Edinburgh Report 4: “I don’t want to suggest I’m not awesome”

Welcome to week two of book festival fun! The title comes from China Miéville who was in fact awesome in a number of events I saw in the past couple of days. But more on that later.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

It was back to the Writers’ Conference for sessions on Censorship Today with Patrick Ness and Chika Unigwe followed by The Future of the Novel with China Miéville and Janne Teller. My favourite part about all of the debates I’ve seen were the polemics delivered (you can find them and videos of the debates here). Patrick Ness told the audience that he was interested in talking about self censorship since, as a bunch of left wing writers, he assumed the majority were against state censorship in general. In an age of increasingly public opinions, he argued, there are things we disallow ourselves to say or topics we don’t express an opinion on out of fear of being misunderstood or misquoted. He argued that the internet has given rise to greater sectarianism and that voicing an unpopular opinion on one topic may cause you to be ignored on others.

Self censorship was picked up on by some young adult authors (Melvin Burgess and Keith Gray that I remember) in the audience who talked about having to be vetted by ‘the gatekeepers’, in this case parents, librarians, school systems, and the idea of the skill needed to negotiate these barriers while staying true to the story. This idea of negotiating was attacked by Kirsty Gunn who said that such things were important only if you had your ear to the market, implying that (or maybe actually saying, I can’t remember) authors should say what they want even if it wasn’t published. Not that this isn’t a valid idea, but what has really annoyed me is the idea, frequently voiced at the conference, that it is inherently more valuable to have a story that is accessible to a very small audience. How is it useful to anyone except yourself to have something sitting in your notebook that no one will ever read??

There were some interesting statements made by international authors on state censorship regimes, Xi Chuan described the complex and Kafkaesque situation in China that sees something is submitted to the censorship board assumed to need censorship while if it is just published it may get through. The focus as usual was on the novel which led to the interesting point that self censorship is easier to avoid in fiction by having a character say something, an option not available to poets, essayists etc.

It’s pretty common nowadays to hear people coming out against political correctness, to be considered noble for their lack of self censorship. It was great to hear Chika Unigwe and Ben Okri attack this position. Unigwe memorably said that “words are not innocent, words have power” while Ben Okri pointed out that people generally use the statement, “it’s not politically correct but…” to voice intolerant and harmful positions as if they were being brave.

*Sidebar: Junot Diaz informed the conference of the Arizona House Bill 2811 banning ethnic studies and particularly books by Latino authors and with Latino characters. The general outrage was harnessed by Ben Okri to work with the Conference on a statement against the bill which can be found here.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

The next session was wonderfully led by Janne Teller who was an excellent chair, posing questions to the audience and directing conversation. These conferences have sometimes been infuriating: while sometimes people come out with very interesting and insightful ideas, others come out with really inane comments. A continuing problem is that an interesting idea will be voiced, someone will respond, someone else will change the topic, the next person will wan to respond to the previous comment… The conversation is easily bogged down and I feel like smaller groups would create a more focussed and interesting conversation.

But anyway! China Miéville polemic posed some fascinating ideas for the future of the novel: guerrilla editors and ‘mixes’ of novels, a more communal form of writing, fixed salaries for authors and other such blasphemies. A really interesting idea which I think was misinterpreted by the crowd was Miéville suggestion that the “patina of specialness” needs to be removed from authors, the idea of the inspired writer possessing something above and beyond the average person, that their opinions are somehow more valid because of their job. This was raised in reference to bearing witness: Miéville said that authors were not the only ones to bear witness, that plumbers and bakers and electricians witness things too, to which Chika Unigwe, Ben Okri and Janne Teller responded that what was special about the experience of writers is the time they have spent in honing their craft and skill, to be able to tell the story in the best way possible. Kamila Shamsie also noted that, while many acted as witness, authors were in a particular position to have their account more widely disseminated.

Jackie Kay (who has said nothing but interesting things this whole conference) asked why novelists were so concerned with the death of the novel. Poets don’t talk about the death of the poem, she told us, so why is it that novelists are so insecure about their continuity? I think that’s really interesting. At the first conference I attended, Nathan Englander said: “The only thing that doesn’t scare me is what is the future of the novel because I both believe in the novel (that’s a) and b, if it’s going to die, let it fucking die. The photograph did not kill the painting and the moving picture did not kill the photograph…. It is about who is using the form and employing it.” Later that day Junot Diaz talked about the novel as coming from a time when people had way more time to both read and write. If the novel was invented today, he said, it would have one word per page. And yet people keep reading the novel and writing the novel and caring about what happens to the novel.

The very fact that we are still talking about these issues today, that these conferences are being attended all around the world, that newspapers are publishing summaries and the polemics themselves, shows that the novel is not dead. After my time at the festival I can tell you that I am very excited about the future of the novel.

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