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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
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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.
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.
A Criminal Celebration: Announcing Noirwich Crime Writing Festival
The two men are skulking in the shadows of the cloisters. They talk in muffled voices.
“Have you heard the news?”
The short man adjusts his trench coat and pulls out a slip of paper. The paper is embossed with a black scrawl, the sleek lettering marred by a blotch of heavy red.
“You mean this?”
The tall man spits onto the floor. “This city ain’t in need of any more criminals.”
“I say we watch and wait. You got the low-down?”
“A five day criminal celebration, that’s what it is. They think they’re being so clever, doing it right under our noses. We know this ain’t no literary festival.”
They walk away from the Cathedral, the spire a dark dagger in the sky.
Noirwich Crime Writing Festival
Taking place from the 10th-14th September, Noirwich Crime Writing Festival brings the best criminal masterminds to Norwich City of Literature
for readings, events, masterclasses and more. Organised by The Crime Writers' Association
, University of East Anglia
, Writers' Centre Norwich and Waterstones
wich promises a series of brutally brilliant events for you to enjoy.
Read on for details of all the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival events:
Wednesday 10th SeptemberA Forgotten Mystery: The Life and Works of S.T. Haymon with Dr. John Curran6pm, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, Free
The opening Noirwich event celebrates the life of S.T. Haymon; an unjustly forgotten crime writer. S.T. Haymon lived in Norwich for most of her life and wrote childrens’ fiction before turning her hand to murder. Dr John Curran, who describes Haymon as one of his favourite writers, will lead this event exploring her life and work. Book your free ticket | More information
New Voices, Old Places with Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris7.30pm, Waterstones Castle Street, £6 / £4 conc with £3 redeemable against the price of a book at the event and a free glass of wine.
Meet Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris; the next generation of crime novelists, and get a guided tour around the mean streets of crime writing. These up and coming writers will discuss how setting has influenced their writing, and their burgeoning careers. The conversation will be expertly guided by Waterstones Manager Ben Richardson. Book your ticket
| More information
Thursday 11th SeptemberThe New Hercule Poirot Mystery with Sophie Hannah and Dr. John Curran8pm, Norwich Playhouse, £12/£10 conc
Join us for the launch of the first Agatha Christie novel in almost forty years. Sophie Hannah, who is best known for her twisted psychological thrillers, will discuss the challenges and delights of resuscitating the cultural institution of Poirot and give a short reading from The Monogram Murders
. She’ll be joined on stage by Christie expert John Curran, and together they’ll discuss the life, legacy and writing of Christie, Queen of Crime.Book your ticket
| More information
Friday 12th SeptemberThe Skeleton Road: An Evening with Val McDermid 8pm, Norwich Playhouse, £12/£10 conc
Val McDermid, an icon in the contemporary crime world, joins us to launch her latest book The Skeleton Road
. McDermid, an award-winning novelist known for her chilling psychological thrillers and cutting edge procedurals, will discuss the challenges and delights of writing murderous mysteries with Henry Sutton. Book your ticket
| More information
Saturday 13th September
The Golden Age of Nordic NoirA Crime Thriller Masterclass with Henry Sutton10am-1pm, Writers’ Centre Norwich, £40 or £60 with Simon Brett Masterclass.
10.30am-4.30pm, Cinema City Education Space, £40/£30 conc
Enjoy a day dedicated to the art of Nordic Noir. Trish Sheil, film academic, and Barry Forshaw, a leading expert on crime fiction and film, will help you to explore the all-pervading influence of the Scandinavian wave. Using short clips, iconic moments in film history and their personal knowledge, the tutors will guide you through the history of Noir, focussing on the Nordic classics and then exploring French crime film and television, and the blossoming of UK crime drama.
