Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Edinburgh Keynotes http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 CHINA MIEVILLE – Will the novel remain writers’ favourite narrative form? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/china-mieville/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/china-mieville/#comments Tue, 21 Aug 2012 22:00:32 +0000 Arran Moffat http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=31 China Mieville

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Tuesday, 21 August 3pm

The Future of the Novel

The Keynote speech by China on ‘The Future of the Novel’ is listed below, and the video of his keynote is viewable above:

I have just … paid a depressing visit to an electronic computer which can write sonnets if fed with the right material,” said Lawrence Durrell, at the session 50 years ago of which this is an echo. ” … I have a feeling that by Christmas it will have written its first novel, and possibly by next Christmas novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths and you will all be able to buy them, and write your own.”

Notionally, the horror here is something to do with the denigration of human creativity. But Durrell is aghast in particular that these novel sets will be on sale at Woolworths – the tragedy, perhaps, might have been a little lessened if they’d been exclusive to Waitrose.

It’s not clear how scared he really was. Futures of anything tend to combine possibilities, desiderata, and dreaded outcomes, sometimes in one sentence. There’s a feedback loop between soothsaying and the sooth said, analysis is bet and aspiration and warning. I want to plural, to discuss not the novel but novels, not the future, but futures. I’m an anguished optimist. None of the predictions here are impossible: some I even think are likely; most I broadly hope for; and one is a demand.

* * *

A first hope: the English-language publishing sphere starts tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels, and with their vanguard of Scandinavian thrillers, small presses, centres and prizes for translation, continue to gnaw at the 3% problem, all striving against the still deeply inadequate but am-I-mad-to-think-improving-just-a-little profile of fiction translated into English.

And translation is now crowdsourced, out of love. Obscure works of Russian avant-garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of glacially slowly decreasing, but decreasing, parochialism.

And those publishers of translated fiction are also conduits for suspicious-making foreign Modernism.

* * *

What is literature, and what do we want from it? The former is a key question, which I’m going to duck. What do we want from it? Many things. One is an expression of something otherwise inexpressible. An ineffability, by which you don’t at all have to be a person of faith to have your breath taken away. Jewish mysticism warns of the qliphoth – husks, entropic shells of psychic muck and detritus that encrust and obscure that numinous. As you can tell, I’m turning my attention to English fiction.

Paulo Coelho’s ill-judged Joyce-bashing has made him a butt of scorn this week, but he’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not so clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-that-differently declared against “the dead hand of modernism”, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo, against which young Turks hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition(TM).

All the usual caveats: yes, there are admirable novels written according to such norms, and conversely there’ve always been writers playing with form, etcetera. But two things remain key.

i) The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been what Zadie Smith called “lyrical realism”: the remorseless prioritisation, with apologies for repeating my favourite heuristic, of recognition over estrangement.

ii) Today it is not quite qliphothic business as usual.

After last year’s Booker Middlebrowmaggedon, this year’s judges are far too polite to draw attention to their task, which is to salvage something. But they’ve not done badly. Longlists are performances, and while it’s appropriate to cavil about our excluded favourites, the list sends various messages rather well. Including that the Booker is rapproching with that so-called dead hand.

There’ve been other wind-blown straws. The muted, palpable recent shame when Christine Brooke-Rose died, that this astonishing innovator was so overlooked in the country of her birth. Renewed interest in Ann Quin. Excitement at the online archive Ubuweb. With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious.

* * *

I really, really don’t want to talk about genre, because I always really want to, and nerd-whines are boring. But a detente between litfic and its others is real. It’s a cliché to point out that generic tropes are infecting the mainstream, with a piling-up of various apocalypses by those guilty of literature. But on the other side, say, an extensive interview with Yinka Tutuola, son of the legendary Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, about his father’s work, is online not at any traditional outlet of the literati but at Weird Fiction Review, a fabulous site that emerges, with brilliance and polymath gusto, out of genre traditions.

It was a generic, science-fictional horror that oppressed Durrell, those fiction engines. He’s not the only writer to have suffered this nightmare: the Automatic Novel Writing Machine crops up repeatedly in fiction as a sign of awful futurity. Given the fire, flood, uneasy dead and enormity on which one can draw, it’s an underwhelmingly terrifying dystopia, a future in the despotic thrall of the autonovelator, but apres nous le deluge – writers would far rather suffer planetary catastrophe than deskilling, or a scab algorithm.

* * *

The machine is unbuilt. The past future of the novel did not lie in being digitally produced. As traumatically, it’s being digitally distributed.

We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy.

Early predictions for what digitality would do to the novel look pretty creaky, as the futures of the past always do. The hypertext novel? A few interesting experiments. The enhanced ebook, with soundtrack and animation? A banal abomination.

In fact what’s becoming obvious – an intriguing counterpoint to the growth in experiment – is the tenacity of relatively traditional narrative-arc-shaped fiction. But you don’t radically restructure how the novel’s distributed and not have an impact on its form. Not only do we approach an era when absolutely no one who really doesn’t want to pay for a book will have to, but one in which the digital availability of the text alters the relationship between reader, writer, and book. The text won’t be closed.

* * *

It never was, of course – think of the scrivener’s edit, the monk’s mashup – but it’s going to be even less so. Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty, and some are already starting.

One response might be a rearguard clamping down, as in the punitive model of so-called antipiracy action. About which here I’ll only say – as someone very keen to continue to make a living from writing – that it’s disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual, misunderstands the polyvalent causes and effects of online sharing, is moribund, and complicit with toxicity.

The Creators’ Rights Alliance, with which my own trade union is associated, put out a manifesto that ends with a chilling injunction:
[A] fundamental part of this provision should involve education about intellectual property. … All schoolchildren should be encouraged in the habit of using the © symbol with their work, whether it be an essay or a musical composition.

The concept behind copyright is so simple that a child can understand it:

“I made it: it’s mine.”‘

A collection of artists and activists advocating the neoliberalisation of children’s minds. That is scandalous and stupid. The text is open. This should – could – be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.

