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Fuelling Creative Minds by Meg Rosoff
LET’S BEGIN WITH YOUR FUNERAL
Let’s talk about what makes a ‘successful’ life.
Did anyone love you? Did you contribute to someone else’s happiness? Did you help someone in trouble? Did you love someone over a long period of time, even when it was difficult to sustain that love? Did you question injustice? Did you give away some of your money – no matter how little of it there was – to someone who needed it more than you did? Did you have a passion? Did you think about your time on earth? Did you ease suffering, enlighten someone’s mind, do a job with honesty and integrity? Did you appreciate nature, stand up for what was joyous and what was morally right?
Let’s talk about what makes a successful life.
One of my few really interesting professors at Harvard was a psychiatrist called George Vaillant, who took over a seventy-five year assessment (begun in the early 1940s) of a group of Harvard undergraduates. The Grant Study was set up to trace the sources of and influences on success (or lack of success) in every arena of life.
The subjects still alive are now in their nineties and still being studied.
By means of questionnaires and interviews, 268 men were followed closely, year after year, looking for correlations between geography, IQ, family life, emotional intelligence, diet, marital status … and success.
Here are a few of the things they found.
- Above a certain basic level of intelligence, more is not necessarily better.
- Career success depended on warmth of relationships and, above a certain base level, not on intelligence.
- Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers earned more than men whose mothers were uncaring.
- Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
Vaillant’s key takeaway, in his own words: ‘The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”?’
So (despite many of the Grant Study’s results being presented in terms of income) in the end, it seems, happiness comes down to the quality of your relationships – friendships, sexual relationships, family relationships, working relationships, relationships between parents and children.
And success, I believe most people would agree, comes down to happiness. If you live a happy and fulfilled life, then you die successful.
So why do we persist in measuring success in terms of salaries, job titles and assets? Why do we measure the success of executives by the size of their bonuses? Doctors and lawyers by their hundred hour weeks? Writers by how many books they sell? Children by their number of A*s? Why do we (currently) determine success based on media exposure, fame, number of Twitter followers? Why are we endlessly trying to quantify life experiences, as if the person with the greatest number of followers on Facebook, the biggest bank balance or the greatest number of A*s somehow wins?
According to George Vaillant, none of these things contributes markedly to happiness.
Perhaps we need to go back to the very beginning – to the very definition of success, and to how we educate our children to think about success, in order to get to the bottom of our thinking on the subject.
So let's go back to school.
In the twenty-first century, educational success is largely determined by the government. The government puts in place a series of goals that evaluate children as young as three against measures of socialisation, reading proficiency, an understanding of numbers, the ability to answer questions in an acceptable, established manner, and later – during GCSEs and A levels – the ability to pass exams in up to twelve subjects and write essays in a strictly approved fashion.
Success in school requires hard work and a competitive approach to study on the part of students – but more to the point, a successful student is one capable of achieving goals as defined by the exam graders, as defined by the government.
A successful student is one capable of matching learning to this very specific series of goals.
In other words, a child who reads all day is not a successful student. A child who writes brilliantly and with a distinctive voice but can’t spell, is a failure. A child who loves history but can’t write an essay in the approved manner, is doomed. A child who loves stories, who loves to dream, who makes unusual connections, whose brain works in unconventional, peculiar ways – but who can’t multiply 11 x12 – is not a successful student.
Successful students must sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, temporarily memorise large amounts of information, understand and achieve received goals, think inside the box. A desire to please and a willingness to conform are key.
The least successful children in this sausage factory will be branded from the age of five. Children with parents or carers who don’t talk or read to them enough are most likely to fall into this category of early failures. As are dyslexic children. Or eccentric thinkers. An irregular schedule, disorderly home life and financial instability all interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
Less support at home, fewer books, a less regular schedule, a less orderly home life, less healthy meals, less consistent love – all these economic or emotional disadvantages further condemn the five year old to failure. Food banks, immigration problems, substance abuse problems, unemployment, parental absence or mental illness – all of these elements interfere with the attainment of ‘success’ as determined by the government.
