We are writers, not physicists but even so we all know that there is such a thing as ‘Conference Time’ which moves differently to Time.  48 hours in Conference Time is either an eternity or lifelong.  If you’re bored or isolated it’s an eternity.  If you’re making new friends or re-meeting old ones who you last saw during another stretch of Conference Time you quickly enter the feeling that these friendships are not merely destined to be lifelong but that they’ve already become lifelong.   Small wonder then that the atmosphere of Day 3 of the EWWF felt so different to the politeness of Day 1 or the undirected punchiness of Day 2.

The topic under consideration played a part, of course. ‘A National Literature?’, discussed in Edinburgh, was always going to get some sparks flying. Irvine Welsh’s keynote speech equated internationalism with the global marketplace which is resistant to difference and exists to convert art into entertainment – and there followed an attack on the upper-middle class Englishness of the Booker prize.  But the first sparkiness that followed from the writers came not in direct response to this but instead, from Owen Sheers, in the form of a rebuke for all the talk of Scottishness and Englishness which left out the very people who form the keynote speaker’s last name. That polite day 1 feeling was a thing of the very distant past already.

When Ian Rankin asked the audience for their questions rebellion broke out in the ranks of the writers, several of whom could be seen (I was sitting near the back with an excellent view of proceedings) turning to each other and then to Carlos Gamerro who had, during those hours of Conference Time, come to fill the necessary role of Spokesperson for the Disaffected.  We aren’t here for a Q and A with Irvine Welsh, he pointed out; this is a Writers’ Conference for the 50 invited writers to discuss questions with each other.  Whereupon someone shouted out that he should ask people who paid for tickets what they want to hear.

It was, for me, one of the most interesting and potentially fraught moments of the Conference, a clear signal of one of the most dramatic changes that has taken place in the 50 years since the first writers conference where 2000 members of the audience gathered to listen to the writers, and their written questions and comments were sent down to the chair who chose which ones to read aloud.  It’s a safe bet that many of those 2000 had never been in proximity to any of those writers before, and knew nothing about them beyond their books, and perhaps some interviews. Now we live in a world where you can follow writers on Twitter, watch them on YouTube, visit their websites, find seemingly anything they’ve said or written or that’s been written about them online, and of course see them at festivals in more towns around the world than anyone would want to count. Writers, not merely their books, have become accessible, available in a way that’s quite new. Add to this a Consumerist argument – ‘I paid for this so I should get what I want from it’ – and you have a dynamic between writers/audience which could itself be the subject of a heated debate.

Many of the most interesting and heated conversations of the Conference take place outside the 2 hour long officially-designated discussion time – and one of the issues that has come up repeatedly  is related precisely to this question of writers and readers/audience members (and it’s telling that some of the writers call them ‘audience’ and others call them ‘readers).  Within the 2 hours, should the audience/readers be given equal time to the writers, or at least more time than they’re presently been given, to ask their questions? Should the 2 hours be reserved entirely for the 50 writers, many of whom have travelled from far away and given up their working days to be at the Conference?  Should the writers all be seated in one block together or scattered through the hall, sitting among the audience/readers with no distinction between the two groups? My own feeling is that I’m always more interested in hearing from those who are practitioners of the art form that’s under discussion than those who appreciate and are engaged with the form from the outside.  But it’s more complicated than that, of course, because the audience is not only readers, but also other writers, booksellers, people who were present at the 1962 conference and can offer insight into the way conversations have shifted.  And why wouldn’t we want to hear from them?  The truth of it is, even though 48 hours of Conference Time are either an eternity or lifelong, sometimes the 2 hour sessions of public debates just aren’t long enough.

Kamila Shamsie


Please join in the discussion below. You can sign in using your existing Twitter, Facebook, Google or Disqus accounts by clicking on the icons. Alternatively, submit a name and email address to set up an ad-hoc account for your comments..