* * *

The problem with emphasising the authorial voice, and the novel’s survival, even in its new forms, even with a permeable membrane between text and reader, is that it’s hard to do so without sounding as if one’s indulging a kind of ahistorical Olympian simpering at the specialness of writers. That the novel is tenacious as a cockroach is morally neutral. We can hope for a good novel – created by whatever means – decry bad ones, and observe with a shrug that in total they endure.

To love literature doesn’t mean we have to aggrandise it or those who create it. That aggrandisement is undermined by the permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as precocious 14-year-olds brilliantly – or craply – remix albums and put them up online, people are starting to provide their own cuts of novels. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?

We’ll be writing as part of a collective. As we always were. And so might anyone else be.

“[Y]ou will all be able to buy them,” Durrell says of those novel-writing kits, addressing not the other writers, who didn’t need them, but the public, “and write your own.”

That’s a telling elision – he starts by kvetching about writing by machine, by no one, and segues instantly to doing so about writing by the public, by everyone. That’s apocalypse. That, apparently, is a nightmare future.

The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they’ll write a terrible novel, but that they’ll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be.

You don’t have to think that writing is lever-pulling, that anyone could have written Jane Eyre or Notebook of a Return to my Native Land to think that the model of writers as the Elect is at best wrong, at worst, a bit slanderous to everyone else. We piss and moan about the terrible quality of self-published books, as if slews of god-awful crap weren’t professionally expensively published every year.

* * *

Of course there are contexts in which particular books become politically important, and writers who exhibit astonishing bravery in the face of oppression. For the most part we’re not talking about that. What if most fiction – which, yes, we all do and should love – is at best moderately important? What if it’s so vague and culturally dribblesome and so mediated by everything else, once the culture industry extrudes it through a writer-shaped nozzle, that our stentorious declarations about subversive literature are, mostly, kind of adorable?

Stand down. The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction, doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing, or unable to pay their rent that way – it should, though, undermine that patina of specialness. Most of us aren’t that special, and the underlining of that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.

One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they ‘devalue writing’, that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it.

It’s that hegemony of the market again. We’ve railed against it – as we should – for the last several days. There’s a contingent relationship between book sales and literary merit, so we should totally break the pretence at a connection, because of our amplifying connection to everyone else, and orient future-ward with a demand.

What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?

* * *

This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.

But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. So we should democratise that boisterous debate, as widely and vigorously as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. Which changes. And people are perfectly capable of judging as relevant and important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market?

We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. So for the sake of literature, apart from any- and everything else, we’ll have to take control of it, invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system worth having.

So an unresentful sense of writers as people among people, and a fidelity to literature, require political and economic transformation. For futures for novels – and everything else. In the context of which futures, who knows what politics, what styles and which contents, what relationships to what reconceived communities, which struggles to express what inexpressibles, what stories and anti-stories we will all strive and honourably fail to write, and maybe even one day succeed?

Copyright: China Miéville 2012

Click here for Kirsty Gunn’s account of the ensuing discussion

Click here to see the historical context from the 1962 conference.

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PATRICK NESS – Should freedom of speech ever have limits? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/patrick-ness/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/patrick-ness/#comments Mon, 20 Aug 2012 22:00:53 +0000 Arran Moffat http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=23 PATRICK NESSEdinburgh International Book Festival

Monday, 20 August 3pm

Censorship Today

The Keynote speech by Patrick Ness on ‘Censorship Today’ is listed below, and the video of his keynote is viewable above:

I had intended to open this polemic with some version of this true story: earlier this summer, I was having dinner with friends and our conversation turned to the role of the veil in Islam, starting with how to explain a burkha to a son raised to believe that men and women are equal, before leading into the veil’s potential as a form of oppression against women.

The friends I was having dinner with were two women, one a Palestinian raised in Jordan, the other English raised as a Muslim, and as our conversation progressed, it turned into how – for a number of reasons, some of them perhaps very good – it is far easier for them to discuss the issue of the veil publicly than me, a white western male, no matter how nuanced or well-intentioned my views.

Now, this is exactly the kind of thing I want to talk about today: the things we disallow ourselves to discuss. But a funny thing happened. I found myself drafting and re-drafting the way I opened with that anecdote again and again and again, working so hard to make sure my role in that conversation was clearly understood – and therefore impossible to misunderstand – that I found myself pounding the sentences into such painfully careful neutrality that they would end up meaning almost nothing.

But why? Why did I obviously think such care necessary, even while being painfully aware of the irony of this being a polemic about censorship?

Part of my hesitation is of course my own genuine impulse not to be in any way racist, a truly held wish to accommodate cultures and views not my own. There is also my desire not to have this polemic be just another tediously calculated controversy, like the ones Martin Amis seems to pull out every time he’s got a new paperback on the way.

But if I’m honest, isn’t part of it also fear? Fear of having whatever I’d say about the Islamic veil – no matter how thoughtfully I’d said it – misappropriated, misquoted or badly paraphrased in the inevitable tweeting that’s going on right this very second? Fear of having my words turned into something they aren’t, and having to suffer the consequences.

Anti-Censorship arts poster.

Because the price of being misunderstood is very high. In the online world, nothing can be unsaid and nothing is off the record. And once you’re forced, fairly or not, to start saying something like, “I’m not a racist,” haven’t you lost the legitimacy of your voice forever? Is that something a writer can risk?

What I’ve done, though, by being so careful, by even perhaps keeping silent on this or any issue, is disallowed myself a real voice in the conversation. I who consider myself a brave writer, one unafraid to push boundaries, to speak truth to power, I who believe these things about myself as much as any of you, I have in this instance self-censored. In a polemic about self-censorship.

And my argument to you today is that, paradoxically, this form of where every voice is heard. What we disallow ourselves to discuss – sometimes for good reason, yes, but sometimes for bad – can curtail our voices as effectively as any government or corporation ever could.

Now, the larger issue of censorship, by those very governments and corporations, is still obviously a huge one. But what I’ve faced with this polemic is what Mary McCarthy grappled with in 1962 when she delivered it. She said, “I imagine it has occurred to the audience … that there is not going to be much problem with today’s topic as there can’t be too much disagreement.”

