News and views
Our Favourite Creative Spots, from the staff at WCN
The path to creativity is a very personal one, some people work better at 3am, others can only get going after a coffee, a potter around the house and a flick through morning trash tv. Plus, whilst some of us enjoy working on public transport or in cafes, others like to hole up in a cosy corner at home, with a well-planned selection of writing-aides close at hand.
Our new UEA-WCN International Writing Courses embrace this diversity in our creative habits, and allow writers to work whenever, and wherever, is best for them! To celebrate this escape from the classroom, we asked all the creative types at WCN to share with us their favourite creative locations - where do they hole up to write, draw, paint, sew...? Let's find out!
Laura Stimson, Programme Manager and Writer
"Here is my real life writing spot; a corner of my bedroom replete with tic tacs, tea and the Observer Food Monthly for distractions. And when all else fails, I have a narrow view, which is particularly golden today, with the Norwich Cathedral spire on the distant horizon."
Chris Gribble, Chief Executive
Our Chief Exec Chris takes a break from sitting at his desk, to stand at his desk instead. This is where the WCN magic happens!
Leila Telford, Resources Manager
"Thriving in the jumble and chaos of overflowing sewingboxes, the onslaught of the bookshelves, and the comforting gaze of family,ideas feed each other."
Richard White, Communications Officer and Artist
"I think I'm the only WCNer to travel by train to work. My colleagues don't know what they're missing out on: I read; drink coffee; observe people picking the exact same seat every single day; unavoidably listen in (on one end of) phone conversations, and on a good day, draw. Drawing on a moving train isn't easy, but it's better than not drawing at all. At the moment I'm drawing Richard Whites, of which there are many."
Anna Scrafield, Communications Assistant prone to dabbling in various creative activites
"This is my Granny's writing desk and I love it - I write, draw paint, embroider and pen copious letters here, along with gazing out of the window and leafing through my extensive postcard collection for inspiration...
My co-conspirator in all this is my badger skull. I'm fascinated by skulls and have amassed quite a collection over the years, from squirrel and vole through to red deer and seal, but Mr Badger is my favourite - he always has good ideas."
Sam Ruddock, Programme Manager and voracious reader
"This is the tree round the back of WCN. I do love that spot, and it is a great place to read. Comfy, bright, and a real sun trap, with the scent of lavender rising all around you."
Conor McGeown, Development Manager and noise-maker.
"This is a picture of me in what our landlord laughably calls "a second bedroom", and what I, equally laughably, call "my studio". There’s not much to it, and anything I can hear above the white noise of the traffic tearing down Duke Street is obscured by the impenetrable box-room acoustics. But I love it all the same. It’s used mostly for spare nappy storage these days, but from time to time you’ll still find me here, filling rare quiet moments with loud noise. Headphones on, of course."
Jon Morley Programme Director, poet and reader
"The thrumming of trains provides a conducive background music for poetry. Moniza Alvi's harrowing sequence about the Partition of India and Pakistan enacts the journeys of displaced families in 1947, and became even more vivid to read as I surged towards London this morning with the train murmuring around me."
Ed Cottrell, Programme Manager & Writer
Boat-dwelling Ed, shares his port-holed creative space with us. We're not sure if this is his creativity face - it might be.
Want to read some of his work? Before taking up his post with us, Ed won a place on the IdeasTap Inspires Programme, so you can have a read of some of his work here.
Our Twitter Followers' #MyCreateSpace:
@MatLovegrove tells us about his #MyCreateSpace...
"I love my cabin...I built it...I live in it....I write and paint in it."
@Jo_Bell, a boat-dwelling poet agrees -
"nothing beats a good cabin"
Out of the cabin and into the coffee shop, @LMFairweather explains the situation:
"I write in coffee shops, when my 4 month old lets me!"
The important question now, is where do you get creative? Share your favourite writing or creating location with us in selfie format through twitter or instagram (@WritersCentre) via #MyCreateSpace and you could be added to our blog!
Sam Ruddock: On Creative Reading
Sam recently gave a keynote talk as part of our Young People and Literature Symposium on creative reading and writing with young people. The following is the text of that speech.
Listen to Sam's speech below, and tell us what you think at the bottom of the page:
My name is Sam Ruddock, and I am a reader. (And also some other things including a blogger, a book critic, a prize judge, a husband, a cat father, and a Programme Manager at Writers' Centre Norwich where I produce our events and reading programmes).
Basically, I love reading. I love stories that take me on a journey I don't ever want to end, with characters it feels as though I have known for ever. I love reading that makes me think, that introduces me to new ideas, and that is all about the creative use of language. Reading is pure imagination.
I know I'm a bit excitable. But I make no apologies for being over-the-top enthusiastic about reading. Especially where it comes to young people. Because literacy has never been so important. There has never in human history been so much reading and writing taking place as there is now. The mass spread of the internet and social media has changed how we behave: where people once interacted with the world predominantly verbally, we now do so more and more through words on a screen. A young person’s life chances today depend on literacy: if you cannot read or write, you cannot succeed in this world. Literacy is to be the single most important thing we do for our young people.
Reading isn't a tool for anything, but if it is, its a basic tool for literacy, which is a basic tool for life. But one of the ways that we will best encourage literacy, is to focus on reading for pleasure.
(When we talk about reading for writing, we essentially create a hierarchy where everything leads to writing. I'm not sure it is this way around. The Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton recently set up a fund in New Zealand to grant young writers money to cover time to read. It’s an amazing initiative – imagine being paid to read! But it has a serious and laudable intention, too. She felt reading was getting forgotten in the drive to write, to create, and to express oneself. And she felt that writers who didn't read were likely to produce less interesting work than writers who did read. I share this as a challenge for us all – reading should be at the heart of our engagement with young people, not as an afterthought.)
There is only one way we will get people reading: if they enjoy it. If it gives them something they want or need. If it is rewarding.
I read to relax. And to escape from myself and the world around me and all the interconnectivity of technology. And I read to dive head-first into the world, to learn about other people and the world around me. I like to read in the bath. It is a sanctum if you will, where technology frazzles and drowns and my imagination can billow steam-like around me. About 5 years ago I decided to rename our bathroom ‘the pub’ so that I felt less anti-social about the time I spend reading and now when I go home in the evening and say to my wife ‘I'm going to the pub’, it makes reading feel cool. And I like that, for even an enthusiast like me sometimes feels apologetic about reading. I need to read. If I don’t find time to read, I get stressed and frantic, I get grumpy, and I get self-involved. And what is interesting is that research increasingly shows that this is the case for many people.
In a series of reports and studies over the last decade, reading has been shown to be of huge personal, social, health, and economic benefit. Reading has been shown to have all sorts of impressive qualities including:
- Enhancing people’s life chances, civic and social engagement, employment prospects, and quality of life;
- Busting stress and providing real health benefits such as delaying the onset of dementia;
- Reducing cases of reoffending in prisoners and those on parole;
- Improving theory of mind, a common measure of empathetic ability.
One of the things that interests me most about reading is that it is both retreat from the world, and the most active engagement with it. There is nothing I do in my life that so enables me to inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. Reading matters to me because it puts me inside the heads of other people, other lives, other cultures, other ways of thinking. Reading helps me see things differently, it makes me think differently, it complicates my point of view. I am a far better person for reading. Why not be enthusiastic about something like this?
I'm also fascinated by what reading does for people. So fascinated in fact that earlier this year I set out to interview readers across the UK about their experience of reading, what it gives them and why they do it. I want to get beyond the scientific research to uncover the personal stories about readers and reading, and I want to give readers a voice to tell their own stories.
