Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » The Future of the Novel 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 Favourite Themes: The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/favourite-themes-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/favourite-themes-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Wed, 16 Oct 2013 11:57:50 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5597 Favourite Themes: The Future of the Novel Highlights from what became one of the most popular themes of the Conference, The Future of the Novel, are collected together for you]]> WILL THE NOVEL REMAIN WRITERS’ FAVOURITE NARRATIVE FORM?

Has the dominant literary form of the 19th and 20th centuries grown stale? Is it no longer the best means of delivering stories in the 21st century? Or does the classic literary novel remain the form best placed to deliver innovative, memorable writing? The Conference events under this theme shed light on the questions surrounding the future of that narrative form known as “the novel”.

Some of the highlights from what became one of the most popular themes of the Conference, The Future of the Novel, can be found below:

China Miéville spoke in Edinburgh and Toronto on The Future of the Novel

Tibor Fischer & Konstantin Milchin spoke in Krasnoyarsk, Russia on The Future of the Novel

Li Er spoke in Beijing on The Future of the Novel

Denise Mina spoke in Lisbon on The Future of the Novel

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On: The Future of the Novel – Kirsty Gunn looks back at a year of the EWWC http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/on-the-future-of-the-novel-kirsty-gunn-looks-back-at-a-year-of-the-ewwc/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/on-the-future-of-the-novel-kirsty-gunn-looks-back-at-a-year-of-the-ewwc/#comments Fri, 11 Oct 2013 15:06:15 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5579 6-gunnkWhen I spoke at the end of the last session of the Conference in Edinburgh last year, by way of a sort of summary, I quoted those wonderful lines of Stephen Spender, that were published in Angela Bartie Eleanor Bell’s 2012 book about the original writer’s conference in 1962.

“I am not saying this maliciously at all” Spender said, refuting ideas that had been put about by Alexander Trocchi and others that the novel was finished with, “but everything that has been said was said in1905. It led to a completely dead end.” He went on to make a call for belief in the future of the novel, for its health and wellbeing. “The history of modern literature since 1914-1920 or so is the attempt to recover from this point of view” he finished with, fragmentation would glue itself up together and become the new.

This year, in Melbourne, addressing the same subject, but in a lecture this time, I talked about the idea of finding, in the novel, new ways to read, of attending to new approaches in fiction, being responsive and welcoming to new ideas of form. Without new forms, I said, no matter how forward looking its content, the genre will always cast itself back into the past.

I thought about both those conferences, opening and closing an extraordinary year of international literary debate, when I read this by Nabokov recently: When people ask me about me if I’m interested in the future of the novel, he said, I tell them that I am interested in the future of MY novel. When I read that – twice –  I laughed out loud! How I wish I had had that line playing around in my mind for the past twelve months, while the world Writers Conference conversation has been playing around the world…

Because really, of course, what all we writers have been doing throughout this most interesting initiative that has got us talking with each other and agreeing and disagreeing… Is describing, not ‘the novel “– but OUR novels. There’s nothing abstract whatsoever about the concept. Whether the novel is this kind of book or that, these kinds of words or those kinds of words…Fiction to a fiction writer is nothing like an idea, a theory, an extension of the imagination. It’s a made up thing that is real. It’s the stuff of our lives.

That’s why the debates became so heated sometimes. It was like a group of farmers arguing how they are going to divide up a field. Graze. Grain. All of us had different opinions. I say racehorses. I say potatoes. We had been differently educated, differently formed, with different skill sets, philosophies. For every field of wild flowers there was one of cash cows. Vineyards. Chickens. None of us were going to walk away.

The argument I presented in my lecture in Melbourne was very clear about what I wanted – and some thought it was interesting and some thought it was arcane and snobbish and out of touch. One writer, in Edinburgh, the year before, had told me that I may as well go and sit on the top of a mountain – that was how out of touch my thinking about the novel was, when I put the case for it being a form of art.

But that’s because that writer who makes money from his books, and has entered into a contract to make money from the books, has a market to attend to, and I don’t have anyone to attend to apart from myself. So yes, I may as well be on my own, I suppose, on some remote hill. But that’s ok, too. It’s all of it just a matter of perspective – and no one’s saying that I wouldn’t like people to buy my books any more than I would say that this writer or that doesn’t care about the quality of his writing or doesn’t want to write something that’s absolutely perfect and beautifully done.

We all care about what we do. We just care about different things. The truly wonderful thing about this year of debate and thinking about the novel has been reminding ourselves that we care so much, that we’re fully invested in our work of putting down words before us – whether or not the financial and cultural reward is there. It has been a mirror – this conference…And there we are, we writers, stuck at our desks on our own for most of the time, “typing” as Will Self puts it….Suddenly there we all are reflected in it.

It’s been a lot of fun seeing each other look back at ourselves, shouting and laughing and being cross and being delighted. None of this, this worldwide event, has been notional; we’ve not been talking about what’s made up, posited, invented.  The mirror has reminded us of that. That what we do, this living for most of the time in our imaginations…Is real.

Copyright: Kirsty Gunn, October 10 2013

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COLE & DENA – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-dena-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-dena-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:20:18 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5105 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 11:45am AEST The Future of the Novel Keynotes: Teju Cole & Christy Dena Chaired by: Liam McIlvanney]]> COLE-&-DINAMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 11:45am AEST

The Future of the Novel

Keynote: Teju Cole joined by Christy Dena
Chair: Liam McIlvanney


Author Biographies:

Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He was born in the US in 1975 to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria, and currently lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City, which was awarded the Internationaler Literaturpreis 2013, 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and the Internationaler Literaturpreis; nominated for the National Book Critics Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, and a prize from the Royal Society of Literature; and named one of the best books of 2011 by Time Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and many others.

Christy Dena is a writer-designer of playful stories. She also consults on films, games, literature, performance, and TV to extend storylines across artforms. Recent projects include her web audio adventure for the iPad, a mix of radio drama and online storytelling. This project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, was nominated for a Best Writing in a Game Award at the 2012 Freeplay Independent Games Festival. She wrote the first PhD on Transmedia Practice, and lectures worldwide at industry events and Universities on new writing. She co-wrote The Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living for the Australian Literature Board; was Digital Writing Ambassador for the 2012 Emerging Writers Festival; and awarded the 2013 Digital Writing Residency at The Cube, QUT’s new Science and Engineering Centre.