Book your ticket | More information
Hoping to turn your hand to murder? Get to grips with your crime novel under the expert tutelage of Henry Sutton, co-director of UEA’s Creative Masters and accomplished author. You’ll work on enhancing characterisation and cementing motivations, making sure your characters are believable and well-rounded. Henry will also advise you on writing innovatively within the crime thriller genre.Book your ticket
| More information
A Detective Fiction Masterclass with Simon Brett2-5pm, Writers’ Centre Norwich, £40 or £60 with Henry Sutton Masterclass
Get your detective novel up to scratch with expert crime writer Simon Brett, author of over 90 books. Simon will guide you through the traditions of the detective novel, using classic examples to illuminate your successes and failures, and helping you to strengthen and polish your novel.
Sponsored by CWA Diamond DaggerBook your ticket
| More informationCelebrating the CWA Diamond Dagger with Simon Brett and John Harvey7.30pm, Waterstones, Norwich, £6/£4 concessions with £3 redeemable from Simon’s latest book at the event and a free glass of wine
Simon Brett and John Harvey, CWA Diamond Dagger winners, will reveal the secrets to a long and successful crime writing career, offering you an intriguing glimpse into the mind of an experienced novelist. Book your ticket | More information
Sunday 14th SeptemberNoirwich Crime Writing Festival Presents Megan Abbott2.30pm, Norwich Cathedral Hostry, £6/£4 concessions with £3 redeemable off the price of the book at the event
Megan Abbott is known for pushing the crime genre into new and compelling places, and is already being compared to Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. In this rare UK appearance Magena will be joined by Henry Sutton for a discussion around the art of crime fiction, including suspense, secrets and desire. Book your ticket
| More information
The Killer Inside Me: A Noirwich Frank’s Bar Film ScreeningSunday 14th September 2014, 5pm, Free
Top off the week with a Bloody Mary and a screening of The Killer Inside Me at Frank’s Bar in Norwich. Based on Jim Thompson’s bestselling novel, The Killer Inside Me tells the tale of meek and mild-mannered deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Lou’s got problems- with women, with his job, with the corpses which just keep piling up. And then there’s his own unsavoury habits; from sadistic sex to sociopathic rages. This 2010 adaptation stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, and has garnered critical acclaim and controversial commentary - there’s no need to book, just turn up!More informationAs part of Noirwich Crime Writing Festival you can buy a reduced price Festival group ticket – more details below:
If you’re attending all five of our paid-for author events, you can get a 15% discount
on the total cost. Simply add the below five events to your online shopping basket. Once all five have been selected, add the code Noirwich5
in the ‘promotion code’ box and click ‘proceed’. Your discount will then be applied.
New Voices, Old Places with Tom Benn, Eva Dolan and Oliver Harris
The New Hercule Poirot Mystery with Sophie Hannah and Dr. John Curran
The Skeleton Road: An Evening with Val McDermid
Celebrating the CWA Diamond Dagger with Simon Brett and John Harvey
Noirwich Crime Writing Festival Presents Megan Abbott
Noirwich is sponsored by Norwich BID and Right Angle Events.
Noirwich is brought to you by The Crime Writers' Association, University of East Anglia, Waterstones and Writers' Centre Norwich.
Writers' Centre Norwich Announces ACE NPO Award
Writers’ Centre Norwich is delighted to be awarded National Portfolio Organisation funding to the amount of £466,405 today as part of the Arts Council England National Portfolio settlement.
The decision to award WCN these funds is justification of the exciting plans that WCN has developed to become a National Centre for Writing from April 2015.
The total award also marks an exciting collaboration between WCN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (with the support of University of East Anglia) whereby the previously ACE funded public programmes of BCLT will be transferred to the National Centre for Writing from April 2015.
This collaboration responds to both the ever closer working relationships between the two organisations, and the need to deliver outstanding work in the most efficient way possible.
As such, today’s funding award is not an increase in funding for WCN in real terms. Instead, the settlement offers great value for money as the combination between BCLT’s public programme of work and WCN’s programme offers a small reduction in overall costs, achieved through cost savings in office administration and other efficiencies.
