Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Style vs Content 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 The Southernmost Edge of the EWWC – Margo Lanagan reports from an “exhilarating” Melbourne http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/#comments Wed, 04 Sep 2013 14:56:36 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5413 Last year I was immensely privileged to attend five days of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh. What writers, what brains, what passions were brought to those five days! It was all very stimulating—perhaps slightly too much to digest in such a short time, on top of the normal adrenalin of a book festival and of being on the other side of the world, and in the beautiful city of Edinburgh for the first time, and I was glad that it was all recorded and put up online for later digestion and consideration.

Last Friday I managed to get along to two of the five sessions of a more condensed version of the Conference, presented all in one day in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival. The sessions were held in the Deakin Edge, part of the Federation Square complex in the central business district and a great venue, bigger and airier than the Edinburgh marquee, with trams and Yarra Bank trees visible beyond the talking heads and bodies of the presenters and Auslan interpreters.

The first session I went to was Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow, where writer and lawyer Larissa Behrendt gave the keynote, and Ali Alizadeh then ran the discussion between Larissa and Scottish poet John Burnside, who had been a very vocal part of the proceedings in Edinburgh—and of whose poetry I’ve been a fan for several years. I took scads of notes for the purposes of this blog post. How to condense them into something meaningful?

Well, the difference from Edinburgh was immediately obvious with the acknowledgements of the original custodians of the land, and it was the many issues surrounding the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous points of view that dominated the session. These are vital matters in Australia today, with many writers feeling a strong taboo around the use, and possible misuse, of Indigenous cultural material in their work.

Larissa talked about three powerful kinds of censorship: the first was the cultural erasure practiced by colonial and assimilationist Australia on Indigenous people in the past. Indigenous children still face stark disadvantages in education and career prospects, and it’s difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities to maintain their cultures when they are denied tools such as literacy and numeracy and taught not to aspire to progress to tertiary education. Larissa applauds the ongoing drive in ATSI communities, despite this powerfully antagonistic history, to continue telling Indigenous stories in written (fictional and factual), visual art, craft, dance and film form.

The second kind of censorship was all the forces operating to keep non-Indigenous Australia steadfastly uninterested in hearing Indigenous narratives. She wished that past practices of child removal and cultural genocide could be told to Australian schoolchildren, so that more Australians could see what Indigenous people face, and echoed Tony Birch in urging white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past. In the face of strong assertions of the Indigenous experience such as the Bringing Them Home report and the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, she said, which show us a history that’s difficult to face, we should not fall silent, or fall back on the contested statistics thrown up by the ‘history wars’, or distract ourselves with semantic arguments about the competing non-Indigenous narratives about our past.

In pursuit of a more healthy debate about Indigenous matters, and one that includes Indigenous points of view directly, Larissa urged non-Indigenous Australians, particularly writers, to get over the third kind of censorship, our self-censorship when it comes to including Indigenous characters and matters in their fiction. ‘Writers with talent can write from any perspective,’ she said.

The pursuit of absolute authenticity is important if we choose an Indigenous perspective, and in the light of our general ignorance about Indigenous history and culture it’s very difficult to get it right. But—and this to me was the most powerful message of the address—blowing it isn’t the worst thing we can do. Larissa talked about the effect on her of reading Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. Though it depicted well a black man torn apart by exposure to the possibilities available to whites and the limitations imposed on him by his black skin, she felt it presented very one-dimensional Indigenous women—yet she was glad he had written and published it, because it gave her more to think about in terms of her gender and her race, more provocation to articulate her own views. It is better to have these gifts of brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writers out there, she said, than to present Australians, white and black, with a frightened silence.

‘Talented writers translate, interpret and hold a mirror up, and that is why they are so very, very threatening,’ she finished, and her clear implication was that we should get out there and be as threatening as we could.

During the discussion, which elaborated and extended this message (with John Burnside drawing parallels with the Norwegian Sami people and with his own working-class upbringing in Scotland) and explored ways in which non-Indigenous Australians might be engaged in listening Aboriginal stories, Larissa further suggested that writers shouldn’t sit down with a political agenda. The best writing would come from our trying to tell the best story we could. ‘Write for the story and passion; don’t try to…write propaganda,’ she said, just try to arrive at the particular truth the story is leading you to.

In response to Paddy O’Reilly‘s question about offensiveness (Is part of a writer’s role to not be afraid to offend people?), Larissa talked a lot about writers coming from ‘a position of good’. A greater debate can happen, she said, when you try to work out a situation from a position of good. She decried the ‘crippling of [non-Indigenous] people of goodwill’, the ‘concerning silencing’ of them/us. We shouldn’t deal ourselves out of debates about Aboriginal people; because we are the dominant culture, we have the greater responsibility to keep the conversation going, so self-censorship becomes almost an abrogation of responsibility.

Her goal isn’t to keep Australia as an ‘us and them’ society. All Australian people, she says, should see Aboriginal culture and history as our own culture and history. Honest questions shouldn’t be shut down because people find them offensive. The debate has become bland because a lot of good people have dealt themselves out of it for fear of offending.

This was an exhilarating session—particularly for a writer whose latest novel had mired itself in just this complex of issues. Both the keynote and the discussion went right to the heart of one of the most significant issues of censorship in this country today.

The other session I went to was the one I was a participant in, along with the brilliant Scottish writer Kirsty Gunn, with Francesca Rendle-Short doing a top job of steering us through the shoals that awaited us in the discussion of Style vs. Content. Kirsty’s keynote was a strong assertion of the primacy of form, form ‘which gives birth to style and content’, while I hummed and hawed about form and style being more or less the same thing, but operating on different scales in a work. It’s always fascinating to see how other writers think about what they’re doing, and how much you can’t actually glean from a reading of their work. It was stunning to me, for example, to hear Kirsty talk about the impossibility of dealing with character, of truly inhabiting another human’s consciousness, after having read, in the previous week or so, her novel The Big Music, whose characters live and breathe so believably on the page—or within the stack of files of which the narrative is built—that it becomes almost impossible to believe in the story as a fiction.

The audience questions kicked us along into other territory—the influence of editors, the making of sentences, what constituted tone and voice—but it all stayed within the realm of what was useful to a working writer in thinking about these different components of the writing. I still hold to my sense that they are mostly useful for diagnostic purposes when the writing falls over and I need to identify which part isn’t functioning, that when I’m in full flow, thinking about style and content, let alone style versus content can be not only pointless but inhibiting. But it was all fascinating to explore, especially in tandem with such an intelligence as Kirsty’s, and under such gentle but shrewd guidance as Francesca provided.

