Q: You’ll be chairing the debate at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference on the future of the novel. What do you think novels will look like in 50 years time?
A: I think the novel will still exist both in the format of the printed book and as e-books, and probably in the form of other new media which we can’t even imagine today.
Q: There are predictions for more interactive novels to be a thing of the future. Do you think this is a good thing for literature?
A: Interactive novels to me are just akin to computer-games – it’s something else than the novel as we otherwise know it. The moment the reader can choose his own path for the characters, the novel no longer transfers the sole spirit of the novelist, so it’s a whole different thing. In itself it’s not a problem that some people will want interactive novels. But it’s no substitute for the novel.
Q: There has been talk before of the future of the novel being under threat from other forms of entertainment which have largely proved untrue. To what extent do you think the novel has a long-term future?
A: Human beings need stories and we need fictionalized stories as a way to comprehend the world we live in. From its earliest conception, novels have been a space of intimacy; of transferring and sharing insights between the writer and the reader. And I believe the need for such silent transfer of intimacy will continue to exist, and perhaps even grow in our fast-paced technological world. Particular the slowness of the novel, which seems to be at a disadvantage compared to faster media today, will I believe turn out to be its strength in the long run. Human beings need slowness. It takes time to digest life, and that’s what novels help us do.
Q: As part of the EWWC we’ll also be exploring the issue of censorship. Your Young Adult novel Nothing was initially banned in your nativeDenmark but has now gone on to win awards and be a bestseller. Why do you think your book was banned and what were your feelings on the need for censorship?
A: Initially it was just a shock to me and I couldn’t understand why ‘Nothing’ was banned. It has no sexual content, no foul language, and compared to computergames, crime novels or vampire fiction, there’s very little violence in the book. It took me a long while to realize that it’s the fear of the questioning of all that we normally take for granted in society that made some adults so uncomfortable with the book that they wanted it banned.
Unfortunately it says a lot about the state of European thinking today that a book could be banned solely for questions it asks!
I don’t believe in censor ship, but I do believe in responsibility. And as authors, we do have a responsibility for what we’re putting in the hands of other people. As long as one searches for a deeper universal human truth through the literature, I don’t believe it can ever be dangerous or the readers. Albeit it might be so for those in power!
Q: On the issue of censorship a book being banned often makes people want to read it more. If people are naturally curious about banned works what do you think the point of banning is in modern society where often anything can be accessed online anyway?
A: I certainly wish it had never been banned. The strong reactions against the book were very disturbing for me for a long time. There were articles in the newspapers that young people might commit suicide if they read this book! I had no idea how to deal with it. I just felt like crawling under my desk and stay there. I hadn’t written ‘Nothing’ to provoke, but because the questions about the meaning of life that my protagonist Pierre Anthon and his class mates asks, were my own questions. And for me it was a very natural story to write, so the strong reactions truly took me aback – I couldn’t understand why people reacted so virulently.
The existential questions of life have been around for as long as human beings have existed – I didn’t invent them, just posed them in my way. That this could create such a furore and the way I got ‘beaten up’ for it, really threw me off for a while. It was like I disowned the book – I couldn’t talk about it, because I became so emotional.
Perhaps that’s why I’m so very happy in recent years to have seen the book become not only accepted but also much appreciated by many readers of all ages and all around the world. I still get so grateful and happy every time a person writes or come up and tell me that the book has touched them in some special way.
Q: You worked for the United Nations previously and are interested in international politics. To what extent do you think literature should be political?
A: I think literature is inherently political. Even the most apolitical poem about nature expresses a sensation about life, a way of prioritizing values, which at some level carry a philosophical and thus also a political statement. Since literature can change the way people see themselves and the world, literature can naturally also impact politics more directly.
However, it must be literature first, meaning that the choices made for the characters, setting etc. in the novel must be true to that gut feeling of it, no matter whether it goes against the political or moral opinions of the author or not. The ‘true literary novel’ might still have a political impact, but it’s something beyond the wishes or goals of the author. Only in essays, do I believe the writer can be directly political and not lose out as to literature.
Literature – to my mind – is a way of searching for and communicate a deeper truth. And if the writer tries to interfere with the ‘truth’ that his literature is telling, then it simply stops being literature and turns into a political or pedagogical project… and the reader can sense it immediately.
Q: After Edinburgh, the conference will be visiting countries around the world. Which countries perspective are you most looking forward to hearing about?
A: The parts of the world I know less, like China and Central Asia. But also the Arab world, because they are undergoing such immense changes with the current revolutions, that I want to hear what the writers and intellectuals think, how they see the future, and how they’re dealing with these changes.
Janne Teller chairs ‘The Future of the Novel’ debate on Tuesday 21st August.
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