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‘The Unexpected Professor’. John Carey in Conversation with D.J.Taylor.

Posted By: Elizabeth Hankins, 27 June 2014

‘Reading makes you see that the ordinary is never ordinary’. 

As part of the 2014 Worlds Literature Festival, literary critic and Professor of literature John Carey was joined in conversation by local writer D.J. Taylor at Norwich Playhouse. Full of tales of grammar school, Oxford colleges and a historic London, the evening was very fitting to the festival’s theme of nostalgia; a very English nostalgia. 

The evening began with both John Carey and D.J. Taylor reminiscing about their respective days as an Oxford student. Taylor recalled his fellow students’ impersonations of their excited literature professor as he spoke of the work of Charles Dickens-  that lecturer was John Carey.

The theme of nostalgia continued as Carey spoke of his John Carey- copyright Matt Writtlechildhood in 1930s London and how his reading in this time developed his feelings towards literature. Carey stated that his childhood was especially middle class using the example of his regular browsing of huge bound copies of turn of the century Figaro Illustre in his father’s drawing room.  It was noted, however, that middle class childhood generally receives less exposure in art and literature than that of the working classes. Perhaps then, this type of nostalgia may be seen as relatively scarce and slightly unusual.    

Carey explained how his childhood shaped him through his upbringing, education and reading. He attended a London grammar school where a teacher recommended Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. This book in which humans were only the hunters and the enemies, opened his mind to a new way of feeling and thinking, specifically towards literature. Carey claims that he is who he is today because of his grammar school education, that without it he would not have been able to achieve what he has. Carey was quite defensive of the grammar school system, but sees its disadvantages. He believes that he would not have been able to thrive at other schools and that even today he can see many middle class children feel they must hide their backgrounds from their peers, a view which members of the evening’s audience certainly agreed with.

After receiving a scholarship for Oxford University and later a Congratulatory First in his degree, Carey began to teach at Christ Church College, Oxford where his class consciousness developed. Describing this period as ‘Brideshead Revisited in the 1950s’ and ‘incredibly aristocratic,’ Carey spoke about being referred to as a ‘no-one’ and the attitude of entitlement which many of the students there held. An unusual environment for a former grammar school boy. 

As a lecturer at Oxford, Carey campaigned for a change in the Literature syllabus, a move away from the previous reforms of J.R.R Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. Until Carey’s intervention (alongside others) little literature produced after 1832 was taught at Oxford. Carey called for a need to keep up with current literature and it was through this that his interest in Victorian literature continued to grow. 

D.J. Taylor used this moment to describe Carey as ‘an anti-academic academic,’ a label which Carey approved of. Perhaps this term appears so apt due to Carey’s views on the opinion of art. According to Carey, when it comes to art, whether that be an extravagant painting or a short story, there is not an absolute judgement. He asks how one person’s opinion can be more valuable, or even more correct than another’s and suggests that if he is unable to persuade a person to his own opinion of a piece of art, ‘they are not inferior, they are just different’. Indeed, all art is subjective. If something is classed as great art it is not, as Carey proposes, ‘written in the sky’. 

Interestingly, Carey described how we, as a people, have always strived to place value on art. He first gave the example of theological art; it is God who chooses what is good and bad art. He also spoke of neuro-aestheticians who research the reactions of the brain when viewing art during a scan. Ultimately, positive reactions to art in these scans would determine what can be classed as ‘good’.

To conclude the evening’s conversation, Carey expressed his views on reading and the benefits and advantages it undoubtedly brings. He stated that by reading, one is inviting self-doubt and showing willingness to challenge one’s own perceptions. ‘Book burners,’ stated Carey ‘try to destroy ideas different from their own, readers do the opposite’.

By the end of the evening, audience members were full of feelings of self-belief and felt that their opinion mattered equally as much as the next person’s. The conversation between John Carey and D.J. Taylor proved to be insightful and inspiring, leaving the audience with a long reading list, many of which are Carey’s own titles.

Find out more about the 2014 Worlds Literature Festival.

Find out more about John Carey.

Reading List
Tarka the Otter- Henry Williamson
Lord of the Flies- William Golding
The Hanging- George Orwell
What Good are the Arts?- John Carey
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life- John Carey 
Thackeray: Prodigal Genius- John Carey   

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Worlds 2014: The Ecstasy of Impossibility – A Provocation from James Scudamore

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 27 June 2014

Our fourth provocation is from author James Scudamore, and explores a nostalgia manufactured by reading.

James begins by saying that he will be giving a more whimsical provocation on his young reading experiences. He says that he envies his young self and the way he devoured books, gulping down 1984, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby in just one week. As a young reader, he was an intense reader, wantonly unleashing seminal classics and texts upon his unformed mind. Now he feels he has to ponder so much more on his reading.    

As a boy James spent a great deal of time living in foreign countries; finding his surroundings strange and pining for the familiar. He found his home in books and the characters he identified with the most were the ones who had buried themselves in books, finding solace in reading like James himself had done. These characters and James himself are nostalgic for a world which doesn’t exist, preferring the imagined fictions to the real world.

One of the first books in which James found a character submerging themselves in fiction was Le Grand Meaulnes by the French author Alain-Fournier. James Wood describes these characters as ‘enchanted narrators’- those who prefer to wrap themselves in worlds of make-believe and may or may not survive encountering the real world. In Le Grand Meaulnes, James Scudamore said he first found evidence of the impact of reading, that his early reading experiences were shared by others, and, more, written about. The Great Gatsby and The Go-Between can comfortably be included in this doomed fantasists club. 

But this doomed fantasists club, these enchanted narrators, show that through literature we can remember experiences we’ve never had, visit places that we’ve never been to and that may not even exist. They show that we inherit our dreams from fiction. This longing is even more pronounced because it is unattainable.

This unattainable longing is perhaps responsible for the once widely held belief that reading too much fiction will make you mad.

Don Quixote
was one of the first fictions which was self-analytical. It invented the modern notion of imagined truth. In Don Quixote there is a simple joy in taking refuge in imagination. In Madame Bovary Emma also takes refuge in fiction, yet as Don Quixote bends Emma breaks. Emma’s familiarity with her surroundings breeds cohesive contempt, her imagination is soaked with the romantics and she is drawn towards the tumultuous. Her nostalgia for the imagined world leads to disaster, whilst Don Quixote is able to meld his nostalgia for fiction with the reality of life.

As James says “it would have done Emma good to get more!” Had she done so she would have experienced other realities and the advantages of her home would have stood out in contrast to the foreign. The familiar creates blinkered vision, removing the positives and focusing the negative, so we long for the alien, imagining it a perfect world precisely due to its unattainability.

This yearning is almost an addiction: one which can never be satisfied. As Philip Larkin writes in his poem 'The Importance Of Elsewhere', home is unsatisfactory because “here no elsewhere underwrites my existence”. The things we miss are the things we have invented, all the more desirable because of our rose-tinted glasses and our smoothing of the sharpened edges.

This is how we miss things – we invent them. We create fictions and imaginary homelands. After all, if what we seek can never be realised then it can never let us down. The South, James’ favourite Borges story, proves Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s dictum that “What matters in life is not what happens to us but what we remember and how we remember it”.

Much of James’ writing is heavily influenced by nostalgia and longing for fictional worlds. His first novel, The Amnesia Clinic, was partly generated by his longing for his childhood home, and partly by his desire to create a character who preferred the fictional world to reality. His writing and key characters were heavily influenced by Le Grand Meaulnes, Madame Bovary and Don Quixote.

When James was writing his third novel, Wreaking, he spent a lot of time in disused psychiatric hospitals, spending hours at a time in these abandoned buildings. A heavily affecting and isolating experience, James spent time ruminating about the emotional quality of the building, and came to realise that he felt undeniably nostalgic about the institutions which used to exist. Even a hand-written sign requesting that litter is put in the bin created a feeling of loss and longing within him.