There is a campaign I admire called 53 Million Artists. Like all great campaigns its mission is deceptively simple: to 'unlock the creative potential of everyone in England.' I recently spent some time with the founder of 53 Million Artists, a ridiculously talented woman named Jo Hunter, and asked her whether she considered reading an artistic activity. She thought for a minute and I could see her wondering how to say that no she didn't. We kept talking, and she eventually set out the four linked activities that they encourage people to do when being artistic.
- The first is having an idea.
- The second is doing something. Reading is doing something. In reading we are co-creators of a story. But now it gets interesting...
- Number 3 in the approach to being an artist is thinking about what you are doing. This is really important. Thinking. Reflecting. An artist isn't just someone who creates. An artist is someone who thinks about what they create. A reader artist is someone who thinks about what they read.
- And the fourth is sharing it with others.
I turned to her at this point and said: ‘okay, so readers are artists when they think about what they read, and share it with others’. And she agreed. When we think about creativity we often instinctively think about making things. We so rarely think about consuming something. But I believe absolutely that reading is active and creative engagement in the art of literature, and that great reading is an art to be developed. It is an art so long as we think about what we read, and share that with others.
So how do we get young people reading? It starts with how we think about and talk about reading. I have three tips:
1. Be enthusiastic. Break down that inner critic who says you need to call the bathroom ‘the pub’ in order to make reading cool. If you are that apologetic about reading, no-one is ever going to enjoy reading. John Waters has a great suggestion and language for this, he says: ‘If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t sleep with people who don’t read!’. A little judgemental, perhaps. But interesting.
There is a quote I love from Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald, a not particularly successful novel he wrote in between The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits.
“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be”
Useful advice at any time and for anything you love! But even more so when it comes to reading, an activity that society and formal education strives to tell young people is dull, boring, and only for school. Too often we are embarrassed to talk to young people about loving reading. We fear it may lose us their interest. We think it is easier to give people a pen and piece of paper and ask them to express themselves. That they will find that more fun. But this is our fears being projected; our failing not theirs. We cannot hope to change other people’s perspectives if we don’t change our own.
2. Don’t try to control reading. Reading is freedom. It is an adventure, and no adventure is any fun if you know where it will end. It doesn't matter what a reader is reading now, only what they may go on to next. The best reader engagement projects don’t lecture readers about what they should and shouldn't read, they create the space and framework and let readers run with it.
This is what Writers’ Centre Norwich has done with Summer Reads (in partnership with Norfolk Libraries) over the past 6 years. Each year we recruit a jury of everyday readers (this year there are over 90!). We give them a long-list of books (this year there were 150) and ask them to read. They read the books and review (i.e THINK ABOUT) them. We gather all the reviews together, hold meetings for them to discuss the books (i.e SHARE WHAT THEY HAVE DONE), and slowly work the long-list down. At the moment there are 60 books we are considering. Come January we will select the 6 that we promote during the programme. It is amazing to see how reading habits change given this space and encouragement, and in an environment where reading is cherished. We will receive more than 1000 reviews this year. In some ways, it is a more rigorous process than the Booker Prize.
So successful has Summer Reads been that we were recently awarded a large amount of money to evolve and grow in partnership with libraries in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
I've long harboured ambitions to run a similar programme for young people, working with school libraries and English teachers to build a network of engaged young readers. I’d love us here today in this room to consider whether there is a way of making this happen.
There was a great project that the Orange Prize ran a few years ago, to celebrate its fifteenth year. They wanted to conduct a poll to find the ‘best of the best’ of the previous 14 winners of the Orange Prize. But instead of employing the usual collage of writers, critics, and academics, they turned to young people. Six teenagers were recruited through Penguin’s Spinebreakers website, an online book community run by teenagers, for teenagers that has sadly recently closed. Those readers met, discussed the books, and eventually chose a winner: Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels, a truly brilliant book.
And this brings me on to my third suggestion for getting people reading:
3. Never ever undervalue readers, young or old. Never assume people don’t read and don’t want to read. Never talk down. Encourage up.
Had you asked me before this to guess which of the 14 titles would have most appealed to a younger audience, one of my last choices would have been Fugitive Pieces. It is lyrical and non-linear, it is challenging and distressing. But when you put your faith in people, when you give them the opportunity to try and to think and to share, they so often surprise you. This has happened again and again in my experience of Summer Reads.
And if you want to make reading fun, make it dangerous! There’s a great story I once heard about a mother who, when she was pregnant, built a shelf in her bedroom and placed all her favourite books there. When he daughter was young, she told her that she could read any of the books in the house, except for those books on that shelf. That was all. Years later, when the daughter was fully grown they were talking about reading, and the daughter said to her: ‘of course you know I read all of those books I wasn't allowed to?’ and the mother turned to her and replied: ‘Of course! That was the point all along!’ She had succeeded in making great reading dangerous!
I love that story.
So, in summary:
- Reading is fundamental to modern life. More reading is done now than ever before. Never forget that when people say that reading is no longer cool.
- Reading is fundamental to writing. But it is valuable enough, enjoyable enough, in and of itself.
- Never try to squish reading into other outcomes lest you lose what is great about it.
- Don't think it is easier to give people a pen and paper and encourage them to write than it is to give them a library card and encourage them to read. And if it is, think about what that says about how you are talking about reading.
- Be passionate. Otherwise, why should anyone believe you?
- Support exploration. Take a journey together. Reading is an adventure.
- Don’t dictate, empower.
- Never ever underestimate people.
Reading is not elitist. Great reading is and should be for everyone. And it is creative and artistic. Do not hide from your responsibility to share the joys of reading with others.
And share it with me too. For there’s a dirty secret at the heart of this talk. This year has been my worst reading year since I've been an adult. I've really struggled to find time and space to read. I need you to tell me about the books you've loved, to recommend to me, and then to recommend to everyone else here today.
Thank you for your time. And happy reading.
Now... come with me...
East Anglian Book Awards 2014 – shortlist announced!
Today we can reveal the shortlists for this year’s East Anglian Book Awards, the annual celebration of the best new writing from our region – with qualifying work being set largely in East Anglia or being written by an author living in the region.
After spending the summer reading over eighty entries our judges have selected 19 books of outstanding quality across six categories, and now the final judging process is underway to decide the winners.
The six finalists and the overall winner of East Anglian Book of the Year will be chosen by a panel of experts from the partner organisations (chaired by Chris Rushby, Bookseller at Jarrold) and will be announced on November 20 at an awards dinner at Jarrold.
The first prize in each category and the overall £1,000 cash prize will be awarded by Eimear McBride, whose acclaimed novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (published in 2013 by Galley Beggar Books of Norwich) has triumphed in the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Kerry Group Best Irish Novel of the Year Award and the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, and been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Folio Prize.
So, without further ado, we can reveal that the shortlisted books are:
Fiction, judged by novelist and poet Sophie Hannah, whose The Monogram Murders, a new Hercule Poirot novel, was recently launched at the Norwich Playhouse:
The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
Black Sheep by Susan Hill (Chatto & Windus)
After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Profile Books)
Poetry, judged by George Szirtes, recently retired as Professor of Poetry at UEA:
At The Time of Partition by Moniza Alvi (Bloodaxe Books)
Ink’s Wish by Sarah Law (Gatehouse Press)
What I Saw by Laura Scott (Rialto)
Yoga by Tom Warner (Egg Box)
History and Tradition, judged by Trevor Heaton (Features Editor, EDP/Eastern News):
The Revolt and Taming of the 'Ignorant' by David Adams (Larks Press)
East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, edited by David Bates and Robert Liddiard (Boydell Press)
We Were Eagles (Vol 1, July 42 to November 43) by Martin Bowman (Amberley)
Biography and Memoir, judged by Diana Souhami, the award-winning biographer of Edith Cavell:
Diana Poulton: The Lady With The Lute by Thea Abbott (Smokehouse Press)
A Twilight Landscape: The Hidden Art of George James Rowe of Woodbridge (1804-1883) by Chloe Bennett (DK & MN Sanford)
Two Turtle Doves by Alex Monroe (Bloomsbury)
General Non-Fiction, judged by Sam Ruddock, Programme Manager at WCN:
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books)
Birds & People by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape)
Children’s Books, judged by Joyce Dunbar, a prolific author of books for young people:
Paupers by Mary Chapman (Ransom Publishing) – age range 9-12
Rupert the Dinosaur by Douglas Vallgren, illustrated by Karl Newson (self-published) – age range 3-6
Everyone A Stranger by Victor Watson (Catnip Publishing) – age range 9-12
There will also be a prize for the Best Cover Art, chosen from the shortlist, with the cash prize donated by the East Anglian Writers.
