Meet Your Tournament of Books Co-Host

The Tournament of Books brackets have just been released so it is time to get some thoughts going and meet your new blogger, Steven! 

Wassup bitcheeees!  I’m writing this largely against my will but hey in return I am getting the return to me of WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY MINE  which is to say a Waterpik that hopefully doesn’t explode when I use it next time. (Edit: just to be clear, I didn’t steal his Waterpik, I’m just doing him a favour in return for this) What, I’m too lazy to floss!  I am Steven, brother of the writer of this here blog and the man, nay, champion, who introduced her to the Tournament of Books.  If I had to choose I’d take TV over books ANY DAY OF THE WEEK but since I don’t, here are the thoughts on this year’s TOB!


You guys, this year’s is the worst TOB!  CONTROVERSIAL!  But seriously, 2012 was a dud year for books.  I KNOW I KNOW I only read very few of them.  BUT ALLOW ME TO BE HISTRIONIC.  I’ve read half of this year’s selection, and while that may or may not be representative I have found it much less appealing than other years’ half selections that I read.  Last year we had The Sisters Brothers (The Best Brothers), Open City, The Sense of an Ending, The Cat’s Table and The Art of Fielding COME ONE.  This year it’s like we have 10 Marriage Plots (i.e. not very good books) (Edit: This is not a statement endorsed by this blog but rather a long term feud. See here.) But okies, to the questions:

What is your favourite book you’ve read so far?

Well obvs Bring Up the Bodies is the best.  Until I read The Round House just a couple o days ago it was the one shining star of the books I’ve read this year.  Seriously you guys it’s so good.  I know you know because everyone says so, but it really deserves all the accolades it’s been getting.  So good!  And yeah my other choice is The Round House, which is a beautiful, sad coming of age tale set on a Native American reservation told in a simple, laconic style and also I learned a whole lot about Native American people from it you guys!  Yeah so that was also really good.

As you know I adored Arcadia but another winner is Bring Up the Bodies. I always seem to forget about that one because I expected greatness and greatness was predictably delivered. As were the prizes.

Least favourite?

I so wanted to say Gone Girl, which actually isn’t bad but CERTAINLY doesn’t deserve some of the hype it’s got.  It’s an OK crime book!  Totes fun!  Not badly written!  THAT’S ALL.  Now certainly crime books should not be ostracised based on their genre.  Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore is very much a crime book but is also one of the best Australian pieces of fiction that I have read.  But also real talk Gone Girl just wasn’t that good yall!  But it WAS beaten to the least favourite by Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (who turns out to be a dude whaaaat).  This was a well written book about things I didn’t care about AT ALL.  All romance and Italy and stuff (and one particularly dire chapter set in Edinburgh that read like plot cast offs of the sad rich white people TOB classic A Visit From the Goon Squad.  But in a bad way).  Blech.  NOPE.  Don’t care that it was well written, it was a dud.

I’m actually quite enjoying Beautiful Ruins but your assessment of the Edinburgh chapter is super accurate. I reserve my special hatred for The Fault in Our Stars. “What?” I hear you say, “You gave that a pretty favourable review a while ago!” I know, but I am fickle like that. Also IT IS A BOOK FOR TEENS. IT IS NOT TO BE JUDGED ON THE SAME LEVEL AS A BOOK FOR GROWN UPS! It’s a good teen book and as such is better than a bad adult book. But it does not have the ambition, complexity or style of a good adult book. It’s easy to read, simplistically satisfying and emotionally manipulative. It should not be in this tournament. Also, while I have a thing for all things Trojan war, The Song of Achilles was not amazing.

Which first round match are you looking forward to? 

There are a bunch of rounds where I’ve read both books!  But also their bracket chart is so tiny!  Make a bigger chart guyys.  Oh I just noted the high res download underneath.  Soz buddies!  But OK.  I’m looking forward to (hopefully) the Round House CRUSHING Fault in Our Blahs (which I haven’t read but which super turns me off, also I am not a child).  Even though that bitch will pop right back up in the Zombie.  I’m not really super looking forward to the others this year (as mentioned).  A sad match will be Bring Up the Bodies against HHhH.  HHhH will undoubtedly be eliminated which is sad, because against less amazing competition it could have at least gone a couple of rounds.  It is MUCH better than Beautiful Ruins believe you me!

