Edinburgh Report 3: Style vs Content

Another day, another exciting round of authors and events. And a day of the nicest authors ever!

I started my day in the Spiegeltent, its pastel stained glass windows and velvet pitched roof creating a lovely glow over my morning. Kirsty Gunn and Elliot Perlman both read from their latest books and then answered questions from their host and the audience. They were very different readings: Gunn’s story was musical and rhythmic, her book The Big Music based on the Pibroch form of traditional bagpipe music, while Perlman’s The Street Sweeper reading was much more conversational, complete with American and Jewish accents. While the two novels seemed quite different, the authors found plenty of common ground, discussing their inspirations (the Scottish countryside and traditional music and the unlikely friendships of New York living) and talking form (a common discussion at the festival so far).

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

Next up was a session of the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, a recreation of one held in 1962. Our topic was ‘Style vs. Content’ and it was chaired by the adorable Nathan Englander who said awesome about fifty times and boasted a sparkling and brilliant keynote address by Ali Smith. You should definitely read it now. She told me afterwards (that’s right, I was discussing literature with Ali Smith, who was lovely by the way) that she was disappointed with the discussion, especially with the amount of time wasted talking about a certain erotic best-seller. Many authors pushed the superiority of difficult style, the benefits of a small readership over popular success and a reliance on content alone as a sort of selling out, Patrick Ness bravely and intelligently asked what was wrong with meeting readers halfway, that wonderful literature did not have to be inaccessible. The topics ranged from the measurement of success, what readers want (China Miéville said that instead of trying to write what readers want authors should make readers want what they write, but he said it more eloquently), the chain of influence from author to author and across art forms, and frequently came back to the pressure of market forces. Although some interesting points were raised, the discussion ultimately wandered away from the question of style and content and ended up going in circles.

*UPDATE: You can find some great quotes from this and other Writers’ Conference arguments over here including the full China Miéville one.*

Then it was Nathan Englander again together with Junot Díaz who have

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

apparently known each other since they were in ‘short pants’. First up Englander read from his short story ‘Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side’ from his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. It’s winning lots of prizes, probably because it’s awesome (as Nathan would say) Read it! Anyway Junot Díaz then read from This Is How You Lose Her. Díaz was incredibly eloquent, a fact Englander frequently pointed out, and they had a great back and forth. At one point Englander stopped to say how great it was to hang out and discuss writing because it’s not something they talk about in real life. They talked about the negative space and possible perfection of a short story versus the immersion and world building of the novel, the unfortunate need to categorise, the failure of realism to deal with extreme topics, the influence of social media on concentration and working.

I got to chat to both of them after the show and they were both super fun and interesting and friendly. Actually I keep saying that about pretty much everyone so I’ll have to conclude that authors are just generally nice people? Anyway there were some great sessions and discussions and I’m excited to go back for more.


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