News and views
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
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
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.”
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: Reporting from the Literary Festival in the 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
Pack Your Bag - Your Reading Adventure Starts Here
Summer Reads 2014 is here, and you’re invited to join us on a bookish journey. With the help of the Readers’ Circle, we've chosen eight brilliant books to get you reading and to transport you to pastures new. We've also expanded; bringing Summer Reads to libraries and bookshops in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire for the first time.
Now in its fifth year, Summer Reads has a great track record in exceeding expectations and inspiring readers. Summer Reads has been described as “a brilliant way to find outstanding books”, and I couldn’t agree more!
The final eight titles were chosen from a 129 longlisted books, by 50 readers and through 750 reviews and a complicated spreadsheet system. The only criteria for the books was that were inspiring, moving, and always engaging, and the chosen Summer Reads title definitely do all of those things.
So, please join us on this reading adventure - there’s no need to bring a map, but you might want to grab a pen and hunt out a bookmark. Don’t worry if you get lost on the way, because we’ve got reader workshops, tons of resources, and book clubs to help you navigate the path and discover the treasure at the end of the rainbow.
Head over to the Summer Reads website to discover which eight books made the final cut!
(Oh, and we'd love you to join us at the Launch of Summer Reads, which will feature sake, sushi, and plenty of bookish chat.)
A SPACE to Call Your Own- A Guest Blog by Kieren McCallum
SPACE volunteer, Kieren McCallum, describes how SPACE has encouraged him to try new things and overcome old obstacles:
The final frontier…
These are the voyages of–
OK that may not have worked as an opening gambit. Cheesy? Yup. Obvious? Check. Likely to pass some people by? Sure. Still, the first thing I learned from SPACE is that you have to dive in headfirst. Your ideas might not work out, but don’t play it safe: go for gold. I realised this a few seconds after standing in front of my first class. The group consisted of thirty disinterested young people who hadn’t expected to be there at all (their teacher had seized the opportunity to take a period off).
I came into SPACE expecting to regularly be terrified, and in that respect I was disappointed: I skipped past terror straight to fatalism.
My opening of ‘hi everyone, today we’re going to write poetry’ was not hugely successful. Following that up with a willingness to make a fool of myself was, however, much more effective.
In retrospect I recognise that feeling of ‘sod it, there’s only my self-respect at stake’ from some of my own teachers. Since my first day with SPACE I haven’t been particularly scared of anything. Except for clowns and the future and all that.
What does volunteering with SPACE involve? Step one is to identify what you can contribute.
I’m a writer, like many SPACE volunteers, and I write flash fiction. Flash fiction refers to very short stories, often under a hundred words. Part of my ‘pitch’ at my interview was that writing flash fiction would help young people overcome the difficulties I faced when trying to write at their age. These difficulties were overwriting and not finishing my stories. I found overwriting discouraging because I would write page after page without getting anywhere. With so much effort required to achieve so little, I would always give up before the end.
The flash fiction workshops we’ve run have aimed to get the young people thinking about what is essential to a story and what is superfluous. Hopefully they avoid overwriting and the pace of their story is enough to see them through to the end.
Step two works quite differently: now you know the young people you’re working with. You need to tailor the sessions to fit their needs. It’s no longer about delivering what you’re good at: it’s about finding something new outside your comfort zone that will help them best.
Next week we’re running a workshop on poetry. I never write poems and the list of poems I enjoy is quite short.
Regardless, I’m excited about this session. We’re stealing an exercise one of my friends used in their workshop. My friend got the group to cut up a ‘boring’ poem (‘The Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin) and, with copious application of Pritt Stick, rearrange it into something new. The combination of scissors (note to self: definitely safety scissors), glue and literary vandalism was a big success.
Building up a regular group at our weekly session at Gorleston library has taken a bit of work, but it has paid off with a group of really enthusiastic, talented and friendly young people. It is encouraging to see that they all have the same problems I had, so I can help them out no problem, right?
Well, it isn’t quite as easy as that. Problems I currently face when trying to write include:
Lack of confidence.
Feeling I’m not getting anywhere.
Struggling to finish stories.