Unfortunately there are no rounds where I’ve read both books. Hopefully that will be rectified soon but as we divided up the list it was inevitable. Also Building Stories is too expensive and Ivyland is near impossible to get your hands on in Australia. Oh wait! I’ve actually read both Arcadia and How Should a Person Be? and I really hope Arcadia wins out but the buzz of How Should a Person Be? (Have you seen all the names blurbing it??) will probably unfairly crush my favourite.

Predictions?

Clockwise!  Yellow Birds will win the (Iraq) war (get it?) and go on to defeat May We TOB roosterBe ForgivenBuilding Stories over Dear LifeBring Up the Bodies will steamroller HHhHHow Should a Person Be? over ArcadiaSong of Achilles over Beautiful RuinsGone Girl over IvylandThe Round House over Fault in Our Stars and Orphan Master over Bernadette.  Building Stories will then take Yellow Birds (though Caity Weaver is a hilarious wildcard so we shall see [as if ‘we shall see’ and ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’ doesn’t apply for literally all the rest of these]), Bring Up the Bodies over How Should  Person Be?Gone Girl over Song of Achilles, Round House over Orphan Master.  THEN!  Round House over Building StoriesBring Up the Bodies over Gone Girl.  Then our two Zombies!  Fault and Gone Girl.  I know nothing about Natasha Vargas-Cooper (rule #1 is never do any research) but I super hope she hasn’t been drinking the cool aid and instead picks Round House over Fault.  Same thing goes for if it’s Round House vs. Gone Girl.  And actually same thing goes for the whole Zombie Round altogether, leaving the two best books of the TOB, Round House and Bodies to duke it out mano a mano (or ladyo a ladyo).  And then whoever wins, we win.  I reckon the backlash is going to hit Bring Up the Bodies hard throughout the TOB, especially in the comments sections on each day’s rounds, but it really is the best book.  So I’m hoping for it to win.  Second hope is on Round House.  If anything else wins (except for the stuff which I haven’t read AND won’t pre-judge like Building Stories or Dear Life) then I’m going to kill myself.  Like Patrick Swayze says in The Round House, ‘pain don’t hurt’.  Wait I might have a couple of things confused.

Like I said I have barely read half of the brackets and I’m pretty sure every prediction of mine last year was wrong. Disclaimers aside, the only argument I have with Steven is that I think Beautiful Ruins will take The Song of Achilles. And I’m less sure about how Gone Girl is going to play out. Except then it will definitely be a Zombie so it doesn’t really matter up to that point. Another fun fact: for what it’s worth, historically my favourites have always been knocked out second round.

So that’s it until Monday. Bring on the Rooster!

Upcoming stuff!

Faithful readers, obviously I’m not able to get another review together within a reasonable time but I wanted to let you know about some things that will be coming up.

Patrick Melrose SeriesFor starters, I scored some last minute tickets to the Edward St Aubyn event at the Wheeler Centre next week. I’m excited to read some of his highly regarded work, it’s always nice to have an extra reason to read something that’s been on the list for a while… That is, until I found out he’d be talking about the Patrick Melrose series OF WHICH I HAVE READ NOTHING. In my endless quest to avoid spoilers (seriously I can’t tell you how unreasonably I hate spoilers) I have decided to attempt to read the five books in seven days. More on that after the session next week.

Another exciting event is my favourite book prize of the year, The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. In a wonderfully demystified judging process, sixteen fiction titles fight it out for the rooster! Every weekday two books go head to head and a judge tells you exactly what he or she liked and disliked about each one. The winner goes on to the next round to continue the battle. Then there’s the competition commentators (always a highlight) and thoughts from the audience. And a zombie round where eliminated reader favourites rise from the dead! And a whole judging panel vote to decide the winner! Seriously the best book prize ever. Come March my brother Steven will be joining me on this blog to follow the tournament. I guarantee sibling squabbling and snark but also that he is funnier than me.

Then there’s the great Stella longlist out this week (check it our here) so I’m sure some of those titles will be making an appearance.

Lots to look forward to! But for now I’m off to read as fast as I can…

My To-Read Shelf or, The Black Hole of Despair

Ahhhhh the to read shelf (minus some stuff on my bedside table)

There are a lot of books I want to read. There are 1001 fiction novels that I must read, apparently, and dozens of new and exciting books out every month. Then there are all those seminal works of philosophy and criticism that I really should read. Also newly discovered favourite authors who all have exciting back catalogues to catch up on. Plus everyone I know gives me their spare books when moving house. They know I can’t say no. And I work at a bookstore that deals with Penguin. If a Penguin book arrives damaged we can’t sell it. We also do not need to send it back. Guess where those books end up.