I see them when I visit secondary schools – the children branded failures because they can’t get on in school. Because they’re bored, or not very verbal, or not very good at sitting still and taking information in as required in a classroom situation – or the ones who just don’t see why thirteen years of their lives should be spent taking exams they’re not good at, absorbing information in a manner that hasn’t changed much in two hundred years. ‘Not a student’ is a label that has condemned decades of children to a diminished sense of what they’re capable of in life. When in fact all it means is, ‘does not thrive within government parameters’.
Do I buy into the idea that these students are without value? Of course not. Put them in a different sort of learning environment or teach them something that stimulates their imaginations and they’ll be fine. But sit them in a classroom for thirteen years with a series of targets chosen by a government that knows nothing at all about education and they’re doomed.
In contrast, the most successful children in this whole process of learning and taking exams will get all A*s and go to Oxford or Cambridge, after which they will go on to have what most people consider to be the most successful lives – the best jobs, the highest salaries, large and comfortable and expensive houses and cars.
In a 2014 book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, award winning American essayist and educator William Deresiewicz concerned himself with what’s going at the top level of American education.
‘Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose … great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.’
This was written about Harvard and Yale but applies just as well to elite British universities. Like the highest rated state primary and secondary schools, these institutions take few risks – they admit top performing, highly driven teenagers and turn out graduates with no motive to question the status quo, no motive to question the structure of society or the weight that society puts on a certain kind of success.
If you win a beauty contest, you don’t dedicate your life to challenging society’s perceptions of beauty.
William Deresiewicz continues:
‘So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.’
All of this is happening at exactly the moment at which the world most needs risk takers: individuals willing and able to retell the story of society in a more positive way. People willing to take risks with meaningful social and political change. Hardly anyone would disagree that our political system needs changing – free market capitalism has led to terrifying extremes of wealth and poverty. The pharmaceutical industry needs meaningful change along with the system of drug patents that price simple, inexpensive drugs out of the reach of entire populations whose lives they might save. The legal system favours those with money, as does education, as does housing. In the meantime, there is little financial motive to stem – or even acknowledge – the devastating effects of global warming. It is difficult to think of a single aspect of life on earth today that couldn’t do with rigorous deconstruction and rethinking.
If schools are going to train a better class of political leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, parents, and social policy-makers, they’re going to have to ask themselves which qualities to promote. If we require a more compassionate, more radical, less class-riven and self-centered definition of success, where does it begin?
I would like success to be redefined. I would like a successful man or woman to be defined as one who thinks creatively and laterally, who questions authority and accepted wisdom, who lives thoughtfully, generously and not entirely for personal gain. To be successful, I believe, it is important to leave the world a little bit better than you found it.
How do we do this? By listening to the wise and enduring voices of our civilization – by encouraging each new generation to read history and philosophy and to think big thoughts – about religion, politics, ethics, love, passion, life and death and the origins of the universe. The extraordinary imagination of our species – as expressed in poetry and fiction, music, art, dance – might someday spill over into cures for cancer and war and inequality. This will happen not by thinking about what we are, but what we might be.
A further striving after knowledge and meaning is the proper goal for education. Everyone doesn’t need to achieve A*s. But everyone needs to learn how to live a good, creative, questioning life.
What we don’t need are more five-year-old failures and more excellent sheep.
The Most Exotic Thing
The most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been translated into Bulgarian. The second is having gone to Bulgaria to launch the translation of my novel there. A Mexican writer does not write in order to be translated into Bulgarian. Being published in Bulgaria is, to put it mildly, an insane hypothesis. How many Mexican novelists have been translated into Bulgarian? Juan Rulfo? Carlos Fuentes? If that. And yet, nonetheless, it happens: it happened to me. The big question was, why did they publish me?
It’s because your novel is about the drugs trade and that’s a subject everyone in the world is interested in, some of my friends told me. It’s because of the success the book had in the UK, said others.
I went to Bulgaria thinking it was all a great big misunderstanding. It seemed to me that the publication of a novel with cultural and literary references completely alien to a Bulgarian reader was, at the very least, madness. Who would be interested in this novel? Who would understand it? I imagined the scenario reversed: some poor Bulgarian writer being published in Mexico. Incidentally, had I read any contemporary Bulgarian authors? If I had I couldn’t remember.
