Saturday: discussion between Georg Klein, Tim Parks and myself

Main theme: ‘Big Time’

Georg Klein’s keynote speech asked us to see the novel as a means of stepping away from the ever-faster whirring present. A magic rabbit-hole (or should that be wormhole?) down which we can plunge, and find ourselves in a deeper time which reminds us of the smallness of our lives. In this ‘big time’, he seemed to say, we can consider the larger questions of the human experience – what it is to be alive on this ball of rock still hurtling outwards through the universe. He was asking for the novel to persist as a philosophical tool that digs deep into perennial problems, and for it to stay away from the changing concerns of the present – away from superficiality, new technologies and fashions.

I liked the idea of ‘big time’ a lot. However, I believed there was no need for a conflict between the novel as a philosophical tool, and its engagement in the contemporary world. If philosophy is about the search for human happiness and meaning in our lives, then our current circumstances are always going to inform our philosophical questioning. I thought the novel could tap into ‘big time’ in order to answer questions posed by the present time, and said that, in the search for happiness and meaning, everything fundamentally returns to love.

Tim Parks believed that the whole obsession with timelessness was a Western phenomenon, and that non-Western cultures were not interested in whether stories were timeless or not. He pointed out that ego-driven heroes belonged to one particular literary tradition.

This opening discussion set what proved to be an enduring question throughout these twoBerlindiscussions: Does the novelist have any responsibility towards their readers? Other than showing them a good time, of course… do we want our work to be more than simply beautiful? Our discussion on the future of the novel therefore tied in quite closely with that other debate, ‘Should writing be political?’

The question of responsibility opened up a host of other questions, which we could only begin to tackle here. Such as: Can the novelist be in a position to give their readers the stories that, today, they might need? If these ‘necessary novels’ exist, what might they be like? Are they desirable? How, given today’s circumstances, could a single author be in a position to write this sort of book? Is the age of the novelist as a closeted artist nearly at an end? And – if the readership has changed (see Tim Parks’ interesting blog on this, below) – then how does that in turn affect the novelist’s responsibilities towards these readers?

Sunday: closed-door discussion with Georg Klein, Janne Teller, myself, and writers resident in Berlin or taking part in the ILB

Main themes: Authorship & Authorial Responsibility (am actually just going to focus on a small part of the discussion, as it was too huge to cover here)

Thomas Boehm (chairing) asked me what I thought of the possibility of a many-authored novel. I said I believed it was certainly possible, and nothing new given the precedent of fairy-tales – narratives that have no single author, and that exist in many versions, and which have persisted for centuries. I am a huge fan of fairy-tales and thought it would be quite exciting if we could create a modern equivalent. Thomas then mooted the possibility of a novel written by its readers. I wasn’t so excited by this idea as I thought it was already being done in the virtual reality setting of Second Life. The discussion moved back towards the social and political responsibility of the writer. I had argued the previous day for the growth of a multi-heroed novel, in order to combat the amorphous, many-headed antagonist of global corporate capitalism. I had proposed an alternative to the capitalist culture hero who seeks fulfilment in the private sphere. So Thomas asked me if this meant I would also advocate a multi-authored novel. I thought a multi-authored novel could work with a closed group who all were working from the same shared plan or principles (I was thinking of novels like ‘Q’ by the Italian authors’ collective known as Luther Blissett – but in fact it could work among writers living in different parts of the world from one another). This type of novel could co-exist with the traditional novel.

Xiaolu Guo spoke about the responsibility that the novelist has to speak for those who can not speak. She explained how she herself feels a responsibility for the dead: to speak for people murdered by the Chinese government atTianenmen Square, for example. She also spoke about how, when Western writers say they do not want to be responsible, it is perhaps because they live such nice lives.

I agreed with Xiaolu, and mentioned how great writers like Charles Dickens once exposed injustice, but that a writer living in London today, wishing to do the equivalent of exposing the workhouse, would have to go and spend time in the labour camps of the Free Trade Zones. The globalisation of our economy means that much of the greatest injustice in the world is just not visible to those of us writing in the West. We will only see it if we choose to see it – and even then, there is the practical problem of how we can find out the detailed truth about it, sufficiently to write a novel. For me, that’s where new technologies come in.

Janne Teller made some very interesting points regarding the neuroscience of the reading experience. Part of it was about literature’s dependence on the activation of the readers’ imagination. Novels are unusual among other art forms in that they don’t provoke any immediate sensory reactions. The text on the page is not arousing until it has been interpreted by the brain. The novel exists only when the reader transforms the words into images. In this process, the reader lives and truly feels the experiences, because they are happening wholly within their individual brain, drawing on their own personal experiences and memories to create this new imagined experience (whereas films present the experiences to our eyes, and remain externally realised). So novels widen our sense of life experience and insights, as well as strengthen our capacities for empathy and humanity. Janne also stated that the crux of the novel is love, re the continental term Roman arising from romance. Love is the defining human emotion and action.

Briefly, then, here are my thoughts on the future of the novel. Of course I do not dream of telling other writers what they should or should not write, or claiming this to be ‘the truth’. Simply my own feelings on the subject:

  • We live in a globalised market-driven society and culture, in which human dignity is subordinate to economic worth.
  • This system (like most mega-systems, whether Communist or Capitalist) is not conducive to the happiness of most human beings within it.
  • As a writer, I create stories in which people try to find happiness.
  • Therefore I find myself wanting to question the mega-corporatism of global capitalism within my writing – and so long as our democracies become increasingly corrupted by corporatism, and so long as inequalities keep on worsening within the current unjust economic system, then I imagine this will continue. Having addressed the problem in short stories and monologues, I am in the process of working out how to tackle it in a novel. The novel has unique demands in terms of narrative structure and heroes, which make it a particular challenge.
  • The only sure route to happiness is love. Not love of the quest-and-possession variety, but the kind of selfless love that enables people to transcend their egos. A sort of social love. I think this could partly be why crime writing is so appealing: because the detective is correcting an injustice on behalf of a victim with whom they have no personal connection; simply they are members of the same society. It could be argued that the crime novel is a love story of sorts. The detective is paid, so we can’t exactly call it altruism. Still, the detective hero cares about bad things happening and wants to put them right even though they are not themselves the victim, and nor are they related to the victim. Perhaps the detective could be called morally and emotionally altruistic, if not financially. I think the hero of the future novel could develop along these lines (for me!). And as I mentioned, I am also exploring multi-heroed novels. I think some of Kate Atkinson’s novels already head in this direction.

Thanks again to the International Literature Festival Berlin for inviting me to these discussions. It was a huge pleasure to be part of the discussion, and to hear the other points of view.

Sophie Cooke