As well as a chance to work more efficiently, it was a shared belief in the centrality of literary translation, creative writing and reading, and the desire to put those beliefs at the heart of our culture that prompted the partners at WCN, BCLT and UEA to explore new ways of developing and delivering programmes focusing on talent development, engagement, innovation, access for young people and international exchange.
Whilst the public programme of BCLT’s work is taken on by the National Centre for Writing, the non-public programmes will remain at BCLT’s vibrant academic hub at UEA. The close working relationship that this will foster between UEA, BCLT academic and the National Centre for Writing will be reflected in ambitious new programmes and activities nationally and internationally.
Chris Gribble, CEO of Writers’ Centre Norwich says:
“We are absolutely delighted that Arts Council England has recognised our expertise, track record and capacity in these areas. WCN and our key partners are developing a new organisation as well as a new physical space for the National Centre for Writing in the heart of Norwich, England’s UNESCO World City of Literature. This award is a great endorsement of that aim.”
Dr Duncan Large, Academic Director of BCLT says:
“The BCLT welcomes this wonderful news. It crowns our many successful collaborations with the Writers' Centre Norwich, and marks a new era in our partnership. We are immensely excited at the prospect of helping to shape the new National Centre for Writing as a centre of excellence in literary translation.”
Prof Peter Womack, Head of the School of Literature Drama and Creative Writing (UEA) says:
“We welcome this decision very warmly, not only because of the joint initiatives the funding will make possible, but also because it marks and recognises a new kind of creative co-operation between the university and the public realm.”
‘The Unexpected Professor’. John Carey in Conversation with D.J.Taylor.
‘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
childhood 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.
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
Denise Riley opens the Worlds Literature Festival Salon
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.
Listen to Denise Riley's provocation in full here:
Choose the Heroines You Need: the Literary Festival in a Day
Our festival in a day took place on a idyllic summer’s afternoon at Norwich Cathedral, the spire in perfect relief against a wide blue sky, the pair of peregrine falcons taking turns around the turret.
We were lucky to have writer and tutor Rachel Hore presiding over events, a thoughtful interlocutor who fully engaged with all of the writers and the texts, drawing out the stories with aplomb.
The Lives of Great Women Writers started at pace as Hermione Lee gave a fascinating talk on Penelope Fitzgerald. Best known for The Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s story is an encouraging one for any writer who may feel like it’s too late– she started publishing at 60, and got through 12 books by 80.
Her life story is also inspiring as a feat of endurance; after a promising start Fitzgerald went on to find hard times, starting with the scattering of her life with the coming of the war. Her beloved husband Desmond came home from war changed and struggled to ever get back on his feet. Penelope and her three children struggled financially, facing destitution when Desmond had to leave his job, and desperation when the houseboat that they were living on sank.
When her husband died, Fitzgerald finally took to writing and the experiences she’d stored up over the years formed the subjects of her first novels. But interestingly, it was when she turned away from these personal experiences that, according to Lee, Fitzgerald created her greatest work.
What was special about Fitzgerald as a writer? The clash between reason and emotion is foremost; her writing has violent troubling stuff in it (a theme throughout the day). As with the other writers present this day, Fitzgerald believed that it is the unexplored that can destroy. The dark power of the buried is what she fought with.
As such Fitzgerald was drawn to obsessives and compulsives. Her world was full of ‘exterminators’ and ‘exterminatees’ and she felt herself to be one of the latter. The world was not necessarily a kind place for Fitzgerald and this is conveyed in her work, however she valued kindness, truthfulness and fortitude. She was interested in hope.
Lee talks of the incredible condescension Fitzgerald faced in the literary world, her slightly bumbling older lady persona a foil that it was up to those around her to work out. Similarly, in her work Fitzgerald never gave everything away, she held back, leaving a great deal of mystery in there. She researched heavily but conveyed this research lightly in her perfectly formed worlds; ‘storing up knowledge and leaving it to ripen’. She said she was interested in writing fragments; a dream like series of events that shouldn’t have to cohere.