Real life has a way of rejecting all logical series of events – it’s messy, unwieldy, unpredictable, unlike the ordered world of fiction. One of the greatest luxuries of being able to write for a living is that it makes you feel that life has meaning.

James’ finishes on a rousing note: if we can take the opposing forces of what we experience and what we can imagine, we can create something alive, burning with longing.


The discussion focused around the semantic limits of nostalgia and whether nostalgia translates into other languages and cultures.

There are more than ten words in China which describe nostalgia, yet the vocabulary is very politicised. Nostalgia is built into Chinese culture, you cannot change your family name, you cannot change your cultural identity or separate it from the past. The past in China is forever there. You follow the past- the present is not important to the Chinese, instead their behaviour and beliefs are informed by the past. In China there is a nostalgia for their culture, rather than their past - many writers want to find the root to Chinese culture, but don't know where the root is.

There are three words for nostalgia in Japanese, one from the French root as in Korean. References to nostalgia in Korea are mostly found in literature, but there is one word which specifically refers to the loss of home, called into action by the partition of North and South Korea.

In Welsh there is the word ‘hiraeth’ which has no direct English translation. It is defined partly as a homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed, partly a longing, or yearning for the Wales of the past.

In Italy they live and thrive on nostalgia. Nostalgia is a very normal daily life concept. They’re so connected to the past and place, that nostalgia is a very physical thing. According to our visiting delegate, Italians thrive on the nostalgia that other people feel for them.

The conversation moved on and focused on defining nostalgia, exploring whether nostalgia is to do with a particular time or place, if there is a space or zone before nostalgia.

Is nostalgia over romanticised? Is nostalgia a capitalist emotion? Is the idea of a homeland the biggest mistake the human race has ever made? This question around homeland brought ideas of territory and ownership into play. Is politics about someone's nostalgia versus another’s?

Countering the invented concept of nostalgia, was an examination of the physical manifestations of the emotion, from phantom limbs to nature reclaiming land.

The salon finished by wondering if we invent the very things we lack – is imagination vested in loss? Do we desire the loss and make things up to fill the holes?

Is a writers’ job a nostalgic digression, an exercise in wish-fulfilment?

Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival.

Find out more about James Scudamore

Watch James' Provocation:

Listen to James' Provocation:

Reading List

1984 – George Orwell
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
Le Grand Meaulnes - Alain-Fournier
The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley
Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

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Worlds 2014: The Want of War – A Provocation from Owen Sheers

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 20 June 2014

Our second provocation of Worlds Literature Festival was given by Owen Sheers, poet, scriptwriter and author. What follows is a summary of Owen’s provocation, and the discussion it inspired. (I’ve endeavoured to be as accurate as possible, but you can watch or listen to the provocation below.)
Owen begins by placing his provocation on The Want of War in the context of his own work. Owen’s writing has often explored war; his verse drama Pink Mist counterpoints soldiers’ experiences in Afghanistan with the feelings of their wives, mothers and partners when the soldiers return home. His most recent play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. was created with wounded soldiers, and won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Festival.

Owen then explores ideas of nostalgia and war through distance- the distance between home and battle ground, society and soldiers, war and peace. Most contemporary soldiers suffer nostalgic urges more on returning home then when stationed overseas. Melancholia, post traumatic stress disorder, exhaustion, shell shock, war neuroses, are just some of the terms that the military have used to try and define the psychological effects of war, and most of these conditions only become apparent when the soldier returns home.  

Nostalgia is defined as a desire to be somewhere else, in another time or another place. For soldiers, this nostalgia is often perverted, so the longing becomes for combat and war. Nostalgia is inverted with post traumatic stress disorder.

Robert Harris says; “There’s a hole in modern man where war should be.”

Soldiers have a professional desire to experience combat, for if they don’t it’s like going to a fairground and not going on the rides. Added to this professional desire is the fact that the majority of British soldiers are recruited from disadvantaged areas, meaning that many join the army to escape their homes and hometowns.

For soldiers going overseas to fight, it means that they can finally put their training into action, and do the job they are being paid to do. Yet, when the soldiers start fighting they find that fighting the enemy is no longer just about ‘doing the job’. Instead the soldiers experience a compression of belonging; from belonging strongly and loyally to your country, battalion, regiment, division, brigade, commanding officers, fellow soldiers. This loyalty becomes a form of love, and then this love is transformed into a desire for revenge, when those you love and are loyal to are injured or killed.    

Loss becomes the reason for fighting. You want to kill the enemy because they hurt your friends. Owen explains that for the soldiers the sense of attachment for their fellows was the strongest emotional bond they had experienced, beyond that even of family.  This bond is heightened by the extreme pressures of a warzone and the constant possibility of death. Fighting gives a strong sense of identity and purpose; the soldiers’ lives may be more precarious but also more precious.

On returning home the soldiers lose these heightened qualities of life. This is what lies at the heart of the pain they experience when they return. Many young men returning home live in a world of aftermath... This is to do with what conflict provides and society does not.

The soldiers’ internal scales are tipped off balance due to their experiences of conflict. The rapid transition from warzone to home-life exacerbates this, as the speed of their physical travel is far more rapid than the psychological shift.  

The second distance is harder to explain and harder to broach: it is the distance between the soldiers and the rest of society- they have experienced horrors on behalf of society, but society seems unaware of what the soldiers have experienced.

The narratives we hear of war are very one sided and manipulated by the media. We do not hear what our soldiers have done and how our soldiers have been affected by their actions in war. It's this gulf that soldiers want to breach; they want the public to know about their experiences. It is a failure of story that the true costs and experiences of war are glossed over.  

Owen follows this by saying that the best thing to cut through bland, homogenised propaganda is the well-told personal story. But how can we best capture these stories, and who should be telling them? In the past our soldiers wrote these stories (Sassoon, Owen, etc), but now these stories tend to be told by professional writers, outsourced and slightly dislocated, the primary source story modified by the lens of the writers’ distance.

Owen asks if it is not our duty as a society to work harder and give those who experience conflict the tools to write about it. He then wonders if we are guilty of a nostalgia for the easy narrative of past wars, taking comfort in the familiar and simple dialectics of World Wars, rather than tackling the more difficult situations of our present wars.

Perhaps literature can no longer realistically expect to be at the forefront of war- is this now the space for short films and YouTube etc? How can we make sure that stories of modern conflict are heard?


Our delegates began by discussing the lack of female voices in Owen’s provocation. Owen stated that he has very much wanted to interview women soldiers, but wasn’t able to. Instead, Owen explored the female experience in Pink Mist, telling the stories of the women left at home.

Returning soldiers may feel exiled at home, in part due to their previous urge to escape their home. This urge to join up and fight, and escape ordinary life, is a thread which runs through war narratives – Homer’s Odysseus couldn’t wait to escape home. When soldiers return home they often find they are unable to be close to their mothers and partners, instead longing for war.

War can give people emotional comfort- for soldiers they are living an intense life of risk, as well as being involved in a grand narrative of patriotism and history. But on returning home, the soldiers experience a second death, their sense of purpose removed and the society they were fighting for seeming to ignore them. It is extremely difficult for soldiers to listen to TV and the radio, and hear the war described as a waste of time and waste of life – it further ostracises the soldiers from society. There is a gap between the false narrative of war at home, and the real narrative at war.

It is necessary to listen to soldiers’ stories and get inside their wound, but there’s concern around these stories acting as propaganda for war, encouragement rather than deterrent. Already there is an industry of toys, comics, television and films which glamourises war and violence. Literature is a meaningful tool to react against the inbuilt propaganda of war.

Yet the idea of stories is to make sense of things- but how can you make sense of futile deaths and war, and how much do soldiers create revised narratives and stories of their experiences of war? Whilst Owen interviewed many soldiers to create his play, he was only able to interview them on one occasion, so wasn’t able to identify revised narratives, or discover how the soldiers’ stories had changed.