Eh. All familiar obstacles, but ones I’m getting better at overcoming. Running these sessions benefits me as much as I hope it benefits our group of young people. It’s easy to be inspired to write after an afternoon with such talented young people.
Find out more about SPACE and hear from other volunteers.
About Kieren McCallum
Kieren McCallum is a writer and UEA graduate. He has been volunteering with SPACE since October 2013. His interests include pestering Writers’ Centre Norwich to let him do as many interesting things as possible and writing flash fiction. One day he will be famous. That day is not today.
Follow Kieren on Twitter @KierenMcCallum and read his writing online.
Announcing the 2014 Norfolk and Norwich Festival City of Literature Events
The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is back, and this year it’s bigger and better than ever. We’ve programmed a series of extra special events, including an evening with *Ray Davies of The Kinks,our second Harriet Martineau Lecture, given by celebrated novelist Kate Mosse, and a day long literary festival celebrating great women writers. For the first time, our events have been inspired and dedicated to Norwich, City of Literature, bringing the best local and international writers to our fine city.
With 14 events in the City of Literature line up, I barely know where to begin – but I’ll start with Literary Death Match, the first event of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival to take place in the stunning Spiegeltent. AL Kennedy has already been confirmed as one of our judges, and the night promises raucous wordplay and spirited merriment.
If you like your literary events lively, our Live Literature events at Norwich Arts Centre are sure to be up your street. Ross Sutherland will be previewing his new show Stand By For Tape Back-Up
and Molly Naylor will be exploring the teenage experience with her show If Destroyed Still True
, with a musical accompaniment from Iain Ross- tickets for both of these shows can be bought for £14 through our joint ticket offer
. Our third event, The Shroud
, is a two man miniature epic, and is part of the [LIVE] Art Club.
After the success of our inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture
, we’ve invited Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth
and The Taxidermist’s Daughter
) to give the second lecture celebrating the life and legacy of radical thinker Harriet Martineau
. We’d also like to welcome you to our Norwich City of Literature Salon
, where you can get involved in your City of Literature.
I’ve been humming hits from The Kinks back catalogue as I’ve been typing, thanks to our event with lead singer Ray Davies
. Davies will talk about his new biography, Americana
, giving you an intimate glimpse into what music and fame really meant to him.
Like your writing bloodthirsty? Masters of horror, Darren Shan and Alexander Gordon Smith will be discussing writing and reading in an edge of your seat event
, which is destined to be a hit with the younger readers.
Our final Playhouse event is with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard
, whose series of My Struggle novels was a controversial bestseller in his home country and is causing a buzz over here too. Having just read this Guardian article
, I’m already looking forward to this event (with a dollop of healthy trepidation)!
Last, but certainly not least, is our day long literary festival The Lives of Great Women Writers
. For only £20 you can buy a ticket for the full day of events, or get an individual ticket for £6. We’ll be kicking off with an event celebrating the life of Penelope Fitzgerald
, with biographer Hermione Lee, which is sure to shed a new light on the life of this intriguing novelist. Next, we’ll be joined by Samantha Ellis
who will discuss her memoir How to Be a Heroine
, and how her literary heroines (from Cathy Earnshaw to the Little Mermaid) shaped her life and writing.
Writing team Mary and Bryan Talbot created the first graphic novel to win the Costa Biography Award (Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes
). With their second graphic novel they’ve turned their focus to women’s emancipation in Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
and they’ll be discussing the challenges and delights of tackling such a tough topic in the third of our festival events
I’m eagerly awaiting our event with Diane Setterfield, having adored her novel The Thirteenth Tale (which was recently adapted for BBC). You’ll hear all about her new novel Bellman & Black, its writing process, and how her reading affects her writing. Rounding off the day will be local writer Raffaella Barker, whose latest novel From a Distance captures the secret and flaws which shape family life across generations. I’m hoping to discover how Norfolk and her writing family have influenced Raffaella’s own craft.
As I’ve been writing, tickets are already flying off the (imaginary) shelves, so I would urge you to book quickly! You can view the whole City of Literature Festival Programme here
, and individual tickets are available for all our of events.
In the meantime, I’m off to have a proper hunt through the entire Norfolk & Norwich festival line-up
– I’d hate to miss anything!