The talk flew by, Hermione Lee’s luminous phrasing leaving me inspired and wanting more, just as Fitzgerald did. Her biography is surely a work of art in itself, and highly recommended.
Unfortunately there isn’t time or space to give each event its due, so leaping through, here are some of the highlights:
Samantha Ellis talked warmly and engagingly about the genesis of her book How To Be A Heroine
; a re-evaluation of the heroines she adopted as a child.
Her story is one of self discovery through the characters she identified with when growing up, characters who offered different ways of being; alternatives to the projected life her Iraqi-Jewish family expected for her.
Reading here was fundamental, life-changing, and the audience was fully engaged when talking of their own relationships with Anne of Avonlea (interesting reading of Anne on Jezebel here
), Posy from Ballet Shoes
, Katy Carr from What Katy Did
(close to my own heart!) and of course Catherine Earnshaw v Jane Eyre.
Growing up Ellis identified with Catherine. Why? Because at the time she needed Catherine’s intensity, her selfish passion.
Interesting idea – that we choose the heroines we need at the time. There aren’t enough spinster heroines, and too often fictional girls as they grow up become boring, pale, according to Ellis. Think of Anne of Green Gables, the demise of the sisters from Little Women as soon as they settle down. And what of today’s heroines?
The choral accompaniment of evensong faded as Brian and Mary Talbot took to the stage to talk about their collaborative graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
The novel came out of Mary’s desire to learn about the Suffragettes more fully; and this is a theme – writers following their instinct for a story, knowing that it’ll deliver if they follow their nose.
In this case the story unearthed a rather unflattering side to the famous Mrs Pankhurst as well as many divisions in the movement. It also high-lights the very real suffering the suffragettes underwent through hunger strike and force-feeding.
Mary, who also wrote the prize-winning Dotter of her Father’s Eyes
, (next on my reading list) is working on another feminist icon for her next book; one to look forward to.
We enjoyed the tolling of the bells as the peregrines called and Diane Setterfield took to the stage.
Author of the famous The Thirteenth Tale, her new novel Bellman & Black is ghostly in a subtle way. Focussing on the power of the past, and of the dark stories we hide from, (the theme of the day), this gripping story also gives corvids a voice (Norfolk is the best county for crows, says Setterfield).
A crow is not just a harbinger of death, but also a ghostly presence that really looks us humans in the eye, and what do they make of us? Their wing breaks up the light, reflecting colour back at us from out of the dark, much as Setterfield reflects light out of the dark story that William won’t tell himself.
Finally, Raffaella Barker gave the first ever reading of her new novel, From A Distance, which is set around Norfolk and Cornwall. (Raffaella’s account of growing up in Norfolk was in the Guardian recently and makes for a fascinating read). The prime mover in the novel is Luisa, an Italian mother, who is watching her children grow up and move away. It was satisfying to hear from a fictional mother, as Ellis had earlier remarked how mothers often get a rough deal in fiction and that there isn’t enough work from their point of view. Barker also talked of how important humour is in a story, how writers should be able to make their readers laugh and cry, as well as how important place is in a novel, both fictional and geographical.
In all it was an inspiring afternoon of readings and conversation in a beautiful setting, a thoroughly enjoyable set of events. Many thanks to all of the writers involved, and to Rachel Hore for guiding us through the day with such skill.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the works and the writers involved, do see the links below:Visit Hermione Lee's website
or read a review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.
Visit Samantha Ellis' website
or read a review of How to be a Heroine.Visit Mary and Bryan Talbot's website
or read a review of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Visit Diane Setterfield's website
.Visit Raffaella Barker's website
or read a review of From a Distance.Visit Rachel Hore's website