I had hoped to hear great things about the panel on A Post-National Literature, which I thought was a particularly crucial topic in an Australian context, but I heard from a friend who was able to attend it that not a lot was ventured in the way of general pronouncements, which was disappointing.

However, overall, the Australian EWWC did a pretty good job of giving some by now fairly well-worn discussions fresh flavour and juice, and rounded off the conference neatly.

Copyright: Margo Lanagan, August 2013

Were you at EWWC Melbourne? Have your say below!

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Gunn in Australia – Keynote on Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 03:30:53 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5335 6-gunnkStyle vs Content

Keynote address given by Kirsty Gunn

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Kirsty Gunn keynote text ‘Style vs Content’:

Generally, it seems to me, when people get together to talk about style and content in the novel they talk about just that: There’s the way a story is written and there’s what is written about. And the two, as any Literature Professor in charge of any introductory undergraduate course on the novel would say, are inextricably linked.

But nobody talks much about form. Or if they do, as the programme notes for this event suggest, they use it as another word for style.

And we need to talk about form. “Significant form”, as Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf had it. Form that is the shape and idea and raison d’etre of the novel. Form that sits behind the style and generates it, that informs the presentation of content and makes sense of it, giving context. If content is the “what” of a novel – what it’s made of – and style the “way” – in which way it is written – then form is the “how”. How a story is made in the first place, the plan for its very being. And it’s form, the mother of style and content, I may say – if I want to be rather classical and 18th century about things! -  that I want to concern myself with here today.

As I say, it’s something we don’t hear much about. Form is fancy. It’s “highbrow”. It’s the word used by Modernists and for Modernism, it’s for academic papers and critical theory and discussions about aesthetics. Form, for all that it is talked about in general literary circles, in the papers and at Writers Festivals (though not this one!) may as well be a dirty word.

Yet, I return through the mists of time to my undergraduate English programme, headed up, no doubt, by that same professor I talked about earlier, who tells us that “style and content are inextricably linked” and the core course: Introduction to the Novel 101. And what I remember is this: That as we marched our way through the canon that year, from “Pamela” and “Clarissa” through to “Robinson Crusoe” and “Tristram Shandy” and “Tom Jones” and all the rest, stopping resolutely as we did in those Oxbridge syllabus dominated days with DH Lawrence, it was form that gave instruction to the writer I wanted to be. I had no or little interest, not really, in what went on in those books. All the stuff that was happening, riveting and dramatic as it may have been. I wasn’t turned on by the stories’ historical contexts, either; I didn’t care to keep track of the characters’ individual actions and remember what happened to whom, and when. No, I was interested in how they were made, those books, for what purpose their authors deemed they were fitted. I was interested in how an imaginative idea was going to be made as real to me and as necessary and vital as anything else that might be going on in my life. Once that was in place, I could figure, all the rest would follow.

And follow it did. The exam questions kicked in and I knew exactly what to do: “In what way does the word of Middlemarch reflect a changing England? “Forget it. “At what point in the novel and why does Dorothea realise her sense of independence has been challenged?” Pass. “Show passages of speech and description that reflect class prejudice.” Not now. But once I got to “How has George Eliot gone about creating a social document within a novel?” I was off and running.

Form was my way in, then, to those often lengthy, densely written, character rich narratives that have all of us flipping back pages in the midst of our reading to remind ourselves of whether such and such was the same one who had said something to so and so in the first section, or whether he was her uncle. There was so much content! And then the paragraphs, the circumlocutions of period speech, the details of descriptions that were needed in a world before photographs and films. There was so much style! Getting through the canon of English language literature in three years – it’s a relentless business, alright! But what books! What mighty books! And each one utterly unlike the other – no two authors writing in the same way and each literary project with its own unique shape. Like exciting novels we read now that transport us, that take us fully into their reality and keep us there, that aren’t just some copycat project based on research, or that follow a trend, or trick us with a fancy style or overwhelm us with plot. The books that have form have unity and wholeness. They answer fully and with integrity the question: How am I going to create a world for this story to live in? That’s what form does. It brings content and style together in unity in a novel. Without it, the style, original as it may be, is just echoing in an empty chamber. The content, box new perhaps but without its own form, dull and second hand and boring to read.

I have a million examples of writing of the other kind, that miss the point of form, and still the books are praised and bought and read. Seemingly, just because we’re talking about novels, that great rag bag of a genre that can hold anything from chick-lit to “War and Peace”, we can throw form out the window. Because in the novel, anything goes. But should it be that way? That a writer putting together a novel about, say, insanity in rural Ireland in the 19h Century, (and I’m making up the examples here, by the way, to be polite) a novel with an uneducated central protagonist who is keeping a diary from her cell, has not considered a form for that book that would make sense of that woman’s status and condition? So, for example, she would not write at all –because she can’t. She’s not educated. She wouldn’t be able to fill the pages of a journal in her cell. But still there would be some other way of the author creating that character’s thoughts and life on the page? Can’t that writer think about that, instead of just relying on the substance of his content, to make the story real? James Kelman knows how to solve that kind of challenge. He knows about form. He has characters who don’t read, who’ve gone blind, yet still move through the pages of their stories in a way that’s rich in literary terms because of how he has invented his books, to have come up with a form where, as the great late Dr Gavin Wallace, former head of literature at Creative Scotland described it, “the life being lived is contiguous with the writing that describes it.” Kelman’s form is made up of his very characters, who talk to themselves continually, apprehending, sensing, understanding, not understanding. What we read on the pages of his books are the entire contents of their minds. It s a world away from the tried and tested journal style used by that other writer, and countless like him, who’ve all copied in turn from Defoe – because Kelman has form. He’ s not like anyone else. Form doesn’t want to be.

Or, to take another example, that a book, say, written from a child’s point of view might consider issues of vocabulary and understanding in a young mind, that it might encapsulate a sensibility more fractured and acute than the sophisticated adult who’s writing it? Yet how many writers – some of them very successful – really capture in their words what it is to be a child? Carson McCullers did, perfectly, in “Member of the Wedding”.  She knew about form. Frankie’s world, in that book, is complete, but made up of parts of disparate seeing and understanding and she grows up in the story with different ways of being, and speaking. Everything about the construction of “Member of the Wedding” is idiosyncratic and wild, mixed up as a dream. That’s what a child’s world is like. It’s not a version of an adult novel cut down to size. It’s not a controlled narrative, or masses of character and interiority. It’s scattered and intense. Why don’t so many authors who write from a children’s perspective get it? That kids’ worlds aren’t like theirs? Why doesn’t form seem to matter to them, that they should think that just by inventing a young voice they’ll pull off the trick of making childhood seem like childhood?

