My 2012 Writers’ Conference began with listening to two of the founders of the 1962 conference, John Calder and Jim Haynes, speak about their experiences 50 years ago at an early morning session at the book festival. Chaired by Charlotte Higgins the event set going several themes that would return throughout the day. The first was a somewhat coy fascination with the antics of the 62 conference; the drink, the heroin, the ‘naughtiness’ of the conference delegates. Alongside this, however, was a genuine appreciation of the ‘62 conference as being at the genesis of the counter-cultural revolution in Britain. Occurring three years before the famous 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading, the Edinburgh conference, with its heated debates on sex, homosexuality and internationalism versus localism, would really seem to have ‘put a bomb under Scottish literature’ (another day-long repeated phrase) and in so doing also lit the fuse for cultural change in the rest of Britain.

Before the session there’d been some discussion between today’s delegates as to what extent could a conference in 2012 hope to emulate its 50 year old cousin? What topics of debate could really spark such controversy now? Hadn’t the majority of writers moved towards a consistently centre-left territory that left little room for political dissent or argument in the debating chamber? Added to this was an awareness of the vastly different format and set-up of today’s conference. Far from a counter-culture gathering, wasn’t this year’s conference more of an establishment affair? Organised by the British Council (James Kelman’s reason for not attending and the World’s largest literary festival, the delegates would meet and discuss in a venue sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the architects of the UK’s recent financial disaster who remain, along with other UK banks, apparently impervious to the consequences of their actions. Unlike in ’62 the debates would not be confined to the event venue but would be broadcast live over the internet. In light of this would there be an element of self-censorship, knowing your polemic or retort would be instantly on the web and, therefore, out there forever?

With regards to the first concern, about how could today’s writers hope to ‘light a bomb’ without an explosive subject, John Calder, at the end of the morning event, offered some direction. Agreeing that the issues of the ‘62 conference were largely no longer issues today, John pointed out that contemporary society has plenty of its own issues for the delegates to tackle. In his eyes these were chiefly the reconciliation of the freedoms and rights of a diverse number of minority and ethnic groups and, with increasing unemployment and a widening poverty gap, an impending ‘crime wave and violent future.’ John hoped these issues would be debated at the conference, and beyond, before they came to define our second decade of the 21st century.

And so the first debate itself, ‘Should Literature be Political?’ Elegantly chaired by Elif Shafak, Ahdaf Soueif set the event going with a personal account of her engagement with the recent revolution in Egypt, touching upon a series of questions around the position and relationship of a novelist to a moment of political crisis. In an ever more connected world can a novelist ever not be engaged with the world’s political problems? If a novelist is caught in the maelstrom of events, can they ever hope to write fiction in an environment where the ‘truths are too obvious’? (According to Argentinean delegate Carlos Gamerro yes, they can – after the conference he cited the example of Rodolfo Fogwill’s novel Malvinas Requiem, written in four coke-fuelled days before the first soldiers even returned from the war) How does political fiction prevent defusing its own power, worth and effect by tipping over into political tract?

The need for literature to be, first and foremost, good literature above anything else became something of a consistent note in the debate, a consensus appearing to form around the idea that, yes, literature could be political, but through paying attention, rather than through authorial intention. Another recurring theme was the concept that of all forms of literature perhaps the novel was worst suited to political writing. Many of the delegates also write poetry, plays, films, and there was a gathering tide of agreement that these forms of literature were often better equipped to carry a political message, potentially with some effect, than the labour and time intensive novel. Personally, I’ve found this to be true. For some reason in my theatre work and poetry a political element is much more in the forefront of my mind. When writing fiction the story tends to lead me towards what I have to say, what I stand for. In poetry and drama the flow is somewhat reversed. Why this should be the case was a subject of discussion that was taken into the pubs of Rose Street after the debate, with several of us agreeing that perhaps it was because a poem or a play is a ‘performance’. In a play you can have ‘that’ speech, in a poem you can make ‘that’ statement or apply ‘that’ image and the form is more tolerant of the action than in a novel, in which authorial political intention all too quickly, in the intimate space of writer and reader, tends to become a didactic finger, wagging at you from the page.

Owen Sheers


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