*Suggested musical accompaniment for this blog:
Rich Pickings- A Guest Blog from Bianca Jane Winter
Bianca Jane Winter, Readers' Circle member, blogs about choosing the 2014 Summer Reads and reader expectations.
Participants in Writers' Centre Norwich's Readers' Circle
have one thing in common: we love reading. But perhaps that's as much as can be said about our similarities. So how can a diverse group agree on a selection of a handful of books?
What has surprised me about the Readers' Circle is that readers have taken on a commitment to discovering the clutch of books for Summer Reads
2014 with utter seriousness. That's not to say it hasn't been a process full of fun and enjoyment, but it has been evident in all my encounters with members of the Readers' Circle that serving the ultimate purpose – of bringing together a collection of books that will delight and inspire a wide readership – takes precedence over personal preferences.
I'd say the rule of thumb for the Readers' Circle ought to be expect the unexpected: so many reader reviews begin 'I didn't expect to like this...' or 'I had high hopes, but...' - and it's no exaggeration to say that most of us formed some notion about what we were about to read before we did so (elaborate tactics of selection to avoid this are a whole other story)! Selecting a book inherently involves a judgement – but we could perhaps argue that the best books are those that challenge our judgement; that surprise us, that move us in ways we couldn't possibly anticipate.
Revealing, too, is the way that our understanding of ourselves as readers has shifted as a result of this process – many people are open to new genres, new authors and new imprints. But it's not just an increase in appetite for different sorts of books that I've noticed – it's what we learn when we're forced to articulate our opinions. Discussing books, contrary to my assumption that it would reveal 'camps' of people with similar tastes, only served to highlight how diverse a group of readers had come together. I'm now celebrating the fact that, as readers, we are completely unique, and our passions simply can't be predicted.
Such a diverse group of readers makes it impossible, of course, to reach a consensus about the greatness of each of the books that make the final selection. But what can be guaranteed is that each book has earned its place by eliciting passions and gaining advocates that can champion even the book’s flaws. For no book is perfect, and all that can be promised for Summer Reads 2014 is a collection of books that are varied in tone, subject matter and form, but that all possess qualities that readers have fought for and proclaimed. We each, no doubt, have our own list of books to recommend, but by harnessing the collective in order to reach the final selection, we ensure that Summer Reads represent a breadth of opinion, and is the richer for that.
Underpinning Summer Reads is a belief in the transformative power of reading, a belief borne out by the process of selection and shared by every member of the Readers' Circle. It results in a collection of books that have been interrogated, argued for, loved and sometimes loathed – a collection of such richness and varied appeal that it simply couldn't be selected by a single person. So, I urge every keen reader to pick up some Summer Reads and expect nothing except a powerful experience.
Find out more about the Readers' Circle
Find out more about Summer Reads.
Read Julia Webb's blog on choosing the Summer Reads.
About Bianca Jane Winter
Bianca's love affair with books started when she was 2 by copying words from the Encyclopedia Britannica, includes much illicit 'reading in the dark' as a child, and has recently encompassed a love-hate relationship with the Man Booker prize. Participating in the Readers' Circle, with such a dedicated and erudite bunch of readers, has been a real privilege.
Professionally, Bianca is a Digital Producer working with two companies, Hoipolloi and METIS, based in the East. She's worked to develop new work and support artists and writers over the last six years, and before that, she graduated from a degree in Fine Art.
Visit Bianca's Blog
Follow Bianca on Twitter @DiscoverBrevity
Artistic Rivalry and Literary Friendships - A Guest Blog from Emma Claire Sweeney
Emma Claire Sweeney, Escalator Winner, writes on literary friendships and her new project Something Rhymed.
By the time I won an Escalator Award back in 2005, I was already firm friends with Emily Midorikawa – the fellow writer with whom I've launched Something Rhymed, a website about famous literary friendships.
I met Emily during a time when we were both living in rural Japan – working as English teachers by day, and scribbling stories in secret by night.
We both have fond memories of the moment we first dared to admit our literary ambitions: we were in a garlic-themed restaurant at the time, chatting over bowls of noodles.