Come and join us to celebrate the best of East Anglia's books from the past 12 months, and to congratulate those deserving winners.
Tickets for the ceremony are available from Jarrold priced £20, which includes a meal and a glass of Adnams' wine on arrival.
Call 01603 660661, click here
, or visit customer services in the Norwich store.
The Awards are organised annually by Writers’ Centre Norwich, the EDP and Jarrold, with support from the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Previous overall winners include Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami (Quercus) and The Last Hunters, Candy Whittome’s nostalgic evocation of the hard lives of the Cromer crab-fishermen (Full Circle Editions).
On Reading, Writing and Losing our Minds
With Will Self, Maureen Freely and Dan Franklin.
The second instalment of the National Conversation had a key similarity to the first part that took place at Edinburgh International Book Festival
with Michael Rosen at the end of August: we were under canvas. In Cheltenham, however, the rain beat down on us, providing an ominous drum roll as Will Self took to the stage to talk to us about reading, writing and losing our minds.
You can read Will’s elegant provocation in the Guardian or on our website
, where you’ll also find Dan Franklin’s opening response
. So what happened on the day? For the full podcast scroll to the bottom of the page, and find out. Here are my highlights.
Will was pretty clear that careful reading is on the wane and the difficult novel is doomed as readers lose the capacity to lose themselves in the maelstrom of language on the page. Dan Franklin shot right back, claiming that he didn’t buy into this scenario. Things are changing: the new generation of readers value access over ownership; we should be thinking of ways to engage them meaningfully beyond the confines of the printed book. Maureen Freely highlighted the passion and commitment felt by young people and noted that not only did ‘digital reading’ enable permeability between the text and the online world, but that it also enabled freedom of movement for literature across geographical and linguistic borders.
We debated quality, excellence, elitism and how the author might start to take control of the changes around us instead of passively reacting to them. There was nothing passive about the audience. In the tent, online, before, during and after, the audience made its voice heard and changed our event from an experience into a real conversation. Writers are also readers, and readers are rewriting the narrative of how stories are being read. From the individual reading to her children, to the translator making available stories from places and people we might never have heard of, we are all part of a community with an interest in what is happening to readers, writers and the collective mind.
It was an exhilarating occasion and the perfect preparation for our next National Conversation instalment, when Ali Smith will start a debate
on the value of translation and the dangers of ignoring its strengths for whatever we choose to call ‘British literature’.
Will Self: On Writers, Readers, and Losing Our Minds
This piece is an original provocation by Will Self, delivered in person at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday 4th October 2014, as part of the National Conversation. (Prefer PDF? Click here.)
Let’s think about reading – about what it’s like to read. And after we’ve thought about reading for a while, let’s consider writing – and what it means to write. There are many ways of reading: we scan, we dip, we skip and we speed through texts we know to be intrinsically dull, searching out the nuggets of information we desire as a bent-backed prospector pans for gold. In contradistinction: we are lost, abandoned, absorbed – tossed from wave-to-wave of language we relapse into the wordsea. All serious readers of serious literature have had this experience: time, space, and all the workaday contingencies of their identity – sex, age, class, heritage – are forgotten; the mind cleaves to the page, matching it point-for-point; the mind is the text, and in the act of reading it is you who are revealed to the impersonal writer, quite as much as her imaginings and inventions are rendered unto you. In the course of my literary career I’ve read various accounts of the reading process, ones that analyse it phenomenologically, neurologically and psychologically – ones that site it in a given social or cultural context, but none of them have captured the peculiar quiddity of reading as I experience it. In particular, no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we read deeply; we don’t picture a woman in a red dress when we decipher the marks that mean ‘she wore a red dress’ – and by extension, we do not hold within our mind’s eye the floor plan of Mansfield Park or the street map of Dublin when we read the novels of Jane Austen and James Joyce respectively.
Yet, somehow, we know these places. The clearest possible example of the strange telepathy implicit in deep reading that I’ve arrived at is one that every reader I’ve ever explained it to understands intuitively: when we read a description of a place we intuit whether or not the writer truly knows that place, whether we have any familiarity with it or not ourselves. In a world made up of printed codices, and all the worlds they in turn describe, the reader strives to see in them, see through them, and to discern the connections between them. Because the codices are physical objects, the reader conceives of their connections in spatial and temporal terms; as she builds up her canonical knowledge she continually plots and re-plots the plan of her own memory palace, enlarging a room here, building an extension over there. When she experiences difficulties with a text – the meaning is obscure, the syntax confused and the allusions unknown to her – she either struggles to extend the reticulation of her own comprehension, and so net fleeting meaning, or, if she is utterly stumped, she consults another book. This process of elucidation itself has a physical correlate: she rises from her chair, she reaches a book down from a shelf, she leafs through it and in the process acquires further information and understanding that, while it may not relate to the problem at hand, still provides additional space and furnishing for her own memory.
This way of going about the business of reading is so well-established and so completely inhabited by those of us who have grown up with what Marshall McLuhan termed ‘Gutenberg minds’, that we barely give it any thought. By extension, we are scarcely able to apprehend what it might be like to not have to read deeply at all; if, indeed, it were possible to gain all the required information necessary to understand a passage simply by skimming it, and, where an obscurity is highlighted, clicking on this to follow a hypertext link. There has been a lot of research on digital as against analogue reading and the results are decidedly mixed. On the one hand sceptics and Cassandras point to the fracturing of attention and the attenuation of memory they see lying behind the screen; they also point out that precisely the kind of reading I’ve described above becomes impossible once text is displayed on an internet-enabled device – unless, that is, readers are self-disciplined enough to not use the web. But web-boosters and info-geeks take quite another tack, finding in digital reading new forms of stimulus and engagement. I haven’t the space here to weigh up the competing claims, but one thing is absolutely clear in all of this: reading on screen is fundamentally different to reading on paper, and just as solitary, silent, focussed reading is a function of the physical codex, so the digital text will bring with new forms of reading, learning, memory and even consciousness.
I think this so self-evident as to scarcely require elucidation; the unwillingness of the literary community – in its broadest sense – to accept the inevitability of this transformation, can only be ascribed to their being blinkered by the boards of their codices. The majority of the text currently read in the technologically advanced world is already digitised – and most of that text is accessed via internet-enabled devices; all the valorisation of the printed word – its fusty scent, its silk, its heft – is a rearguard action: the book is already in desperate, riffling retreat. And with the book goes all the paper engineering that was folded into its origami economy. For now, the relationship between words and revenue has become a debatable one – we can wax all we like about the importance of the traditional gatekeepers; the perspicacity of editors and critics in separating out the literary wheat from the pulpy chaff, but the fact is that these professions depend on the physical book as a commodity. It is the sad bleat of the book world that we’ll be sorry once they’re gone – and with them all the bookshops, literary reviews, libraries and publishing houses that supported their endeavours – but it was their mistake to assume their acumen to be inelastic. I mean by this, that a certain kind of expertise was understood to have a value to its consumers that was both constant and capable of being monetised at a fixed rate. The web has grabbed hold of this inelasticity and stretched it until it’s snapped back in the myopic faces of the literati.