The discussion ended with a debate around authenticity in fiction – when writing about real events, and using people’s stories, how do you maintain the authenticity of the event, while moving further away from the truth? As a writer the challenge is to find the alternative imagined event that captures the authenticity of the real event

The conclusion? You need to write something which contains the truth even if it is not true.

Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival.

Find out more about Owen Sheers.

Watch Owen's Provocation:

Listen to Owen's Provocation:

Worlds Literature Festival Provocation - Owen Sheers by Writers' Centre Norwich

Reading List

Siegfried Sassoon
Wilfred Owen
Owen Sheers – Pink Mist
Kevin Powers- The Yellow Birds
Erich Maria Remarque- All Quiet On the Western Front
Richard Yates – A Good School
Ford Maddox Ford- Parade’s End
Dave Eggers- What is the What

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Denise Riley opens the Worlds Literature Festival Salon

Posted By: Katy Carr, 19 June 2014

What I want back is what I was
Before the bed, before the knife,
Before the brooch-pin and the salve
Fixed me in this parenthesis;
Horses fluent in the wind,
A place, a time gone out of mind.
From ‘The Eye-Mote’ by Sylvia Plath

In this, the tenth year of Worlds, forty writers gathered from across the globe to sit around a table in the beautiful Cathedral Hostry and introduce themselves to each other before settling in for four days of discussion, provocations and thought around the theme of nostalgia.

Is nostalgia a bromide? asks Denise Riley in the first of our Worlds Literature Festival 14 Salon provocations. Denise’s approach is indeed  provoking. Introducing the theme  a couple of hours earlier, Jon Cook talked of Odysseus and his epic quest, and the classic painful pull of home. Many of the writers around the room said that they often feel the siren call of nostalgia threading throughout their work. Their initial response to the term was mainly positive.

Yet Riley has no soft feelings for nostalgia. She says that the current usage of the term represents ‘a virus of weakening which is spreading all over our culture like an oily paste.’

Bromide is a popular 19th Century sedative which induces a state of detached sleepiness. Riley suggests that our current use of the term nostalgia as representing an idealised version of the past, is a kind of verbal bromide.

As nostalgia is not the same as reminiscence. It sanitises as it is expressed. It places the past at some safe distance, allowing us to believe that the past is over, that it is more sealed off than it actually is. It smoothes over like a tranquiliser, like a bromide, what ought to be raw and jagged.

Why is this weakened form of nostalgia so rampant? Watered down versions of the overused term abound. What are the sources of this cloudy vagueness? asks Denise.

Nostalgia is not the same as the search for the past or some lost good. There’s something a lot riskier going on than that; the underbelly of sanitised nostalgia is dark. Nostalgia doesn’t repeat or duplicate memory. It may even distort or evade the real work of memory.

Could nostalgia be a form of self deception, a social disease? Part of a profoundly conservative narrative indicating a lack of authenticity which is hostile to lived history?

Denise moves on from these questions to point out that you can in fact be nostalgic for a place you’ve never inhabited. And yes, nostalgia is a useful consolation which offers not only escapism, but also solace and self understanding for those who have been displaced. Indeed, you can feel nostalgia not only for the past, but for the future. 

Could it be that nostalgia is a search for wholeness? A wanting to become that which you have always felt that you should be. Riley reads the final stanza from Plath’s 'The Eye Mote', and the memorable lines: ‘What I want back is what I was.../A Place, a time gone out of mind’. These lines evoke a wish for a past that may never have existed in the first place. The desire for an impossible wholeness. 

More worryingly, the grand identifications of our social structures and religions may well rest on the same shaky foundations of the consolations of nostalgia. Reams of people pushing aside lived experience in search of an idea of what we must once have had in the past. But probably never did. Premature attachments to invented identifications.

Riley ends by positing that it is dangerous to pack so much into the hazy land of nostalgia. It holds too much. Instead we need to unpack the term, and look details of the past in the eye; using various forms of critique rather than the simple dark pull of nostalgia.

The discussion following the official provocation, starts with a defence of the term. Perhaps in the West nostalgia is somewhat embarrassing, but in other countries that are still searching for an identity, they need to look to their past in order to form their nationhood. When there is no collective meaning of the word home, then nostalgia can be useful. There are so many narratives that have not been written or told yet, so in many countries nostalgia is not narcissistic or conservative, but instead urgent and critical.

Yes, there are endless examples of how nostalgia is and has been put to political use for nefarious means. The nostalgic constructed version of the past always serves a present purpose in these cases. People are invited to feel sentimental about the past due to a realpolitik. 

So is nostalgia intrinsically conservative? And therefore, for artists, to be avoided? 

There is however, a difference between historical nostalgia and reflective nostalgia; the latter can be more personal and idiosyncratic, it can work as an individual approach to the past and an antidote to the official versions of things. As nostalgia doesn't have to have an object. Could that objectless personal desire perhaps not be a pure thing; a limitless urge for an integrity that has been lost?

Un-syrupy nostalgia can often be a call to action. Good writers can use that. In order to revive the term, the knowingness of nostalgia has to be deployed now, rather than dismissed. We have to sharpen up and remain authentic, without giving in to sentiment.

The writers end by agreeing that we need to separate out the various types of nostalgia in order to redeem the category. Maybe there’s a better word or words for the many different forms of nostalgia that we’re discussing, as the word nostalgia is too compromised, soft-focused for the complicated forms of personal experience it seeks to describe. The word nostalgia in its current incarnation obfuscates more than it clarifies. 

Follow the Worlds conversation on @WritersCentre on twitter, on these latest news posts, and find out more about all the writers and events here.


Listen to Denise Riley's provocation in full here:

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A Nostalgic Homecoming- Worlds Literature Festival Returns

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 07 May 2014

"Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." - Doug Larson

In six short weeks Worlds Literature Festival is back, and in its tenth year too. As in previous years, we at Writers’ Centre Norwich will be welcoming internationally renowned writers from around the globe for a week of readings, events, and in depth literary discussion. (I’ll be sitting at the back of the room, doing my best to capture the debate in 140 characters.)

The theme for our tenth annual extravaganza is, appropriately, nostalgia. Over the week, through the public and private events, our writers will be exploring halcyon days of yore, rose-tinted glasses, childhood memories and the idea of home. Our first Worlds Literature Festival was pre-recession, pre-iPhone and pre-ereader – a simpler time. Yet I’m told the inaugural Worlds was as ambitious in scope and events as our tenth is.

I’m delighted that JM Coeztee, Nobel Laureate, Man Booker Prize winner, and all round literary superstar, will be returning to Norwich. I’m also looking forward to meeting Louise Doughty (Appletree Yard), NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names), and Owen Sheers (Resistance). (You can view all the Worlds participants here.)

John Carey, Oxford Professor, author, critic and social commentator will be joining us at Norwich Playhouse (17th June, 7.30pm) to discuss his latest book; The Unexpected Professor and give us a personal tour of his reading history. There’ll be intimate tales of some of the literary world’s greatest heroes; from TS Eliot to Philip Larkin, accessible and interesting literary critics, and insights into a now vanished publishing industry. I must admit I’m hoping to hear scurrilous stories about the literary elite...

I am already preparing insightful comments to stammer unintelligibly at JM CoetzeeHe’ll be reading at the Norwich Playhouse (19th June, 7.30pm) with Xiaolu Guo, Julia Franck and Ivan Vladislavic. Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative was one of my favourite books of last year, capturing South Africa in a time of racial segregation and in an uneasy post-apartheid reality with stunning prose. (I’m thrilled that Double Negative is also one of our Summer Reads titles!)

As an ex-pat South African, I’m sure the event with JM Coetzee and Ivan Vladislavic will raise feelings of horror and nostalgia. I’m hoping, however, that my own emotional response will be contextualised through the private salons. These feature provocations from the visiting writers, with each author or translator exploring their own experiences of nostalgia, and its function as a literary device. Whilst the provocations are only open to Worlds participants, we will be live-tweeting from @WritersCentre, blogging and recording the events- so you won’t miss out.