As I say, I could go on and on here, with examples. Books written from the first person that have never considered what it is about the first person that might be exciting actually, that the reader might not feel she’s been stuck in someone’s solitary company for too long. Books written that seem to be about character, until, ten pages in, you realise they’re only about stereotypes; or books set in ancient times with all the research in place, all those details about iron vessels and agriculture,  only the teenagers who live in the freezing hovels sound like they come from LA. Or books that seem to be about fancy writing but the writing has no context because there’ s been no central aesthetic governing it, nothing to put it in. Or books that seem to be about plot but really it’s the setting that the writer loves, that could have been the plot in itself, if only the author had thought about form, if only, if only, if only… The writer had thought about form so many of the novels might come together.

But then, form is a challenge. It’s the hardest part. It’s why most writers stick with the tried and tested, that good old workhorse, the realist novel. Broken and harnessed to plough the fields of 19th century fiction, we know what to expect of it, what it’s supposed to do. Indeed, how many other, very different kinds of books are always held up to it for comparison? If you listened to enough of the hugely successful realist novelists at work today talk about the novel, their novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the canon stopped its march right there, in the turned earth of the classical English novel, with its showing and telling and character development and narrative arc.

Yet the examples I gave before describe two ways form may have stepped in and created something new and exciting from the materials in hand without having to revert to copied and repeated methods. And I gave two masters of form, two great artists, as examples of how one might find solutions to the basic challenge of writing fiction, that is, making the words on the page believable and real. These are writers whose every book shows them having thought through completely the requirements of what they need to do to tell their stories. They know that idolect does not form make. Nor crazy looking chapter headings or multiple fonts. Nor content designed to impress or over-act. They know that form is not just tackling certain challenges of plot or character in isolation – but is the very “how” of their work, as I said at the beginning of this talk, its beginning and its end.

Virginia Woolf’s novel  “The Waves” tells the unbroken story of six friends from childhood into age. By creating a kind of banner of prose, without break, that segues from the mind of one character to the next, she tells about the private and public circumstances of their lives. So that’s the style, that’s the content. But the “how” is how she gets started. Two places divided by a corridor, is how she first thought of “To the Lighthouse”. It was music for “The Waves”,  “rhythm”. Yes, the work unfolds, as it does to any writer as she or he is writing, but it took shape first as a concept, an idea that was abstracted from the imagination and the intellect and sometimes, too, from the psychological make-up and even psyche of the author and then fashioned into fiction. I can imagine writing a novel that would be like a ship at night “strung about with lights” Katherine Mansfield wrote as though in response to Woolf’s own definition of the novel as a “row of lamps”. How far these ideas are removed from the rigid, rectilinear narratives, that flinty mass-produced form, that constitute so many novels today. How wild, by contrast, how trippy, how exciting and involving…This other kind of novel that has as its beginning a complex, aesthetic idea to do with the story’s origin and design, that is nothing to do with what is safe and familiar.

In a recent lecture to writing students, critic and author Gabriel Josipovici talked about the “terror” of creation. He was addressing the modernist condition of making art in the void, described so beautifully in his recent polemic “Whatever Happened to Modernism?” as the “fading of the numinous”, the relaxing of a religious medieval mind, content with its world order and heaven, into the troubled, questioning condition of humanism. There is time in which to create, Jospipovici said, and out of that time can come the excitement – of making something new – but alongside it is the terror, too, that the writing may not succeed. All we have to hold onto is the sense of the form of the project.

So to finish: There’s writing as representation, and there’s writing as a living thing. There are novels that are about, and like, and for. And there are other novels that …Simply are. To consider form, the shape, the concept of a work of fiction, is to go at reading from the most exciting perspective – one that gifts us with fresh sight, that makes reading not passive – part of out consumer consumption, an extension of the entertainment industry – but something active, engaging, affecting and real.

Let me conclude with a remark made by science-fiction-writer China Mieville, who had much to say on the future of the novel at the conference in Edinburgh last year and who was talking about novels there again this past week and at a book reading he gave a couple of months back. The word he had for what I’m wanting to get at here, in this talk of mine about what novels are made of, was “uncanny” – the notion of a thought, or a sentence that is homeless, somehow, in the text. He was referring to future-fiction and fantasy, and also the modernist idea of looking at something anew, so that the familiar seems strange  – saying that both these concepts need to find a home in the story so the reader can make sense of them. But the idea works beautifully for us here, today, too. Because that’s what form does. It gives the words, it gives style and content, a home.

© Kirsty Gunn 2013

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GUNN & LANAGAN – Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-lanagan-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-lanagan-style-vs-content/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 01:23:55 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5109 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 1:30pm AEST Style vs Content Keynotes: Kirsty Gunn & Margo Lanagan Chaired by: Francesca Rendle-Short]]> GUNN-&-LANAGANMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 1:30pm AEST

Style vs Content

Keynote: Kirsty Gunn joined by Margo Lanagan
Chair: Francesca Rendle-Short

Author Biographies:

Kirsty Gunn is the author of six works of fiction, including short stories and a collection of fragments and essays. Translated in over twelve territories and widely anthologised. Her books have been broadcast, turned into film, dance and theatre, and are the recipient of various prizes and awards including Scottish Book of the Year. She is also Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee where she established and directs the writing programme. She lives in London and Scotland with her husband and two daughters.

Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. Her collections of short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Margo’s latest book, Sea Hearts, is based on Selkie legends.

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Literary Orderlies & Specialists of the Unknown: A Dispatch from EWWC St Malo http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/#comments Thu, 06 Jun 2013 12:10:39 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4830 Ben McConnell attended the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in St Malo, 20 – 22nd May 2013.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Sansal giving his keynote speech on Censorship Today
Photo: Gael-FestEV

For more than twenty years, the literary & film festival Étonnants-Voyageurs has summoned francophone writers from far and wide to join in the sleepy seaside medieval city of Saint-Malo to discuss the vital elements of their craft.  Inspired by such fathers of travel writing as Stevenson and Conrad, its founder, Michel Le Bris, chose to create an international forum surrounding the ideas of travel literature and of a world literature.