Fifty years later, she’s still right. I could easily have given an impassioned 15-minute talk about China’s censorship of the internet, for example. Or how book-banning in schools remains a persistent problem in the US, even in 2012. I could have spoken of the hate tweets to Tom Daley or Louise Mensch or Fabrice Muamba. Or the disgrace of the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. Or Great Britain’s own problems with censorship: its outdated libel laws, its alarming flair for super-injunctions, its plans for secret courts, and on and on.

Censorship has not left the world. It only finds new avenues.

But as in 1962, these are all easy things to rise in opposition to, without much risk, without possibly even disagreement. Would we agree here today that Salman Rushdie has the right to produce The Satanic Verses? Would we agree that his recent experience during the Jaipur Literary Festival is a depressing blow against free speech?

There might be a few dissenters, but I suspect on the whole, we’d rally around Rushdie, and loudly – and proudly – claim our right and willingness to speak on any issue at any time.

But would we be correct?

Ask yourself, truthfully, would you sit down tomorrow morning and start writing a novel with Mohammad as your central character? A Mohammad treated as a fallible man rather than a prophet? A Mohammad perhaps even criticised?

This is a different question than should you be able to write this book. Because I suspect, again, that we would probably agree here in this room – if perhaps less so in the world at large – that of course you should, if the need to tell that story was great enough. But who here actually would?

Or consider something more benign, at least on the surface. However ashamed you might be to admit it, has the threat of a Bad Sex Award ever made you pause while writing a sex scene? It’s entered my mind, and frankly, it pissed me off. I wrote the scene anyway, of course, but even the thought that I’d momentarily hesitated made me angry.

For the record, I loathe the Bad Sex Award. I think it started as a funny idea, but in order to gain headlines and get writers like Haruki Murakami on the list, the otherwise intelligent people who – I hesitate to say “judge” it – have to temporarily pretend they understand neither context nor tone. So rather than what the Bad Sex Award could be – a discussion on how sex can be written honestly – it is instead an occasion for tittering and humiliation of the most public school kind.

However, having said that, have I now guaranteed that every bit of sex I might ever write will automatically be scrutinised by the Bad Sex Award? Does that enter my mind before both writing a sex scene or criticising the Award itself? Do I have to make the conscious decision not to self-censor rather than write freely, as an artist should?

What about if you’re here today, among what is probably – correct me if I’m wrong – a fairly politically liberal gathering. What if you’re here in this group, and you believe deeply in the freedoms I argue for: freedom of speech, the battle against censorship.

But what if you’re also, say, against abortion? For you, it’s a moral position you can’t budge, no matter how socially liberal you otherwise consider yourself to be. In your heart, you believe abortion to be the taking of a life. Would you venture to speak that opinion here? Would you write a work of art that espoused that opinion?

Now, this is interesting, because I suspect you might not. But what if you did? What if you expressed that opinion here in a thoughtful but clear way? That opinion would have consequences, wouldn’t it?

We’d like to pretend it wouldn’t. I imagine we here think of ourselves as open-minded and accommodating to points of view other than our own, but how would an anti-abortion writer be received in a group like this? Politely, respectfully, I’d imagine. But within that politeness, would that writer’s opinions on other topics be ignored because some of us would secretly think he or she is “not one of us, not really”?

Because this is the other self-censoring problem growing with the interconnectedness of the world. Instead of bringing us all together in an omnipresent, multi-faceted discussion, the internet instead has made sectarianism an almost default position. The nature of mass debate has become solely binary: you’re on one side or the other. Factor that in with whatever combination of debates you’ve been forced to take sides on, and the number of people willing to listen to you – because they agree with you – shrinks daily. Try stating a strong opinion on gun control, for example, on Twitter and see how many followers you lose.

That’s not the only example. This polemic is going on the Guardian website, and though no one really wants to say so out loud, most of us seem to accept these days that the comments on the Guardian on articles like this, while occasionally containing interesting replies, are far more often the domain of outraged point-missers, incandescently furious pedants, and trolls who don’t bother reading past the sub-headline.

And again, did I pause about whether to include that paragraph, knowing this article will have comments beneath it? I did. More importantly, have I, by all that frankly liberating name-calling, just committed the same crime myself by dismissing any discussion I find unpalatable?

Because this is the kind of risk you run by saying something like that opinion about abortion. We here would almost certainly argue for your right to hold it, but in this sectarian, connected world, we’d then maybe stop listening to you. In a way, you’d be suddenly free of censorship because you’d be able to say whatever you like, you’d just be saying it to fewer and fewer people. And importantly, you’d be left out of conversations you’d like to be having.

Can an artist do this? Should an artist? Certainly, there are artists who are happy to talk to their own small sect in exchange for complete freedom to say whatever they will. But isn’t the pushing of an artist into a small sect also a kind of censorship? And if chosen by the artist, isn’t it a kind of self-exile? Of giving up on engaging? Of possibly even changing things because you’re no longer part of a discussion that might?

For example, if you’re a writer who wants to affect the world and engage with a large audience, would you risk being marginalised in the US by talking about your atheism? Would you risk the same marginalisation in England by talking about your devout Christianity?

Would you loudly proclaim a pro-Israeli position in Europe? Or a pro-Palestinian one in the US? Or go anywhere in the world and suggest Israel and Palestine may both have dirty hands?

Now, of course there’s a natural elision between what we say in private versus what we say in public, but in a time where everything you say is now said to the entire world, are there areas where you’ve allowed that elision to justify not speaking what you see as the truth to save yourself from the consequences that could result?

How does an artist speak freely in this environment? I don’t have a simple credo that answers this. I press on, I try hard, I work to say what I want to say in a way that keeps my voice both heard but also truthful, also standing up for what I believe in the most effective way I can. But I don’t always get it right, I don’t always make myself proud, and most importantly, I find that the struggle grows daily in the way the world now connects.

And so I ask you today, what do you not say? What do you censor when you write? Because I’m afraid I can’t believe that you don’t. You may be willing to do some of the things I’ve mentioned today, but all?

I like to think of myself as a fearless writer, and I’m sure that you all do, too. But are we really challenging ourselves enough to keep that true?