A series of public readings will also be taking place over Worlds Festival- priced at £2, these readings offer introductions to four or five authors and their writing. Perfect for students, keen readers and aspiring writers, the Worlds Festival Reads too often leave me with a prohibitive reading list and the urge to scribble my own stories down.

So, please join us, online or in person for Worlds Literature Festival. We’d love to have you.

Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival.  

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" - L.P Hartley in The Go-Between

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If we stop reading novels then what might we lose? Han Han and the One

Posted By: Katy Carr, 07 August 2013

At the ninth annual Worlds Literature Festival Salon event, the international writers present were tasked with examining Ways of Writing: Ways of Reading, particularly focusing on how literature and story-telling have been affected by economic and digital changes.

Thursday brought a joint provocation from Peng Lun and Eric Abrahamsen which focussed on the best-selling Chinese writer Han Han. Peng Lun is a Chinese editor who publishes world renowned writers and edits Granta China whilst Eric Abrahamsen is a Chinese-English literary translator and publishing consultant who lives in Beijing. The following is a report of Peng and Eric’s provocation and of the discussion that followed.

Peng and Eric explained that Han Han changed a generation’s consciousness with his novel writing, but has now abandoned the long-form and is publishing one short idea a day on the internet. What does this say about the way things are going? Does this reflect a wider trend in moving from long form to short form, and is it symptomatic of attention spans in the modern age? Should we be worried?

Peng began by placing Han Han as typical of his generation in China; the first generation to come of age with the internet and to have grown up under the one child policy.

Han Han didn’t do well under China’s school system, but he was good at writing and so he focused on that. At 17 Han Han wrote a novel which became an instant best-seller. He was offered a place at Fudan University but declined, opting instead to become a racing car driver (with a brief foray into singing) and in so doing became an idol for millions of young people in China.

Han Han started a blog where he criticised the government on many issues in a sharp and satirical way. He gained the attention of the authorities, and some of his blogs were deleted by the internet companies due to pressure from the government. In 2010 he published a new magazine called the Party. The magazine was published in 2011 and sold over 1 million copies before being banned.

However, Han Han’s latest project is very different. ‘The One’ is a website that Han Han and his team has set up with a dotcom giant. It features one image, one question and one report each day, and each day’s content is different to the next, seemingly totally eclectic. As each daily update on ‘The One’ is disconnected from the one before there is little opportunity to respond to the ideas presented, no long-term build up, no chance for ideas to gather momentum.

‘The One’ is designed for China’s ‘e-babies’ (Han Han’s terminology), in order to give them content in a way that captures their attention and that is easily digestible. Is this a cause for concern? Could Han Han’s shift in form be representative of the way things are going? As a cultural icon his thoughts and ideas have real impact; he has taught the youth, who are extremely porous and prone to influence, how to rebel. Han Han has changed Chinese society.

Han Han’s key achievement was bringing irony into public discourse, in one of the least ironic places in the world. He did this through his novel. This is important as it gives people a way of staying under the radar and still being able to criticise. He gave the Chinese public, particularly the young people, options and a vocabulary that previously they did not have.

So, given his influence and power, what should we make of Han Han’s move from the traditional long-form novel to the online short-form?

Peng and Eric concluded by saying that they think this move away from the long-form into easily digestible online bites of ideas is concerning, for some artistic ideas can only be had over the course of a very long period of time – six months to ten years. These are ideas that percolate in the mind, grow and cannot be expressed in the short-form. The long-form is the only way to expand a sustained idea; and so Peng and Eric asked us to consider what we may be losing by this leap into the daily and the easily digestible.

Readers need to spend time digesting – the novel has a slow rhythm which might only be perceived if you don’t think about much else when you read it. Many social ideas will only take root, or mature if people have a forum in which they spend time. As discussed in Ruth Ozeki’s provocation, technology has reduced the time and space in which we have to express our ideas. Technology has increased the pace of things, so that readers don’t have time to consider things at great length.

Yet we humans are organic and have inate biological rhythms. There are certain things that we can’t speed up, certain ideas that can’t adapt to pacier form. So if we don’t fight for the time and space to express these sustained ideas then there are works of art and concepts that we simply won’t have.

The provocation reminded one writer of Chomsky’s idea that liberalism can’t be articulated in a sound-bite on TV, but that right-wing politics can be. The advent of TV had a direct impact on the policies that influence the public.

As regards to form, it was pointed out that online gaming is a type of long-form, a closed world where people can get lost. Whilst an aphorism or poem is a short-form that not only slows you down but forces you to concentrate. So it’s not all about length of form, but the quality and composition of that form too.

The session closed with the writers considering the provocateurs’ idea that the traditional long-form novel was the one which was most subversive in Han Han’s work – it really changed the culture and allowed his ideas to travel and disperse under the radar. Han Han had the greatest impact on his culture when he was working at his slowest. People need to internalise ideas and thought and that takes time- social change won’t come in a tweet.

The novel is meditative and immersive, it pulls us into a hypnotic state, giving us a chance to absorb ideas and art. It gives us the chance to feel something different, to feel changed. The novel creates a space where something happens both for readers and writers, and if we stop reading them, we will lose that space forever.  

Listen to Peng Lun and Eric Abrahmasen's provocation:

A Worlds 13 Round Up:

Watch the highlights on YouTube
Listen to the discussion on SoundCloud
See the images on Flickr

Read the blogs

From the events:

A Writers Dilemma: Tove Jansson, More than the Moomins

Best of British and Novelists’ Fears

Meir Ben Elijah: Out of the dark and Into the Light

From the salons:

Sjón’s Stories Inhabit the Worlds Literature Festival Salon

What is the Internet Doing To Writers? Ruth Ozeki and the Trials of Switching Off

Rachel Lichtenstein's Diamond Street App: Is This The Way Stories Are Going?

Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival.

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Is the Literary Novel Doomed? - Marcel Möring

Posted By: Katy Carr, 11 July 2013

For the third Worlds Literature Festival Salon, Marcel Möring gave a provoking introduction, rousing writers in defence of the literary novel.

His terms were clear. The novel is under attack. This form which is the story of how it all began is us and we are it. Novelists listen to the heartbeat of time, and so their work is urgent. Novelists need to give people not what they want, but instead what they might least expect. They need to make art.

Möring states that the novel has come to a standstill and that novelists just seem to have accepted this.

He finished by rousing the assembled writers. Let us be bold and daring. Let’s risk it all and get back to the point whereby we ourselves are shocked by literature. Let’s mess with time and place and the idea of the text. Let’s be free and experimental. Let’s make art.

Novelists are the mothers and fathers of narrative invention. They have an obligation and must try to go where no man and no woman has gone before.

There was general agreement from the writers gathered that there is indeed a crisis in the novel form. The market has become constricted and now publishers are not taking a chance on experimental forms of novels, writers are being herded towards the familiar.

Has the European novel sold its soul and become a commercial tool of bog standard story telling? It might have. Yet is this just an Anglo-American disease? The novel in English may be doomed, but this doesn't necessarily hold for all novels.

Those writing in other forms noted Marcel’s insistence on the novel being the ultimate literary form. Maybe the most interesting literature is happening outside of the novel now. Would that be such a  bad thing? 

A poet noted that of course it’s worthwhile to look for something new in the novel; poets are constantly searching for the new. If novelists become really experimental and break down all of the boundaries in the novel, maybe they’ll end up writing poetry!

Then the writers talked about how great literature needn’t be experimental. Some of the best modern literature comes from reportage, which is not known for experimentalism. Also, many people do not want the experimental in their novels. They just want the writing to be high quality, the construction excellent, such as in the work of Annie Proulx and Johnathan Franzen. 