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Cole in Australia – Keynote on The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 01:45:59 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5318 4-coletThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Teju Cole

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013

 


Teju Cole keynote text: “The Novel After the Novelist”

“A great writer is one who elongates the perspective of human sensibility,” Brodsky wrote. This is one understanding of what novels do: they take us to the limits of experience and of ourselves. For Brodsky, exemplars of such writing were Platonov and (he cites her memoirs) Nadezhda Madelstam. In the twentieth century, we can think of any number of writers who might fit Brodsky’s criterion. Among those whose work is more troubled and strained, there are Camus, Woolf, Beckett, and Blanchot, just to name a few. But there are many others who also show us that human sensibility is more than we might have guessed. Our world is bigger because of Achebe, García-Márquez, Laxness, and Yourcenar. The diversity of these names indicates the obvious: excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional. It is a capacious form, one which allows for many kinds of victory.

But another kind of novel exists, one which Brodsky perhaps would not have recognized as elongating the perspective of human sensibility. When we talk about “the novel,” are we referring to the examples cited above—literary novels of high achievement, diverse as they are—or are we talking about novels that are written as a product for the publishing market? It is true that the line between a purely commercial novel and an accomplished work of art is not completely clear. Some bestsellers are very well-written, and some magnificiently strange books sell well; but we cannot claim that they are indistinguishable. So, when we talk about the future of the novel, it is worth acknowledging that there are distinct ambitions, independent of style, in the works classified by the very term “novel.” I would like to follow Brodsky and be concerned only with those works that elongate the perspective of human sensibility. I acknowledge the existence of the other kind, the kind that an author can write many of in one year, the kind that the reader hardly remembers reading, the kind that fits neatly into a genre and whose main purpose is to help the reader pass some hours on a plane: the survival or evolution of this more ubiquitous type of novel is not of particular interest to me.

Instead, I want to think about the health of that artificial line that goes from Rabelais to Flaubert to Joyce to Jelinek. What will become of this tradition of the novel which, as Randall Jarrell wrote, is “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”? If there is more and more pressure from the other kind of novel, the neat and untroubled novel that has nothing wrong with it, how shall we sustain the novel that has something wrong with it?

But we are thinking about a tradition whose founders, Rabelais and Cervantes, did not consider themselves “novelists.” What they did was write long (very long) prose full of productive defects. This, I think, might be where the novel will begin to return. There might be a homing instinct inside the novel that is carrying it back home to its wild origins.

The novel’s great flourishing, market-wise, was in the nineteenth-century, when Pride and Prejudice and Effi Briest and the French roman d’analyse entered fully into the life of the middle classes. It was a flourishing and it was also, of course, a poisoning, because one strand of the novel intensified what was human—ragged and flickering—about the form, but another strand became the crammed attic of all that was sentimental and settled. The early twentieth-century kicked against this. We entered the era of the future of the novel: one answer to the question “What is the future of the novel?” even now is still “Ulysses.” Another is “Mrs. Dalloway.” Yet another is “The Man Without Qualities.” It was in this era that the novel began to escape the novel again, with all kinds of inclusions that had not been seen since the early days, since Rabelais, Fielding, and the other rough-mannered originators. The twentieth-century modernist novel made itself a home for a long narrative about characters and their interactions, but it also allowed for their thoughts, their philosophical digressions, and their walks. The novel contained memoir, philosophy, law, letters, history, theology, yesterday’s news, and, with full gusto and disorienting commitment in Finnegans Wake, even dreams and incomprehensibility.

It was electrifying, but we had gone too close to the edge. We had to retreat. And so—and of course I’m simplifying terribly—the Anglo-American novel in particular became quite a conservative thing (the French continued to fight the good fight). For every Faulkner in the US, there was a highly-praised Pearl Buck and a deified Steinbeck. What could not be understood and enjoyed by everyone was considered with suspicion. We, particularly in America, entered the age of prizes and consensus. Experimentation remained alive, particularly as the novel found its way to cultures that had hitherto not written many novels, but the biggest names in Anglo-American publishing tended to be safe, the sort of names that did well on school curricula or found themselves quite happy in book clubs. The Pulitzer Prize for literature was unerringly middlebrow. This was the age of Austen and Dickens all over again, but with little of the sparkling quality of those popular but brainy novelists.

All the while, though, futurists of different stripes carried on their work, for the most part with less glare on their enterprise. Barth and Coover, Ondaatje and Naipaul, Frame and Murnane, Bender and Shields: many kept on sewing the suit of experimentalism in the shadows, influenced by their contemporaries in poetry. The Latin American boom and the Indian and African literatures it infected carried this work forward. Tristram Shandy migrated to Cartagena and to Bombay.

This was the work of the full-dressed post-Ulysses school (though no one is post-Ulysses; we are all somehow still catching up to it). It is against this backdrop that we might try to understand what the Internet in general, and Twitter in particular, mean for experimental prose. For isn’t this, in all its narration and ungoverned excess, where we might now be going? Isn’t Twitter the most vivid illustration since Ulysses of what full inclusion might mean? There are two-hundred million people on Twitter. They are all writing, and all are writing under a formal constraint.

This leads one, almost, into a mystical formulation: on Twitter there is no “novelist” but there is a novel: Twitter is the continuity of the published thoughts of all the people present on Twitter. It had a beginning, but it has no end. And each second, thousands of pages are added, millions of contributions per day. And each person who reads it, as Heraclitus might have promised, reads something different from everyone else. This is an inclusiveness, from an unexpected direction, that might begin to affect even the practice of the conventional published novel. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t: most young novelists are themselves active on Twitter now. The atomized mode of information dispersal is more and more natural, and less and less “experimental” or elite.

Consider this statement: “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” This was written by William James’ in 1890, in The Principles of Psychology. It was later taken as an apt coinage for the efforts of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield. The description fits, even more exactly, the experience of reading Twitter.