I clearly remember talking with Emily that night about the way novels give us the illusion that we can mind read. Over a decade later, I keep circling back to this notion. But I only recently realised that my preoccupation with this likely stems from my yearning to be a more eloquent interpreter of my autistic sister – something I've blogged about here.
The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge
– the novel I'm completing for my agent, Veronique Baxter at David Higham – is inspired by my relationship with my sister, and its main theme goes back to my first literary conversation with Emily: the impossibility of truly knowing even those closest to us but the restorative powers of our attempts to do so.
From our discussion back in that garlic-themed restaurant to the final redrafting of this novel, Emily has joined me on each of my deviations, uphill struggles, and delightful discoveries. And she has given me the great privilege of sharing her intellectual, creative, and emotional journey too.
Until this point, our writing careers have grown roughly in tandem, but now, both nearing the end of novel drafts, we fear that the coming year could put new pressures on our relationship. Wary of the dangers of artistic rivalry, we are keen to glean tips from our literary heroines on how to sustain an invaluable friendship through potentially trickier times.
Throughout 2014, our new website, Something Rhymed
, will be profiling a different pair of female writer pals each month, and we’ll be challenging ourselves (and our blog followers) to complete an activity based on a prominent feature of that particular friendship.
We’ll be posting regular updates on our progress, and would love for you to get involved by letting us know of any literary pals we could profile.
Or you might like to make it your New Year’s resolution to complete the activities alongside us. You can find out about the first challenge here
About Emma Claire Sweeney
Emma Claire Sweeney won an Escalator Award back in 2005, after graduating with distinction from UEA’s Creative Writing MA. Her fiction has also been granted Arts Council and Royal Literary Fund Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. Most recently, she has been published in The Times
, and The Independent on Sunday
. She is represented by Veronique Baxter at David Higham and is currently completing The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge
– a novel inspired by her autistic sister.
Last year, Emma Claire published The Memoir Garden
– an Arts Council sponsored collection of poems comprising the words and experiences of adults with learning disabilities.
Having co-written literary features, this year Emma Claire and her long-standing writer friend, Emily Midorikawa, launched Something Rhymed
Visit Emma Claire's website
Follow Emma Claire on Twitter @emmacsweeney
About Emily Midorikawa
Emily Midorikawa grew up in Yorkshire. She is a half-English, half-Japanese writer of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and her work has been published in, amongst others, Aesthetica
, the Telegraph
, The Times
and the UEA anthology Otherwheres
Her as-yet-unpublished first novel A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing
came joint-third in the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2012, third in the Yeovil Literary Prize 2013, and was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013.
Emily is one of the writers involved with Tangled Roots
, a literary project that celebrates the stories of mixed-race families from Yorkshire. With her writer friend Emma Claire Sweeney, she runs the website Something Rhymed
, which profiles the literary friendships of famous authors.
52,190 Words of 'Light Relief' - A Guest Blog from Escalatee Robert Mason
Robert Mason, an Escalator graduate blogs on exploring new disciplines, the Escalator experience, and publishing Other People's Dogs.
Escalator Literature 2009/10 was crucial for me – it made me decide that this writing malarkey was serious. After thirty years as an illustrator that was a massive realisation and surprise, and, having painted pictures since I was an embryo, I felt some guilt about my new direction. This lasted for about a week; the concomitant poverty has been more tenacious.
Escalator was enjoyable and nerve wracking: I had no prior experience of presenting or formally discussing my writing, though friends from the UEA Creative Writing courses had been incredibly generous and helpful, informally. So, to receive feedback, in a public place, from my mentor Courttia Newland, and to have to read to literary agents, in a public place, was demanding. To do those things without weeping was a triumph.
Perhaps most valuably Escalator opened my eyes to tangible practicalities of literary life: how to write synopses, how to use social media (still not 100% there), how agents operate and – most interestingly – how practising authors actually work. My appreciation of the latter went from indiscriminate absorption of all information imparted to a far more selective mode, as I realised that all writers differ and that it was OK to put together my own working routines. Some pointers, such as write original material at one time of day, and edit at another, were invaluable: thanks to Alex Preston for that. I manage to adhere to it some of the time.