There is more than one way of being brave. You can break boundaries in other, non-experimental ways – by being emotionally honest, by opening up the raw. Why this insistence on a new form? Making a novel experimental can also be a way of being inauthentic – you can hide behind form.

The idea of Modernism was explored. Isn’t the classic Modernist form outdated? Don’t we need to find our own way of writing for this time we’re living in, rather than harking back to the experimentalists of the early 20th Century? People discussed Will Self’s Umbrella, the room divided about how relevant the novel’s Modernist style is now, whether or not it’s pastiche.

The writers considered whether today we have to find our own Modernism; a style more relevant to the time we’re living in. And noted that writers shouldn’t just break up form for the sake of it;  the experimental works best when it comes out of necessity.

As a riposte, Möring listed all of the interesting ways of writing that novelists could  be employing, that are being underutilised. Diary style, in the style of the Talmud, interviews... Modernism aside, we are not being inventive enough, surely.

There was general agreement that novelists are indeed under great constraints commercially – they are certainly being herded towards the safe and this is indeed having an effect on form.

Yet there was also frequent mention of the wealth of individual presses and brave editors who are doing great work and publishing more interesting fiction.  Good books continue to travel in the most surprising ways. There is also a gratifying resurgence in revivalism; Richard Yates, Paula Fox, John Williams were all cited as examples of great writers who have been re-earthed recently with the writers concluding that it is at least reassuring to note that if your challenging, brave book doesn’t make it the first time round, there’s always a chance that it will be brought back to life later on. 

Listen to a podcast of Marcel's provocation below:

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Worlds Literature Festival Free Reads: An Introduction to New Worlds of Literature

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 09 July 2013

Worlds Literature Festival takes place over a week, with a series of public and private events. Worlds 2013 was no different, with a series of public evening events (including a sold out event devoted to Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins), the private literary salons, and the Worlds Festival Free Reads.

The Free Reads brought brilliant international writers to Norwich (England’s first UNESCO City of Literature), and invited everybody to come and discover new writing.

The Free Read sessions invited the Worlds guests to give a short reading of their work. These readings offered a quick introduction into exciting foreign literature - in an hour and half you were transported around the world; travelling a few steps or a long mile in another’s shoes.

Tuesday’s Free Read featured Rozalie Hirs, Rachida Lamrabet, Bejan Matur, Marcel Möring and Neel Mukherjee.

Bejan Matur took to the stage first, reading in conjunction with Writers’ Centre Chief Executive Chris Gribble. Bejan read in Turkish, then Chris followed with the English translation - the simultaneous reading offered a glimpse of the strange duality of language.

Our second reading was from Marcel Möring, a Dutch novelist and playwright who has twice won the brilliantly named Golden Owl award. He read from In a Dark Wood (Dutch title Dis). You can watch his reading on youtube.

Neel Mukherjee read the prologue from his unpublished novel The Lives of Others (January 2014). The short extract told the tale of the horrifying limits humans are pushed to by desperation and hopelessness, and left the room silent and pensive. Rachida Lamrabet, equal rights campaigner and novelist, read a short piece which reflected her multi-cultural heritage, followed by Rozalie Hirs reading a selection of her poetry which is filled with repetition and assonance, leaving the hostry resonating with rhythm and rhymes.
Whilst Tuesday’s Afternoon Reads focussed on literature in translation, Wednesday’s seemed to have a distinct post-colonial literature slant with readings from Tash Aw, Chandrahas Choudhury, Melissa Lucashenko and Zhang Yeuran.

Melissa Lucashenko was the first to read, and read from her newest novel, Mullumbimby, a book which touches upon issues of indigenous culture and colonial appropriation. Next, Tash Aw read a short extract from his new novel Five Star Billionaire about Gary, a character who is catapulted into stardom after winning a signing contest. Tash’s reading captured the ‘get rich quick’ aspect of the modern world, and the pervading Westernisation of Asia.   
Chandrahas Choudhury read a witty novel extract from Arzee the Dwarf and a short piece from his novel-in-progress, where the character found himself living an increasingly adventurous life. Zhang Yeuran, who said that she felt so nervous that she was going to imagine the audience as potatoes to calm her nerves (it worked!), read an extract from her current novel Cocoon.

Our last Worlds Festival Free Reads took place on Friday and featured readings from Michelle de Kretser, Ruth Ozeki and Masashi Matusie with Michael Emmerich.

Michelle de Kretser read first, from her Miles Franklin award winning novel Questions of Travel - Michelle won the award on Wednesday while at the festival, becoming the second Worlds guest in a row to win. The extract she read focussed on a backpacker travelling the world, and the transience of that backpacker’s experience of foreign culture. Watch Michelle de Kretser reads from Questions of Travel.

Masashi Matsuie read next in Japanese, whilst Michael Emmerich read the English translation. They read from At the Foot in the Volcano, with Michael following Masashi’s reading with the English, creating an interesting lag between the initial reading and the consequent understanding.    

The last reader on Friday, and of the week, was Ruth Ozeki. Ruth read a few pages from the beginning of her newest novel A Tale for the Time Being, which is a novel defined and drawn along by the split narrative.

Worlds Literature Festival introduced me to brilliant international writers, wonderful new writing, and to fresh perspectives. I highly recommend you take a look at the writers' work, and I hope to see you at Worlds next year!

A Worlds 13 Round Up:

Watch the highlights on YouTube
Listen to the discussion on SoundCloud
See the images on Flickr

Read the blogs

From the events:

A Writers Dilemma: Tove Jansson, More than the Moomins

Best of British and Novelists’ Fears

Meir Ben Elijah: Out of the dark and Into the Light

From the salons:

Sjón’s Stories Inhabit the Worlds Literature Festival Salon

What is the Internet Doing To Writers? Ruth Ozeki and the Trials of Switching Off

Rachel Lichtenstein's Diamond Street App: Is This The Way Stories Are Going?

Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival.

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Rachel Lichtenstein's Diamond Street App: Is This The Way Stories Are Going?

Posted By: Katy Carr, 28 June 2013

Rachel Lichtenstein’s Worlds Literature Festival salon provocation introduced her groundbreaking app, Diamond Street, based on her book of the same name.

As a social historian interested in psychogeography and a former visual artist, Lichtenstein said she was very excited by the possibilities of GPS technology to bring her place-based historical writing to life in a new artistic form that would merge the past, the present and the fantastic in a beautiful new way.

Set in the Hatton Garden area of London, and relating stories that come out of the landscape, Lichtenstein immediately saw great opportunities for Diamond Street the app to bring the heart of her book of the same name to a new audience. She was also keen to work in this interesting new form, but she knew that she did not have the skills to realise the project on her own.

Lichtenstein showed us clips from the app, and we walked the sewers with her on screen. Later, we listened to the voices of locals who had recorded live versions of the oral history narratives from the book. The high quality of the sound and the visuals as well as the beauty of the narrative prose was evident in all of the clips played.

The writers responded enthusiastically to the presentation, saying that the app brought up all kinds of exciting possibilities for writers. In general the writers said that it did not seem like a film or TV adaption, as the narrative used was pure and directly from the book – the app instead felt like a separate art form that was just as beautiful, if different to the original book.

Lichtenstein said that the form in the app reminded her of the Talmud where the text is central and there were possibilities for asides and extra information alongside – much in the way that online links work.

On a more practical note, Lichtenstein talked about how the app was funded in the main by an Arts Council England grant for which she was very grateful. At the moment the app is not profitable, nor something she could expect her publishers to pay in full for, but she did also point out that the process of making an app like this will get considerably less expensive as time goes on. 

Lichtenstein also talked about how it was a real pleasure to work in a team; a novelty for a writer. The writers discussed the joy of working in a team, but also the stress of that – when writers are used to being in full control of things.

Artistically, some writers expressed concerns about viewing locations on screen; the encroachment of the readers’ imaginative space. This led on to a discussion relating to the previous salon about multimedia eroding our creative space, chewing up part of the territory of the imagination. Displaying things that used to exist only in people’s minds might be deadly to the creative imagination.