I don’t think the question behind censorship today is any longer should you be able to say these things. Nor is it even a question so much anymore of if you can. The question has become, if you do.

Copyright: Patrick Ness, 2012

Click here for John Burnside’s round-up of the ensuing discussion from Edinburgh Day 4

Click here to see the historical context from the 1962 conference.


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IRVINE WELSH – Nationality And Identity In The Novel Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/irvine-welsh/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/irvine-welsh/#comments Sun, 19 Aug 2012 15:00:42 +0000 Arran Moffat http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=25 IRVINE WELSHEdinburgh International Book Festival

Sunday, 19 August 3pm

A National Literature?

The Keynote speech by Irvine Welsh on ‘A National Literature?’ is listed below, and the video of his keynote is viewable above:

I’ve always considered myself belonging to the school of writers who should be read but not heard, so I don’t know what set of circumstances leads me to be standing here today. I suppose the subject matter, a national literature, is a compelling one for me, given the current political situation in these islands with the forthcoming independence referendum, and the fact that I’m now in genuine exile in the US, rather than a half-arsed one in London or Dublin.

It only really hits you living outside the UK, how much the casual remark “I’m Scottish” or “I’m British” is, bizarrely, such a political statement. I speak as someone who has been described over the years in British Council, and other, literature as both. My friend Phillip Kerr and I find it amusing how I can be described as ‘Scottish’ while he’s referred to as ‘British’ in the same festival brochure, as we grew up about three miles from each other in Edinburgh, and both left that city in our teens, to go to London. This, like so many things, is down to perceived social class differences. I don’t want to get sidetracked by dwelling on class; at this stage let’s just acknowledge the fundamental veracity of its relevance to this debate, and leave it at that.

As this discussion originated in Edinburgh half a century ago, I’m going to focus mainly on the Scottish situation, as it’s a pretty unique one. For we live in a country that isn’t a nation, but has been lurching, almost apologetically at times, towards that status, picking up some of the trappings of such an entity en route. But, lest we forget, this is still a region of the UK.

The political and cultural landscape was unrecognisable 50 years ago, when Hugh MacDiarmid delivered his lecture on a ‘national literature’, provoking his famous spat with Alexander Trocchi. We’d come through the horrors of war and holocaust, and people who regarded themselves as progressive politically saw internationalism as unambiguously good and desirable. It was forward-looking and inclusive, respecting the culture and aspirations of all, and based on fraternal, even socialistic notions. Nationalism, even dressed up in ‘national liberation’ clothes, was seen as morally dubious and inherently divisive.

Now the dominant model of ‘internationalism’ is capitalist- and media-led globalization, levelling national and regional differences into a monolith of confused, debt-fuelled consumerism and bland, disposable culture. Today it’s difficult to imagine, even without underestimating the formidable power of Scottish contrariness, that kind of discord existing between such freethinking mavericks as Trocchi and MacDiarmid. I’m quite sure that both, whether their vantage was the Scottish borders or New York City, would look at the UK in a globalized world and acknowledge that there were bigger fish to fry.

As both a nation and a national culture, it’s important to remember that the UK ascended on the back of the first imperialist epoch of globalization, when world markets were dominated by militaristic nation states. Paradoxically, the current era of globalization has, in some ways, strained the relationship between a national-cultural identity and a nation state, which, certainly in Britain, is starting to disappear. Rearguard actions by the establishment to promote a mono-cultural British nationalism are usually unable to move beyond the traditional bedrock of that nationalism; what Stuart Hall calls “the idea of an assumed Englishness”, which has always negotiated against difference. This negotiation against difference is mirrored by the current mass production and dissemination of culture, whereby overt regional and national differences in this context, are in the first instance, perceived as troublesome barriers to mass sales.

We can spend all day debating what is national and regional literature to the point where it becomes meaningless. In an American context, look at Wikipedia, and you’ll find writers as diverse as Steven King, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler all described as ‘regional’. The criterion for being a ‘national’ writer often seems to be as trite as living close enough to Manhattan to be able to attend the occasional New Yorker cocktail party.

Global mass culture is now largely governed by an increasingly image-dominant, rather than linguistic-dominant, means of cultural production. Therefore, it’s more difficult for it to be limited by national boundaries. In such an environment, the main question for storytellers who see themselves as working outside the global cultural highway of London, New York and LA is, what kind of room for manoeuvre do we have, in a global literary marketplace, to express national or regional culture? Moreover, can writing still be undertaken – and indeed, writers be formed – within a ‘national’ culture?

The Scottish experience says a resounding ‘yes’ to this. Prominent novels that have come out this year, from Alan Warner, James Kelman, Jenni Fagan and, less obviously but still emphatically, Ewan Morrison, John Niven and Dougie Johnstone, clearly could not have been written by non-Scots. Even genre fiction writers, often derided as writing into marketing holes, must convey a sense of place, and perhaps even of national character or archetypes.

Yet, Scottish fiction has an uneasy relationship in the ‘British’ literary paradigm, dominated by this imperialistic idea of an assumed Englishness, which, as Hall reminds us, exists to negotiate against difference. Only one Scottish novel has won the highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker Prize, routinely chosen by a largely upper middle-class English panel, and alternating around 50-50 between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade’. Kevin Williamson of Rebel Ink, and Scottish Writer of the Year Alan Bissett, both recently attacked the anti-Scottish discriminatory nature of the prize, producing hard, sobering statistics in support of their arguments. That they haven’t been deemed worthy of a reply can only be due to either the arrogance of hierarchical power, this negotiation against difference, or in this case, more likely, that the Booker apologists simply have no arguments to refute these observations. Hegemony not only breeds arrogance; it also promotes intellectual enfeeblement. The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of six-form sociology. The academics who are custodians of the prize however, can only offer bland and complacent corporate PR speak in defence of an award based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured.

