An End, But Not The End
The Edinburgh World Writers Conference finished on Tuesday, bringing to a close five days of fascinating and sometimes controversial debate. The entire Conference was live-streamed in over forty countries and was trending on twitter throughout. Fifty authors attended the event that was inspired by the World Writers’ Conference of 1962, held in Edinburgh, which launched the career of Beat writer William Burroughs and became the basis of the modern book festival. Now the discussion of fifty years ago has been rekindled, with the Conference topics mirroring those of the original: should literature be political, is content or style more important, is there such a thing as a national literature, censorship, and the novel’s future.
Each day featured a keynote speaker on the topic, followed by a brief question and answer from the chair, and then debate was opened to the floor. These debates were lively, featuring impassioned calls to arms, quiet reflection and a fair amount of humour; the perfect combination of emotion and intellect for such an important conversation.
Day 1: Should Literature be Political?
Ahdaf Soueif, Egyptian novelist and witness to the revolution, launched the Conference with her keynote address, speaking about the difficulty of writing novels during crisis. After listing many of the powerful stories she had come across in Egypt since the revolution began, she said that though there are so many wonderful stories in times like these, it was not within the novelist’s power to allow any one story to develop into a novel and remain engaged with the real life surrounding them. She said:
"You the citizen need to be present there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent at the time of crisis, I believe, is to tell the stories as they are. To help them to achieve power in this world as reality and not fiction."
But she hoped that soon fiction would return to Egypt. After her address, the conversation was opened to the floor, itself filled with writers of all genres and backgrounds, and continued for well over an hour. Denise Mina called crime writing – a genre she is well known for – a privilege, when viewed against a political background of crisis and suffering. John Burnside argued that what literature really needed to be was not simply political but dissident, rallying against the status quo. The day was drawn to a reluctant close by chair Elif Shafak, who had spoken at the day’s start about how nervous she had been the night before, because the Conference promised to be so important.
Day 2: Style vs Content
The next day, Scottish author Ali Smith offered a lyrical keynote address in which she defended Ulysses against recent criticism by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. She defended the novel’s diversity and said that everyone in the world will find themselves, “one way and another, when it comes to the novel, content.”
When the discussion was opened to the floor Paulo Coelho was defended, and then the discussion moved on to what writing means in different countries, with German author Matthias Politycki saying: “In Germany, if you are unreadable everyone thinks you are a genius.”
EL James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy was at the heart of the debate, with Patrick Ness pointing out that James, as an author, “has the ear of more people than everyone in this room put together.” Several authors referred to her books as “dangerous”, though there was debate on whether it was the style or the content that was most threatening. For the second day in a row, the Edinburgh World Writers Conference was trending on twitter.
Day 3: Is There a ‘National Literature’?
Scottish authors Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh led this discussion on the impact of national identity on the novel. In the session on the same topic in the 1962 conference, Alexander Trocchi nearly sparked a brawl by attacking Scottish literature, but this day’s debate was more physically – if not intellectually – calm. Welsh in his address was interested in how national literature in Scotland had changed, and presented an eloquent treatise on the dangers of corporatisation and globalisation for writers. He said: “the current era of globalization has, in some ways, strained the relationship between a national-cultural identity and a nation state”, and praised Scottish authors whose work “clearly could not have been written by non-Scots.”
When the discussion opened to the floor, China Miéville challenged much of what was being said in favour of local narratives, and the idea that novels had to be either local or universal, asking, “Why is the aim to see our own lives reflected? That might be a great thing to do but surely literature can also be fantastic by reflecting nothing we have seen before? Completely shocking and astonishing us?” This was met with applause and cheers.
Day 4: Censorship Today
Patrick Ness’ keynote address was about self-censorship and the fear writers feel in the information age, where no comment can be revoked and the internet provides a platform for infinite misquoting and misrepresentation of their own views. He was most interested in not people should be able to write whatever they want, because he believed everyone agreed that this was morally the case, but on whether they should take advantage of that ‘freedom’.
The debate on the floor moved from the personal to the political, with one participant saying that though he was glad that in Germany the sale of Mein Kampf was censored, he was unclear on how to articulate when it was correct for the government to take on the role of the censor.
Author Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic told the audience of a law in Arizona that has effectively banned Latino literature from public schools because the teaching of Latino studies was labeled divisive by the state. “They claim that the books themselves are creating a racist climate. And this is something that has occurred and flown under the radar of a lot of writers and a lot of readers,” Diaz told the audience, his story provoking anger in the audience. The response of the conference was a resolution to draft a statement condemning the law, for all writers present to sign. The final statement, released the next day, stated: “We abhor this racist law and the infringement of the rights of readers and writers.”
Day 5: The Future of the Novel
Science fiction author and academic China Miéville called the novel “as tenacious as a cockroach” in his keynote address. His speech was provocative, suggesting a digital future in which literary DJs might mash-up books to create better, mixed novels, and he suggested that in order to safeguard the future of writing a minimum wage for authors might be introduced to allow struggling writers to work full-time. He called for the undermining of the role the market in writing by acting more as a collective and democratising literature.
The debate from the floor was varied, with many inspired by Miéville’s ideas, but children’s writer Mevin Burgess insisted that storytelling was not and never could be interactive, because “someone has to tell the story.” A teacher from Denmark spoke about how difficult it was to get children to read and chastised the writers, saying: “I think you should discuss how you should get readers rather than how you should get paid.” Another contributor reminded the conference that entire movements had come and gone in literature and left little impact, proving how difficult it is to predict how the novel really will develop.
The Conference may have finished in Edinburgh, buts its journey is just beginning. Next stop is the Berlin International Literature Festival, and then on to Cape Town and other cities around the world, in a tour that will take a year and visit fifteen cities in all. Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said: “It has been an extraordinary week. We have started something here in Edinburgh that will reverberate around the world, both in the formal Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference sessions at other Book Festivals, but also in conversations on every occasion that writers gather together.”
The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference is a major programming partnership between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council and is supported by The Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, Creative Scotland, the City of Edinburgh Council and EventScotland. Watch the Edinburgh debates and follow the international events over the next 12 months on www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org