But this pessimism was refuted by the overall enthusiasm for the app as a new artistic form, and the possibilities it opened out to writers. 

As one writer noted, whilst books are the major cultural artefact of our time, many cultures have struggled to tell stories in books. Many cultures have very little written culture, but, like in Greenland, already turn to graphic novels, or other alternative forms.

Overall the writers felt that the creation of this work is evidence of exciting new ways of structuring stories, new forms. Lichtenstein has peeled back the veil of space and time in a wholly original artistic way and this is exhilarating.

Listen to a podcast of Rachel's provocation:

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What is the Internet Doing To Writers? Ruth Ozeki and the Trials of Switching Off

Posted By: Katy Carr, 27 June 2013

Is the internet turning us all into cyborg fiction writers with attention deficit disorder?

Ruth Ozeki’s Worlds Literature Festival Salon provocation dealt with the effect of the new digital landscape on the writer and on our sense of self.

Ozeki told us of the disruption she encountered when trying to write her novel, her desire to go online and look up facts, as well as the heavy weight of having the world’s writers on your lap, accessible at any time from her computer.

So she went away to write, to a place in the countryside that had no network, no internet. She struggled with this lack of connection, angry. Her mind tried to look things up in the way that google does and Ozeki struggled with the fact that she couldn’t access facts with the click of a mouse. Unwired, she felt insufficient, losing faith in herself as a person and as a writer. She couldn’t write. The book felt broken and so did her mind.

But after two weeks she noted that her sense of self came back to her, and that she was able to write again.

The whole experience led Ozeki to question the effect of the internet on our sense of self, to wonder what it’s doing to us.

Technology often creates the very problem that it’s trying to eradicate, said Ozeki, the internet is de-familiarising solitude and so creating loneliness, even as social networks proliferate.

The internet has democratised language. Now anyone can self publish and there is a proliferation of blogs and self published work on there. Is this a good thing?

Ozeki referenced Milan Kundera who wrote "Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding." (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979).

It could be said that time is here. We are all writers now. And we are blurring the boundaries between the private and the performative in our everyday life in a way that was unthinkable less than a quarter of a century ago.

Ozeki's provocation turned at the end, to consider what we might gain through this new way of being. Our sense of self is malleable and durable. It can adapt. This interconnected online world might change our sense of self, but it might also make us more open to other people’s ideas, stories that are not our own. Our sense of self may become more relational and less fixed and that might not be such a bad thing.

(NB Ozeki deals with all of these issues in her book A Tale For The Time Being which looks like a fascinating read.)

After Ozeki’s provocation the writers mulled over the effect of the internet. If quality writing depends on deep time then how does one get to that when constantly connected?

Many talked about how they too felt addicted to the internet, unable to detach, constantly distracted. was cited as a great solution, a good way of avoiding going online when writing.

However, not everybody felt the immediacy of this problem, some of the international writers saying that this is really an affluent first world problem.

Forms of writing were discussed. Ozeki had referenced the Japanese i-novel as the main literary form in Japan now, saying that every new writer there was expected to write one or two of them. The personal format of the i-novel is inherent, and perhaps grew out of the first person format of the Haiku. In any case, portraying a personal reality has become the natural subject matter for Japanese writers these days.

Then the writers discussed that universal deafness mentioned by Milan Kundera – if everybody is creating, who is absorbing the information? Where are the deep readers?

Not everybody subscribed to Kundera’s view of things, seeing it as arrogant and elitist; an example of the idea that literacy shouldn’t grow amongst the peasants.

We discussed how in Iceland there is a longstanding belief that everybody has the right to tell a story, not just the official storytellers or the elite, and later we discussed how in Iceland’s national newspapers anybody can have their obituary published, not only public figures. The right to tell stories is for everybody and that shouldn’t feel like a threat.

As regards the worry about listening, maybe there are simply different ways to listen, to read. We skim words online, but maybe we are creating more links than ever before. There is a type of effervescence there. Perhaps Sjón’s idea of stories superseding form will also hold for the internet.

And so the Salon ended on a positive note. However the overwhelming impression of the discussion remained the writers’ anxiety about the assault on that ‘deep time’ and about their own inability to resist the distractions that the online world holds.

Listen to Ruth Ozeki's Provocation on the Salon Podcast

Watch Ruth read from A Tale for the Time Being at Friday's Worlds Festival Free Read:

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Best of British and Novelists’ Fears

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 25 June 2013

The third day of Worlds Literature Festival brought muggy sunshine and an evening event with two of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; David Szalay and Evie Wyld, hosted by Ted Hodgkinson of Granta. Both David and Evie read from their extracts featured in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4.  

David read first, from his novel in progress, Europa, a novel which will take the form of a number of 10-15 thousand word novellas, linked by ideas of transnationality:

Evie followed with a reading from her just-published novel All the Birds, Singing:

Best of Young British Novelists 4 is an anthology that collects work from young writers who show potential and skill and, as such, the writing isn’t linked by theme or style. Instead it aims to showcase the best sample of writing, which is representative of the chosen author’s style. Consequently, David and Evie’s writing is very different, yet their discussion of writing had several common threads.

As the title suggests, the recurring motif of the evening was one of fear. (Not that the audience was scared, mind you- although Evie’s reading was very creepy.) Evie explained that she’d grown up reading horror, from the Point Horror books, to Stephen King, to Silence of the Lambs, and that as a child she’d always thought she’d write horror books. And, in a way, she does.

The fear in Evie’s novels is an oblique suppressed horror- it is a fear created by the self, and all the more terrifying because of the illogical indefinableness of it. Evie commented that she liked ghost stories, especially family ghost stories, saying that she didn’t believe in ghosts, but she did believe in people seeing ghosts.

Evie followed this by talking about her preoccupation and fear of sharks, and laughed that she’s always having to take sharks out of her book- so there are far more sharks lurking in the first draft than the final draft!

David has a knack for picking out the grotesque in ordinary people, creating fear and repulsion in the hidden shadows of humanity. He said that he found it amusing how often he found something in his book funny, and when somebody else read the same section they would find it depressing or horrifying. David then commented that “to the writer, the characters in the story are less real than to the reader” and as the creator, the author will not fear the demons and horrors in their own work. (Unlike their readers!)

Of course, the fear that both David and Evie have to confront is the worry of not living up to the expectations placed upon them by being chosen as two of the best writers of their generation. Previous Best of Young British Novelists include Martin Amis, Iain Banks, Pat Barker and Jeanette Winterson- proving that the mantel is an impressive but intimidating prospect. But we don’t think they have anything to worry about at all.

Listen to a podcast of the event below:

Take a look at some of the photos from Worlds Literature Festival.

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A Writer's Dilemma: Tove Jansson, More than the Moomins.

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 19 June 2013

I have a dim memory of being read the Moomins as a child, poking at the chubby creatures with my equally chubby fingers. I also have a copy of  The Summer Book sitting on my ever increasing ‘To Be Read’ pile at home. Still, before the Tove Jansson: Between Light and Dark event, Tove Jansson was nothing but a shadowy figure. Now, post event, The Summer Book has been moved to the top of the pile. I’m determined to re-read the Moomins back catalogue, and I’m desperate to find out more about the elusive figure of Tove Jansson.

On the panel was Rebecca Swift (of The Literary Consultancy), poet and Jansson fan, Esther Freud (author of Hideous Kinky), who wrote the foreword to The Summer Book; actor Samuel West (Howard’s End), voice of the Moomin app and Icelandic writer Sjón, who recently collaborated with Björk on her Moomins and the Comet Chase soundtrack. The event began by Rebecca inviting the panel to talk about what Tove’s work meant to them. Fascinatingly, our panellists’ child selves seemed to be drawn to the Moomins because of the thin edge between light and dark in her work, and her truthfulness as a writer. As adults, they love Tove’s work for similar reasons, but are also drawn to her wry observations on humanity (or Moominity?!).