The key point is that competing groups, ranging from national politicians to nongovernmental organisations to indigenous activists, have come to see culture as a valuable resource to be invested in, contested, and used for varied sociopolitical and economic ends. This idea has largely been expressed on the left – both traditional and modern – in terms of the Gramscian notion of cultural struggle for hegemony. Now, everything from the Jubilee to the Olympics, to all of us sitting here, illustrates that cultural agency, at every level, is negotiated within globalized contexts; dominated by the active management and administration not only of culture, but the circumstances within which it develops. In most cases, this is seen as a legitimate, even essential mode of urban development. So these rituals and everyday aesthetic practices are mobilized to promote tourism and the heritage business, in countries where mass culture-reliant industries often comprise significant portions of the GNP.

Writers such as George Yúdice assert that a new international division of cultural labour has emerged, combining local difference with transnational administration and investment. Yúdice contends this doesn’t mean that today’s increasingly transnational culture – exemplified by the entertainment industries and the so-called global civil society of nongovernmental organisations – is necessarily homogenized. In other words, no matter how strong economic and cultural hegemony is, there is always room for maverick opposition. The biggest shock about the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony was that after 30-odd years of neo-liberal governments, such a genuinely anti-imperialist, multi-and-popular cultural event could actually take place in contemporary Britain.

So national and regional differences still function, and shape the meaning of cultural and political phenomena, from pop songs to antiracist activism. Yúdice considers a range of sites where identity politics and cultural agency are negotiated in the face of powerful transnational forces. For example he analyses appropriations of American funk music, and a citizen action initiative in Rio de Janeiro, to show how global notions such as cultural difference are deployed within specific social fields. He provides a political and cultural economy of a vast and increasingly influential art event — the insite triennial festival, which extends from San Diego to Tijuana. He posits on the uses of culture in an unstable world where censorship and terrorist acts can interrupt the usual channels of capitalist and artistic flows.

With that point in mind, I’m only digressing slightly when I focus on a piece of work, Tales From The Mall, by Glasgow-based writer Ewan Morrison, which was published this year by Scotland’s innovative Cargo Press. In the simplistic nature of market classification, this book is hard to tritely define (and therefore stock). Not only does it not fit the genre-dominated fiction boxes into which everything must increasingly be shoehorned, (again, retail-, not publishing- or artist-led), but it’s not a fictional novel, short story collection, multi-media experience, or a treatise on modern architecture, consumer capitalism, authority structures and the negation of democracy, yet it’s all of these things.

Tales From The Mall, therefore, has gained little exposure, other than a fantastic word-of-mouth through the cognoscenti. This publication posits an exciting future for storytelling, from the so-called margins. It’s an innovative book that is set largely in Scotland, but which has a global reach, as this small country interfaces with a globalised consumerist culture to produce truly zeitgeist writing.

But the supposed crisis of national culture and writing in our globalised world is, like most of our current ills, fundamentally a crisis of democracy. Faced by the seemingly impregnable forces of multi-national capital, imperialist structures and their slavish spokespersons, overloaded by impotent debate, people must have forums and space for dissent and positive resistance. I emphasize the ‘positive’ only because we must never forget that local ethnicities/nationalities can become as dangerous as ‘nation-state’ ones when they simply fear modernism to the extent that they retreat into national and defensive identities.

As I know through my own experience, the market will always convert art and culture into mass entertainment. When my first novel sold 10,000 copies, I was a local hero. When it sold 100,000, people grew more dubious. At a million copies I was a sell-out, whoring out my culture for the entertainment of outsiders. Now … I can’t even think about it. The point is, that many people locally felt an ownership of the book, and a pride in it. What was an affirmation, an attestation to a place, a way of life, a language, a class, a culture and an attitude, became seen as something else. Obviously, the book was the same; I hadn’t changed a word of it. Let me make it clear that I’m not complaining about making money – any writer that does is either a liar or crazy – just stressing that the marketplace can force the writer into a set of relationships and perspectives they might not have recalled signing up for.

So from an aspiring author’s point of view, if you’re from the so-called margins, do you play the current publishing game – eg shoehorn yourself into writing genre fiction, and ‘work within the system’, as the successful Scandinavian writers have done in crime fiction, effectively globally rebranding (at least in the eyes of outsiders) an entire genre – or do you exercise the freedom of the author and simply do what the fuck you feel like? I think I know what both Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do, but I’m suggesting that there is legitimacy, and not necessarily a dichotomy, in doing both. But wherever a writer, or their writing, is placed on the spectrum, what interests me, personally, is work which in some way, speaks the truth to power. To my mind this is still is the greatest freedom a writer can have. The celebrated, marvellous, Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy was reported to have said, “it’s alright speaking the truth to power, but just don’t expect it to listen”. While I understand what she means, I don’t think we speak the truth to power for power’s ear, but for the ear and the imagination of future generations, who would seek to live in a world free from the malign and self-serving influence of those who wield it.

So the call to arms is a twofold one: firstly, let’s have a look around, it’s a big world, and if bits of it move you, don’t be afraid to write about it. Second, be bold, and proud of who are and where you come from. Express your culture, your concerns and those of your community and the voices within it, however movable a feast that is. Because if you don’t, the chances are that it might not be around in the future. So do what Trocchi and MacDiarmid would do: don’t get obsessed with histories and legacies or markets and ‘rules’, just hit those keys and see what happens.

Copyright: Irvine Welsh, 2012

Click here to see the historical context from the 1962 conference.


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ALI SMITH – How should authors approach the task of writing a novel today? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/ali-smith/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/ali-smith/#comments Sat, 18 Aug 2012 22:00:49 +0000 Arran Moffat http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=29 ALI SMITHEdinburgh International Book Festival

Saturday, 18 August 3pm

Style vs Content

Point 1: “What’s it all about?” v “What’s it all – a bout?”

The Keynote speech by Ali Smith on ‘Style vs Content’ is listed below, and the video of her keynote is viewable above:

Fight! Fight! Fight! In the style corner, a battered old copy of Ulysses. In the content corner, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. “Writers go wrong when they focus on form, not content,” Coelho told a São Paulo newspaper earlier this month. He explained to the paper that his ability to make complicated things simple was what made him a great modern writer. “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses,” he said. The problem with Ulysses? It’s “pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”

Or did he mean “Ulysses is a tweet”? That sounds more likely – and handy too, because it lets us add new technological reference to the same old age-old fight. The great rollicking world of invention, the book whose rewrite of tradition, whose fusion of ordinary, legendary, fictional and real made the everyday and the man in the street an epic, and vice versa – a tweet. I think Joyce would’ve made a really good tweeter, it being his habit to transform characters – whether fictional human beings or the letters that form words – into something unexpectedly expansive.