Though there are interesting individual experiments on Twitter, I am drawn to the original meaning of “individual”: that which is undivided. It is the undivided, undifferentiated cascade of thoughts streaming past the timeline that makes me suspect that Twitter is, indeed, elongating the perspective of human sensibility. I want to suggest, then, that Twitter is one of the futures of the novel. In a time of commercial publishing and excellent television, the novelist is smaller than ever before. But the novel itself, it seems, is suffering the opposite fate: it is getting bigger and bigger, and gradually swallowing the whole world.

 © Teju Cole, 2013

 

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MIEVILLE, KUNZRU & KAYGUSUZ – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/mieville-kunzru-kaygusuz-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/mieville-kunzru-kaygusuz-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Sat, 17 Aug 2013 09:53:32 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5187 Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 Saturday 17 August 5:00pm BST The Future of the Novel Discussion with: China Miéville, Hari Kunzru & Sema Kaygusuz Chair: Susie Nicklin ]]> SEMA-KAYGUSUZ-360pxEdinburgh Book Festival 2013

Saturday 17 August 5:00pm BST

The Future of the Novel

With: China Miéville, Hari Kunzru & Sema Kaygusuz (left)
Chair: Susie Nicklin

The Novel: Tenacious as a cockroach? A year ago, the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference kicked off with five events recalling the seminal Writers’ Conference of 1962. Since then, authors have been discussing the vital role the novel plays in cultural life, at events in 14 locations around the globe. What can we learn from the discussions? China Miéville, Hari Kunzru and Sema Kaygusuz talk about the future of fiction.

 


Author Biographies:

China Miéville‘s first novel was King Rat (1998), a dark fantasy relocating the Pied Piper to contemporary London. His second, Perdido Street Station (2000), is the first set in the city of New Crobuzon, and won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction and a 2001 British Fantasy Award. Two further books in this series are the British Fantasy award-winning The Scar (2002) and Iron Council, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award. His other books include the young adult novel, Un Lun Dun (2007),  and a collection of short stories, Looking for Jake (2005). The City & The City (2009) is an existential thriller, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Prize and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. His non-fiction includes a study of international law. China Miéville is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Warwick University and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College School of Law.

Hari Kunzru was named The Observer Young Travel Writer of the Year, and in 2004 he became a member of the Executive Council of English PEN. He is on the editorial board of Mute, the culture and technology magazine. He has had short stories published in various magazines, and his first novel, The Impressionist (2002), won the 2002 Betty Trask Prize and the 2003 Somerset Maugham award and was also shortlisted for several awards, including the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award. His second novel, Transmission (2004), centres on Arjun Mehta, a computer programmer, who lands a new job in America’s Silicon Valley, only to find things do not turn out as he imagines. This won him the inaugural ‘decibel’ award at the British Book Awards and was named a New York Times notable book of the year. In 2005 he published Noise, a short story collection, and his third novel, My Revolutions, in 2007. In 2003, Hari Kunzru was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty ‘Best of Young British Novelists’.

Sema Kaygusuz is a fiction writer living in Istanbul. Sema Kaygusuz was born in 1972 in Samsun. Due to her father’s itinerant military career, she lived in various regions across Turkey. Kaygusuz spent most of her childhood in rural areas and small cities, where she had the opportunity to be closely acquainted with the complexity and cultural diversity of her country. A wide range of folk tales, legends and stories, which the author excavated from various dialects and languages during her travels, remain to be her greatest sources of inspiration. In 1994, Kaygusuz moved to Istanbul, where she still resides. After publishing three collections of short stories, which won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Turkey, her first novel Yere Düsen Dualar (Prayers Falling on Earth) was published in 2006. The novel met with unanimous acclaim from both the Turkish and the international reviewers and won the 2009 Ecrimed-Cultura translation award,  the 2010 France-Turquie award in France, and the 2010 Balkanika award including six Balkan countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Turkey). Her second novel, Yüzünde Bir Yer (A Place on Your Face), was published in 2009 and praised as the “literary Guernica”. Yüzünde Bir Yer will be published in April 2013 by Actes Sud in France. Her most recent narration, Karaduygun (Melancholic), was published in 2012 and will be published in March 2013 by Matthes & Seitz in Germany. Sema Kaygusuz is also the co-author of the movie script of Pandora’s Box, which won in 2008 The Golden Shell Best Film Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. (Image credit: Muhsin Akgun)

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Sema Kaygusuz, Turkish novelist: It’s a time to make things new http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/sema-kaygusuz-its-a-time-to-make-things-new/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/sema-kaygusuz-its-a-time-to-make-things-new/#comments Wed, 14 Aug 2013 11:04:55 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5265 Sema Kaygusuz, Credit: Muhsin Akgun

Sema Kaygusuz, Credit: Muhsin Akgun

Sema Kaygusuz was born in 1972 in Samsun, Turkey. Due to her father’s itinerant military career, she lived in various regions across Turkey. A wide range of folk tales, legends and stories remain her greatest sources of inspiration. She is the author of four critically acclaimed collections of short stories, three award-winning novels and a forthcoming play, ‘The Sultan and the Poet’. Her work has been translated into German, French, Swedish and Norwegian. Alongside Inci Aral, Denise Mina and Panos Karnezis, she was a keynote speaker at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Izmir in February 2013.

We spoke to Sema from her home in Istanbul, ahead of her participation in this weekend’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She’ll be discussing the Future of the Novel with China Miéville and Hari Kunzru this Saturday at 5pm. During the course of our conversation the noise from the demonstration outside Sema’s window interrupted us and forced a hiatus, so we begin with:

EWWC: How are things in Istanbul at the moment?

SK: Things are a little bit difficult, but exciting. The demonstrations taking place at the moment are very important; we’re trying to build a new Turkey. Every day people continue to meet together in parks all over Istanbul, working together in small groups to talk about the future of Turkey.

EWWC: You took part in the EWWC Izmir last March, delivering a fascinating keynote speech on National Literature. In your speech you said “the fiction that is ‘country’ is to me an inner trouble and an outer burden that increases day by day. I do not want to be represented by it, or to be its representative”. Have your views changed since you gave that speech?