Other People’s Dogs is not my Escalator book: The Rec – now re-titled Retribution – is still ongoing and I think it’s going well. OPD began life a year or so earlier, as (50,000 words of) light relief between two longer manuscripts. Its genesis was, definitely, as ‘dog book’, rather than ‘memoir’: I dislike that m-word. But my dog book differs from most in that, while the majority are concerned with a one-to-one relationship between dog and owner, OPD is written by someone who adores dogs but has never owned one. So a degree of autobiography was inevitable, in describing serial, irresponsible relationships with any number of canines, over many years. And, for me, that aspect of the book has been the most interesting, as it threw up dilemmas revolving around memory, wish fulfilment, truth, fiction, etc. All of which sounds too serious: OPD is predominantly humorous – and that’s an h-word I dislike. Oh God, I’ve written a humorous memoir. Shoot me now.
I’ve been very lucky in getting Ian Pollock, an old RCA friend, to illustrate the book, and I’m hugely grateful to Barrie Tullett at Caseroom Press for sticking with me while I dithered and edited – two activities that can seem fiendishly similar. My sincere thanks to them, and to Courttia Newland and WCN for the Escalator experience.
So, if you want to read a dog book written by someone who has never owned a dog, or a memoir written by someone who can’t remember what he had for breakfast, look no further.
You can purchase a copy of Other People's Dogs online
, or from The Book Hive
Read a review of Other People's Dogs.
Robert Mason graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1976. He embarked on a thirty-year career as an illustrator, working for many major publishers and producing artwork for books by Rose Tremain, Robertson Davies, Robert Musil, Angela Carter, Alan Moore and many others. In 2006 he virtually stopped drawing and began to write, and in 2009 applied successfully for a place on WCN's Escalator Literature programme. Robert ran the Illustration course at the (then) Norwich School of Art from 1990 to 2006, and eventually retired from the (now) Norwich University of the Arts in 2013. He has written two short books about Illustration; Other People's Dogs
is his first non-Illustration title. He lives in Norwich with his wife, the totally brilliant jeweller Elaine Cox.
The Opportunity of SPACE- A Guest Blog from Jen Morgan
Jen Morgan, Specialist Creative Reading Mentor for the SPACE project, blogs about her experience of SPACE.
Although it is the beginning of the second phase of SPACE it is the start of my involvement with the project. I have taught creative writing to adults for a number of years which I have loved and continue to love, but my background is in teaching young adults and that was what made me so excited about SPACE – the opportunity to explore creative writing/creative reading with 12-18 year olds. I am particularly pleased to have been given the role of specialist mentor as it means that I will have the opportunity to visit each of the project venues and meet lots of the young people involved.
My main role is to work with the young people and suggest books that they might like, based on their interests and reading preferences. I have already visited the project based in Thetford and think I have some challenging times ahead with coaxing some of the young people into giving things a try! But that is what this project is all about for me – opening young eyes up to new experiences.
My other role is to work with the other mentors in terms of helping to create a positive reading space in the venue but I’m also on hand if they want any help with devising the creative writing sessions. I got to meet all of the other mentors at the training sessions run by Roxanne Matthews. Many of the mentors are undergraduates from UEA, still young people themselves, who are all passionate about literature and about the SPACE project. I certainly wasn’t that passionate about anything when I was an undergraduate and their dedication to the project, many of whom have been involved for a year already, has really impressed me. Getting to work with all the mentors has been an unexpected highlight for me. As an adult education tutor I have always worked on my own in terms of planning and delivering my sessions. When I attend training events run by the County Council I am always the lone creative writing teacher among the groups of fitness instructors, literacy tutors and so on. Now I am suddenly part of a team of hard-working and talented people who share my enthusiasm for literature. I am very much looking forward to the coming months to see how my role develops based on the needs of the young people and the other mentors. Watch this space!
Find out more about SPACE.
