Friday, 17 August 2012

Day 7

Today was a great day for much-anticipated events, from Joan Bakewell to John Burnside, from Axel Scheffler to Russell Kane. And it was an especially big day for the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, which today kicked off a series of thought-provoking and busy debates based on subjects that were discussed at the first Writers' Conference exactly 50 years ago.

So that is the theme for today's list of discoveries! 

According to Elif Shafak, many characters in Turkish fiction are under-developed. This, says Elif, is because Turkish fiction tends to focus on the demon outside of us – as opposed to the demon within.

When the original Writers' Conference of 1962 was first being planned, John Calder (left), Sonia Orwell and Jim Haynes were discussing it in a Greek restaurant on Rose Street when suddenly – out of sheer disagreement with John – Sonia produced a wine bottle and smashed it over his head. John was knocked cold. Then he woke up and they continued the discussion.

When the  Writers' Conference first opened in Edinburgh fifty years ago, John Calder sent one lone cashier to the venue to sell tickets. Within the hour, there were over a thousand people in the queue.

Writers love discussion. Readers love discussion. People love discussion. The discovery here being that the Writers' Conference chat on Twitter reached over 43,000 people - a statistic that has astounded us.

Although I had been told a lot about the Writers' Conference – both by people directly involved in it and by people simply interested in its legacy – I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. But what I knew for sure was that today's conference – the first of five two-hour events – would have ideas, opinions, subjections and objections bouncing off the walls like a thousand dropped ping-pong balls.

Sure enough, it was engrossing. The topic for today was “should literature be political?”, and every word in that question was analysed. Can there be a “should” when it comes to literature? And what do you mean by “literature”? And how can it “be” anything other what the writer intends? And in what sense is anything “political”?

There were cogent points round every corner. Ahdaf Soueif observed that the novelist, just like the activist, is a citizen of the world. China Miéville pointed out that literature can be political irrespective of what the words in the book say. We had articulate agreements and articulate challenges, we had a bit of passionate volume and a bit of impressive swearing, we had Ewan Morrison getting up from the audience and pacing as he wondered if novels were over-stretching themselves politically, and we had Denise Mina share that because her main characters are female she was once asked why she was “being so political”.

George Orwell may have been being political by writing 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' instead of 'Thirteen Eighty-Eight', but was JK Rowling being political by writing 'Harry Potter' instead of 'Harriet Potter'?

The discussion could go on forever. And actually, that's kind of the idea. Take a look at the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference website to get involved.

Word of the Writers' Conference at the Book Festival is spreading like dog fur on a carpet (that's fast, by the way), so grab what's left of the tickets while you still can.
  1. Style vs Content (Saturday 18 August 3:00pm - 5:00pm)
  2. A National Literature? (Sunday 19 August 3:00pm - 5:00pm)
  3. Censorship Today (Monday 20 August 3:00pm - 5:00pm)
  4. The Future of the Novel (Tuesday 21 August 3:00pm - 5:00pm)
The question “should literature be political?” has no conclusive answer, but this was my favourite snippet of insight from this afternoon's fascinating conference.

"How can you, if your gift is narrative, absent yourself from the great narrative of the world?" Ahdaf Soueif