Over the course of three days of intense debates, lectures, and literary cafes some two hundred writers gathered under this year’s theme of “Le monde qui vient” (The world to come) and were joined by an enthusiastic audience of many thousands.   Despite the typically wet Breton weather there was a palpable energy in the air.  Throughout the city each evening one could recognize huddled groups of writers smoking and conversing beneath awnings or gathered in leaning old bars engaged in animated conversation.  The structure and formality of the day’s events seemed to spill over into a jovial nightlife sparking  discussions between writers and readers alike.

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference series of five debates were hosted in the Palais Du Grand Large overlooking the English Channel and the old Fort National.  Saturday, Algerian author Boualem Sansal, whose books are currently banned in his homeland, introduced the first debate, Censorship Today.  Sansal spoke of censorship historically and psychologically, but returned again and again to the climate of Islamic fundamentalism that he fears is hastily blotting out freedom of expression in the Arab world.  Sansal related with absurdist humor being awarded the 2012 Éditions Gallimard Arabic Novel Prize for his book “Rue Darwin” only to have it revoked before the fifteen thousand Euro prize had been delivered.  Although no one would admit to it, this was clearly a reaction by the Arab Ambassadors Council to his having attended the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival earlier in the year.  Sansal said, “I went to Israel on principle, to demonstrate my power as a free man who does not obey orders.”  He was told his award ceremony was indefinitely ‘postponed.’  Later, the entire jury resigned in protest, and a wealthy Swiss offered Sansal an equivalent consolation prize which he then donated to the A Heart For Peace foundation.  Together with the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem they finance costly cardiac surgery for Palestinian children living in the West Bank.

“Ironically”, said Sansal, “silence has become a form of freedom; saying nothing is saying it all but it is also depriving yourself of any action, while the struggle for freedom requires, first and foremost, a practical commitment.”  But at what cost?

Julien Mabiala Bissila from Brazzaville spoke of the violent censorship occurring at home, where it’s “safer to shut up” than risk imprisonment or mutilation.  French writer Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès mentioned that in a democracy such as France, censorship exists through financial groups and its partners, making it more insidious and therefore more accepted.

The next day began with Velibor Colic introducing the debate on National Literature.  Colic is from Bosnia, where he has witnessed first hand the inherent dangers and devastating consequences of nationalistic thinking.  He believes that while a nationalist literature’s role in war is never direct, it points the finger at the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, and strengthens the dualisms which are necessary to war’s very existence.   This kind of literature may even replace history in the popular consciousness, as in Serbia where certain nationalistic novels were actually taught in schools as history proper.  Not only does this type of literature dehumanize the so-called enemy, but the writer as well, reducing her to a mere tool of propaganda.

Colic declared, “This confusion between genres, between history and literature, was a tragedy.  For everyone.  The distinction between myth and reality lies in intelligence and common sense, in the ability to distance oneself and to reason…   But, unfortunately, new national literatures work on an emotional and a collective level, they inexplicably erode convictions that were set in stone.  And at that point, there is but a step between national and nationalistic literature.”

Amongst those present at this debate, it seemed relatively safe to assume that most were in accord with Colic’s sentiments, but it was impressive to hear them uttered by a man whose home had been burned, and life turned upside down all in the name of nationalism.  He hopes that, “After the era of politics, which is only a perverted game that we will eventually have to put an end to, and after the era of crazy and bloodthirsty national bards, will come the era of literature.  A nomad and human literature, a mobile and multicultural literature, disheveled, undisciplined, without visas and without passports.”

The second debate that day was Style vs. Content, hosted by French-Tunisian writer, Hubert Haddad, who opened with a poetic (if not esoteric) introductory speech, itself highly stylized, infused with paradox.   Haddad’s conviction that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension, at the same time allusive, lethal, unpredictable, marvellous, and wildly open to interpretation…” seemed to equally apply to his own words as well.

Haddad argued that both style and content were inexorably bound saying that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension” and discounted factual description as a means of conveying anything intimate or crucial.  With sincere passion, Haddad delivered mystical proclamations such as “Literature is just reality becoming aware of itself in its enigmatic, symbolic and secular activity.” and “The origin of the world is to be found in the mind of a poet admiring Courbet’s painting or the depths of the Milky Way.”

Haddad scoffed at Norman Mailer’s opinion that “Style is an instrument, not an end in itself.” retaliating, “Only a literary orderly could say that.  If style is an instrument then Proust and Rimbaud are operating theatres.  No, style is no more an instrument than art, in and of itself, would be an ‘instrument of propaganda and education.’  On the contrary, it distorts all instrumentations and is life itself, replicated ad infinitum in the mysteries of language.”

Haddad closed his speech with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “the magic scribbler, for she alone, beyond language and beyond all authoritative pronouncements, uttered the only truth; for what, really, is style?”

A something in a summer’s Day

As slow her flambeaux burn away

Haddad’s lofty sentiments left some scratching their heads and even agitated, such as Mbarek Beyrouk who said, “I don’t understand this.  Literature has to be magic, instinctive, and from the guts!” which was met with broad applause.  And Azouz Begag, who grew up in a shanty town with illiterate parents, responded, “I really believe if you can dig through the different layers [of your heart] and extract a book from it, it works.  I’ve never worried about style.”  I don’t believe these convictions were at all at odds with Haddad’s, but afterwards Haddad simply stood up and walked out.

Style is a slippery topic indeed, difficult to gain a toehold on and open to infinite definition; however, Haddad delivered the best that any of us could hope to do: he offered a poem full of wonder, passion, and the very mystery of existence.  The highest poetry does not answer any question or posit a belief, however, it also doesn’t leave much to say afterwards.  If just for a moment, I relished the reigning silence which resonated across the sea like a temple bell.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Rahimi at St Malo
Photo: Gael-FestEV

The third and final day of the festival began with Atiq Rahimi: Should literature be political?  Rahimi related his personal history as a former member of the Afghan resistance in the 80’s, and the complications of having a communist brother – continually threatened by radicals, and later killed.  Rahimi’s novel, Earth and Ashes, was his way of dealing with his brother’s death.

Throughout his keynote speech, Rahimi reiterated a theme that had been present throughout the entire conference: that literature must first come from a sincere depth, an ‘inner experience’, which compels the writer to express himself out of a necessity.  This in a way transcends the concepts of politics, style, nationalism, and censorship (these are all afterthoughts in the creative process), but at the same time does not exclude them.