Whatever portion of our contemporary culture you survey, you can witness this snap-back happening: Whether its university students receiving inflated grades for essays plagiarised from the web; or the commissioning practices of editors at the big publishing houses, who, fighting to keep their footing in the cataract of literary production, sucking up new titles by the fathom, in the hope that they may have thereby secured a few golden nuggets – then there’s the remorseless and unholy miscegenation of advertising and editorial that continues on the web apace, and has now infiltrated even the august pages of the New York Times, so that you can be reading what looks like the news that’s fit to print, and only belatedly discover that it’s in fact ‘sponsored content’. This elision of monetary and cultural value is to be found everywhere in the printed realm: Back when I began publishing novels not only did the reviews in the quality press mean something – in terms of sales, yes, but also a genuine assay of literary worth – but as a writer, you knew that there was a community of readers who paid attention to them. No longer. The rise of reading groups and on line readers’ reviews represents the concomitant phenomenon to the political parties’ use of focus groups to formulate policy: literary worth is accorded to what the generality want; under such terms of endearment what is loved is what has always been loved, and the black swan of innovation flies unseen and unheralded.
Follow the money is always the maxim when it comes to understanding the complex processes that it mediates. Since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in the 1980s, all the money in publishing has been funnelled into pipes that have a wider and a shorter bore; nowadays one big, thick pipeline carrying half the revenue from British retail book sales disappears deep into Jeff Bezos’s pockets. The Net Book Agreement itself was part of a government subsidy system that included preferential tax rates for newsprint, public libraries, and even the grants awarded university students from poorer backgrounds – all of it was based on the assumption that the cultural value of reading and writing wasn’t reducible to its economic worth. Nowadays all we can say about the production and consumption of the written word is that it’s subject to exactly the same iron laws of supply and demand as every other widget or pixel.
Under such parlous circumstances, with all cultural value being colossally devalued in order to achieve parity with the pound, the traditional gatekeepers are precisely who we look to for the preservation of the logos. In the past, the Church was a repository of scholarship for its own sake – but nowadays we are a resolutely secular society, unless, that is, you subscribe to fundamentalist revealed religion. The academy is now a profit centre all its own, with academics publishing on-line in order to secure professional advancement, rather than because their scholarship is meaningful or valuable; and university administrators encouraging the development of courses of ‘study’ – such as creative writing – that are no such thing, but rather steady revenue streams for institutions dependent on fee income.
I’ve written in the past about the creative writing movement – if we can characterise it in this way – being a set-aside scheme for writers who cannot earn a living from their own words. In a devastating enactment of professional closure – breathtaking in its elegance and simplicity – they now teach other would-be writers to become precisely like them. But it’s also worth considering what the ‘novel’ these everyones have inside them represents: in a world in which the price of words has become highly elastic, and the value of words has come to be determined by consumer demand, such literary endeavours can either be only avowedly commercial, or a sort of finishing school for the moneyed, with young women and men undertaking novel-writing in the same spirit that they might once have done needlepoint, or gone deer stalking.
My personal motto is ‘I just want to be misunderstood’; and I’ve been gratified by just how misunderstood my sallies into the vexed terrain of the epochal technological transformation that’s being enacted right before our line-scanning eyes have been. I am not in the least bit pessimistic about these developments – I don’t think the telephone, the radio, film or television made our culture in any sense more ‘stupid’ nor ‘ignorant’. I believe that our society – and others – will both preserve its storehouse of knowledge and use these bi-directional digital media to develop new forms of understanding, including what it means to be literate. The losers in all of this will be traditional cultural forms that were dependent on the technology of the codex: the extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already underway; people no longer depend on their own, personal and canonical memory to analyse and validate new information – they have outsourced such mental operations to algorithms owned by Sergey Brin et al. As to whether such dependence on what is, effectively, a monetised intellectual prosthesis will impact negatively on our culture, the answer has to be an emphatic ‘yes’ – unless, that is, the new web-dependent generations seek their own liberation from the shackles of late capitalism, just as their foremothers and fathers won concessions from those who owned the mechanical means of production.
But, I hear you cavil; this is the realm of politics rather than culture – really? And since when have the two been remotely separable? The argument about whether the web is value neutral is simply addressed: Were this resource to be truly incapable of being owned then yes, the tweeting Arab Spring might have culminated in a warm summer of blooming democracy; but the fact is that the commanding heights of the web are already occupied by those who view it as cash cow grazing in a global field. None of this, however, counts for anything when it comes to the future of our literary culture – its fate is already sealed, and there’s no going back. I began this provocation by describing what I think of deep reading – the kind of reading that serious books demand; and I promised that I would also discuss writing, the kind of writing that’s intended to be read deeply. But really, there’s no point in this, because such writing depends for its existence on deep readers, and in the very near future – as I hope I’ve amply demonstrated – such deep readers will be in very short supply indeed.
© Will Self
What do you think?
Share your thoughts below, or on Twitter via the #NatConv tag.
What is the Future of Storytelling?
A Publisher’s Perspective, by Dan Franklin.
"Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment."
Dan Franklin is Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House UK. He is taking part in our National Conversation event 'On Writing, Reading and Losing our Minds' with Will Self this Saturday and in anticipation of that event, Dan warms us up with a thought-provoking post about the future of publishing and storytelling. Do check back on Latest News this Saturday at 11.45 to read Will's full provocation, and please do comment or tweet @WritersCentre to share your thoughts on the conversation.
Five years ago the mainstream e-reading culture was non-existent. Now, most publishers make a quarter of their revenues this way and digital self-publishing has exploded. If reading books on screen is intrinsically different to reading on paper, are we seeing a fundamental shift in the types of writing being consumed? Can we expect the popularisation of the 'digitally native' text?
Reviews for new e-readers valorise how close they are to the print experience, hailing what is an almost perfect replication of the print reading experience in digital form. We are reading books on screens, but it doesn't seem essentially different. In fact, for many, it seems comfortably the same. Commentators posit that publishers are satisfied with this state of affairs, being custodians of a certain way of promulgating culture. The problem with this reading of the situation is that publishers don't self-define themselves as gatekeepers, not the good ones at least. As much as she might repeat publish according to successful commercial formulae, the publisher's business is one of pursuing the new. Each new book is an irruption into culture, giving readers what they don't know they want. A publisher provides seed-funding and investment, and a means of amplifying a text to the marketplace.
The huge upheaval that occurred in music industry was the digital compression of a song to a twelfth of its size, and the dismantling of its container, the album. Driven by a new technology (the MP3), there came a significant widening of the listenership, commensurate to the contraction of record companies' revenues from CDs. The labels couldn't make up the difference of what they were losing to digital. This is simply not the case for books: the market is (relatively) stable. In this situation, we have created a digital mirror of the Gutenberg model, and it feels like the digital tsunami has broken over us. Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment. Reading on a screen might be transforming us all, but the effects haven't been registered by reader, writer or publisher in any considerable way except on the fringes, where experimentation in digital texts has been going on for decades now.
The power lies with readers and in the main they are happy reading a mix of print and electronic books in the contained, linear fashion they have been for hundreds of years. This will change, and the greatest challenge to the publishing industry will be what we change for an audience that doesn't care for this experience. One way is to work on literacy and the importance of the long-form reading experience through education and the other is to adapt what that experience is, to innovate around new types of digital reading. This can only be achieved with 'authors' who are innovating in this space.
The question arises then: what is the future of storytelling? Who will emerge in this landscape? Publishers are ready to experiment, refine and lead this process because, rather than being mere gatekeepers, that is the essence of publishing.
Find out more by clicking below.