SK: At the time I wrote that speech, I had no hope. I was a total pessimist. But after the demonstrations started my feelings changed – and I felt OK, I do have a country after all. And now I am feeling very optimistic, because in these demonstrations all the different classes of people are coming together. There is no homophobia or sexism; all rights groups are clinging together. It’s the first time I’ve seen this in Turkey. Before I always felt alone – I never felt that I had a country. I realise now that I can take a deep breath; it feels very modern, very democratic and very exciting. It’s a time to make things new.

From the West Turkey is often seen as a very exotic place, and viewed from a very clichéd Orientalist viewpoint. Of course the reality is very diverse. For example, 50% of the literature sold in Turkey is translated, and that’s across all genres. We have a very vibrant, diverse literary culture. But when I go outside of Turkey all I am asked about is political issues, women’s issues, Islam …

The Conference was very useful, it’s so important to talk together and to meet new writers. The student audience was very focused, asking probing and important questions. We felt very connected to each other.

EWWC: At the Edinburgh conference event last August, Ahdaf Soueif, in her keynote address on literature and current affairs, said: “In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.”  Can you talk a little about how writers in Turkey are reacting and responding to the current unrest?

SK: In the 1950s in Turkey there was a very strong political, polemical strand to literature – not just novelists but from writers across the board. But now writers know to use allegory and metaphor; they know that if you make things directly political the literature will be flat. Sometimes, I know, a country needs to hear its reality from its writers. Right now in Turkey there are some books being published following swiftly in the wake of the demonstrations. They are interesting, sociologically- based texts – but these are the grapes; in the next five years we will be able to drink our wine.

EWWC: Do you feel there is such thing as a community of writers in Turkey?

SK: In Turkey there are lots of opportunities to talk to other writers – we have a lot of projects together and there are lots of conferences. So much so that it can sometimes be difficult to find an audience! Every weekend people have so many speeches and events to choose from, particularly in terms of commercial literature – people always want to talk to bestselling writers.

Literature is such an important vehicle with which to talk about sociology, history, and so on. Since this year’s demonstrations began, people’s confidence in themselves to speak and express themselves has increased – the atmosphere of Turkey has completely changed. When they’re speaking publicly people are less cynical and less prudent even, than before. And there is always a lot of humour.

EWWC: If there was a writers’ conference in 50 years time, what questions do you think it would address?

SK: Literature is changing. Some forms of literature are going to die. In some places like France for example, nobody wants to read short stories any more, it’s difficult to get them published. In Germany, it’s the same with poetry. Maybe in the next 50 years – when I’m a very old lady – I would make a case for short stories being very big art. I have written a play recently and found it to be a very difficult form – you only have dialogue and the stage and lighting directions at your disposal. The novel on the other hand is a very elastic form. I like the novel.

EWWC: If you had to choose one or two writers from the Turkish canon to recommend, who would that be?

SK: To choose just two is very difficult, but I can say the most important writers for me from the canon of Turkish Literature are Sevim Burak and Bilge Karasu.

Thank you Sema!

To buy tickets for The Novel: Tenacious as a Cockroach? EWWC event on 17th August at Edinburgh International Book Festival, with Sema Kaygusuz, Hari Kunzru and China Miéville, click here.

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El Mougy in Egypt – Keynote on The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/el-mougy-in-egypt-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/el-mougy-in-egypt-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Mon, 01 Jul 2013 11:41:29 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=2255 EWWC Cairo, Egypt: Keynote released Please note: This event was scheduled for 9 December 2012 and was cancelled. The Future of the Novel Keynote: Sahar el Mougy]]> The Future of the Novel

Keynote address by Sahar el Mougy

 

This event was previously scheduled to be presented at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, Cairo, December 9th 2012. The event had to be cancelled due to the upheavals in the city at that time.


Sahar el Mougy Keynote text: “The Egyptian novel: questions and challenges”

In the last decade, the world as we have known it since World War Two has changed, is still changing. We are actually in the very heart of this change now. The internet revolution is one facet of this change. It is both a reflection of the ongoing strong current of change as well as one of its many causes.  And in parallel with the internet revolution, waves of social upheaval have been gaining force in different parts of the world since 2004, and culminating in the huge wave of protests of 2007 till the present moment. The two factors of the internet revolution and the social upheavals raise questions related to the novel and to what extent the genre is affecting and being affected by this change.

I believe the internet has led to a multi-layered state of democratization. It has led to an expansion of readership, with readers gaining access to free books online, the classics as well as the hacked. Culture is no longer accessed only by those who could pay for its products. Yet the democratization of culture raises questions related to the publishing business: has this access enjoyed by the “people” been as fortunate to the publishers? Is there a threat to the business? Will the publishers have to think of ways of competing, or maybe minimizing the damage?

The internet has also democratized writing and self-publishing. Since the year 2000, millions of people around the world have enjoyed the free space for self expression offered in blogs and on the pages of social media. Some of those bloggers happened to be/ turned out to be writers. They were young writers with hardly any access to the publishing world. But through the virtual space, they could write and with a tap on the keyboard their writings were out there, readers reading and responding. Online self-publishing would not bring the writers money, yet their works would be read, they would be given feedback and offered a chance to pool with other writers/ bloggers.

In the Egyptian case, blogging was not just an escape from and a challenge to the publishing business. More importantly, it has lead to some radical psychological change in the 1980s generation, which I call “the Emergency Law generation”. This is the generation which has been born to a multi-faceted marginalization. They called themselves “the Egyptian expatriates in Egypt” as shown in the slogan of an internet radio station- “Teet”- whose mission statement reads: “The Voice of the Egyptian Expatriates in Egypt”. Funny but true. Blogging eventually meant resistance, the cultural resistance of the oppressed as Bill Ashcroft puts it in Post Colonial Transformations, though the colonizer-colonized relationship has acquired new dimensions. Blogging has offered those writers a zone where they can deconstruct and reconstruct their sense of identity against the social and political mainstream. Lately, many Egyptian blogs have been popular enough to seduce publishers into publishing such works (novels, poetry collections and short stories)! In order to keep up with this phenomenon, Amazon has started a self publishing line of E-novellas sold for one dollar. A certain percentage goes to the writers. Is this the door to a deeper and wider change in the world of writing/ publishing? Does it pose a challenge to the critic and to the reader?