The third most exotic thing that’s ever happened to me – as a writer, that is – is having been interviewed by Bulgarian journalists. I was invited to appear on the news on Bulgarian national television. I spoke to all the journalists. I even went on a literary TV show that was recorded in a cave. And a popular radio show, where I have no idea why we laughed so much. Don’t tell anyone, but it seemed to me that all the journalists were slightly mad. Perhaps I’m exaggerating and it’s just that our English (the journalists’ and mine) was far from fluent, which just heaped misunderstanding on misunderstanding. They asked me about deaths due to the war on drugs. About Subcomandante Marcos. And, just as I thought they would, they talked about Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes.
So far, so exotic, but nothing had prepared me for the truly exotic: my book had readers in Bulgaria. They came to the launches I did in Sofía and in Plovdiv. They talked fondly of the book’s narrator and protagonist. They told me what they’d liked and they asked me about some things that had disturbed or confused them. In short, we communicated, and it didn’t matter that we came from different worlds, from different literary traditions, that is, and that we were destined to misunderstand one another.
It seems to me that when it comes to discussing the subject of the globalisation of literature, to analysing what it is that gets published, where and why, a radical working hypothesis, one that probes the limits of the question, would be this: that of a writer from a peripheral country being published in another peripheral country (like the trip a few Hondurans went on to Liberia, exactly what I describe in my novel). And to make things more complicated, let’s suppose we’re talking about a book that strays from the conventions of Anglo-Saxon realism. How does this sort of thing come about? How does such an insane hypothesis become a reality? What are the stages of mediation? I don’t know, but it happens. Luckily, it happens.
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Barcelona, winter, 2015.
Translated by Rosalind Harvey
Living Translation: A National Conversation Event with Ali Smith
The Southbank Centre was host to the third National Conversation event on Wednesday 3 December, where Ali Smith gave a sparkling provocation on Living Translation. If you missed the event, we're pleased to provide you with the recording below. Following Ali's flowing words, event Chair, Daniel Hahn, skillfully moderated the conversation and Q&A alongside writer and film maker, Xiaolu Guo, translator Margaret Jull Costa OBE and our provocateur, Ali Smith.
To complement your listening, you can also view a selection of images from the evening, taken by photographer, Belinda Lawley.
And it gets better. Throughout the events we live tweet in order to get your thoughts on the provocation and the discussion that follows. To give you a taste of what was said, have a read through this Storify created by WCN Communications Intern, Elizabeth Hankins.
WCN to develop planned National Centre for Writing in the historic Dragon Hall
We're delighted to announce some excellent news today, regarding our plans to develop a national centre for writing in Norwich. After talks with key partners, Writers' Centre Norwich (WCN) has been offered the Grade 1 listed Dragon Hall in Norwich - a building that offers so much opportunity for us to grow, and has a history that will undoubtedly inspire many stories from visitors in the future.
WCN's Chris Gribble says:
“We are delighted with this new opportunity for the National Centre for Writing to be based in Dragon Hall. This was not an option when we were originally looking at venues in Norwich, and it is an opportunity that, after careful consideration, we are delighted to accept. Dragon Hall already offers an intimate and private venue for readings, office space, a garden, space for writers and translators to live and work and teaching space for young people and adults alike. In fact, much of what we need as a National Centre for Writing is already there making the economic case for Dragon Hall as the home for NCW as clear and compelling as the artistic case.”
We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page, and you can read more about our plans in today's Norwich Evening News
and by reading the press release below. Writers’ Centre Norwich announces a new development in its plans to create a National Centre for Writing in Norwich, England’s UNESCO City of Literature.
As a result of partnership discussions with Norwich City Council, Arts Council England, Norfolk County Council and UEA, Writers’ Centre Norwich is pleased to announce its intention to develop the planned National Centre for Writing and home for Norwich UNESCO City of Literature in the historic Dragon Hall in King Street, Norwich.
After careful consideration by the current tenants, the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust (who funded the original restoration of Dragon Hall), in partnership with Norwich City Council, the outstanding Grade I listed building has been offered as a home for the prestigious National Centre for Writing.