The closing debate of the EWWC conference was on the future of the novel, introduced by Étonnants-Voyageurs’ Michel Le Bris. Le Bris spoke of some of the difficulties that we as a society face at this transitional point in our history, with television, Internet, and so many other technologies competing for our ever-diminishing attention span. But he was equally optimistic, saying, “The only specialists of the unknown that I am aware of are precisely artists and writers.  As a result, they are needed with a renewed and special urgency in this period of momentous change of ours.  Thus it is that the novel form is critical to our times.”

Throughout the weekend, the festival and the EWWC debates in particular were an intense source of high-caliber literary discussion. Revisiting the original debate topics from the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference in 1962 provided not only a sense of where we’ve come from, but where we might be headed as well.  Also, as a native English speaker – and I admit, I read mostly in English – I was delighted to discover several very impressive French writers whom I look forward to reading – in French of course.

Ben McConnell, 5 June 2013

Click here for a photo album of the weekend’s events in St Malo. You can browse all the keynote speeches from the French edition of the Conference here.

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Haddad in France – Keynote on Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/haddad-in-france-keynote-on-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/haddad-in-france-keynote-on-style-vs-content/#comments Sun, 19 May 2013 14:38:52 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4706 © Elisabeth AlimiStyle vs Content

Keynote address given by Hubert Haddad

First presented at EWWC St Malo, France

Hubert Haddad keynote text: “The Feeling of the World”

Style is the feeling of the world.
- André Malraux

The representation of a country, a people, a continent, or the world on the move in the media rests – a priori – on nothing human: the factual description of any phenomenon tells you nothing intimate or key about it, apart from a tremendous amount of documentary evidence which is soon locked back up in the archives. Only literature gives reality its full dimension, at the same time allusive, lethal, unpredictable, marvellous, and wildly open to interpretation. Just as the description of a language does not tell us anything about the breadth of its uses through history, mores or its mythical and legendary foundations, any purely formal rendition fails the basic test of transmission because of a tautological, incomplete or cryptic form of communication.

Literature, along with the arts, is just reality becoming aware of itself in its enigmatic, symbolic and secular activity. The origin of the world is to be found in the mind of a poet admiring Courbet’s painting or the depths of the Milky Way. There is no other place of places than speech in the process of designation. Ancient Greece is still alive in Homer. Without Shakespeare – who only knew his own tongue – so many languages would be deprived of a metaphorical break as a source of transversality and illumination. While science establishes itself in a necessary object-based face-to-face loaded with so many presuppositions, literature emerges in all haste and speaks of the vanity of power and of the sleepy utopia of the most biting freedoms.

Through questioning, dream-like deconstruction, inexpiable passion, humour or challenges, literature teaches us that there never is any absolute power; that hierarchies are acts of violence; that the organs of intimidation that institutions of knowledge are should never be accepted without a quarrel; and that writers or artists at work know one single, obvious thing: the absolute closeness of humans with their fragility, their struggles, their lack of knowledge at the heart of their lives, given that we all share a condition marked by the scars of language. The most glaring difference are mere nuances, the exquisite rustling of nuances: provided they are both on the lookout in symbolic spaces, there is no more than an angel’s breath between an illiterate child and a brilliant scholar in the minute, unidentifiable thing we call culture.

Novels explore the infinite field of Nuance, this human truth every one of us experiences directly and differently without realising how fragile and transient it is; as does poetry which reveals its surprising nature through language. Therefore, there can be no decent writer without style, whatever its breadth – as majestic as the nebulae or as tight as metaphorical constriction. In the best instances, clinical writing can avoid repetition through prosody and rhythm. Writers distort language and put it through the kaleidoscope, forever and unexpectedly changing combinations and associations, offering hope and structuring in spirit the unfathomable wanderings of phenomena.

Just as composition commands eurhythmic representation in Pierro della Francesca or Cézanne’s works, novels-as-object include a living structure, a driving energy derived from writing itself. As Sartre said, writers are made not by what they choose to say but by how they choose to say it: “Every sentence hold the entirety of language and refers back to the universe.” Therefore an acute strategy of style summons, for an instant or for centuries of delight, all knowledge acquired both out of a legitimate concern for their durability and thanks to the floating investigation into the unknown lands of sensitivity. Flaubert dreamt of writing a book about nothing, a book which “would hold through the internal strength of style”. As he marvellously put it: “in and of itself, style is an absolute way of seeing things”.

Nothing is more foreign to classical French, kept in courtiers’ tight grip to support national conquests, than the fates of language. Style is not just the wordsmith’s showcase or the rules of clear speech; it is a native and structuring impulse, the quiet interaction of feeling, intuition and concept, the switch from lexicon to the dizzying heights of syntax, a unique way of moving within a language for an unprecedented interception and capture of meaning. Content is therefore nothing but what the particular intensity of language’s impulses and trajectories in a given body, mind and memory yearns for at a given moment, in a given life context, and aiming for something that is immediately part of writing, of its haste or hesitations, of its destructive tetany or the lightning bolts of multifaceted speech, leaping from height to height as Empedocles’ speech.

For Proust style is an issue of vision not technique, it is “the revelation of the qualitative difference in the way the world reveals itself to us.” As we can imagine, the distant prospect of the finished work pervades the worrisome act of writing in the present, it is a creative dialectics, a Weltanschauung, a constant toing and froing between form and content, between appearance and substance or rather between obverse and reverse. Indeed, the writer presents the readers with a strange mirror wherein, compared to the slow pace and backtrackings of the workshop, everything occurs wholly and hurriedly, the inevitability of events being triggered by the spinning or fanning of pages until the synaptic lights go out. The writing that is more or less irresistible – as a painting or an architecture of words, as an abstract construct of concepts or as a succession of platitudes – is acknowledged as style as soon as a qualitative and emotional change occurs in the readers’ flow of consciousness: something new seeps into the reading, repetition gives way to rhythm, focused images blaze onto the white screen of the page, and language shines through poetics in action.

You could almost say style is the other, the reconstruction by the reader of the necessarily intertwined values of expressions and beliefs at play in the text, given that, whatever the language, very few tales, short stories or novels are not surreptitiously poetic.

Granted, literature does not cover the entire scope of the written word. We could easily come to believe it is but an exception in the ideological and functional space of discourse. Yet when it appears, unexpectedly or after a lengthy maturation, amid the din of misunderstandings, general distraction or the silence of censorship, you can be sure style is at play; a project carried by a wild desire for fulfilment towards some known, or unknown, but always dangerous prospect. Indeed style is the sign of a sovereign march across the minefields of our representations and the unstable realm of the unconscious, the netherworld of the psyche against whose backdrop an inventive reality emerges, gesticulates or disappears according to a thousand fictions.

