See what I did there? But punning aside, I was really, really sad to leave Edinburgh and the Book Festival. My last day began with a wonderful session from Howard Jacobson, who is apparently a favourite with festival audiences. (They actually say that about a fair few people, including Dorris Lessing, Jackie Kay, Ian Rankin.) He was certainly popular with this audience and for good reason. Charming, witty, passionate and just a little bit cantankerous, Jacobson got the crowd laughing with an extract from his new novel, Zoo Time, which isn’t actually available anywhere outside of the Festival (yet). In our sneak preview we learned about the protagonist, Guy Ableman, an author with no readers, and his visit to an insulting reading group. Walking around the town, he steals a copy of his own book and his subsequent arrest causes some reflection on meeting his wife and mother-in-law. Set in the near future, Zoo Time explores Jacobson’s fears for the future of publishing in which everyone is writing but no one is reading anymore.
This is a subject close to Jacobson’s heart and he has plenty to say about trends in publishing: he is disgusted by praise such as ‘unputdownable’, ‘readable’, ‘page-turner’ that insults the intelligence of readers and promotes ‘easy reading’ over novels that are complex and interesting. He would be very worried, he told us, if a reader couldn’t put down his novel – he’d rather they put it down regularly to laugh, think about the issues it raises, write letters to the editor or talk about it with their friends. He insisted that he had no scorn for those who write but rather the atmosphere that books are received in. The unforgivable crime is not writing badly but being unable to distinguish between good and bad writing. “The novel itself is in rude health. But people don’t know how to read them.”
The host asked if it wasn’t strange to write a novel about a failing writer and publishing industry… as a follow up to his Man Booker prize winning The Finkler Question. Jacobson had a great response ready. He had problems publishing The Finkler Question – his American publishers didn’t like it and he had to change British publishers to get it out. He felt that this was the novel that, of all his unlisted novels, would certainly not be listed for the prize. “I was so never going to win the Man Booker prize that I can’t have won the Man Booker prize.” He told us of feeling that he was one step away from having to give up novel writing and decided that Zoo Time would be his swan song, giving voice to all the problems he had with the publishing industry. And then he won. But the ease with which he could now get speaking engagements and the number of his books being sold filled him with “a retrospective bitterness” so that he felt a real passion to return to the subject of the failing writer.
Jacobson would have been a great addition to the International Writers’ Conference, he had loads to say on the future of the novel. He was specifically annoyed about the idea of people making editing mixes or tinkering with his writing. Jacobson felt that China Mieville misunderstood the “authority” of the novel (I also don’t understand exactly what he meant by that) but he did echo Mieville’s later sentiments that authorial beliefs and intentions were largely meaningless. He gave the example of Anna Karenina in which Tolstoy had intended to condemn an adulteress and instead created a beautiful and sympathetic portrait of a woman. He confessed that he felt bad about how much he enjoyed these events when, really, we shouldn’t care at all about what he had to stay. But everyone did and I would definitely be happy to hear him speak again.
My final session was comparatively disappointing but mostly because hosts tend to ask inane questions of the young adult authors in the sessions I’ve been too. It was all, “What are the themes in your book? If you weren’t a writer what would you be? How do you get over writer’s block? Where do you get your ideas from?” Teenagers are younger people, not idiots. Anyway when Katie Dale was asked what kind of books she liked to read she responded with “books with real life issues like Jodi Picault” and that just lost me entirely.
I’ve had such a good time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was entertaining and intellectually stimulating and I’ve met some wonderful people: authors, staff, audience members. It was a chance to meet readers and writers on a huge scale when it’s normally such a solitary activity and there was a wonderful sense of community. The Book Festival also gave me an idea of the huge publishing industries, writers’ centres, festivals and events that exist outside of Australia and made me want to be a part of it. I hope that I’ll be able to go back next year.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts! I’ll probably be writing a bit less for the next couple of weeks but once I’m back in Melbourne (mid September) I’ll get back to posting more regularly on 1001 List books and all my other reading activities.