A little bit of free TLC for your Manuscript
There's that well known phrase - "money can't buy you happiness" which is in many ways pretty true. However, money can buy you the things you need to be happier, and help you to get a foot into doors that may otherwise remain firmly closed.
Although writers are 'meant' to be tapping away in garrets, in reality a lack of funds can make it very difficult for writers to get ahead.
Writing the first draft can be hair-pulling work, but when you have to edit, re-draft and revisit your work that’s when it some help comes in handy. Words meld together and you start to genuinely wonder whether the structure of your plot has any virtue whatsoever. An outsider is needed.
Having another set of eyes, preferably experienced ones, taking a look at your manuscript is incredibly useful, and many writers turn to a reading agency or editor for help. Unfortunately, this is where the money comes in, and it can be galling for a writer with limited funds to find that their crucial next step is just out of reach, all for the sake of a bit of extra money!
The Literary Consultancy is one such agency that writers turn to, for an impartial eye, and is the UK's leading manuscript assessment service. Aware of the financial restrictions many writers face they, through a generous Arts Council grant, are offering a solution - free reads! I know, FREE! It's not often you get something completely free, so this is a really exciting opportunity.
Recommended by Arts Council England, along with various big name publishing houses, TLC has a strong track record of helping writers get into print. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain access to a very useful service - so if you live in the East of England, are on a low income and are in need of the kind of invaluable assistance that The Literary Consultancy can offer then Free Reads is for you.
Writers will be selected based on merit, so if you think your manuscript has what it takes, then get applying, and you could be taking that next step on the ladder to literary success, for free.
Deadline - 5.00pm Thursday November 13th 2014
for more information on the scheme, and for how to apply.
An Autumn of readings awaits, with UEA Live
Let’s face it; the UEA Creative Writing department has an impressive record. Disconcertingly impressive. In fact for me, sometimes, the Creative Writing MA takes on an almost mythical quality with oodles of skilled writers passing through it’s hallowed year, and coming out the other side as not just writers, but that most sought-after of all titles – “authors”. It seems almost too good to be true!
Luckily for all of us, and our bookshelves, it’s very true indeed, and even better than that the alumni are very lovely people who are happy to come and do free (yes, FREE!) readings in Norwich and share their absurdly good writing with us for UEA Live.
Not only that, but they will be joined by the next generation of writers – the UEA Creative writing undergrads - who will be reading from their own work. All the writers will be sticking around afterwards, too, so that you can have a chat to them about their work, their motivation, and the weather... whatever you fancy!
I’ve always found that sharing work, and discussing it with others is an inspirational activity,and leads to a walk home bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm for reading,writing and generally wallowing in the written word. These events sound as though they’re certainly going to lead to such a walk home, and are also a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow readers and writers, whilst enjoying the magic of storytelling.
This is the second season of UEA Live, and the format of these evenings sees established writers, all graduates of UEA’s Creative Writing Programmes, give readings, supported by current Creative Writing Undergraduates.
This year’s line up includes Tash Aw, Eliza Robertson, Dea Brøvig,and Emma Healey amongst others. UEA Live will be running from the 2nd of October, right through until the 23rd April, with one or two readings per month throughout the city, so there’s an opportunity for even the busiest person to fit in one or two of these exciting evenings. There's no need to book, you can just turn up on the night; enjoy a drink or two, and some tip-top chat. See you there!
Thurs 2nd October 2014, 7.15pm: EMMA HEALEY
Author of Elizabeth is Missing (Penguin, 2014)
Venue: Cafe Bar Marzano, Norwich
Thurs 30th October 2014, 7.15pm: JONATHAN GIBBS
Author of Randall; or The Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press, 2014)
Venue: Cafe Bar Marzano, Norwich
Thurs 27th November 2014, 7.15pm: EMILY BERRY
Author of Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013)
Venue: Cafe Bar Marzano, Norwich
Delve into darkness with a preview of Noirwich Crime and Noir Festival
I've always loved the word “noir,” it has a curiously decadent quality which lends the subject a strange luxurious and exclusive air. Along with adding a smoky sultriness to the film and literary genre that it describes, it has also allowed me to couch my life-long obsession with Humphrey Bogart in far more impressive terms – “I'm into Film Noir” sounds so much cooler.
In contrast, “crime” really is a no-nonsense sort of genre, with the mention of it serving to accelerate the pulse, and quicken the breath. Both genres though, however different on first impressions, share a pleasing darkness, and an offer of an exploration into the strange and shadowy side of the human psyche. Through crime and Noir we are offered the opportunity to dice with death, and take a voyeuristic adventurous journey into the dark places of the society, although almost always with that sidelong wink at the comedy lurking just beneath the surface.
I'm not the only person who enjoys such things though, along with our partners, the Crime Writers' Association, the UEA, and Waterstones we at WCN are about to embark upon Noirwich, a deliciously dark festival of crime and noir writing, and it looks as though it’s going to be a blood-curdlingly good!
The events during the festival offer a pleasing range to suit all manner of tastes, which means I can get stuck into all sorts of different readings, talks, screenings and sessions with no fear of overlap. So where might we bump into one another? Well, I suspect I’ll be at Frank’s Bar on 14th Sept at 5pm for the (free) screening of The Killer Inside Me, and I’ll certainly be taking the opportunity to go and see Sophie Hannah. A crime writer of much renown, and an international bestseller,Hannah has written a new Poirot novel, returning Agatha Christie’s popular moustachioed detective to the page. With the full backing of the Christie family, and a huge amount of excitement bubbling up online about the first chapter of The Monogram Murders which has been released as a taster (download here) the chance to hear from the lady herself, as she discusses the pressures and pleasures of writing Poirot, is too fantastic an opportunity to miss!
Meanwhile Val McDermid will be talking about the challenges and pleasures of writing books of murderous mystery, and how best to depict brutal serial killers (amongst other things!) Plus, hot off the press, she will be launching her new book The Skeleton Road that will have been published by Little, Brown only the day before! I'm very excited to have the opportunity of hearing a best-selling, critically acclaimed, author read from her new work, and I'm considering whether I'll muster the courage to stick up my hand at the end, and ask a question, too.
These are just my personal highlights of Noirwich though, there are a whole host of other exciting events ready to chill the blood, including a celebration of the CWA Diamond Dagger, an exploration of new writers on the scene, writing masterclasses, a Nordic Noir Workshop, and even an exploration into the works of a forgotten, but absurdly talented local crime writer, S.T. Haymon. So do go and conduct your own investigation into the exciting selection of events on offer – it’s going to be a festival to die for!
Noirwich is sponsored by Norwich BID
An evening with Val McDermid is sponsored by Right Angle Events
An Evening with Megan Abbott is sponsored by Dardan Security.
Writing that Inspires: Some breathtaking competition entries...
I'm filled with a little foreboding as I type this – my first blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich! I'm Anna, the new Communications Assistant, and I've been here now for two weeks, which is either a long time or a very short time depending on how you view such things.
Since I've been here I've been working on our webpage that will announce the winners of our Inspires programme, a writing competition for 18 – 30 year olds, run in conjunction with IdeasTap.
Creating the web page has involved various confusing admin activities which I won’t trouble you with, but it has also afforded me the opportunity to read the entries of our ten winners. Whilst I've been tucking into their work I've been struck by a few things – firstly, how good they all are! The Inspires scheme will allow these winners to work with mentors over the next six months to improve their writing, to hone their skills, to learn about the world of becoming a professional writer, and yet before their six months even begin, I've found their work utterly absorbing.
It is most certainly a major bonus of my new role that I get the opportunity to read great writing.
At the moment, I love short stories and am constantly fascinated by the seemingly effortless structures of these stories that take an image that you feel could run to 500 pages, and somehow condense it down into a perfect portrait of a moment, or a feeling. Reading extracts of our winners’ work, I've been drawn in, and moved, by such portraits ten times over. They are dark, funny, mysterious with moments of pure clarity and deep reflection that left me feeling full and satisfied.
