to see two sectors that were so badly impacted by covid get up off their knees together. With my other hat on, I work as Director of Creative Communities for AHRC, leading a team of researchers to examine how partnership working between R&D players, communities and the third and private sectors can help open opportunities and access to culture across the UK.

Working across four nations is ambitious but important and it’s such a privilege to work with people across sectors who are investing in culture by all, for all. Between wearing these hats I also write – my next book, Can Poetry Save The World? is about poetry and social change in the UK across the last twenty years


Is there something about you that people might find surprising?

I don’t read physical books as much as I’d like! Time is so stretched that I now consume far more books on audible and the iPad than on the printed page. My ‘guilt pile’ of books I’ve bought but not yet read towers high on my bedside table and will, undoubtedly, be the thing that buries me alive one day.  What a way to go.


What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

I’m reading The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, having admired him as a contemporary thinker for many years and become a convert to The Rest is Politics podcast. Alistair Campbell’s Diaries (all of them) are next on the list to re-read for pure New Labour nostalgia.


What are you researching currently?

I’m deep in the literature review research stage of Creative Communities, reading hundreds of government and think tank reports, data audits and policy reviews. It’s not writing as most people might think about my job, but the circuits of production around writing and the creative industries – who writes and who reads – are very much part of the sectors I cross.


What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

The Status Game by Will Storr – devoured and then pressed into the hands of my brother as a hard recommend after Jason Manford (virtually) pressed it into mine with the same words. This shadow exchange trade in excellent books is something I hope continues in a world of the virtual and digital. The Status Game examines the way we all negotiate the tensions between being an individual and part of a collective in a culture that requires status demarcation. It’s an essential read for understanding society and culture, media and politics today.


What are the perfect reading conditions for you?

After five days of total rest on holiday, I can fully concentrate on fiction. Until that point, it’s biographies, sporting memoirs and non-fiction. I can’t read with music or talking or anything else. Literary vacuums are bliss.


What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

I loved The Fell by Sarah Moss as a super speedy clever novella about the pandemic, but Selfie by Will Storr made me think most and Class Act by Rob Beckett made me laugh to socially unacceptable levels on a long flight.


Why is literature important?

Literature changes the world. It makes us contextualise our own experience in terms of others, and in breeding empathy, it encourages us to consider how we communicate with and need to be part of networks and societies. It teaches us how to harness the past, in the present, for the future and it shows us what it means to be human, powerful, fallible and temporal. Never trust anyone who doesn’t have an answer to that question.


If an alien landed in your garden; which three books would you gift them to showcase humanity in the best possible way?

Maud by Alfred Tennyson, V by Tony Harrison and Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Honesty is best.


What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?

The Day It Rained In Colours by Roy Etherton. Early books are often the most informative and although I don’t know if it’s out of print now, that book literalised the answer to why is literature important – it brings colour to our world and illuminates facts like nothing else. No one deserves to live in black and white and reading and writing is the greatest gift to open up the world so everyone can author it.


Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

On my virtual shelf is pre-ordered the third instalment in The Thursday Murder Club series, The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman. I will get it just in time for my first holiday in many years. The series is a phenomenon and has brought joy to so many people, me included.

Professor Katy Shaw leads research into twenty-first-century writings at Northumbria University and is both a Professor of Contemporary Writing and a Director of University Cultural Partnerships. Her research interests include contemporary literature, especially working class literature, cultural representations of post-industrial regeneration and the languages of comedy.


Brought to you by