But what more is style but the resistance of language to the phatic attraction of words and grammar? We must first challenge the ineptitudes and approximations found in quotations compendia.

Style is an instrument, not an end in itself. (Norman Mailer)

Only a literary orderly could say that. If style is an instrument then Proust and Rimbaud are operating theatres. No, style is no more an instrument than art, in and of itself, would be “an instrument of propaganda and education”. On the contrary, it distorts all instrumentations and is life itself, replicated ad infinitum in the mysteries of a language.

Cocteau pleasantly said: “Style is not a dance, it is a gait”, probably referring to the catwalk or the rolling shoulders of the angel Heurtebise. Yet the author of La Difficulté d’être knows that style is the constant tension of the mind, the dance of a million Theseuses before the labyrinth of work. He will readily admit to it in Le Grand Écart: “It can happen that a road offers so many different views on the way out and the way back that hikers on the way back will feel lost.” That is how the written road feels to lost readers.

In a letter to Lucilius, Seneca claims “Style is the clothing of thought”. Thought dressed up is no more than rhetoric. Style is movement, gesture, thought itself!

Stendhal, that least somatic of writers, stated ad absurdum that “The best style is that which goes unnoticed.” And the ludicrous idea of covering the Civil code with a coat of “transparent varnish”. Would anyone claim that the best music or the best poetry is the one that goes unnoticed? Without style, without a specificity assumed to its rightful climax, without the constraint of being awake which underpins the moment on the obsequious angels’ wings, there would only be Father Delille on the one hand and the town clock on the other. Going unnoticed is the epitome of Stendhalian style, its inimitable dramatic strategy.

In a vaguely Beylian way, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his Situations that “Obviously, style determines the value of prose. But it mustn’t get noticed.” “As words are transparent”, he adds along the same lines, “and sight goes through them, it would be preposterous to slip frosted glass in amongst them.” More DIY. He writes that “With prose, aesthetic pleasure can only be unadulterated if it comes on top.” On top? It sounds like a little extra thrown into the bargain at the cattle market!

“Therefore, language is beneath Literature. Style is almost beyond it: images, delivery and lexicon are born from the writer’s body and past, and become progressively the reflexes of his art”. We recognise Roland Barthes’ handsome rhythm but cannot follow him. Is the exclusive call to becoming other, expressed by Rimbaud, Marina Tsvetayeva or Antonin Artaud, therefore merely abandonment to some intimate formalism prior to the deliberate consummation of the mind?

The author of Writing Degree Zero echoes the thought: “under the name of style a self-sufficient language emerges that delves only into the private and secret mythology of the author, into the hypophysics of speech where the first association of words and things form, where the major verbal themes of a lifetime are established once and for all.”

With Barthes and a host of arbiters of letters, the appearance of archaeo-semiotic thought on the battlegrounds of arts meant, strangely, that as the symbolic dimension was rightly being freed from reproductive fatality, innatism and outdated essentialist ideas, the University was managing to put literature, the object of its studies, under close supervision through the use of determinist shortcuts, almost derived from the slumber of sociobiology. For instance: “style is always somewhat crude: it is shape without meaning, the product of an urge not of intent (…) It refers to biology or to the past not to History (…) it is not the product of choice or reflection about Literature. It is the decorative voice of an unknown and secret flesh (…) Style is truly of a germinal nature, it is the transmutation of a Mood.”

So, at degree zero, you have a light-hearted reconciliation with a kind of literary physiologism which Paul Valéry practiced, following in Taine and Balzac’s footsteps. He was happy to see “the dealings and productions of the so-called ‘mind’ as the dealings and productions of an organic system”. But can we ever understand what freedom the void produces in the harmonic cracks of language? We suspected writing contained “the being and the appearances of power”, in doctrinal spaces, as a privilege, as a function of time, reign, social status, barbaric elitism or deep sleep. Yet style is elsewhere. All remains to be invented in reality! A child brighter than lightning warned us a long time ago: “The language will be a soul for the soul (…), thought holding on to thought, and pulling.”

Not much further, Léon Paul Fargue, the master of delectable internal claudication, says: “a perfect sentence sits atop the greatest vital experience.” For Victor Hugo, our perpetual contemporary, “truly great writers are those whose thought occupies every recess of their style.” Let us close with the evanescent Emily Dickinson, the magic scribbler, for she alone, beyond language and beyond all authoritative pronouncements, uttered the only truth. What, really, is style?

  A something in a summer’s Day

  As slow her flambeaux burn away


Copyright: Hubert Haddad, 2013

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HADDAD – Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/haddad-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/haddad-style-vs-content/#comments Sun, 19 May 2013 10:39:37 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4377 Etonnants Voyageurs, St Malo Sunday 19 May 3:30pm CEST Style vs Content Keynote by: Hubert Haddad]]> © Elisabeth AlimiEtonnants Voyageurs, St Malo

Sunday 19 May 3:30pm CEST

Style vs Content

Keynote by: Hubert Haddad

Participants include: Patrick Deville, Björn Larsson, Kenneth White, Yanick Lahens, Sami Tchak, Helonla Habi, Azouz Begag, Yann Queffelec, Mbarek Beyrouk, Ben Fountain, Scholastique Mukasonga, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, Kim Thuy, Yahia Belaskri, Sefi Atta, John Connolly, Diana Evans, Holly Goddard Jones, Kopano Matlwa, Gaspard-Marie Janvier, Pinar Selek, Clément Caliari, Murray Bail, Ariane Dreyfus.

Author Biography:

Born in Tunis in 1947, Hubert Abraham Haddad went to France with his parents several years later, first to Belleville, Ménilmontant, and then to the housing projects. He lived the difficult life of the immigrant growing up, with a shop-keeper father and a mother of Algerian origin. He evoked this childhood in his story Le Camp du bandit Mauresque (The Camp of the Moorish Bandit) (Fayard, 2005).

His first collection of poems, Le Charnier déductif (Deductive Mass Grave), appeared in 1967. His first story, written at the same time and entitled Armelle ou l’éternel Retour (Armelle or the Eternal Return), was not published until 1989. Starting with Un rêve de glace (A Dream of Ice) (Albin Michel, 1974; Zulma, 2005), he has continuously produced novels and collections of stories, alternating with essays on art or literature, plays, and collections of poems.

