It’s hard to sum up the voices of a discussion, to reflect the texture of an argument that has been sometimes robust and clear and at other times inchoate and pained.
Elif Shafak, in her opening remarks at this Conference, gave us the metaphor of the orchestra – that we might all play our own notes, loud or soft, on our own instruments. “We are multitudes” said Ali Smith on Day Two, paraphrasing Whitman and making us more multitudinous in the process. And indeed sometimes this tent has felt like the Tower of Babel as all of us clamour and strive to defend that thing we do and the way we do it. Of course this is hard.
Yet all the time, though it often seemed that we writers were inhabiting more of a business world than an literary one, as we talked more often about publicity and publishing and marketing than we did about our craft, and though we are all of us different, with different aims and methods, working within different constraints and with different ideas about what good writing is, still we are all of us united in our real business – that of conveying from our minds to the page the sometimes burdensome contents of our imagination.
“This novel, this something” said Laszlo Krasznahorkai last night, when discussing his work. Well, that “something” has been the subject of our discussion this afternoon.
China Miéville gave us an acidly intelligent, hilarious and deeply provocative account of how we might imagine the novel’s “possibilities, desiderata and dreaded outcomes” and challenged us to think differently about the special role of the artist in society and the reification of certain texts and approaches to literary ownership. Nothing is going to kill off good books, he said, so why be so bourgeois about what becomes of them – whether or not they are ripped and mixed and changed…”They are as tenacious as a cockroach”. We have nothing to fear of the future, he concluded – save our own inability to think imaginatively and expansively.
The audience came back with a range of responses to this: some concerned for the consequences of making work in the different ways he was proposing – sharing, editing, transmogrifying – others electrified and energised by the “novel” approach which defines the word’s very essence. If we share everything we lose everything – said one. Collaboration has always existed in oral culture – said another.
There were issues about individuality and the role of the witness – and whether these could be accommodated by the new strategies proposed. We need a sense of locus in our work, and the time given to our craft that will let the stories be told in the best possible way. How can this be in the new worlds China was suggesting? But it’s exciting, came back another response: for just as film razed the forest in which the novel used to live, as spoken so eloquently by Calvino, so we need not fear the novel’s ability to reinvent itself.
The debate turned and changed. Copyright and the role of libraries, reading time in the internet age, a proposal for high profile writers helping less established names, the concept of a writer’s salary that would be fixed the same for all…
So that finally, in an atmosphere that also held a sense of gloom and foreboding, it was felt by some, about the frailty of the existing status of literatures, it might be wise, by way of conclusion, to remind ourselves of words spoken by Stephen Spender at the original Writers Conference in 1962. He was responding to remarks made by Trocchi about the failure of the novel to reflect society and of its inevitable end.
“I am not saying this maliciously” Stephen Spender begins, but “everything that has been said has been said in 1905…It led to a completely dead end and in fact I think the history of modern literature is the attempt to recover from this point of view”.
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