Nothing is harmful to literature except censorship, and that almost never stops literature going where it wants to go either, because literature has a way of surpassing everything that blocks it and growing stronger for the exercise. Personally, I don’t care if everybody or nobody reads Ulysses or if nobody or everybody reads 50 shades of Coelho. There’s room in the world for all of us. We are large. We contain multitudes. A good argument, like a good dialogue, is always a proof of life, but I’d much rather go and read a book. And I like a bit of style, myself, so it’ll probably be Ulysses. Maybe the Cyclops chapter, a fusion of pugilism with the parodies of written styles over the centuries, in which there’s a description of a boxing match between Irish colonised and English coloniser; it’s the chapter in which Bloom, talking in his own faltering way about the little things – violence, history, hatred, love, life – faces a bar-room of brawlers and a legendary one-eyed bigot.

Or maybe I’d read one of the most original writers at work in the novel in English right now, Nicola Barker. I’d open Clear: a Transparent Novel, a book published a hundred years after Joyce’s Bloomsday. What’s it about? Ostensibly reality, a real-life event: David Blaine the magician, and how he survived on nothing in a see-through box strung above the Thames for 44 days in 2003. But from page one of this novel, all transparencies and deceptions, is a dissection of the infatuations, the seductions, the things we ask of books and art and culture. Like Ulysses, it’s also a discourse on heroism. Its speaker is one of Barker’s appalling and glorious wide boys, and all he can talk about, as it opens, is prose – specifically the opening lines of another book, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, a “Classic Novel of the American West”.

I was thinking how incredibly precise those first lines were, and yet how crazily effortless they seemed; Schaefer’s style (his – ahem – ‘voice’) so enviably understated, his artistic (if I may be so bold as to use this word, and so early in our acquaintance) ‘vision’ so totally (and I mean totally) unflinching.
‘I have huge balls.’
That’s what the text’s shouting:
‘I have huge balls, d’ya hear me? I have huge fucking balls, and I love them, and I have nothing else to prove here.’
… when you’ve got balls that size, you automatically develop a strange kind of moral authority … a special intellectual certainty, which is very, very seductive…”

Then he sums up the power the literary styles we love have over us:

I am putty – literally putty – in Schaefer’s hands … To be manipulated, to be led, to be played, and so artfully. It’s just … I’m just … I’ve very, very happy to be a part of that process.

Barker’s writing is a 21st-century force of energy, playfulness, marginalia, bombast, emphatic tic and formal courage, and – as with all high literary processes – not every reader’s happy to be a part of it, though lots are. Would I call it balls, what Barker’s got? No, though I’d stay with the procreational possibilities. I’d use something a lot more gender non-specific. Jouissance? No, still too gendered. Lifeforce? it certainly roars with something like life.

Let’s just call it style.

Point 2: style as more than one thing at once

Barker’s multivocality is a display of just one of the versatilities natural to literary style. Here it gives us both her character’s cockiness and his vulnerability, his blindness at being ironised. Plus there’s the chat-up line, the beguiling, the way we’ll readily let something remake us. There are inferences of territory and pioneering, and even moral authority. At the same time she undermines it; style’s authority dismantles authority, reveals it as a load of macho balls.

The late Gore Vidal said, characteristically: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” So is there something that risks being damned, in style? Something about bravado, defiance, the defiance that rings of individuality?

Is there a sense, too, in which some writers use style as a marker of existence? A proof we’re here? But good working style is powerful whether it’s bullish or showy or quiet. Style’s existence is a matter of verbal precision, nothing else.

And what exactly has happiness to do with the process?

Point 3: style as content

It’s the easiest argument in the world, and one of the most specious, style v content. The cliched view of literary style, especially style which draws attention to itself as style, is that it’s a surface thing, a thing of appearance, a skin-deep thing; a fraudulent thing, not the real thing, blocking us from what it’s trying to say even as it says it.

But everything written has style. The list of ingredients on the side of a cornflakes box has style. And everything literary has literary style. And style is integral to a work. How something is told correlates with – more – makes what’s being told. A story is its style. A style is its story, and stories – like onions, like the Earth we live on, like style – are layered, stratified constructs. Style is never not content. This is because words themselves when put together produce style, never lack style of one sort or another. Otherwise we could junk, say, one of the most recent translators of Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis (who went back and looked at Flaubert’s edits and took into account for her translation his removal, from draft to draft, of metaphoric or lyrical elements in the language of the novel), and just run Madame Bovary through Google Translate.

Style isn’t the ghost in the machine, it’s the life that disproves the machine. There’s nothing ghostly about it. It’s alive and human. More, style proves not just individual human existence, but communal existence.

It’s an act at once individual and communal, to read a book, which is why the question of how much we’re asked to engage is such a loaded and interesting one (do you read to escape? Or to think, learn, understand? Or to be entertained?). For a style may not be to your taste. It may not be your style. But that’s an important issue, one that marks style’s power. The last thing literary style is is a matter of indifference; that’s why it’s so powerful a stirrer of love and passion, anger and argument. That’s why it can really trouble us. That’s why a style you don’t take to can feel so like a personal assault.

And style is so versatile that it can carry all the opositions simultaneously. I’m thinking of a novel like Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, or Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, stories of bloody murderous fracture told via child-innocence, or novels like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 or Heller’s Catch 22, which clarify historic foulness yet masquerade as, and are, comedic entertainments. Style can and will do many things at once, be ironic, ambiguous, challenging, questioning, quicksilver. It might not be easy on the eye. Not everything is. Not everything’s simple.