Haddad’s use of different genres and subjects combined with his extensive experience with writing workshops led him to write Le Nouveau Magasin d’écriture (The New Writing Store), a sort of encyclopedia of literature and the art of writing.  This volume was followed in 2007 by the Nouveau Nouveau Magasin d’écriture (The New New Writing Store).

Haddad has received literary prizes for a number of his works, including the 1983 Georges Bernanos Prize for Les Effrois (The Terrors); the 1991 Maupassant Prize for Le Secret de l’immortalité (The Secret of Immortality); the 1998 SGDL (Société des gens de lettres/ Literary Society) Grand Prix for the Novel for La Condition magique (The Magical Condition); the 2008 Five Francophonie Continents Prize and the 2009 Prix Renaudot Poche for Palestine.

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SOPHIE COOKE – Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/sophie-cooke-style-v-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/sophie-cooke-style-v-content/#comments Sat, 16 Mar 2013 14:06:27 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=3581 The Bookworm International Literary Festival, Beijing Saturday 16 March 2:00pm CST Style vs Content Keynote: Sophie Cooke. Panel discussion with Keith Gray and Zhang Yueran.]]> Sophie-Cooke360The Bookworm International Literary Festival, Beijing

Saturday 16 March 2:00pm CST

Style vs Content

Keynote by: Sophie Cooke. Panel discussion with Keith Gray & Zhang Yueran.

Author Biographies:

Sophie Cooke is a Scottish novelist, short story writer, poet, and travel writer. She was born in London in 1976. Her novels The Glass House, shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Of The Year Award, and Under The Mountain are both set in the Scottish Highlands. Cooke’s short stories have been published in anthologies and literary magazines in the UK and Continental Europe, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio. She won the Genomics Forum Poetry Prize and has been long-listed for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, the largest poetry prize in the world. Her travel writing appears in The Guardian newspaper. Cooke lives in Edinburgh.

Keith Gray was born and brought up in Grimsby, England. Labeled a “reluctant reader” at school, Gray discovered a love of reading and writing after he read Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners. His first novel Creepers was shortlisted for the 1997 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. He has gone on to write several award-winning books for children and young adults, including The Runner, which won the Nestle Smarties Book Prize (Silver Award) and Malarkey, shortlisted for the 2003 Booktrust Teenage Prize. Other recent books include Warehouse, set in the docklands of a small northern town, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award and won the 2003 Angus Book Award; The Fearful, shortlisted for the 2005 Catalyst Book Award and Ostrich Boys (2008), shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award, the 2009 Carnegie Medal, and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. As the first ever Virtual Writer in Residence for Scottish Book Trust, he commissioned and edited short stories by his favorite writers and produced online creative writing videos to encourage young writers everywhere. He lives in Edinburgh and claims he is still writing books for the reluctant boy reader he once was.

Zhang Yueran is regarded as one of China’s most influential young writers. She has published two short story collections: Sunflower Missing In 1890 (2003) and Ten Tales of Love (2004), and three novels: Distant Cherry (2004), Narcissus (2005) and The Promise Bird (2006), which was named the best saga novel on the 2006 Chinese Novel Ranking List. Each of her books has sold more than 300,000 copies. She has been the chief editor of the prestigious literary magazine Newriting since 2008. She has received many awards, such as the Chinese Press Most Promising New Talent Award (2005), “MAO-TAI Cup” People’s Literature Prize (2008), and the Spring Literature Prize (2006). She is currently studying for her doctoral degree in Ancient Chinese Literature.


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Cooke in China – Keynote on Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/cooke-in-china-keynote-on-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/cooke-in-china-keynote-on-style-vs-content/#comments Sat, 16 Mar 2013 06:50:59 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4042 Sophie-Cooke360Style vs Content

Keynote address given by Sophie Cooke

First presented at The Bookworm International Literary Festival, Beijing

Sophie Cooke Keynote text: “Style versus Content, or: The Tao of Writing”

Ali Smith, in her wonderful speech on this topic of style versus content, proposed that we shouldn’t try to separate style from content. That the two are truly inseparable.

In my opinion – and of course everything I say here is simply my own opinion – style does. Content is. Style without content is vacant doing, meaningless activity. Content without style is unexpressed. Style is yang, content yin. They are opposites. Yet in harmony they create each other, and in the end become each other. So I agree with Ali, that it is impossible to conceive of one without the other. But it is very possible – desirable – to conceive of them as separate aspects of a whole, of writing in the sense of tao.

Why is it desirable to see these aspects separately? What does it matter, really, in a world troubled by global warming, unnecessary wars, soaring inequality, and unrestrained greed? Why are we here talking about style versus content in literature.

Let me quote from the great, late, poet, Adrienne Rich.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

I think we use stories to help us locate the shipwrecks. Knowing someone else has been here before us can make us braver, more able to shine a lamp into the proof of our own forgotten storms. Perhaps the reason why writing feels like discovery rather than creation, is because it is really an act of remembering what we know.

Language, style: these are how we communicate the content that we find, when we dive down to the wreck – the truth beneath the surface of things. It is pointless to go there without them. We need to be able to express what we have found. Retrieving that lost content is important because it is:

Amazing how the forgetting
enables deathly ruins to be reborn
the fortunate nourished by the decomposed

in the words of the imprisoned poet Liu Xiaobo. Remembering the truth about oppression helps us avoid becoming part of new injustices. Something that is difficult to do, because most societies contain unjust structures of privilege which seem natural or normal to us – or perhaps simply inevitable.

Ali also mentioned the courage a writer must have, to approach their work well. I agree. I would like to observe that to be stylish is not a courageous act. In fact, the more outrageous and apparently provocative your style, the more, as a writer or a fashion designer or a pop star, you will be celebrated. The courage is not for style. No. It is needed for the long, dark, lonely dive, down to the wreck. The content of the writing. To go there completely is a frightening thing. To fully witness your personal losses, and your shame and your vulnerability; and the scale of humanity’s tragedy. The space between the wrecks and the world in which you – or all of us – might not be drowned. Between the sunlit breathing surface and these depths where the truth lives; where things have happened.

But treasures, in that dark world, do prevail. We find the gifts of love and wisdom that sank inside the ships, under the weight of the storms. And we make our maps.

I would like to re-tell two stories from Greek mythology. Both are stories of seeing what should not be seen, of giving up one’s innocence. First there is Pandora. The first woman, sent to man as a punishment for his arrogance, with a box which she is forbidden to open. Of course – she opens it. And all the evils in the world fly out – death, disease, greed, war, famine. It is the end of Eden. But at the very end of this dreadful emanation, one last thing flutters from the jar – for it is really a jar, and not a box. This thing is hope. Hope comes last.