As with all good work,images and fragments have stuck with me, and such images as Lauren Van Schaik Smith’s Iowan cousins in Flood Tide or this line in her opening paragraph, had me convinced me that I was going to really enjoy reading on – ‘It was the lion half of March when she died and high July when the road lolls in,a river of stinking tar nosing through the low ground and scrub. We watch it for a week, first from the roof and then from the beans, Zora and I both squint- pinching its black neck in our fingers and counting the thumbs between its roll and our momma’s head’.
I also loved floating into the beautiful inner world of Lindsey Fairweather’s character Walter, in Flowers For Eleanor, and I've returned a few times to the strange world of Maria Hummer’s Open House which spoke to me so perfectly about my own constant desire (mostly encouraged by ill-advised purchases of lifestyle magazines) to live that bizarrely perfect, highly improbable, life found in magazines and films.
As part of my induction at WCN I've recently been acquainting myself with the various schemes that the Writers’ Centre is running, or has run in the past, and this is not the first writing competition that the Writers’ Centre has run.
Indeed, WCN has an impressive history of nurturing new talent through the Escalator Writing Competition which has run annually for the past eight years. With Inspires running this year,in its place,this year is a chance for younger writers to take centre stage. With the record of previous Escalator winners, I can see that our fresh crop of talent will undoubtedly be going places. Past Escalator winners have gone on to be highly-praised and published - Kate Worsley, Nicola Upson, Guy Saville and Sarah Ridgard are just some of the Escalator alumni who have gone on to publish acclaimed novels.
This year’s Inspires winners certainly have something to look forward to, as they are helped to be the very best that they can be, and I can’t wait to see their work at the end of this process.
Anyway, enough from me, you need to go and have a read of our winners’ entries, get to know them from their biogs, and follow them on twitter! Make yourself a coffee, settle down and enjoy their pieces, I can guarantee it will be an hour very well spent.
What’s the Point of Books? by Michael Rosen
This is an original provocation from Michael Rosen, delivered in person on Monday 25th August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at the launch of the National Conversation. (Prefer PDF? Click here or listen to the below event podcast.)
With literature, human beings have invented a way of enabling us to try out and weigh up the possibilities of action and thought. It attaches ideas and feelings to beings we recognise and care about. When we find we care, we usually spend some time speculating about the whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, the truths and untruths of the thought and action. We may well wonder about why and how we cared about these beings. I can make a case here for suggesting that these speculations in and after the reading process of literature mostly take place in a slow, reflective, contemplative way. Nothing wrong with speedy reflection. It’s just that it’s good to have some slow stuff as well. One of the reasons for the slowness of literature is that there is a tradition that it is often narrated ‘inside and out’. We view things from outside of protagonists through what they say and do, but we also often view things from inside them through what they think. This gives us multi-dimensional ways of understanding events.
I think I can also make a case for the function of written language here. Written language requires us to live in two time frames simultaneously: one is linear, following one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter after another; the other is multi-directional and involves us in recollecting (going backwards and harvesting what we’ve read), predicting (going forward) and interpreting (going forwards and backwards in order to come up with a sense of it all). Of the many other kinds of mental work going on here, I could also pick out the fact that while we do the work of interpreting what we think of as the meaning, we are also playing along with the physical matter of sound, rhythm and cadence of language. A ‘dirty dustbin’ is not the same as a ‘filthy garbage can’.
One of the most pleasurable ways of engaging with written language in these ways is through literature, probably because of the way it engages our feelings. Another is that we often have the sense that the writer expressed things that we find difficult to express ourselves or, related to this, that a writer expressed something more to the point or more illuminating or more resonant or more beautiful than we could do.
Is all this important?
My bias is to say yes. I’ll justify that by saying that it is important on account of the primacy of language in all our human interactions. Language is not simply a means of communication, it is the means by which we do things. Though we have invented activities which are seemingly less or more shot through with language, (as with the difference between, say, composing music and winding up the case for the defence) ultimately it is impossible to be who we are, to think and to survive without the language we use and hear.
My case would be that the literature that we come to regard as profound, enables us to use and hear the kind of language which helps us think and reflect more, which in turn - if I’m right - helps us do things and ultimately to survive. In addition, because of the special role that literature plays in offering us possibilities of thought and action, it also helps us to think of change - personal or social. I believe that in a world that is for millions of people imperfect and cruel we are in desperate need for anything that helps us think about change.
In our time, we do not have equal access to profound literature. Or, put another way, the pattern of people choosing to turn to literature for deep thought, is very uneven. Some people do. Many people don’t. In crude terms, we might say that there can only be two reasons for this - the behaviour of either writers or audiences: is it that writers of profound fiction aren’t good enough to engage with the audiences who don’t read? or is it that those non-reading audiences have found other places to go for the experience of fiction - TV and film in particular?
Another reason, though, might be in our formation: how we are educated both as readers and writers. Might it be possible that even as we have created mass education and mass reading the people who lay down the curriculum and examine it have created a school regime that puts many people off reading for pleasure?
There may well be others.
But let’s take these three possibilities in turn:
Writers. Is it possible to distill the distinctive aspects of great and popular books of the past and ask if writers today can’t or won’t write books like that? Is there something distinctive about, say, what Chaucer, or Shakespeare or Dickens did? Or do they maintain their status through some kind of hoax, some kind of continuous puff from an elite that justifies its own existence by elevating its favourites into all-time classics?
I think there is some truth in my caricature of the elite. I may even be part of that elite myself. At the same time, these writers in their different ways did something special that is worth hanging on to: they were prepared to consider the lives of people across the whole of society and create situations (scenes, if you like) which enable us to wonder about whether society is just.
In Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, prologue and epilogue, a man who was supposedly sanctioned by God’s representative on earth to sell pardons for a living, tells his audience a story about how the lust for gold is self-destructive. The job of selling pardons was highly dubious with pardons being in essence, alibis or let-offs for malfeasance before the deed. And who had the power or the right to sell them anyway? The tale the Pardoner tells is circumscribed by several of the Ten Commandments: we shouldn’t be coveting what belongs to others, we shouldn’t steal and we shouldn’t kill. Having told the story, the Pardoner then tries to sell his pardons. This enrages at least one member of the audience who threatens to do damage to his nether parts.
The tale itself engages us with down-the-line questions of good and bad, a good deal of it raising the matter of how we would behave in such circumstances but with the framing - the part where the Pardoner and his audience interact - we are taken into social and political questions to do with whether pardoning is legitimate. However, if the Pardoner had told a dull, hectoring tale, there wouldn’t have been much chance that either his audience or us would be moved or troubled. Instead, his tale is fascinating and full of cunning and tricks that go wrong. It’s convincing. There’s a disconnect between the good tale and the bad person telling it. This gives us ironies to think about; gaps, if you like, in which to do some wondering about the imperfections of the people in the story and the imperfections of this social phenomenon of pardoning.
I suspect that at least some of the ingredients for great literature are here. Modern-day pardoners walk amongst us with falsenesses to sell. We need Chaucers to show the ironies of their trade.
At the end of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, the perpetrator of what looks like the worst crime of the day, comes to realise that he was tricked and fooled into thinking the opposite of what was true. The stated reason from the deceiver as to why he did the deceiving is that he was slighted for promotion. However, the way he expresses this brings the racial origins of his superior into the matter. He says, ‘I hate the Moor’, not, ‘I hate my boss’. We have come to know that racialising conflict in this way is not innocent. In this case, it drags the hierarchies of society at large into what would otherwise be a purely professional matter of someone deserving or not deserving promotion.