The other element which I believe will impact the novel in many ways is the social/ political upheaval the world has been witnessing since 2004. From Iceland to Greece and Spain, from the Arab world to the UK, Russia to the US, ripples of anger against the failure of governance are growing. How will this new consciousness impact on the novel? While I do not have the answers regarding world literature, I can attempt to trace some signs of change in Egypt. In parallel with the work of the civil opposition groups, the world of culture/ writing has enjoyed a revival. New publishing houses have been founded, many of them introducing new voices. Quite a number of new novelists have emerged. Some of those writers came from the blogging world. More bookstores have opened. Signing events are taking place, a newly introduced tradition which did not exist before 2004. Private book clubs, operating away from the cultural institutions which monopolized all cultural activities for decades, have mushroomed. Meanwhile, Writers and Artists for Change was founded in 2005, a branch out of Kefaya, the mother movements to many offshoots. On 5th September 2005, fifty five Egyptian artists and theater critics were burnt to death in a fire that took place in a small performance hall in Beni Soueif.  The tragedy came as yet another bitter reminder of the dilapidated state of the political regime. Writers and artists left their desks and  protested for months on end against the Ministry of Culture and the corrupt regime which protected the minister for twenty three years in office. Serious questions related to the state’s continuous efforts (since the 1970s) to “tame” the Egyptian writers have surfaced.

In the meantime, a question related to the content of the novels written by the writers of the last two decades poses itself. Children of the internet have been exposed to the world in a different way. The image has been part of their perception of the world. Would the content and style of such writings reflect some change as compared to the works of the previous generations? In certain cases, a happy marriage existed between narratives and the image, as in the case of the graphic novel. In some other cases, novels were affected by the blogging medium in that they show a tendency to pull down the wall between writer and reader. There is always an addressee with whom the writer engages. I would borrow Maggie Gee’s question here: will the novel develop into an oral saga? It very well might.

In some novels, the language and tools of the internet have been adopted and adapted within the narration. The formatting, for example, of emails, chats and fragmented conversations have inspired some novels. Some blogs have been converted, with minimal or no changes, into books. To what extent will the genre, already flexible and receptive of new elements, evolve or change? Could it be that what is happening represents the early seeds of a more radical change yet to materialize?

But one can already register some change in the content of the Egyptian novel, a change which coincided with the awakening taking place since 2004. Many Egyptian novels stopped turning their back on the political. Unlike the works of the writers of the 1990s (myself included), which dealt with the subjective and the personal, some novels built bridges with the socio-political context. Examining the novels of the 1990s, one finds out that the writers turning their backs on the reality that was out there was both a need and a statement. The novelists explored their sense of estrangement, both on the level of the self- self or that of self-surrounding reality. The rejected self busied itself with its quest. There was a need to wrap one’s self in the inner cocoon. I guess what took place in many novelists’ minds then was that maybe the existentialist quest would bear fruit, unlike the engagement with the political. This was also a statement against the mainstream which alienated writers and pushed them to the far away desert of indifference.

Significantly, some of those same writers (who enjoyed the cocoon in the 1990s) showed some degree of involvement with their context as revealed in their novels in the mid 2000s. For instance, in my 1999 novel Daria, the reader can hardly trace the time frame of the story, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey towards some degree of self-knowledge and her fight against patriarchal pressures. In 2007, I published Noon, which takes place in Cairo between 2001- 2004. It begins with 9/11 and takes the reader to the fall of Saddam Hussein. Though it is not a political novel, it reveals a state of re- engagement. Now the journey of the self (of the four characters) could be located in a specific time, against a specific background which impacts the characters in many ways. Many novels showed direct engagement. Then the revolution happened.

During the revolution, social media platforms revealed a change in the position of Egyptian writers. It has made their voices louder when it comes to issues of change. Egyptian writers, who complained back in the 1990s of closed circles of readership, were both witnesses to the social change as well as active agents in it. Their position changed from the marginal to the focal. During the Egyptian revolution, writers’ tweets, facebook statuses, article quotes and youtube clips helped steer public opinion and raise debates. Their presence in the streets and on social media reflected the awakening of the people and endorsed it simultaneously. Ironically, such presence was highlighted because of the virtual space, which was no longer “virtual”. The internet, rather than the media, became the treasure house of the collective consciousness.

Now I believe the question of the collective consciousness has put writers in a difficult position. How would the novel capture a moment that is larger than life? One of the major successes of the revolution is the deconstruction of the image of the collective self, carefully etched by the dictator who has worked really hard to deform/ defame it. We found out we are not “lazy”, “submissive”, “indifferent” and “ignorant” as they have told us about ourselves. On the exact contrary, we are beautiful, compassionate, brave and wise. We have an insatiable craving for freedom and justice and dignity. And we are willing to pay the price of what we want. In the first eighteen days of the revolution, we were larger than life. Memory keeps record of amazing moments which challenge the writer. Can he/ she portray these moments of grandeur? How can writing capture and frame glory and bliss and the painful but joyous experience of rebirth?

Photography can do it. Poetry can do it, now. But the novel tells the novelist “Wait, this is not the right time. Live the experience. Take photographs and notes and enjoy the poetry. Join the marches and write articles if you wish. Sleep on it. One day you will revisit the squares and be able to write”.

The question of how the novel can keep up with such a radical change of consciousness is open to infinite possibilities. When Egyptian novelists will write about the revolution is unknown to me. But I am certain that the Egyptian novel of the next decade will turn into a playground of experimentation and aesthetic adventures based on the principle of “the sky is the limit”. Haven’t we seen it happen? And most certainly the novel will reflect new perceptions of reality and a reconstruction of the image of the collective self.