To quote from Liu Xiaobo again:

I am merely
a discarded wooden plank
powerless to resist the crushing of steel
still, I want to save you no matter if you’re
dead or still barely breathing, breathing.

As writers, we can say: what your heart knows, is true. Here are other hearts that felt the same. You’re not crazy, to have these hopes and dreams. Listen, and move.

The second story I wanted to re-tell is the story of Psyche and Eros.

Psyche’s husband Eros forbids her from seeing his face. He comes to her by night: she does not even know who he is. Psyche, the mind, is ignorantly wedded to Eros, the heart, and she is happy. But then her jealous sisters begin to whisper. Perhaps we can compare them to the jealous sisters of the Weaver Girl in Chinese mythology, when she goes to visit the Cowherd. What Psyche’s sisters tell her is this: that her husband is a ghastly monster, a semi-human beast – this is why he will not let her see him. They encourage her to wait til he is sleeping, after love-making, and then sneak up on him – with a lamp and a knife. A lamp to see, a knife to sever the awful head.

But what the mind sees is not a monster. Instead, she sees beauty. So beautiful, the heart, that the mind stands transfixed. A drop of oil falls from her lamp onto his skin, and wakes him. Furious at her disobedience, he leaves her. He will not return, because she looked at him.

For me, this is a truer story than Pandora’s. What we see when we look inside ourselves is not only the pain of ugly feelings. It is also the pain of impossible hopes, uncynical love.

Why does Eros forbid Psyche to see him? Why does the heart flee, when it is seen?

If writing has its yin and yang of content and style, of being and doing, the heart has a yin and yang also. The heart that does – the heart that wants, and loves, and desires – this heart is easy to see. It speaks to our minds all the time. It tells us what it wants, and asks us to get it. Go make safe the things that are dear to me! Get me things I can give to the ones I love. Avenge the wrongs done to my darlings. We know how to listen to this. We pursue our desires; we protect our homes and our children. We care for the people we love, and we seek to fulfil our ambitions. Perhaps we exact vengeance.

But the heart has another side we can not see. The heart that is. This heart does not come out: it is unexpressed, by itself. And this heart knows that it is crazy. Because it belongs in a world of peace and harmony, a world that’s in such perfect balance, no action is needed. It simply wants to be love. The quiet heart can’t be acknowledged by the mind, because it’s at odds with the heart the mind already knows. It is its opposite, and that other heart could devour it in an instant. The mind expected to see ugliness, and instead saw gentleness and beauty.

Psyche is, literally, broken-hearted. She begs the gods for a chance to regain Eros. She is set three seemingly impossible tasks by Eros’ mother, Aphrodite, which she completes. But there’s a final hurdle. She must go down to hell, and return with a box of beauty cream – which she must, on no account, open. You can see where this is going.

Psyche enters the underworld. The mind travels down into the depths: sees the faces of the shipwrecked. Psyche sees the truth. She gets the cream and she carries it back. She brings this treasure up to the sunlight. She’s out on the open fields. And she thinks – perhaps this cream will make me so beautiful, my lost heart will come back to me. So she lifts up the lid.

No demons fly out: no evils. Because she has already encountered them, underground. She has dealt with them. Instead, a gas that puts her to sleep. And this was always Aphrodite’s plan, of revenge. She knew that Psyche would open up the box; just as it was always known that Pandora would pull the cork from the jar. But Eros has been watching Psyche. He knows what she has been through, knows she has gone to hell and back, gone through the greatest loneliness and suffering – maybe now she can grasp him. He returns to her, and wakes her – how else? – with a kiss. Mind and hiding heart are consciously united. The mind, because of what it has been through, can finally see the yin heart and understand it. The yin heart knows and trusts this. So it reveals itself. No need, any more, for the mind to sneak up on it with tricks and suspicions.

We go to see, as writers and as readers, what we are discouraged from seeing in our everyday lives. We go looking for the truth beneath the image.

In our everyday lives, we are surrounded by lies. Lies in our personal lives, or our workplaces. Lies in our cultures and societies, in our media and in our educational establishments. Lies about our national histories, the airbrushing of empires; lies about our economic systems: the unimproveable rule by global capitalism; lies about the reasons for our wars, in which inconvenient states must be our enemies. In their specifics, in different locations and on different scales, the lies vary. They can be so ingrained in the worlds in which we have grown up, our busy clamouring hearts don’t notice the discrepancies. But our quiet hearts have always known, and if we want to see them they will send us out, until we have gone far enough from what we thought we knew, to see – the evidence of damage.

What we find is, partly, terrible. But it’s as we suspected!  The urges behind the crimes are in our own noisy hearts too: that’s how we knew we’d find them. The surprise is that we can also find the quiet heart, in the process of acknowledging the truth. We find hope, and forgotten dreams. Dreams we had when we were innocent. The part of us that experienced loss is the part that had those dreams, before it gave them up.

Our minds – and our speaking hearts – tell us to accept a situation of managed violence, injustice, and inequality. We’re only human, after all. What do we expect? To live in the world our hidden yin hearts dream of? Well – yes. A world without greed or violence. A place of balance.

This hope, which we find on the other side of truth, can revivify us even if our hearts are dead or barely breathing, breathing… Because the hope is common to all of us, it can be passed between us – in love, in words, in books.

So we read the maps, the ones gifted to us by others. We write new ones. We do it differently, because our style is our manner of living, as unique as our personal histories. We make our own versions of the truth. The truth itself, though – that is our shared source of content. The wreck and not the story of the wreck.

The relativists were right that truth belongs to to no-one in particular. Two things they forgot: firstly, if you follow it from the obvious tentacle of your life, to its centre, and return – there is hope; and secondly, the undefinable place at its centre belongs to all of us. Just because we can’t define something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Copyright: Sophie Cooke, 2013

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Celona, Lee, Schofield & Shapton – Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/celona-lee-schofield-shapton-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/celona-lee-schofield-shapton-style-vs-content/#comments Wed, 24 Oct 2012 15:38:17 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1662 International Festival of Authors, Toronto

Wednesday 24 October 8:00pm EST

Basic Instinct: Style vs Content


Featuring: Marjorie Celona, Rebecca Lee, Anakana Schofield, Leanne Shapton. Host/Moderator: Susan G. Cole

Short stories, novels, graphic novels, written chronologically or out of order—how does the writer decide how to approach the story?



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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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