On the opening day of the Conference, there was a mood of solemnity and a politely suppressed hysteria of expectation. Will we live up to the legendary 1962? Will we talk to each other or sulk in our seats, the anxious introverts that we supposedly are? Does anyone know what’s actually happening? Some of the delegates, or maybe that was just me, had a lost look about them. Others were biding their time, getting over jet-lag, mulling over ideas, and observing those brave souls who stood up and spoke first – or last.
Thank god that’s behind us now, with the help of some good wine and unplugged evening chat. Day Two made space for something far more authentic: ideas, personalities, laughter – and not just of the nervous variety.
And so after politely surviving ‘Should Literature be Political’, it was time for ‘Style versus Content’. Why the word versus, I don’t know, just as Ali Smith couldn’t understand the prescriptive word ‘should’ in the context of writing.
Nathan Englander bounced onto the stage and instantly charmed the audience with both the style and the content of his introduction. ‘Fiction is a whole universe,’ he said, ‘Style and content don’t separate’. So that was versus taken care of in the manner it deserved. Ali Smith then delivered, in a virtuoso tango of style and content, a love letter to literature which had a physical effect on the audience (shortness of breath, a general dizziness) and nearly caused a short-circuit in the collective brain with its high voltage.
Yes, I’m sorry to report that Ali Smith said everything worth saying on the subject in a way that couldn’t be outsaid. So it was no surprise that the discussion which followed was not so much a discussion as a series of statements from writers and audience on a range of issues that clearly signalled the anxieties and dilemmas of working writers today. What came up was important and honest, if not always coherent.
Are we alienating potential readers with too much style, wondered Alan Bisset? No, said China Mieville, because you can’t second-guess readers, and anyway, added Ali Smith, we all read at different levels and therefore need all kinds of books; there is room for all of us as writers and readers. A reader in the audience cheered us up and was cheered in turn when she confessed that she likes all kinds of styles, so the more the merrier, was her request.
It’s impossible, in 2012, to talk about any aspect of writing without talking about the market. A literary discussion that pleasurably strayed into personal luridness was a luxury our predecessors enjoyed back in 1962, but today we are, all of us, preoccupied with what John Burnside referred to as ‘the totalitarian authority’ of the market. Janne Teller described, in a series of eating disorder images, ‘the food chain’ of the book market, and how that affects (conservatively, in her and others’ view) the formal choices a writer must make in order to eat. Melvin Burgess on the other hand stressed that we have positive, rather than negative control over what stories we tell and how to tell them. I wanted to disagree with him and revisit Ahdaf Soueif’s view of how we don’t choose the story or the manner of its telling, but are rather drawn into it wherever the feeling is deepest. But I was too busy taking notes so I could deliver, eventually, a tatty summary of the discussion that we didn’t really need. What we need is to be able to face each other when we talk rather than stare at each other’s sweaty napes – difficult in the rigid, hierarchical amphitheatre we are cramped into. Asking for that lone roaming microphone is counter-intuitive – physically you are in the audience, but mentally you must behave as a participant.
Anyway, this is what kept surfacing: the anxiety of how to survive commercially while also thriving creatively and retaining your artistic integrity. The overall conclusion was: with difficulty. But, James Robertson insisted and many agreed, we must resist the pressure to repeat a commercial success. After all, Carlos Gamerro reminded us, Joyce was probably the only person who could actually read Finnegan’s Wake – a triumph of style over the necessity to eat.
One obvious way around all this is not to have any artistic integrity, or indeed any art in the first place, and the example that was repeatedly cited was, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Fifty Shades of Gray. The most optimistic pronouncement was made by the manager of Blackwells Bookstore whose experience tells her that often it takes something like this – a book written for people who don’t love books (my definition, not hers) – to lure them into the world of reading. Maybe.
I expect the question of market forces will keep cropping up in the days to come. Who knows, today – Is There a National Literature? (as someone with three nationalities, I hope not) – we may even come up with some new ideas. Or at least new mini-alliances, which is just as important.
It’s after all is said and we stretch our legs outside that the magic happens. It’s a 21st century kind of magic. Like the moment Carlos Gamerro sang with me an off-key tango in the hotel bar, or talking to Chika Unigwe about a Bulgarian-German author we admire, or meeting Xiaolu Guo of the Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, or drinking with John Burnside and Janne Teller until we can’t remember what country we’re in. Which is why the question ‘Is There a National Literature’ is not a question at all, but a provocation.
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