Sahar el Mougy, 2012

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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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DENISE MINA – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/denise-mina-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/denise-mina-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Sat, 25 May 2013 13:30:15 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4117 The Lisbon Book Fair, Lisbon Saturday 25 May 6:30pm WEST The Future of the Novel Chaired by: Denise Mina. Panelists include João Tordo, Dulce Maria Cardoso, Mathias Énard, Rosa Liksom.]]> Denise_Mina_360pxThe Lisbon Book Fair, Lisbon

Saturday 25 May 6:30pm WEST

The Future of the Novel

Chaired by: Denise Mina. Panelists include Mathias Énard, Rosa Liksom, João Tordo and Dulce Maria Cardoso.


Author Biographies:

Denise Mina is the author of eleven novels, three graphic novels, three plays and many short stories. Two of her novels have been filmed by BBC television. She has won prizes, been nominated for prizes, judged and presented prizes and is starting to think they might be meaningless. She is a regular contributor to television and radio, presents documentaries and is currently finishing her first video piece ‘Multum in Parvo’ – a film about her extended family watching a film about her extended family making a film about her extended family.

Mathias Énard was born in 1972 in France. He studied Persian and Arabic and lived for many years in the Middle East. He is Professor of Arabic at the university of Barcelona. He has written five novels and won several literature prizes, including Zone, which won the Prix Decembre and the Prix du Livre Inter, and Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants, which won the Prix Goncourt.

Rosa Liksom was born in 1958 in Ylitornio, far north in Finnish Lapland, in the “Meän” language area. Her parents were farmers and reindeer breeders. She wrote the first three of her books in “free town” of Kristiania, in Copenhagen, where she was working in a bakery and helping out at a local store. In 2011 her book, Hytti nro 6 (Compartment Number 6) was awarded the Finlandia prize. This year (2013) the same novel has been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Besides writing books, Rosa Liksom has also painted and made short films since 1985. She has created comic books, a colouring book and children’s books. Rosa currently lives in Helsinki.

João Tordo was born in Lisbon in 1975. He read Philosophy and studied Journalism and Creative Writing in London and New York. In 2001 he was the recipient of the New Authors Prize. He has published six novels: O Livro dos Homens Sem Luz (2004); Hotel Memória (2007); As Três Vidas (2008), winner of the José Saramago Literary Prize and shortlisted for the Portugal Telecom Prize in Brazil; O Bom Inverno (2010), shortlisted for the best Fiction Novel of the Portuguese Author’s Society and the Fernando Namora Literary Prize (the french translation, published by Actes Sud, was nominated for the European Literary Award); and Anatomia dos Mártires (2011), again shortlisted for the Fernando Namora Literary Prize. His novels have been published in seven countries, including France, Italy and Brazil. He also works as a columnist, translator, screenwriter and regularly teaches fiction workshops.

Dulce Maria Cardoso, born in Trás-os-Montes in 1964, is one of the most important literary voices in Portugal. She spent her childhood in Angola and returned to Portugal in 1975, shortly after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and Angola’s independence. She studied law, worked as a lawyer and wrote scripts for the cinema. The author has received numerous prizes for her literary work, such as the European Union Prize for Literature 2009 for Os meus sentimentos and the Portuguese PEN Prize 2011 for O Chão dos pardais. O retorno, her latest novel, has been awarded the Special Prize of the Critics 2011 in Portugal, and was selected as Book of the Year 2011.

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Le Bris in France – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/le-bris-in-france-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/le-bris-in-france-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Mon, 20 May 2013 13:38:50 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4733 © Michel Le BrisThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Michel Le Bris

First presented at EWWC St Malo, France


Michel Le Bris keynote text: “The Future of the Novel”

What is the future for the novel?  A very dark one, and perhaps none at all, a view expressed with grave concern by the most highly regarded critics at a time when we all sense that we are entering, with the new century, a period of momentous change.  How could we fail to perceive that the new era brings with it a new sensibility and fundamental changes in our mental bearings? Standing on the threshold of a new century…Fear not: I speak of course to the dying days of the 19th century and the start of the troubling 20th century.  In 1891, Jules Romain had prophesised the ‘end of the novel form’. The same year Ludovic Halévy agreed, ‘All novel genres have been exhausted’. Edouard Rod then added, ‘The novel has no future’. In 1905 Jean Lorrain observed, ‘The French novel is dead; killed by journalism.’ Maurice Leblond, the very same year, qualified the verdict, saying ‘the novel was in its death throes’, ‘a victim of these industrial times when the launch of a book is not dramatically different from, say, the launch a new cocktail, or quinine drink’. Or, as Lucien Maury was to claim in 1907, it had fallen victim to ‘parisianism; snobbism, a mix of cruel and light irony, dryness of sentiment and moral scepticism’.

In short, as Camille Audigier railed in 1911, we have had enough of these ‘adulterous mondaines and swooning neurasthenics’, enough of this ‘agitation and theatricality’, chimed in Louis Bertrand in 1912.  It seemed as if there was nothing left to rejoice over. Gide, when asked by a major newspaper in 1913 to name his ten favourite French novels, wondered if French letters could even lay claim to the novel as a form.

This long preamble is in fact intended to urge us all to take an optimistic view: all of this took place a century ago, and we are still here.

We continue to ponder, question and argue just as passionately as we did then, often in the same terms.  So much so that one could hold that the novel form thrives in times of crisis, and that concern over its future is a sign of its good health…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Indeed it was then that some new voices emerged: Marcel Schwob, discovering the work of Stevenson ‘in the flickering light of a railroad lamp’, found what was might be expected of the times : an adventure novel that wove together the ‘crisis of the inner and outer worlds’ ;  Camille Mauclair saw in it the Novel of Tomorrow, free from social determinism à la Zola and individual psychology à la Barrès ; André Gide discovered Conrad and undertook to translate Typhoon, in 1913 Jacques Rivière published his spectacular ‘Adventure Novel’ in three instalments in NRF, in the form of a manifesto.  Then came Plon’s ‘Feux croisés’ collection, Stock’s ‘Cosmopolitan Cabinet’ and ‘Scandinavian Library’.  So that just when many were lamenting the novel as a lost cause, French readers were able to discover, in rapid succession, the likes of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Hamsun, Kafka, Henry James, Kipling, James Joyce, Pirandello, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Conrad – in other words, proof of the amazing ability of fiction to relate the world in the very process of becoming.  A new generation of French writers followed, many of them travel writers, keen to take to the road.

