by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
The National Conversation began last year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a provocation in which author Michael Rosen challenged the audience to ask themselves ‘What’s the Point in Books?’
Since then, some of the brightest minds involved in the writing, production and reading of books have gathered at festivals around the UK (and in Colombia) to continue the conversation. It’s been an exciting year and we’ve debated a wide range of subjects. Will Self argued that the novel as we know it is dead in the digital age. Meg Rosoff warned us that unless we fuel creative minds, finding space for creativity in the curriculum, we are in danger of producing ‘excellent sheep’ in our education system. Ali Smith praised books in translation as the oxygen that fuels all that is exciting about Anglophone writing. Turning to the business
of writing and publishing in a two-part series focused on the Civil War for Books, Philip Gwyn Jones and Erica Wagner followed the money train and examined the relationships between Amazon, corporate publishing and the industry at large. Binyavanga Wainaina asked the audience at Hay Cartagena to consider the possibilities of a South to South dialogue between writers and readers and, back home, Kamila Shamsie’s challenge of a year of publishing only women was taken up by several publishers and debated widely, as was Kerry Hudson’s impassioned case for more diversity in the publishing industry. August found us back in Edinburgh with Charles Fernyhough examining the science and the joy of reading, then Joanne Harris presented a Writer’s Manifesto at the Manchester Literary Festival, sparking much discussion between readers and writers. Now Jon McGregor closes the series in Cambridge with a provocation titled: The Blank Page.
From its conception, the National Conversation was intended as an invitation for us all to explore the impact literature can have on our lives, providing a platform for discussion of the challenges facing writers and readers today. We never expected to find all the answers, but the process of enquiry and debate has caught on and the provocations presented in the series have thrown up some exciting possibilities. Meanwhile, WCN has moved into our new offices at Dragon Hall and we continue to work towards realising plans for our National Centre for Writing – a place where we can continue to talk, provoke and interact, to find new ways to engage with this most vibrant of art forms. We hope you will join us.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE is a freelance editor, critic and broadcaster and a trustee of WCN. She is a 2015 judge of the Man Booker Prize and the editor of the anthologies Africa39 (Bloomsbury), Let’s Tell This Story Properly (Dundurn Press/Commonwealth Writers), Spread the Word’s forthcoming Flamingoland and Other Stories as well as an anthology of Creative Non-Fiction from Africa to be published in 2016. She is editor of the National Conversation Series.
What's the big idea? Events and provocations
'Modern-day pardoners walk amongst us with falsenesses to sell. We need Chaucers to show us the ironies of their trade.’
Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 2014
In August 2014 the National Conversation launched with an impassioned speech by Michael Rosen at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He asked the audience to consider ‘What is the Point in Books’ – emphasising the value of literature in encouraging us all to be active, engaged members of society and the importance of making reading and discovery an integral part of childhood and education. In the conversation that followed with writers Jamie Jauncey and Denise Mina – and the sell-out audience – topics included libraries and librarians, the role of paperback novels in the fall of the Soviet Union and educational reform. You can listen to the full podcast below.
Read Michael Rosen's provocation and add your voice to the comments section.
Read Ellah Wakatama Allfrey's introduction to the event.
Are we entering a brave new world or is the online world destroying literature, and us as readers? Cheltenham Festival, October 2014
The second National Conversation event was just as engaging. Will Self gave his provocation ‘On Writers, Readers and Losing our Minds’, exploring the ways in which technological developments and the digital age have changed the experience of reading. Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House UK and Maureen Freely, President of English PEN, author and translator joined him in a thrilling debate hosted by WCN’s Chris Gribble.
Read Chris' post here.
Read Will Self's provocation as printed in The Guardian.
Without the oxygen of literary translation, contemporary fiction and poetry will always run the risk of stagnation and a lingering decline. Southbank Centre, December 2014
Ali Smith addressed how language and literature are naturally international and considered how one of the world’s most dominant languages can't ignore the proliferation of life and lives that make the global library. This event was chaired by writer and translator Daniel Hahn, with Ali joined on stage by writer and film maker Xiaolu Guo and translator Margaret Jull Costa.
Find out more.
Read a blog, inspired by the event, from Commonwealth Writers.