Right now I have 42 books on my to-read shelf and I am referring only to the concrete, actual books I own. This does not include my mental to-read list, mental to-buy list and the many books that are definitely legally downloaded to my ereader. I have often jokingly referred to this shelf as ‘The Black Hole of Anxiety’ but here’s the thing: it makes me real-life anxious.

Because most of these books have been given to me or acquired via damaged stock, op shops and garages sales, they’re usually not the books I’m super excited to read immediately and more the ones where I think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something I should probably read.’ It is my shelf of things that I don’t particularly feel like reading right now so when I look at the shelf it fills me with a sense of unfulfilled duty as opposed to enthusiasm.

My to-read shelf is a symbol for all the books I have to read but may never get to. It reminds me that life is short and my to-read list is long and that I should read more widely and with more attention and just more in general. It makes me think about my failures as a reader.

I don’t want to feel unexcited by books EVER. So I am taking a break from duty and trying to bring a bit of spontaneity back to my reading. For a while I am going to read exactly what I feel like reading next, regardless of whether it is or isn’t on the list or on my shelf. I’m still going to try to blog twice a week about what I’m reading but there will be fewer list books for a bit. I hope you don’t mind. You’re probably used to it by now anyway. I hope that then I will be able to see my to-read shelf as filled with excitement and possibility.

The Bookshops in my Street

*This is something I posted on the Sunflower blog back when I was in London. Since the Sunflower blog is going to disappear soon AND I haven’t got anything new to say I thought I’d repost it here.*

Hello from London!

I’ve had a great time frequenting the many bookshops here. I loved the London Review Bookshop with the classy cafe and history titles arranged by time period. I loved the British Library bookshop with its wide ranging collection and Virginia Woolf dolls. (I super regret not buying one.) I loved the multi-storied Foyles with a great set of author events. Most of all I loved the sheer number of shops selling books! And so to narrow it down I thought I’d introduce you to ONLY the bookshops that were on my street.

THE SCHOOL OF LIFE

I don’t know if this quite qualifies but it is definitely the classiest self-help centre ever. Apart from running classes on improving your life (with talks from Germaine Greer among others) they stock a heap of self-help books you wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen reading on the train. But the real reason they make the list is because of the excellently designed How To series they publish by writers and thinkers (such as How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton).

GAY’S THE WORD

Apart from being painted a shade of blue guaranteed to brighten a grey London summer (rainiest in 100 years apparently!) this great shop has a great selection ranging from gay themed fiction, memoirs, non fiction, philosophy and more. Aside from the books and the friendly staff there are also CDs, DVDs and a notice board full of stuff going on in the community.

COLLINGE & CLARK

This little antique bookshop has a very quirky selection. As well as a larger collection of antique typography books than you would think possible, I found a multi-volume Chaucer set next to a pamphlet of greetings sent by famous fingers of the early 1900s.

SKOOB BOOKS

Skoob is simply amazing. Down in a basement there are literally thousands of books on every subject imaginable – history, literary criticism, philosophy, learning music, art, a whole section of popular penguins, I don’t even know what else. There’s also a functioning upright piano! And plenty of nooks in which to sit and peruse.

JUDD BOOKS

While Skoob comes a close second, my favourite bookshop in the street would have to be Judd books. With fiction upstairs and non-fiction in the basement it had an extensive collection, but not so much as to be overwhelming. There are stacks of new books at bargain prices in the centre and a huge range of second hand titles in shelves up to the ceiling. But best of all was their silent policy! No phones, no ipods, talking frowned upon, no rushing. Such a lovely atmosphere to browse in.

So those are the bookshops of Judd Street! I hope you’re enjoying the lovely Sunflower back in Melbourne and I’ll catch you soon with more book related travel news!

Love Fay

Edinburgh Report 7: The final chapter

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.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

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.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

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.