Throughout the discussion it became clear to me that the Moomins held a very special place in the hearts of not only our panellists but in our audience’s too. The centre of the discussion seemed to be on Tove’s artful way of combining conflicting emotions, and the subsequent creation of bittersweet tableaus. Indeed, our panellists seemed to agree that bittersweet was the best word to describe Tove’s writing.

For me, what stood out the most from the event was the image of Tove as a determined artist and a writer who was absolutely dedicated to her craft. She went to extraordinary lengths to be able to create, going as far to living on a tiny island (think the size of a large living room). On the miniscule windswept island there was a small house, which you’d assume would be the living space – yet Tove lived in a tent to preserve the house as a workspace, and to resist the bleeding over of relaxation into work. I find that both extraordinary, and inspiring.

She was an artist who wanted to pursue her craft first and foremost, and came to almost abhor the Moomins, because drawing the Moomins left her no time to experiment and try new things. Of course, the popularity of the Moomins also came to mean that she was first and foremost known as the creator of the Moomins and her other artistic pursuits were all but ignored.

Eventually, Tove handed on the work of drawing the cartoon to her brother Lars, giving her the freedom to pursue her other creative urges. It was lucky that she did, as it gave her the time to write her adult fiction, including The Summer Book (which both Esther and Sjon raved about as being one of the best books they've ever read.).

I think anyone who fancies themselves as an artist, or a writer, could do a lot worse then using Tove Jansson as an icon. Hugely successful, Tove was always striving to achieve and create, never resting on her laurels, and always focussing on her art- what more could you want in a hero?

Take a look at the story of the evening on Storify

Listen to podcasts of the event on Soundcloud.

Watch Esther read from Comet in Moominland:

Watch Sam and Sjón discuss Tove Jansson and read from her work:

Take a look at photos from Worlds 13:

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Cartographer, Sculptor, Thief: Michael Ondaatje in conversation with Kamila Shamsie at Worlds 2012

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 04 July 2012

Petra writes about one of her literary heroes; Michael Ondaatje who visited Norwich for an event with Kamila Shamsie:

Metaphor abounds when talking about Michael Ondaatje. There is a need, or a desire, to describe him as something other than purely a writer. Is he an archeologist revealing objects inch-by-inch from the soil? Is he the clever thief you cannot help but like - like his character Caravaggio? (Are all writers thieves – or “fancy talking pickpockets” – as Tommy Wieringa suggested earlier in the week of Worlds? (Read our earlier blog about Novelists as pickpockets) Is he a sculptor? Or a cartographer, drawing maps of fantastical places? I’d like to identify him with Herodotus, that master storyteller of whom Ondaatje writes in The English Patient: someone who has traveled far, gathered stories, and is reporting back, all the while remodeling reality in some secret way…

Ondaatje's work has always haunted me, inhabited me. Thus, it was an honour to see him read his poetry and prose at the Worlds 2012 literature conference, followed by a great discussion with novelist Kamila Shamsie.

There is a delicious, languid lucidity contained in Ondaatje’s writing. He is also a natural reader. The lines of his work wove together, slowly, erotically, over the listening crowd in the Playhouse. He uses language to encompass weighty themes: history, memory, war, philosophy, love and yet in the next moment he is terrifyingly, revealingly intimate: his language is close to the body and close to the earth. Another Worlds guest, Teju Cole, has written of Ondaatje: “I'm unsure if I'm reading or if I'm the one being read.” (Read the full article)

Ondaatje began by reading two poems, The Great Tree and Last Ink from his collection Handwriting.  An excerpt from Last Ink:

In certain countries aromas pierce the heart and one dies
half waking in the night as an owl and a murderer’s cart go by
the way someone in your life will talk out love and grief
then leave your company laughing.

He then read from his novel Anil’s Ghost and from his latest novel, The Cat’s Table, which follows the journey of an 11-year-old boy called Michael on his journey from Sri Lanka to England.

I was mesmerised by his description of boyish wonder in The Cat’s Table, where the young narrator and his friends watch an Australian girl swimming in the pool aboard the ocean liner: “When she left we followed her footprints, which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them.”

Kamila Shamsie - a brilliant, lively interviewer - walked Ondaatje through the intersection of memoir and fiction that appears to lie at the heart of The Cat’s Table and many of his other works. Ondaatje spoke about the age of eleven being a sort of liminal age for him – the age where you change, move, forget or become.


Pressed on the line between fiction and memoir, he compared the Western narrative experience with Eastern notions of narrative, where truth is not something to be defined in an empirical or absolute way. He said works like The Cat’s Table or his novel/memoir Running In The Family, written about his family in Sri Lanka, have meant that he has come to accept certain stories or narratives as true, even if they didn’t start off that way – even if they started off as an exchange of tall tales. He felt strongly that the narrative act was never static. Ondaatje’s work, at its best, seems to circle constantly around truth as a multiplicity of experiences.

Ondaatje spoke about the processes surrounding his writing practice. He writes without a plan and said there was an “enjoyable tension” for him in finding out what will happen. The conversation lingered over his tendency to write in vignettes and he mentioned his process of constructing a novel via notebooks, each containing a new draft, enabling him to cut and paste bits until he achieves the right balance. Ondaatje said he likes to engage in the “drama of writing the story”.

Shamsie mentioned a line from In the Skin of the Lion: “Let me now re-emphasise the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects”. Ondaatje said that he felt his process was very much “loose in writing, tight in editing”. He spoke of drafting being akin to moving furniture and spoke of his joy in setting up a sort of thematic or narrative echoing within his novels. Shamsie brought up Ondaatje’s love of film, and of editing in particular, noting that the end of The English Patient - where Hannah knocks a glass off the shelf in one life, and Kip reaches down to scoop up the dropped fork of his daughter in another - is a very filmic moment, a splice.

The discussion turned then to power, Shamsie bringing up another line from The Cat’s Table, where the narrator learns: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” Ondaatje said that he learned this as a young man and how he’s remained interested in the bizarre strata of power, something that was very apparent when he came to England as a boy. There was discussion of his love of the ‘outsider’: the charming thief, or the outlaw – like Billy the Kid. (For those of you who haven’t read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems, I highly recommend it – it’s a favourite of mine.)

Ultimately, Ondaatje said he was drawn to writing what cannot be filmed, and was fascinated by exploring the space of the narrator. An audience member asked if he still wrote poetry, to which he said, sadly, no he didn’t. But I’d argue he does, still – it’s just that we don’t classify it that way. To me, all of his works are a sort of poetry.

Listen to the event on SoundCloud:

An Evening with Michael Ondaatje & Kamila Shamsie by Writers' Centre Norwich

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Summer Reads 2012; Events So Far...

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 29 June 2012

It hasn’t been much of a summer so far this year, but our Summer Reads reading programme has been in full swing since May. With a host of author events, book club meetings and library events going on, it hasn’t seemed to matter so much that it’s been rainy and miserable.

Our first event was with SJ Watson, author of best-seller Before I Go To Sleep. I read Before I Go To Sleep last year and loved it, so I was thrilled to discover that it had been chosen as one of WCN’s Summer Reads books for 2012.  The event was held at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium  library. The room quickly filled up with readers who sat patiently, clearly filled with anticipation. I noticed that the audience was a diverse mix of people- it’s always interesting looking at the audience for individual events, because it gives a much better idea about who the book appealed to- Before I Go To Sleep is a novel which seems to engage almost everybody!

SJ Watson began the event by reading an extract from the beginning of Before I Go To Sleep. Sam Ruddock, the man behind the Summer Reads programme, began a conversation with SJ Watson which ranged from medical accuracy, to gender, to the nature of the debut novel. SJ said that he didn’t find it difficult to write from the perspective of a woman, because, as a writer you should be able to write from other people’s perspective. The audience laughed when SJ mentioned that he found it odd that people seemed to be comfortable with the idea of individuals writing as serial killers but not comfortable with a man writing as a woman! He did say that he asked his female friends to read the novel and fact check it for him too however...

