Laureation address: Jenny Brown

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Jane Stabler, School of English

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Jenny Brown.

Jenny Brown is the founder of Jenny Brown Associates, the foremost literary agency in Scotland. Established in 2002, it now represents over eighty writers of fiction and children’s literature. Jenny lists as her favourite children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. She has four sons, Tommy, Davy, Sorley and Felix so she understands the importance of children’s stories that one is happy to read over and over again. The compelling rhythms of Where the Wild Things Are will have been part of evening rituals for many of the students here today – when they had rather earlier bedtimes. And many of us still cherish the magically comforting last page when Max returns from his ‘wild rumpus’ and ‘found his supper waiting for him, and it was still hot’.

Jenny has put the power of story-telling at the heart of her career.

Immediately after graduating from University of Aberdeen, where she read English, Jenny set about organising the first Edinburgh International Book Festival which she directed for a decade until 1991; she is now its Vice-Chair. Her ambition was to bring people who might never have gone into a bookshop or a library into a fête of books and life-long reading. For this reason, the event was staged outside in tents. The first festival had 120 writers and 30,000 visitors; it now gathers over 800 writers from 40 different countries with an audience of nearly a quarter of a million people. For two weeks in August, the literary focus of the United Kingdom moves to Edinburgh, the city in which Jenny grew up and the capital she has worked tirelessly to re-enlighten.

In 1994, Jenny headed the Readiscovery Campaign for Scotland’s Year of Reading. The centre of this campaign was a bus which took books and authors to communities all over Scotland from primary schools in the Borders to the Hebrides. After the Readiscovery Campaign, Jenny became a Literature Director for the Scottish Arts Council from 1996-2002. Her work for the Council included a programme of financial aid for new writers of children’s fiction; the first person to apply was the then unpublished J K Rowling; the Arts Council’s initial bursary supported the creation of Harry Potter. As well as fostering and mentoring individual writers, working particularly with new writers from Scotland and securing publication, Jenny has helped to build up a national literary infrastructure. In 2004, she was one of four founders of the campaign to make Edinburgh the first UNESCO City of Literature, initiating a network of Cities of Literature which now reaches as far as Baghdad, Durban, Krakow, Reykjavik and Prague. Jenny is also the Chair of Bloody Scotland, the literary festival for writers and readers of crime fiction. Before Scandi noir, there was Tartan noir – like all Jenny’s projects, it is strenuously international and it also comes with what must be one of the most arresting slogans ever devised to encourage literacy: ‘Buy the Bloody Book’. 

Jenny’s many eminent achievements are all united by a blazing commitment to the printed word; she celebrates, passionately, books as national treasures. Cognitive science informs us that our ability to cope with difficulties, disappointments and trauma in life depends on our ability to shape narrative. Where the Wild Things Are is a story about a little boy telling himself a story to deal with being sent to bed early. Like all good tales, it teaches us how social relationships can be broken and healed. In a world in which social media has so many anti-social effects, we need people like Jenny who will fight to keep us reading not fake news, but real fiction.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to literacy and the love of letters in Scotland, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Jenny Brown.

Jenny's response

Vice Chancellor, Jane, everyone here - particularly graduates - it’s such an honour to receive this degree from St Andrews, a university from which my family has had a long association. And graduates, you’ve all studied so long and so hard, reading text books in print and online, perhaps last thing on your mind right now will be reaching for a book in the weeks and months to come.

But let me remind you of the strong health arguments for reading. Neuroscience shows us that reading heightens brain connectivity. It’s the perfect exercise for our brain, helping memory and concentration and reducing stress. As Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.“

And can I persuade you to rediscover the joy of reading for pleasure and remind you why it’s so important. Story is the bedrock of our society. Civilisations express themselves through the stories they tell each other. Telling stories is that thing that makes us human. I might have lived my life in Scotland but through my reading I can leap over cultural walls. I can travel in time, I can see the world through new eyes, then return to my own world just a little different, but with more understanding.

Iceland marks the start of the festive season with Jólabókaflóðið, the Christmas book flood, the tradition of giving new books to family and friends on Christmas eve. I love the fact at St Andrews you are all given a book when you start your degree here. But how about we start a brand-new tradition here today - the St Andrews book flood. I’m urging all of you, at some point today once the photographs are taken, once the gowns are returned, once the fizz is finished - go and visit one of those fabulous bookshops here in town. Find your way to there - browse, as a family together, then choose as a book together. Let’s ensure that you start your life as a graduate with some of those journeys will be those of the imagination, giving you the means to engage with the world in a different way. With curiosity, and a new mindset. Here’s to you all, as you go out into the world with your new books. But in the meantime, as Max in Where the Wild Things Are might say, "let the wild rumpus begin".

Congratulations to you all!