Edinburgh Post 6: Shaun Tan’s signature is beautiful

My time in Edinburgh is finishing up and I am so, so sad. It’s already noticeably less crowded as lots of authors left after the conference and it’s just quieter and less colourful and also less sunny.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday I found myself with Selina O’Grady and Francis Spufford at an event called ‘An Informed Debate About God’. Selina O’Grady described some of the findings of her new book, And Man Created God, and shared some insights into the political reasons for Christianity catching on the way it has where, say, Zoroastrianism hasn’t. Spufford then read an extract from Unapologetic, describing the physical feelings of a very personal experience of God. He wrote the book in response to current way the atheist case is being made that completely ignores the emotional experience of faith. There were some big questions brought up for discussion between the authors but to be honest it wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped for. Maybe it was because there wasn’t enough time, but I didn’t think they were able to do justice to questions such as whether it is possible to respect a believer without respecting their belief, how to be part of an institution that supports injustices, what to do about Creationism and whether secular movements have caused more damage than religious groups.

I had a much better time with Shaun Tan and not just because of that

Eric, one of my favourites from Tales From Outer Suburbia

delightful Australian accent. (I can’t tell you how many people here just assume I’m some kind of British.) I didn’t realise how popular he was outside of Australia but I guess winning an Oscar would help with that. I’m a big fan of his gorgeous, offbeat and utterly human illustrations and if you haven’t heard of him you should have a look at this. Tan had a whole set of slides and used them to talk us through his workspace, his childhood drawings (crazy impressive), some of his projects, his drawing process and inspirations. He told us about his feeling the feeling of dislocation from he world around him and the way he uses fantasy elements in his work to express it. As a generally not-so-reflective person he explained the way drawing is his way of making sense of the world and his place in it. My favourite part was a visual guide to the way The Lost Thing went from book to film. The sheer amount of work that went into just a few seconds of film was humbling.

As for Shaun Tan’s signature: He had an elaborate system of different signatures for different books. The Arrival had a passport stampy kind of thing, then for The Red Tree and The Lost Thing he used an ink print of his finger to make a tree or light chicken (as he called it) respectively. So pretty. And also fairly time consuming, the line took forever, but it was definitely worth it.

It definitely feels like the festival is winding down and my next post will be my last from Edinburgh. So tune in soon for Howard Jacobson and Katie Dale and Jennifer Smith and my general thoughts on the festival.

Edinburgh Report 5: In between the conference

I titled my last post with a quote from China Miéville and then realised I didn’t actually write about the session it came from. So without further ado here are the sessions I skipped in my last post.

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

I was very excited for the talk by Margo Lanagan, you may remember that I loved Sea Hearts (or The Brides of Rollrock Island, as they call it here). She was on with Melvin Burgess who I was less excited about, he stood up a couple of times in the conference and each time mentioned his own books A LOT. But he was good fun, talking about the validity of teenage, male sexual curiosity and the problems with treating sex as filthy or taboo in teen fiction. He read from his book Doing It which reminded me of a sexual Adrian Mole and talked about the controversy stirred up by the media over very little. Margo then talked about her own controversy over Tender Morsels, something that wasn’t an issue at all in Australia. The subject matter is definitely dark, including incest and rape, but it is handled skilfully and delicately. As Lanagan said, there is actually nothing graphic in the book, just enough suggestion so that you can figure it out if you’re aware of the issues while readers who know nothing about it could miss it entirely. She read a scene to prove it and, although no details are given, in a way it was more haunting for me because it leaves room for you to provide whatever horrible details you can imagine.

It was wonderful to hear her read though, Lanagan’s writing is beautiful and original. She talked about the creation of her own kind of country vernacular, her love of writing that doesn’t hand you everything on a plate and that taking the protection of children too far becomes damaging in itself.

The only images of China are from the conference, he doesn't wear a suit all the time

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

From there I hurried to the sold out China Miéville event. I originally had only bought tickets because I was kind of stalking Patrick Ness. Only in the perfectly legal, going-to-all-his-events-regardless-of-what-they-were sense! Anyway by that point I’d heard Miéville say enough smart and sensible things at the conference sessions to be interested in his event. It was great, a really chatty session between the Miéville and Ness. They covered playing with genre (whether through fidelity to or subversion of the rules) and the ideas for his novels. Miéville talked about his preference for what he calls the ‘literature of estrangement’, literature that shocks or startles the reader with new ideas and feelings of alienation. He also voiced an idea that I think is really important: “loads of authors have no fucking idea about their own books”. This is something I also heard from an inspirational literature teacher (but with less swearing) and something that has stayed with me. An author is often not the best person to  analyse their own work, they’re too close to it for starters, and also a work can mean different things to different people, sometimes taking on meanings and interpretations an author’s intention can close off.