One might wonder if it is not precisely in periods of crisis and profound change that fiction deploys its full power. Suffice it to think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. The debates and controversies are strangely familiar; they took place a century ago, but ring just as true today. So there are grounds for optimism.

But what precisely can we be optimistic about? If the talk is about the Internet, digitisation or the programmed obsolescence of paper, it is always predicated on the assumption that the globalised market leads to fatal outcomes.  There are writers who, having initiated these debates in other festivals, have gotten bogged down in them. I know that the digital revolution will have an impact on the form of works through the new opportunities it creates – in terms of images, sound, branching, interactive media just to name a few – not to mention  the huge potential it holds for places like Africa where books struggle to survive.

As we know, new literary forms are emerging, notwithstanding the medium of production, whether paper or digital; these are made up of a blending of previously separate genres – fiction, storytelling, essays –in a shifting and dynamic balance, as if the ability to switch between genres compensated for the ever-present risk of the others failing to deliver. Back in 1992, when I was director of the ‘Voyageurs’ (Travellers) collection with the Payot publishing house, we published John MacPhee, the pioneer of a new genre that would become known as ‘creative nonfiction’, and that has finally, it seems, been discovered in France.  There was an extensive session dedicated to creative non-fiction yesterday. This, I believe, shows just how important these developments are. However, and this might come as a surprise, as important as they may be, I believe they are secondary, in that they come after what is essential. What I mean by essential is the ability to perceive what is at stake in novel writing, therefore, to understand why the novel form is more necessary today than ever before.

In 1990, when I created the Etonnants Voyageurs Festival, which owes its name to a well-known Baudelaire poem, it was survival instinct on my part : I opened a space in which I, as a writer, could breathe freely, standing in resolute opposition to the literary fashions that were then ruling over the French literary scene: both an avant-garde ideology that postulated that literature had but one object: itself, thus reducing it to nothing but formal play – a play on words, and also the other vogue of marvelling in the contemplation of one’s own navel as the one and only centre of the world. As for me, I wanted to assert that never has literature been as strong, as alive and as necessary as when it has taken on relating the world.

A world was disappearing, this I felt with great intensity, as my generation had dreamed of ‘doing away with the old world’.  I lived very intensely through the lovely days of May 1968 in Paris.  The shock waves of this movement, that took various forms and acquired a global dimension, had shaken the whole edifice, toppling the ideologies that the reigning thinking gurus claimed covered ‘the whole range of thought’. It carried our most trusted reference points and most of our certainties away– save for one that led to the birth of Etonnants Voyageurs: that only artists and writers can delve into the unknown and give it a voice. Thus it always is. The pundits had failed to foresee the events of May 1968 – remember the infamous words of the most famous editorialist from Le Monde, ‘France is bored’, a pronouncement made just 13days before the start of the events –  yet the movement had  already been in the works for a decade, through music, comics, science fiction and everything we call “counter-culture”. All the worthy pundits, be they specialists in politics, economy, and sociology et al. had been deaf and blind to it, as they are again today. Pundits are by definition specialists of what is already known, and are thus the least competent in perceiving novelty and breaks.  Better to listen to Bob Dylan that to read editorials in Le Monde if one wanted to understand the rising tide of the 60s!  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.

Possibly even more than one imagines. For the change we are undergoing is completely singular. We have thought for centuries in terms of stable categories: nation-states, territories, borders, foreign/domestic oppositions, families, communities, identities but also concepts. It may well be that the world to come very quickly forces us to ditch stable categories and to risk ourselves into moving thought, in other words, as the Indian philosopher Arjun Appadurai puts it, in Modernity at Large, forces us into thinking in terms of flows and no longer in terms of structures.

Flows of population, whether voluntary or imposed, greater than ever the world has known, flows of capital, flows of images, flows of sounds, flows of information: we must acknowledge the fact that they have overwhelmed all the structures which up to now attempted to contain or regulate them. They are followed by fantastic cultural collisions: a veritable maelstrom in which an old world expires while a new one is being born, the outlines of which we can hardly perceive, even though we know it will force us to rethink our mental coordinates. It is becoming vital for individual and collective imaginations both to get back to centre stage, in terms of power of creation.

We are entering a world in which it is not exaggerated to say that someone born into a culture will be led to live in another, or that a second generation immigrant will be torn apart between two worlds or two cultures. In fact this can occur within one’s own country, thanks to the acceleration of transfers of rural populations with traditional cultures to tradition-crushing, family-rending megalopolises, which in their turn are also sources of new social behaviours and new cultures- in short a world in which imaginary, flowing, perpetually renewed plural communities will be born, will constantly change and will disappear. But it is also a world in which everyone, standing at a crossroads of multiple identities, will find themselves forced to invent a “personal story” in order to make sense of themselves, which will make a coherent whole of this multiplicity.

It is a dangerous world in which the imagination will be challenged, at the risk of hankering after nostalgic roots, be they real or fantasised, after illusory homelands, all the more murderous as they are disconnected from reality, after dreamt-of undivided communities, in which we can be “among ourselves”, delivered from the tragedy of history, when one wants to reject the new world with all one’s might, which, not far from us, is what they call ethnic cleansing or delusional identity wishes or genocidal mania.

But it is also a fascinating world in which creative fiction will play a central part, something that Arjun Appadurai appears to overlook in his essay, perhaps because of his perspective as a sociologist. For what is literature if not the creation of worlds, the crisscrossing of multiple voices, the questioning, in its very movement, of the certainties of identity? Of course, it is form, but contrary to conceptual thought, it is open, and therefore at the origin of “togetherness”. It stands at the crossroads of uniqueness and multiplicity and stubbornly tries to take up the gamble of nomadic thought- it is, in action, the very thought of flow. It explores a flowing space in which the inside and the outside become interchangeable and in which the self can deconstruct and reconstruct itself. Thus literature- and particularly the novel- stand more than ever at the core of what the world to come holds at stake.