See photos of the event. See how the conversation unfolded online, with our Storify of the event.
South to South - Is the metropolis still the place to publish? Hay Cartegena, January 2015
Binyavanga Wainaina opened the debate in Hay Cartagena. The discussion focused on the opportunities opened up by new digital publishing platforms and the potential of a challenge to the ‘centre’ of publishing being located in Northern Hemisphere London or New York. Following our event at Hay Cartagena, author Paula Morris responded with a piece on the imperial world of book publishing and prizes.
Read 'A World Without Centre: The Illusion of the ‘International’ Book Prize' and let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Read Juan Pablo Villalobos' response to Binyavanga Wainaina's provocation in his piece on the globalisation of literature, and his personal experiences of crossing borders, and cultures, with his work.
How can we fuel creative minds? Bath Festival, March 2015
At Bath Literature Festival, on 2nd March, best-selling author Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) read a stirring provocation about what’s happening to English Literature in schools and wondering at the consequences of devaluing creativity in education. Rosoff, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and headteacher Kevin Jones took part in a really interesting and thought-provoking National Conversation debate.
Read the full text of Meg Rosoff’s provocation
In an accompanying web piece, Kevin Jones describes his own encounters with creative minds.You can read it here. We dare you not to cry.
There is a Civil War for Books. London Book Fair, April 2015
April’s National Conversation event took place at the London Book Fair on April 16th, as publisher and editor Philip Gwyn Jones
drew the battle lines over ‘The Civil War for Books’. Gwyn Jones revealed that authors’ income has fallen dramatically over the last few years and Amazon aren’t making much of a profit either. The only group that Gwyn Jones finds to be doing well are the larger trade publishers, due, he thinks, to e-book sales and cautious publishing on safe bets. What about those writing the more challenging stories? Journalist, author and festival director Viv Groskop
and writer and campaigner Nell Leyshon
joined in for an engaging discussion that prompted wide-ranging questions from the floor.
We need to make radical moves in order to address the gender bias in literature. Hay Festival, May 2015
, author of six novels including the 2015 Bailey's Prize shortlisted A God in Every Stone
and Orange Prize shortlisted Burnt Shadows
, Philip Jones
, Editor of the Bookseller
, Rosie Goldsmith
and Caroline Michel
boss of super agency PFD, discussed the gender bias in literature as well as some radical solutions as to how to fix it. The conversation continued apace in the media post event, and Shamsie's suggestion to have a year publishing only female writers was taken up (see media links above).
'The Invisible Woman': Kamila Shamsie's full provocation
Have you ever considered the stories that we don’t get to hear? And exactly who we are not getting to hear from? Bloomsbury Institute, July 2015
A stimulating and important provocation and debate on diversity in the writing world with writer Kerry Hudson (Thirst), Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury, writer Nikesh Shukla (Meatspace), editor and Booker Judge, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and expert witness Danuta Keen, (author of the Spread the Word report ‘Writing the Future’).
'Lost Stories, Unheard Voices': read Kerry Hudson's full provocation.
'Four Examples of Diversity in Publishing' by Nikesh Shukla
We need to prove that reading changes lives. Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 2015
Novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough explored the scientific impact of reading with novelist Nicola Morgan and writer Cathy Rentzenbrink. Fernyhough drew on the latest research, and on his roles as Wellcome Trust Hubbub fellow and Hearing the Voice Project Director. Morgan, author of The Teenage Guide to Stress, revealed how teenage brains process information differently and why reading is so vital. Rentzenbrink, writer and project director of Quick Reads discussed the human and sociological impacts of reading and how it changes lives.
'The Science of Reading' by Charles Fernyhough
Manchester Literature Festival: Why I Write; A Writer's Manifesto by Joanne Harris, October 2015
As writing is really an act of communication, are writers thinking enough about how they connect with their readers? Joanne Harris, author of the best-selling Chocolat, created a modern manifesto for writers. Joined by Lemn Sissay MBE, Dr Geoff Ryman and chair Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, she discussed why writers write, why readers read, and what needs to happen for both groups to flourish. What are the social responsibilities of being a writer and who should decide where the boundaries lie?
'A Writer's Manifesto' by Joanne Harris
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