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How Influential Can Writing Ever Be

By November 3, 2023No Comments

How influential writing can really be is the enormous question that, from time to time, makes me stop and think. It’s far too big a question to be able to tackle in one short blog, so I’m merely skirting the edges of a much bigger issue here.

Just over a week ago, Jack and I were staying in a sassi hotel in Matera. Sassi is the name of the two districts carved from stone that line the Matera ravine in Puglia’s Basilicata and make up the extraordinary town of Matera. Here, ornate cathedrals, palaces and houses stand on top of a labyrinth of cave dwellings that twist and turn through the hillside like a stone beehive.

Matera in Basilicata, Puglia

I had become aware of Matera some years ago when doing some copywriting work. Then in 2021, we watched the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, and were both blown away by the opening sequence which was set in Matera. And appropriately enough, it was precisely that movie that has led to a surge in the number of visitors coming to the stone city.

“When Matera became European City of Culture in 2019, it had a huge effect,” our guide tells us. “Suddenly we had a million visitors and tourism began to take off in the city. But then James Bond came, and this year we expect that number to reach 3 million.”

Matera was no stranger to being a star of the screen – amongst others The Passion of Christ in 2004, Ben Hur in 2016, Wonder Woman in 2017 had been filmed here – yet none had had the same level of impact.

“When so many non-Italian visitors started arriving, I asked them why they were here,” my guide continued. “And they all said: “James Bond of course!” I had no idea it would have such a big impact.”

What is Influential Writing

Interestingly, it wasn’t the Bond movie that had the most influential effect on Matera, it was writing; a memoir by Carlo Levi entitled Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), published in 1945. In it, Levi, exiled from his home in Turin by Mussolini for practising ant-Fascist activities, describes what it’s like to live on the fringes of society. In the memoir, he describes Matera’s living conditions in graphic detail; people living in caves with their livestock, with no clean running water and no electricity. A warren of dirt and disease, riddled with malaria and trachoma, where the child mortality rate was 50%.

Traditional sassi in Matera, Basilicata, Puglia

Following its publication, Christ Stopped at Eboli was brought to the attention of Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi who described Matera as “the shame of Italy” and ordered its complete evacuation in order to renovate it. Over the next three decades, the sassi’s 16,000 residents were compulsorily removed from their homes and re-housed on the outskirts of town.

A brilliant result, you might think. Yet those people’s lives were entirely uprooted, leaving them isolated in an alien environment. The people complained bitterly that they had been deprived of their communities, the strong bond that came from thirty or forty extended family members crammed into a central courtyard where they cooked, ate, and spent time together. To appease the unrest, the authorities built courtyards within the housing projects, but they were not the same.

Soon, the property developers, artisans and hoteliers moved in, and Matera began to transform into a place where people visited and ran businesses, but few people continued to have their homes in the caves below the stone façades, and the soul of Matera was lost.

Books that have influenced society

If I think about influential writing, the obvious first things that pop into my head are The Bible, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species. But what about novels?

My research tells me Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath led to the reformation of labour laws in migrant camps during the Great Depression, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about worker exploitation in Chicago’s meatpacking district, had a profound effect on food hygiene regulations. Perhaps not the focus Sinclair would have wanted but a positive change nonetheless.

There have of course been novels that have shone a light on destinations and increased their popularity markedly: Luis de Bernière’s Captain Morelli’s Mandolin on the island of Cephalonia; Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind on Barcelona; JK Rowling’s Harry Potter on Edinburgh; Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter on North Devon come to mind, and even RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, right here on Exmoor.

But when I think of today’s ‘influencers’ who claim to have a positive effect on tourism in destinations, I wonder how influential their writing really is. I suspect that, much like my own, it may influence a handful of friends or close followers to visit a destination but will have little real impact beyond that.

So why does the question make me stop and think?

I don’t delude myself that my writing will have a big impact anywhere, but I do worry that, in highlighting a destination for a new holiday, I might upset the natural balance of the place, particularly when it’s somewhere small and that was previously a complete stranger to the UK tourism market. On the other hand, it might bring in much needed income to locals.

It’s a constant dilemma and one that will only reveal itself to be a force for good, or for detriment, after the event. Like Carlo Levi with Matera. He could never have predicted that his memoir would have such a profound effect on the city but once published, it was completely outside his control.

And to what extent should we consider that the upside to unintentional consequences such as in Matera’s case, outweighs the downside?

Having Matera recognised as ‘Italy’s shame’ was no bad thing. And if it had led to massive improvements in the living conditions and the provision of more social housing above ground in the old town, it might have been an ideal outcome.

A bar with a difference, Matera, Basilicata

But there are compensations to what happened as a result of Carlo Levi’s influence.

With the Bond movie, compensation paid to traders, hoteliers and restaurateurs for staying closed during filming gave them the kind of money they would have taken years to earn and enabled them to invest in refurbishment and improvements, which in turn, will ensure their future survival.

As one of the oldest settlements on earth after Jericho and Aleppo, isn’t it a good thing that Matera’s future is secure?

When we asked our guide, who was born and raised in Matera before the compulsory evacuation, if he would now go back and live in the sassi, he replied:

“No-one who was raised in the sassi would ever go back to live there. To live beneath the ground is not just bad for your physical health but for your mental wellbeing too. Yes, we miss the sense of community that we once had and the strength that gave us, but we would never go back.”


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