This is why and how the term ‘tragedy’ referred originally to a social and political form of literature, one which showed us that the roots of a good deal of sorrow and pain can be found in social ambition. Nowadays we might say that an accident is a tragedy and we won’t need to discover or explore any possible social origins for that accident. This leaves us with inchoate feelings around fate or coincidence.
I'm going to suggest that we need ‘tragedy’ in the old sense of the word.
The old system of nurturing writers was for them to winkle out patrons who themselves might be exponents of what you the writer thought was wrong. Today the nurturing is done through a marriage between state patronage and the market. Most writers don’t earn enough to make a living from their writing alone. With one or two exceptions, publishers stay afloat through the selling of film and TV rights. The question here is whether these arrangements nurture the kind of talent that can produce great literature or whether it squanders and discourages it. Do bursaries and grants help? Does the directing of these towards reading and writing groups have a more significant outcome than cherry-picking individuals as beneficiaries? Are there ways in which the most profitable ends of the business can share any of their proceeds by way of seed corn to the next generation of writers? Some kind of targeted or ring-fenced tax?
This links us to the question of audiences and the matter of whether we are too easily seduced by non-literary forms. The problem here is as I’ve stated: there are flows of cash and talent between the highly profitable screen business and the less profitable book trade. Two ironies here: writing is surviving by its relationship with the very thing that may well be strangling it; though the screen business appears to audiences as to be without writing, most of what we see is the result of millions of hours of scripting, and rests in massive part, on the literature of the previous three thousand years.
I thought that Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ were great films. I didn’t read the books. If there are millions like me, does this mean that future McEwans and Ishiguros should sidestep the business of writing books and just work on selling screenplays? In which case we would lose at the very least some of that slow contemplation and reflection, the inside-outside dimensions and the prolonged, exclusive engagement with language itself.
So, to the question of our schooling.
The main obstacles in the way of reading for pleasure have been the narrowing down of the criteria of success of a school to its test and exam scores in very few subjects; the narrowing down of comprehension of literature to questions that prove what are called ‘retrieval’ and ‘inference’ with interpretation being sent out of class; the decline of local and school libraries; and the decline of the independent school bookshop movement. In a world where we grant children and young people autonomy over the purchase and use of consumer goods, it’s ironic that when it comes to the consumption of literature within education, there is still a great deal of compulsion enforced through tests, exams, inspections and league tables - hardly the right environment to foster speculation, reflection and the slow engagement with language.
We need a government to allow what Ofsted’s own report on English studies recommended: that every school should develop its own policy on reading for enjoyment for all. If this happened, this would engender a national conversation between all the parties involved in creating readers, otherwise known as pupils, teachers, parents, carers and researchers. It won’t happen unless the government makes it a policy. But I suspect it won’t happen if government thinks that it should meddle with how the conversation takes place. It needs what we might call legislation without interference.
What do you think?
Listen to the event
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey: Why Books Matter
An introduction to our National Conversation events by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Writers' Centre Norwich Board Member.
When I was about eight, I made weekly visits to a speech therapist. I had a stutter, and together we worked to find ways to overcome it. As part of her treatment, she would sit with me while I read out loud to her – the book was C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
. That final word was problematic. The first time I had to read it out loud she said: say it slowly. If you can get it right, we’ll have peach melba before you leave. I got it right. We had peach melba and ever since then I have been trying to find my way to Narnia.
Books are for pleasure and entertainment. For escape. They are also for information, discovery, guidance, discussion, debate and so much else besides. Books are about expressing ourselves as human beings, connecting with each other, telling our stories and imagining new worlds and new possibilities. As we begin a national conversation on our reading, writing and engagement with books, it seems fitting to provoke a discussion about the reasons we think books (and their authors) are important.
Michael Rosen, beloved children’s author and champion of literacy and reform in education, starts things off at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with the bold claim that books are intrinsic to our survival as human beings, and that, for a nation to thrive, it is essential that literacy and reading are placed at the heart of our society. Later this year, in October, Will Self will speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the future of the book in a digital age and Ali Smith will challenge us to consider the importance of literary translation at the South Bank festival in December.
The National Conversation is an invitation to join some of our country’s most talented thinkers as they explore the ways in which literature can have an impact on our lives, and to engage in finding solutions to the challenges facing writers and readers in our complex world. Beyond the questions we’ll ask is the real hope that this will indeed be a conversation about an art form that is as varied and dynamic as those who produce it. A conversation that includes any and all of us who have ever fallen into the pages of a book and found a place that felt like home.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE is former Deputy Editor of Granta magazine and now works as a freelance editor, critic and broadcaster. Her reviews are aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and she is the presenter of the recent BBC Radio 4 Archive on Four: A History of the N Word. Since joining the Board of WCN she has been active in the organisational changes and expansion of the company.
What is the Point in Books: a National Conversation Event with Michael Rosen
Monday 25th August 2014, 8.30pm, £10 / £8 conc, Edinburgh International Book Festival
Rosen, editor and literary critic, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (Chair) and panellists Denise Mina (Red Road) and Jamie Jauncey (Room 121) will explore the hard-hitting, controversial and vital questions surrounding our national artform. Find Out More.
Join The Discussion
If you use twitter please do join Michael Rosen and our panel online this Monday 25th (follow @WritersCentre and use the hashtag #NatConv), and enter the conversation. Otherwise please do check our website after the event, where the full provocation will be available for download and discussion.
Find out more about the National Conversation here.
Starting a National Conversation
What’s happening to writing, reading, publishing and bookselling in the modern world? Will the rise of online giants result in the end of publishing as we know it, or are we witnessing the rise of more and better books for all? Why do our bankers get paid a fortune when most authors struggle to make a living? Can independent bookshops lead the way as community hubs supporting new writers and readers alike? Do men recommend women writers to other readers and vice versa? Can we still find working class narratives in the middle class world of literary publishing? What will happen to our libraries and will they still stock books in twenty years time?
The ‘National Conversation’, is a major new programme from Writers’ Centre Norwich that both marks and helps us make our journey towards becoming the National Centre for Writing. Working with some of the most exciting, thoughtful and eminent writers and thinkers in the UK and further afield, the National Conversation is an attempt to engage readers, writers and everyone with a love for and interest in literature in the big questions which we’re facing.
Working across at least ten festivals and event programmes in London and across the UK, (including the Southbank Centre, Hay Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival and Cheltenham Festival) the National Conversation will explore hard-hitting questions about the ways in which we produce, engage with and fund our national art form. Based on an initial commissioned provocation by an outstanding writer or thinker, each event is a curated conversation about the issues facing every part of the reading, writing, publishing and bookselling ecology.
With provocative think pieces by writers including Michael Rosen, Will Self, Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie, the National Conversation will be a cross-media project; the debate will begin at live events around the country (we really do want to be national) and will be carried on on-line via Twitter, Facebook and our own website as well as on the websites of media partners. Finally, we hope the conversations will have an afterlife by informing innovative projects we commission with partners in the coming years.
Launching at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in summer 2014 and following the festival season through to the late autumn the following year, the National Conversation aims to be an evolving conversation between readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, literary agents, libraries and, in fact, anyone who cares about reading and writing and the power of stories.
All of the commissioned pieces, event audio and video, dialogues and conversations will be published as a resource on the National Centre for Writing website, so if you can’t join us at one of the events, you can join in the conversation online and tell us what you think the real issues are.
Join us at the first event at Edinburgh International Book Festival:
What is the Point in Books: a National Conversation Event with Michael Rosen
Mon 25th August, 8:30pm, £10/£8 conc, Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Don’t miss poet and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen as he gives a provocation on why books are intrinsic to our survival as human beings. Joined by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Denise Mina and Jamie Jauncey, they will explore the vital questions surrounding our national artform.