The feeling I was left with after the event was just how smart Miéville was, smart in a way I would like to be. He was informed, engaged and eloquent on lots of topics with enough humour and modesty thrown in to make him completely charming. A great night.

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.

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.

Edinburgh Report 2: Was that the real Michael Frayn?

Day three of my Book Festival experience was a beautiful sunny day. As I stood in line for the Michael Frayn event I heard someone behind me say: ‘we do love queuing here don’t we’ – people start queueing half an hour in advance for sessions that aren’t even sold out. I think Michael Frayn’s session was fully booked though, or at least it was very full inside.

Though (I now know that) he is a prolific and award-winning author of novels Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festivaland plays, I hadn’t heard of him and only knew about this event because he was long-listed for the Man Booker. His talk was way more prepared than the others I’ve been to – he had cue cards and a whole thing prepared instead of the question and answer format that seems to be more popular. But he was playful right from the start, joking about his public liability insurance and fears of boring audience members to death. His latest novel Skios is based on a mistaken identity: a man at an airport goes up to someone holding a card with a name on it that isn’t his. Frayn linked this to a surprising range of mistaken identity stories, from his friend Michael ‘Dumbledore’ Gambon being mistaken for a janitor to the franchising of the performer Little Richard (apparently there was a time when there were six people performing shows under the name). Along the way he wove in deeper issues such as the way we create characters for ourselves, the changes in personality that come with these roles and the act of remembering, touching on subjects as varied as neuroscience, Greek mythology and existentialism.

My overall impression was of an extremely witty, educated and sharp man, using jokes to get at interesting issues. He had great fun with the idea that he wasn’t Michael Frayn but in fact an impostor. How many of us, he asked, knew what he was meant to look like? We were trusting in his name badge and his host but we didn’t know his host either. As he pointed out, to some extent we all rely on trust, taking people at face value.

My next session was with Alexandra Harris (author of a new Virginia Woolf

My life is pretty sweet right now

biography) and John Mullan (author of What Matters in Jane Austen? Answer: everything). Harris was exuberant, almost gleeful, about her subject and her talk was complete with a slide show! A fun one, with pictures of snails and clocks and Virginia Woolf looking happy. Harris bemoaned the cult of miserableness that has surrounded Woolf and instead focused on her ability to communicate pleasure through what she calls ‘everyday ordinariness’. Mullans was equally enthusiastic and came prepared with a quiz which I thought would be really lame but turned out to be surprisingly fun. His questions and answers all pointed to the details in Austen that reveal so much more about her characters than a brief reading would suggest. I learnt that the only married couple to call each other by first name do so only to contradict each other. I learnt that the casting people are often completely missing the joke when choosing the ages of their actors. I learnt that only horrible, licentious things ever happen at the seaside. And I finished eager to go back and reread my Jane Austen.

When my shoes broke (stupid coloured converse, my fault for trying to conform I guess) I ended up chatting with a Book Festival staff member in a shoe shop. She told me about working at the Melbourne writer’s festival last year. Small world! She thought the experience compared pretty well with her Edinburgh job so far, except that the Edinburgh Book Festival has the drop for actually paying their festival staff. Dream job.

But the highlight of the day was meeting Patrick Ness, one of my favourite Young Adult authors. He gave us the latest on his new book for adults, coming out in April. He said he hasn’t really talked about it before so here is some (maybe) breaking news: The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese folk tale (you can read about it here) that has fascinated Ness since he first heard it as a child. He talked about his recent argument over whether children’s books should carry age restrictions (they shouldn’t) and the way authors of teen and genre fiction are suddenly expected to have opinions, or ‘become an oracle’ as he put it, in a way that other authors aren’t. He spoke sincerely about the privilege he feels being published write and the fear that every book will be his last. He was also refreshingly acerbic about other authors (including mocking comments on Will Self, GP Taylor and Stephen King). Ness traded good natured banter with his host and friend Keith Gray and gave heartfelt and considered responses to the questions from his young audience. And he’s the only author so far who has actually looked like his press picture.

Next time: Kirsty Gunn and Elliot Perlman, Ali Smith and Nathan Englander, then Nathan Englander again with Junot Díaz.