About Jen Morgan
Jen Morgan is the Specialist Creative Reading Mentor for the SPACE project. Her early career was in secondary education teaching Philosophy and Ethics, having studied Theology at Cambridge. She has always loved reading children’s stories and whilst teaching, she realised that what she really wanted to do was write them as well. She took the opportunity to pursue this whilst on maternity leave and completed an MA in Writing for Children at Winchester University, for which she achieved Distinction. Since then she has taught many creative writing courses to adults and has recently completed the YA novel she began during her MA. She also works in the children’s department at Heffers Bookshop and is Assistant Editor for the academic e-journal Write4Children. She is based in Cambridge with her two young children and loves dressing-up. Especially pirates and Tudor costumes.
Visit Jen's blog.
You can follow Jen on Twitter @JenDrakeMorgan
We are currently looking for enthusiastic volunteers to get involved in the SPACE project. Are you interested in developing your skills and experience working with young people? Do you have a love for creative writing and reading that you want to share? Please send an email with your CV and a covering letter to Melanie Kidd, Project Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline for applications is Monday 25th November. Please note interviews are likely to take place on Monday 2nd December. For more information about the volunteer role and the SPACE project, call Melanie on 01603 877177 for an informal chat (Monday-Wednesday).
Welcome to the Fine City of Norwich.
In 2012 Norwich became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, and the sixth in the world. This elite international network now includes six other cities around the world; Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik and recently Kraków.
Today, Norwich’s new city signs have been unveiled, proudly declaring to all visitors (and, of course residents) that this fine city is a UNESCO City of Literature.
The UNESCO City of Literature award is much more than a recognition of Norwich’s literary heritage and contemporary strengths
– it is a promise of what will come.
In the year since Norwich became a City of Literature Writers’ Centre Norwich has already established many projects, events and even a publication, which celebrates and builds upon our literary strengths.
26 for Norwich
celebrated Norwich’s literary heritage, present strengths, and future potential by pairing professional writers from writers’ group 26
with students from the UEA Creative Writing courses. The pairs were then asked to produce a piece of work in response to a historic Norwich writing. You can explore the work of Norwich’s historical writers and the pieces produced by our contemporary writers on the 26 for Norwich website
Into the Light: The Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich
is a collection of poems written by Meir ben Elijah, England’s only medieval Hebrew poet, and our first UNESCO City of Literature publication. Find out more about Meir ben Elijah and purchase a copy of the collection
UEA UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professorships
was established in early 2012, and brings leading writers to teach at the University of East Anglia
. The inaugural professors in 2013-13 were playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and novelist Ali Smith
Ali Smith gave the inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture
at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2013
. The lecture celebrated Harriet Martineau, an unjustly oft-forgot Norwich writer. Read a report on the event and listen to a recording
Our plans for the future are even more exciting. Future plans are designed to make literature accessible for residents of the city and county, as well as to visitors to the region.
The National Centre for Writing
(NCW) will be a unique building based in the heart of Norwich. Never before seen in England, NCW will be regional beacon and a national draw for the city, offering a home for those passionate about the power of words, whether they be readers, writers or translators. Writers’ Centre Norwich is leading the bid to develop the National Centre for Writing, which will open in 2016. View plans on architect Ash Sakula’s website
A £360K partnership bid to Heritage Lottery Fund
has been developed, with the proposed funding being used to explore, celebrate and open up Norwich and Norfolk’s literary history for everyone who lives in and visits Norwich. (More news soon)
A £300k Cultural Tourism bid led by the New Anglian Local Enterprise Partnership
is underway, which is designed to attract more visitors and tourists to Norwich.
A series of workshops for young people and schools
is being planned to bring creative reading and writing in to the heart of their lives, and broaden the opportunities available to them.
Margaret Atwood will be the third UEA UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professor
. We’re delighted to welcome Margaret to Norwich for two months in 2014.
SPACE, a volunteer-led reading and writing programme
, is running in libraries and venues across Norfolk. A collaborative project with Norfolk Library Service
and University of East Anglia
. SPACE works with young people and communities to remove barriers to creative writing and reading.
New work will be commissioned
which will celebrate our sister UNESCO Cities of Literature, and includes a commission to make a film of one of the stories from Finnegan’s Wake
by James Joyce.
If you’d like to know more about Norwich UNESCO City of Literature, you can read our successful bid online
or visit our webpage devoted to the subject
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