Austen, for one, wanted her readers to be clever. What writer doesn’t? “I do not write for such dull elves / As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves,” she wrote in a letter to her sister. We don’t need to know she’s playing on a reference to a couple of lines from Walter Scott’s long romantic poem Marmion here. Not knowing doesn’t stop what she wrote being witty. But it’s interesting to know, since the original lines she’s improvising on concern the power of the imagination. This rewriting and reforming, in miniature here, is what she does in a major way in her novels, playing on and finding a new style in reaction to the styles of Sterne and Fielding and Richardson and Defoe before her. It’s what writers do. Books beget books, styles beget styles. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary against what he saw as the foul falseness, the romantic excrescence of the contemporary French novel, which is why his book addresses so closely the effects of style and its responsibilities and moralities. Words and styles have import and impact beyond themselves. In Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, published this year, parents begin to suffer terrible physical symptoms because they’re being literally poisoned by the words used by their kids, a daughter talking “like a tour guide to nothing”. Style is chemical and reactive, and – both daunting and exciting – it can go where it likes, do what it likes.

Point 7: style as reality

Where style goes – what it does – is always telling. Naturally, some writers are more attentive to language and structure, and some want to draw more attention to these, than others.

But style is not language – it’s bigger than language. Style is not voice. Style is not form. It’s not stylistics or parataxis or rhythm or metaphor. Style is what happens when voice and form meet and fuse into something more than both.

With a writer like Muriel Spark or Angela Carter, consciousness of artifice allows for an admittance of artifice. This is simply true. Look, the work says. This is a novel/a story. (This isn’t new – the novel’s been doing this since Tristram Shandy. It’s long been a facet of style.) The heroine of Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, thinking she’s living a real life in a real world, suddenly finds that, no, she’s fictional and she’s being dictated by a narrator in the form of a giant typewriter. So she argues with the narrator about metaphysics and free will; and it’s a mark of Spark’s lifelong style, this use of fiction to question truth. As Carter famously said, in defence of a fiction that went to new heights of literary stylistic extreme: “I’ve got nothing against realism. But there is realism and realism. I mean, the questions that I ask myself, I think they are very much to do with reality.”

Carter thought Austen and Dickens were cartoonists, not novelists. It’s why she could break the mould. One of the exciting things about the novel as a form is that it is traditionally revolutionary. In this debate 50 years ago, Mary McCarthy said about the nouveaux romanciers: “With the French novel, I think the really – the new novel – is really simply a form of dressmaking. You know – Robbe-Grillet began it and he lowered the hemline, and everyone followed, somewhat hesitant … The French novel seems to me experiments with the shears in cutting … I don’t think it has much to do with the novel as a serious thing.”

But it’s about the seriousness of the novel and it reveals the novel as a serious thing, this taking to task of the shape it tends towards. It might not always work; it might look like or end up being just fashion (though style and fashion are not spuriously connected, since style is what makes fashion). But the structures of what we make are bound to parallel the structures of our cultures, how we’re living, how we’re thinking. And the ability to perceive and question and even alter the structures of things is related to and touches on issues of revelation, question and change in our art forms. You might be able to spray fashion on like a perfume. But style is integral. It’s what things really smell like.

Point 153: style as implement, adornment, toothbrush, protector, mother, art, love

The word style comes in its English form from the Latin stilus, primarily the word for a writing implement, possibly fused with Greek stylos, the word for a pillar, one that either architecturally supports or adorns a structure or place.

A stylite was an ascetic who lived, usually for religious reasons, perched day in, day out on top of a pillar. It’s hard to get a whole novel balanced, in all its ranginess, with all its chairs and cups and toothbrushes, on a pillar (maybe, of all the novelists, only Woolf did it and kept one foot on the ground). But look, there’s TS Eliot up there in his long black coat intoning Four Quartets for all our good. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

The word content means both that which is contained and a kind of happiness close to peace of mind. Are being held and happiness connected? Ask any baby. Style is also an aesthetic means of containing something for us and allowing us both distance from and proximity to it. It will hold us up against the darkest things, as well as up against the throwaway lightness of life.

Style will also discomfit us, since art’s about both, being held and being flung open. There’s a telling moment in Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Are You My Mother: the main character sends her mother a piece of memoir specifically about the evening when she was a small child and her mother decided to stop kissing her good night. The mother sends it back, five months later, annotated. Bechdel’s meticulously drawn frame shows a page of black typescript held in two hands – and, scrawled all over its margins, comments in red pen. “Pay more attention to verbs”. “Good use of color: visual memory from child’s p.o.v”. “Am I being too critical? I am probably jealous because you are writing and I am not.” The mother steadfastly ignores what it says, by concentrating on how it says it. Style gives us that – what shall we call it? – grace, I suppose. But anyone reading it can see that a stylistic critique doesn’t just protect, it also reveals, allowing the safe surfacing of all the unsayables, the primal responses.

Now I’m going to quote Alain Badiou, from In Praise of Love, because I think what he says here about love could also be a working definition of the powers and gifts of literary style.

At the most minimal level, people in love put their trust in difference rather than being suspicious of it. Reactionaries are always suspicious of difference in the name of identity … if we, on the contrary, want to open ourselves up to difference and its implications, so the collective can become the whole world, then the defence of love becomes one point individuals have to practice. The identity cult of repetition must be challenged by love of what is different, is unique, is unrepeatable, unstable and foreign.

Point 7,000,000,000: how should the novelist approach the novel?

With ingenuity. With humility. With a hammer. With energy. With erudition. With naivety. Traditionally, anarchically, adventurously, brokenly, wholly, any adverb you want, but always only with an eye to what the story asks, because that’s more than enough. The story will dictate its style. (And you won’t need adverbs anyway. Lose them in the edit.)

I asked two writers younger than me, whose work is very different from each other’s, how they thought we should approach the novel. Kamila Shamsie said: “Boldly, and with a certain fear in the heart.” This reminded me of Charlie Chaplin in The Circus, locked by mistake in a cage with a sleeping lion. That’s quite close to what it feels like, to write a novel. You’re brave, or you’d better be, and you’re an idiot. Tread carefully. I texted Helen Oyeyemi. How should the novelist approach the novel? She replied: “With courage and vigour and flexibility, I think.” Then her text said: “What do you think?” Yes, it’s always a matter of dialogue.