When the floor was open to the audience for questions there was a constant flow of interested queries. SJ Watson spoke at length about the difficulties of balancing medical accuracy (as he worked for the NHS for a number of years, medical accuracy was imperative!) whilst maintaining the plot and pace of the story. SJ Watson said that he'd thought he had made up Christine’s precise medical complaint, but discovered that there is a very similar case when the book was published.

The SJ Watson event was a great success, and a brilliant start to our Summer Reads reading programme!


During our Worlds Literature Festival we had THREE of our Summer Reads events, making it a jampacked schedule of bookish joy. Our first event was ‘An Evening with Dame Gillian Beer, Jeanette Winterson and Jo Shapcott’ and was completely sold out. Jo Shapcott read from Summer Reads book Of Mutability, which won the Costa Book Award. Jo’s poetry was emotionally charged, and worked perfectly in companion with Jeanette Winterson’s reading of Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal. (Read more about the event in Petra’s Blog.)

Anna Funder, whose novel, All That I Am, was our first Summer Reads book, participated in an event with JM Coetzee and Tim Parks. These three very different authors created a smorgasbord of literary delights. Anna Funder read from All That I Am and then discussed her motivation for writing the novel and the difficulties when crossing over from writing non-fiction to fiction. Throughout the event the audience were clearly hanging upon her every word. During Worlds festival Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin award for All That I Am and was even interviewed from the Writers’ Centre offices for Australian television!

Last, but by no means least, came our event with Teju Cole, author of the multi-award winning Open City. Teju Cole read an extract from Open City  and discussed how his work was influenced by his street-photography. (Take a look at some of his photos on Flickr) The event was so successful that Waterstones almost sold out of Teju’s books! (You can read a long blogpost about the Teju Cole event here)

Listen to a podcast of the Teju Cole event below:

World Voices featuring Teju Cole, Vesna Goldsworthy and Arturo Dorado by Writers' Centre Norwich

Still coming up is an event with Stefan Tobler, the publisher of Down the Rabbit Hole, and with Rosalind Harvey, the translator. Taking place on the 25th of July, you can buy your ticket for only £2 from our website or the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. (Find out more about the event) This is sure to be a fantastic event, and as a big fan of Down the Rabbit Hole I can’t wait to find out more about the book!

As ever, we have a regular book club which meets to discuss the Summer Reads books. It’s been great to see so many new faces, as well as the regulars of course, so please do come along if you’d enjoy a relaxed evening of chatting about books. Our next Book Club Sessions are for Of Mutability (in partnership with Norwich Poetry Book Club) on the 10th July and for Down the Rabbit Hole  on the 24th of July.

We’re also running a new series of events in libraries across Norfolk. Sam has been visiting the libraries across the county and enjoying chat, Mexican chocolate and intriguing Mexican fizzy drinks.

He says:
‘The Get Involved library events are all about meeting readers across Norfolk, and having a relaxed conversation about books with them. It has been a pleasure to visit libraries that are supporting Summer Reads so well this year, and to see all the great work they do with their communities. I’ve been struck by the warmth with which these events have been received and delighted with the atmosphere and willingness to share that everyone involved has created. I’ve enjoyed every minute of delivering them. Not only have we succeeded in introducing the delights of Summer Reads to lots of readers and book clubs, but I’ve discovered lots of books I’d never heard of too! What could be better?’


Find out more about our Summer Reads reader events.

We love to chat with you about these books, so please do tweet us @WCNbookclub, follow us on Facebook, and check out our Summer Reads Pinterest page!

If you love our Summer Reads illustrations too, check out this blogpost from the illustrator Lauren Marina.

Vote online for your favourite Summer Reads book and you could win book tokens!

Find out more about our Summer Reads reading programme.

Reading is just the start...

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What is British Literature? The Launch of Granta Britain

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 28 June 2012

In my mind Granta is the literary magazine.  At my parents house there are two shelves full of Granta issues, stretching over a period of about five years. First established in 1889, Granta has evolved over the years- note the striking cover design- but has always included brilliant writing from debut and established authors. So, even before the event began I knew I was in for a treat...


Issue 119 of Granta was on the theme of ‘Britain’, making it the perfect closing event for our international Worlds Festival. Throughout the week discussions had focused around identity, with nationality playing an important role in the examination of the self.

The evening began with John Freeman, the editor, introducing the writers and introducing Granta. Edmund Clark was the first contributor to take to the stage. He is a photographer who is best known for his images which explore control and incarceration. Edmund Clark’s photo Home from his collection Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out is included on page 192 of Granta: Britain(View images from Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out on the Guardian website)

The series of images within Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out can be divided into three separate ideas of home; the naval base at Guantanamo where the guards and their families lived, the complex of camps that the detainees lived in, and the homes of the detainees themselves, whether the homes are new or old. The contrast between the homes that the detainees lived in out of choice and the rooms they were forced to live in, was stark. 

The photo which was included in Granta was Home, (Number 3 on the Guardian slideshow) and it depicted an image which epitomised an archetypal British household: two armchairs, a flowering plant, net curtains. Edmund said that these images of British domesticity were thrown into sharp relief when placed next to the images from Guantanamo, and that he realised when he was putting the images together that what he “was actually exploring were the homes that the detainees remembered and dreamed of” whilst in the space that they hoped to escape.

The images within Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out are mixed, with images from the guards’ quarters, the cells of the detainees, and the homes of the detainees. This mix of photographs deliberately creates feelings of disorientation and confusion in the reader and reflects the prisoners’ experience of Guantanamo. Edmund said that throughout the project he realised that he was depicting the memory between the spaces.  There are deliberately very few images of people within the collection, as Edmund wanted to subvert the stock image of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and the empty spaces are given far greater emotional weight.

Edmund’s collection explored identity through living spaces. By including images from Guantanamo and from the detainees past and present home he is depicting the identities that the detainees choose, and the identity that the detainees had forced upon them. Our expectations and assumptions are challenged through the images, making us reassess our default opinions and stereotypes.

Rachel Seiffert was the second reader. She read from an extract from a not yet published novel; Hands Across the Water. The extract described a blossoming relationship between an Ulster girl and a Glaswegian boy. Rachel’s writing focuses on individual characters within a broader historical perspective.

Rachel talked of the Irish troubles with particular reference to the Orangemen. She said that she researches thoroughly but once writing she focuses in on the characters themselves; and from then on it’s about writing with empathy and finding your way into your characters lives. Writers, by necessity, need to be able to shrug on and off others identities- writing characters well is so much about assuming others’ perspectives.


Andrea Stuart, the third reader, spoke of a different kind of history- the history of her family; of migration, slavery and dreams of a better life. She traced her family tree in her latest  book, Sugar in the Blood  and “revived her slave ancestors from absence”. Andrea’s book gave her slave ancestors back the identity which was taken from them, as they were stolen from their homelands. (Read a review of Sugar in the Blood  from The Independent.)

 This writing of her family history allowed Andrea to claim her story and her family’s story, a story which otherwise might have  been lost like so many other slave narratives. It creates an examination of intrinsic facets of her own identity- that of an Afro-Caribbean British citizen and as a writer. Andrea spoke of the necessity of writing Sugar in the Blood, not only for her own illumination but because it gave the forgotten a voice and a place in history.

Across the week identity has been a crucial discussion point- look through the earlier blogs to find out more about the Worlds events and themes. For writers individual identity is fluid, at least when they are writing.  However, one of the recurring questions throughout all the events and conversations has been how does my identity effect what I write? Whether we’re referencing the African writers who have been told they are not “African” enough, or the middle-class authors who feel hindered by their background,  or the writers who have been translated from their own language into a foreign speech which they cannot understand, identity is as an inescapable part of writing as it is of life.

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