Book your ticket | More information
House of a Thousand Doors
William Galinsky, the Artistic Director of Norfolk and Norwich Festival
emailed one day and said ‘take a look at Walk With Me
it’s a piece from a guy called Rob Van Riskwick who I met recently. It’s wonderful. It’s an app that responds to location, light, other people and a lot more besides. The potential for story-telling is really exciting. I’m not sure how well I’m explaining this. Let’s talk.’
William has lots of ideas. It’s his job. They sometimes scare me, his ideas. Mostly they intrigue me, as this one did. I took a look. I saw what he meant: stories that respond to individual ‘participants/readers’ depending on where they are physically, socially, climatically and more - a real life adventure driven and supported by locative technologies and powered by great writing…
I’d recently introduced William to a friend of mine, the writer Naomi Alderman
. She’s that rare sort of writer who can produce critically acclaimed novels (Disobedience, The Liars’ Gospel
) and short stories at the same time as being an innovator in the world of gaming (Zombies Run! Perplex City
) and being a naturally collaborative and inquisitive early adopter of technologies of all sorts.
‘Do you think Naomi would be interested?’ said William.
‘Let’s find out,’ I said.
‘Good idea,’ he said.
Introductions were made. An application to the Without Walls
R&D fund was made. A positive
decision was received – hip hip!
So what are we doing? Well, we’re bringing together composer-technologists Strijbos and Vanrijswijk
to explore how the iPhone app technology they continue to develop can be used as the basis for an outdoor gaming experience that maps a fully responsive, interactive virtual environment onto a range of real-life cities.
The finished app will be available to download in participating cities (Norwich will be one – we can’t reveal the others yet…) and could run simultaneously at multiple festivals. The story will develop based on choices made by the festival audience member in real physical space. For example, users are given a choice to turn left or right or pass through one door or another in a real environment and depending on that choice, the virtual story moves in a different direction.
The game will build on Naomi Alderman’s passion for gaming and story-telling and Strijbos and Vanrijswijk’s digital composition work using an app which manipulates sound in response to location, crowd/place density and other factors on smart-phone devices.
As an audience member/player, you’ll become immersed in a real-time story with music, digital content and social interaction in a live environment. Will the people around you be actors? Some of them might be. Will you know how the story ends? No. It’s partly down to you. Will you experience a place, its buildings, its people and its history in a new way? Oh yes. Yes indeed…
About Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. In 2006 she won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones' 25 Writers for the Future. Her first novel, Disobedience
, was published in ten languages; like her second novel, The Lessons
, it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime
. Penguin published her third novel, The Liars' Gospel
, in August 2012. Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Prospect,
on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the BAFTA-shortlisted alternate reality game Perplex City
. She's written online games for Penguin, the BBC, and other clients. In 2011 she wrote the Doctor Who
tie-in novel Borrowed Time
. In 2012, she co-created the top-selling fitness game and audio adventure Zombies, Run! Naomi broadcasts regularly, has guest-presented Front Row
on BBC Radio 4 and writes regularly for Prospect
and the Guardian
. In 2012 and 2013, Naomi has been mentored by Margaret Atwood as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and in April 2013 she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in their once-a-decade list.
About Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos
Dutch composers Rob van Rijswijk (1971) and Jeroen Strijbos (1970) both graduated with honors from the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, specializing in Electronic & Computer Composition. The hallmark of Strijbos and Van Rijswijk's collective body of work is a combination of electro-acoustic composition and spatial elements, design and innovative music technology. The composers seek out zones where different disciplines meet and intersect.
Their work has been awarded an honorary mention for the PRIX Ton Bruynèl 2010 and First Music prize by The Prins Bernhard Cultural Foundation Netherlands 2012, and is performed and exhibited in among others Amsterdam, London, Glasgow, Berlin, Zürich, Istanbul, Shanghai, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Montreal.
Concerts & installations:
• FuChair 2014 - installation with ensemble of 5 Swiss made rockin' chairs
• 360° | Seascapes 2013 - installation / expanded sound cinema
• SoundSpots GraphicScore 2013 - architectural graphic score of SoundSpots
• Cells 2012 - concert for cello & e-cello, electric guitar & live electronics
• Cross Avenue 2012 - concert for NY string-quartet Ethel & live electronics
• Walk With Me 2011 - composer app for iphone, tool to write topographical compositions
• Vox 2010 - concert with live electronics, 2 sopranos & architectural acoustics
• Dadoc 2010 - an interactive sound installation and design object
• Whispers 2009 - ceramic sound sculpture
• Air Sensible 2008 - concert for duo-accordion and live electronics
• Muss Mann Erleben 2007 - constallation for one SoundSpot
• SoundSpots 2007 - a directional multi-speaker sound installation
• "Composition, Time & Space", oeuvre publication (2013)
• "Whispers", graphic score booklet with historical background (2010)
• "Air Sensible", graphic score booklet with historical background (2008)
• "SoundSpots", graphic score booklet with historical background (2007)
The Writing Process Blog Tour - Claire Hynes
The Writing Process Blog Tour involves writers from around the world taking up the challenge to answer four questions about writing. This week the tour has reached WCN friend, Claire Hynes, who in the past has collaborated with WCN to organise literary events for Norfolk Black History Month.
I’m thrilled to have been passed the challenge by the talented and energetic fiction writer Irenosen Okojie
. Irenosen’s first novel Butterfly Fish
will be published next year.
What am I working on?
My first novel, which reworks Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about women and writing, A Room of One’s Own. I’m pretty obsessed by the essay, which I explored as part of my PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. I’m also finishing a freelance feature article for Mslexia, the women’s writing magazine, to be published in September.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t believe it’s a great challenge producing work which is different. So many fresh voices, experiences and perspectives have yet to be heard. For instance, Virginia Woolf is often written about in ways which I don’t always relate to. The approach I’m taking with my novel is unconventional, but I’d rather not give too much away.
Why do I write what I do?
I’m particularly interested in exploring themes of morality and ethics, as with my short story In Her Hair, which has been selected for publication by the Bath Short Story Prize 2014. I love the freedom of writing whatever I want to write. Creating a fictional world is a magical process, and the writing process - when it goes well - can feel exhilarating. But I enjoy the speed and power of journalism. I wrote a piece for The Guardian earlier this year about my decision to boycott particular clothing companies. It was a satisfying feeling when, following the article’s publication, one of the brands I identified included a non-white woman in their brochure for the first time.
How does my writing process work?
I’d like to say that I rise every morning at 7 am, lock myself in my study for five hours, take an afternoon stroll to mull over ideas and rely on an adoring partner to provide editing suggestions and bring refreshments. The reality is I don’t have much of a routine at all. I balance creative writing projects with paid writing projects and parenting. Some days I don’t get to write more than one sentence. On occasions, I write until the early hours of the morning and suffer the consequences the following day. Last weekend I went to a friend’s party and sneaked upstairs, slightly light-headed on mojitos, to write in my notepad for an hour. It was a real treat.
I will be passing on the challenge to my good friend, Devika Ponambalam
, who I met on the the UEA Creative Writing MA course. Devika has written and directed several short films. She trained in Fiction Directing at the National Film and Television School, UK and has directed films for mainstream UK television. At University of East Anglia, she began work on a novel Gaugin’s Lover
, which is now a feature script in development. Last year she wrote and directed a 20 minute film Broken Eternity
, funded by Film4 and the British Film Insitute.
Claire has collaborated with Writers’ Centre Norwich organising literary events for Norfolk Black History Month. Her short story In Her Hair
has been selected to appear in the Bath Short Story Prize 2014 anthology and she is working on her first novel. Claire has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia, and as a freelance writer, she contributes to national publications including The Guardian
and New Statesman
. She has won a George Viner Memorial Award for journalism and she is a director and editor at Gatehouse Press.