And clearly a matter of courage. Oh! but it is only a novel, as Jane Austen puts it in chapter five of Northanger Abbey, the most postmodern of her works, where she tells us with a flirtatious combination of real/feigned modesty and indifference what the novel can do. Best chosen language = greatest powers of the mind, most thorough knowledge, human nature, liveliness, wit, humour, world.

A world, in a novel, in a tweet, in a grain of sand. In that newsworthy fistfight, that lively discussion the delegates had here 50 years ago in the shadow of the H-bomb and still in those long shadows of the second world war, Rebecca West talked at one point about Austen’s style and the wildly opposing universes it unites: “She said it like a lady, but the intention was strictly revolutionary.” The novel as a form, West said, would never die. She cited Salinger’s characters, “people who are dealing with eternal problems, ancient problems, and they simply cannot use a phrase that was made more than twenty-five years ago … fighting, fighting, fighting into a means of self-expression.”

Fight, fight, fight. Language is never not up for it. It’s a fight to the life. All we need to do, reader or writer, from first line to final page, is be as open as a book, and be alive to the life in language – on all its levels. Then style, as usual, will do what it does best. Then you, and I, and all of us (all seven billion of us here now in the world, not forgetting all the people in the future, and the past) with all our individualities, all our struggles, all our means of expression, will find ourselves, one way and another, when it comes to the novel, content.

Copyright: Ali Smith, 2012

Click here for Kapka Kassabova’s Blog from Day 2, Edinburgh

Click here to see the historical context from the 1962 conference.


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AHDAF SOUEIF – Novels and their relationship with current affairs http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/ahdaf-soueif/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/ahdaf-soueif/#comments Fri, 17 Aug 2012 22:00:03 +0000 Arran Moffat http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=27 Should Literature Be Political?

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Friday, 17 August 3pm

Should Literature Be Political?

The Keynote speech by Ahdaf Soueif on ‘Should Literature Be Political?’ is listed below, and the video of her keynote is viewable above:

The writers’ conference held at the Edinburgh festival 50 years ago discussed this proposition: “Many believe that the novelist has the duty to further by his writing the causes in which he believes. Others think that literature must be above the problems of the day.”

The assumption is that the novelist is able to do one or the other. And I’m not sure this assumption is true. Can a novelist deliberately sit down to write a novel that furthers a cause? Well, yes, and it may be a good cause and a just cause, but what you get will not be a novel – it will be a political tract with a veneer of fiction. It’s my experience that even when we think we’re choosing the story, it is the story that chooses us.

George Eliot wrote: “If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Today there is no other side, and there is no silence. The internet, Twitter and YouTube have made sure of that. Yes, the noise may be removed from our immediate circle, but we know that it exists; we know that it will take two taps on the keyboard to bring our screen chiming to life with trafficked women, terrorised children and desperate men. We know men and women brave seas and deserts in search of a livelihood, we know half the world goes hungry and the planet is crazed with man’s excess and that there is, particularly among the young, a great and urgent desire to change the system.

The question is: do you want to engage with this? Or do you want to escape it? Do you want to live your life in a bubble? Or do you want to be part of the great narrative of the world?

Is a novelist a literary activist? An activist is impelled by a cause and adopts it. Most people are content to live their lives within prescribed and personal boundaries. But one of the points of artists surely is that they live outside their skin. That they’re connected. That they hurt with the hurt of their fellow humans. How, then, can they disengage? How can you – if your task, if your gift, is narrative – absent yourself from the great narrative of the world?

Should the novel be political? I don’t believe in “should” anywhere near art. At any moment there are a thousand stories to be told. Do we storytellers choose which one to tell? Or are we chosen and pressed by a story until we sit down and work on it and bring it forth into the world? Does the story come to us when we’re ready to take it on? And isn’t the only “should” then that we should give the story its due?

I believe our duty is to our readers and to the story we’ve agreed to tell. Our duty is to keep our readers reading, to let them into a world they make their own, a world where they recognise their own questions and their own longings, where they find characters who become friends, and they feel such powerful empathy that they want to reach through the print and help or comfort them. That’s the deal: the writer engages the reader’s emotions, makes the reader care what happens next; and the reader engages with the world being presented.

Our duty is to tell the story that’s come to us in the most effective way possible. But we don’t choose the story: we’re drawn in where the feeling is deepest. A work of fiction lives by empathy – the extending of my self into another’s, the willingness to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. This itself is a political act: empathy is at the heart of much revolutionary action.

But the novelist, like the activist, is also a citizen of the world and bears the responsibility of this citizenship. The question is, then, can you honour your responsibility as a citizen of the world and fulfil your responsibility to your art? The question becomes critical in times of crisis.

Mahmoud Darwish, the late, great Palestinian poet, in his address to the opening event of the first Palestine festival of literature in 2008, wrote of the difficulty of being a Palestinian writer who “has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times? The questions are difficult.”

But we tease out answers. Darwish’s answer, perhaps, was to absent himself from the centre of the crisis. That centre was, for him, his hometown of Haifa. So he kept an office in Ramallah but lived mostly in Amman. At that distance he could produce the work that was both true poetry and true to the situation.

But what if you cannot or will not remove yourself from the situation? In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.

Fiction will come again, I hope. And maybe I’ll tell the story of Boulac sands, less than a kilometre from my home, where the police killed Amre el-Bunni last week and a community is being terrorised out of their homes to make way for a luxury development. Or maybe I’ll tell the story of Samira Ibrahim, who put a stop to the military’s virginity tests; or Ahmad Harara, shot in one eye on 28 January and in the other in December; or Khaled Said’s mother, who has adopted all the young revolutionaries in lieu of her murdered son, or …

Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. So it’s no use a story presenting itself, tempting, asking to be written, because another story will – in the next minute – come roaring over it, making the same demand. And you, the novelist, can’t grab one of them and run away and lock yourself up with it and surrender to it and wait and work for the transformation to happen – because you, the citizen, need to be present, there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.

Copyright: Ahdaf Soueif, 2012

Click here to see the historical context from the 1962 conference.


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