Fiction is once again centre stage. It is striking that the social sciences and literature are tackling similar issues, after a period during which these disciplines attempted to displace literature, to take its place and place it behind bars.  Do we learn less from Conrad and Stevenson about the tropics than we do from Malinowski or about man in society from Proust and Chateaubriand than from Lévi-Strauss? Why do writers do a better job of telling us about the world than recognized anthropologists?  Alan Bensa and François Pouillon, both anthropologists, raise this question in their collective work titled Terrains d’écrivains (‘Land of writers’).  Sylvie Laurent, a historian fascinated by the TV series The Wire, writing for the magazine Esprit, asks: ’What if fiction were closer to the truth than the social sciences?’ An idea apparently appealing to sociologists, since David Simon, the author of the series, gets invited to lecture at Harvard. Why do psychoanalysts, whose knowledge is often tinged with arrogance, quote so liberally from literary works, although they are not writers? This is the question that the psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard asks in his book ‘Peut-on appliquer la littérature à la psychanalyse’ ? (Can literature be applied to psychoanalysis?)  It is almost as though literature holds a form of knowledge that psychoanalysis is eternally searching for but unable to reach – the very topic of another recent book on Freud and writers. In a book that just came out, fifteen young historians ponder the question ‘What are historians thinking about?’, working under the guidance of Christophe Granger. Well, about literature, of course, ‘to the point of obsession’, expresses with dismay a critic from Le Monde. It has taken on an obsessional dimension: through various colloquia – ‘History and Literature’ in Lyon, at the Collège de France, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) – while the journal Sciences humaines devoted a special issue to ‘Literature, window on the world’. Not to mention all the philosophers who have reflected on the power of literature, such as Pierre Cassou-Noguès, who takes it quite far, positing that  philosophy is fiction. Why is everybody all of a sudden so intent on the power of literature?

The fact that the social sciences, thrown into crisis as a result of the general state of upheaval in the world, are looking to the powers of literature is especially meaningful. We should head this, as it shows that the arrogant theories that allowed the social sciences to exist self-referentially, excluding the outside of world, are truly dead. And this brings us back to literature’s ability to relate the world.  I have no complaint: this has been my position since the Festival was created, and this is what led me to espouse the concept of world literature in 1993.

This is what led, in 2008, to the drafting, along with Jean Rouaud, Alain Mabanckou, Anna Moï, and Abdourahman Waberi, of a Manifesto for a French-language World Literature, signed by 44 writers.  This is what I have fought for since my first book came out in 1977, L’homme aux semelles de vent. This is what I have been fighting for starting as far back as I can remember…

It is not all about signs or systems of signs, contrary to what the gurus of structuralism tried so forcefully to drum into us. The unutterable exists. And literature exists precisely because the unutterable exists, as does humanity, with its acceptance of the other. If everything could be uttered – if everything were transparent, translatable, and exchangeable – everything would already have been told, and nobody would make a fuss about it. But the fact is: we have never stopped, wherever, whenever, in all places, in all cultures, from the beginning of times, to tell stories, to write stories. Such obstinacy makes one suppose that there must be some imperious necessity to this compulsion to approach the unutterable, to make it rise to the surface, to take us to the core of its mystery. We are, to quote Nancy Huston’s beautiful expression a “story-telling species”.

How strange is fiction. It is not truth, obviously. But neither is it untruth. Evidently, it says something – otherwise we would be indifferent, but not so,  we read, voraciously, we cannot be stopped, we are enthralled – something which cannot be said in any other way. Its figurative meaning cannot be reduced to literal meaning. If it could, fiction would be but an ornament, kid’s play, a waste of time. But we hold it as essential. When we finish reading a great novel, do we not have the feeling that it was delivering something unique about the world and about human beings? Perhaps even more: the feeling that it allows the perception of the unknown world to come, it gives it a face, it makes it inhabitable. It makes us discover the other in our selves.

Fiction is not truth. Neither is it untruth. Thus, it forces us to suggest there is another way of knowledge than the discursive: that of imagination: it forces us to think in terms of creative imagination. Science is deployed in the space of sameness, indeed it rests on the assumption that from a founding rule one can replicate experience perfectly. But how can we think of ‘the Other’, without reducing it to the likeness of ourselves, to the Same? The other is unknowable, but otherness can be met and embraced, and in so doing we discover the otherness within ourselves. And this we do through our imagination and the shifting interplay of fiction, and that is momentous indeed. This is where  the secret of our becoming human can be found; from here springs and grows our ability to ‘be together’, an infinitely richer path than the one established by a rule or law, for this is the very essence of common rules accepted by all.

If a work written several centuries ago in another culture can still move me, when the times that saw it come to life are long gone, and its context – of which I know nothing – has been abolished, it must mean that there is something in it which cannot be reduced to the conditions of its enunciation, something that is capable of overcoming death and the passing of time, and beyond the narrow confines of cultures, is capable of talking still to our present. Has it not been said that a true work of art can be recognised in that it has “passed the test of time”? But if there is transcendence in a work of art, it becomes obvious that it is due to a dimension of transcendence in its creator, due to a power in him – and therefore in his readers, that is to say in every man – that crosses over time and culture. And the power of works of literature is to continuously bring us back to this dimension within us that we tend to forget, caught up as we are in everyday life.

Perhaps our questioning about literature will appear futile to today’s great minds: they would have us believe that the time is now for ‘serious matters’. In their shadow theatres, they have attempted to bring back to life the old illusory recipes and tired slogans: in turn, let us not be afraid to assert that the ‘human poem’ we carry within ourselves and the richness of fiction is what brings us back to the essential in these chaotic times: this greatness in each one of us which producing and consuming have not yet exhausted; a power of creation, a verticality that is the very essence of being human. Our need for the novel is therefore as imperious and real as it has ever been!

We believe that no thought of the new times, no policy, and no philosophy will be worth anything if it not built on an idea which is vaster than mankind and which artists and poets invariably take us back to. In 1981 in an essay titled Le Paradis Perdu (‘Lost Paradise’), I wagered that ‘out of the ruins of the Theoretical Age a new Age of Fiction will be reborn’.  These words may not have been heard, but thirty years later I do not believe that I was wrong in making such a statement.

 Copyright: Michel Le Bris, 2013

 

 

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