Thanks to the outstanding stewardship of the current tenants, Dragon Hall has been subject to much improvement in recent years, and is already equipped with many of the spaces and facilities that were at the heart of WCN’s previous plans to develop the NCW at Gladstone House.
Chris Gribble, CEO of WCN says:
“We are delighted with this new opportunity for the National Centre for Writing to be based in Dragon Hall. This was not an option when we were originally looking at venues in Norwich, and it is an opportunity that, after careful consideration, we are delighted to accept. Dragon Hall already offers an intimate and private venue for readings, office space, a garden, space for writers and translators to live and work and teaching space for young people and adults alike. In fact, much of what we need as a National Centre for Writing is already there making the economic case for Dragon Hall as the home for NCW as clear and compelling as the artistic case.”
Graham Creelman, Chair of Writers’ Centre Norwich says:
“As a jewel in Norwich’s heritage crown, Dragon Hall is a rich and vibrant part of our history redolent with stories and narratives that will bring our UNESCO City of Literature programmes alive. At the heart of a community in the process of great development, it also allows us to be part of the regeneration of a key part of the city at a crucial time. We will aim to be proud custodians of Dragon Hall and this centre for visitors to and residents of the city. The NCW at Dragon Hall should prove to be of lasting artistic and economic benefit to Norwich and the whole region.”
These developments mean that Writers’ Centre Norwich is no longer pursuing its plans for the National Centre for Writing at Gladstone House and will be withdrawing from the ACE Large Capital Funding programme with the full backing and support of Arts Council England.
Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature and the South East, Arts Council England, said:
“We are proud to support Writers’ Centre Norwich’s move to Dragon Hall. Writers’ Centre Norwich already plays an important role for writers and academics in the East of England; this move will support its ambitions to become a major new centre for writing in England’s only UNESCO City of Literature.”
Writers’ Centre Norwich aims to move into Dragon Hall at some point after the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust relinquishes the lease in spring 2015, and to evolve into the National Centre for Writing in the autumn of 2016 in line with its original plans.
In the run-up to the 2016 opening as a National Centre for Writing, the organisation will continue its fund-raising campaign in order to develop the already approved south wing as an innovation and education space and to update key elements of the building’s infrastructure to secure Dragon Hall’s long term future for the city, its residents and visitors.END <End of Copy>
For Further Information Please Contact
• Chris Gribble, Chief Executive: email@example.com
/ 01603 877177 / mob 07800 662879
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Photographs are available on requestEditor’s NotesWriters’ Centre Norwich
Writers’ Centre Norwich is the literature development agency for the East and last year led the successful bid to have Norwich nominated as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, one of only eleven in the world. WCN supports emerging and established writers and seeks to explore the artistic and social power of creative writing through pioneering and collaborative projects with writers, readers, schools, libraries and cultural partners. Its programme includes mentoring, workshops, conferences, live literature events and talks by internationally acclaimed writers. Speakers at the WCN Worlds Literature Festival, which takes place in June, have in recent years included JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson.
Translating Nazi Language - Meike Ziervogel on the perils of poor translation.
When I was researching my novel Magda, I read a lot of Nazi literature in the original. There were two things that struck me: the way the Nazis employed language and how, if an English translation was available, the rendition often missed the point.
Let me give you an example.
In 1962 the German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Israel for his war crimes. The court sessions were recorded. After Eichmann is sworn in, he is asked by the defence why he joined the Nazi party and what he has to say about the prosecution of the Jews.
His answer in German is as follows: ‘Dass die damalige Staatsführung nach den ersten schnellen Siegen in dem dem deutschen Reich aufgezwungenen Kriege im Überschwang dieser Siege in Überheblichkeit einer vermeintlichen Unbezwingbarkeit verfiel und im Gefolge dieser Einstellung dann zu törichten, sinnlosen und hemmungslosen Massnahmen schritt, [das ist] eine Tragik, die niemand vorausahnen konnte, auch ich nicht, denn dazu war mein Dienstgrad zu klein.’
The literal translation would be: ‘That the former government, after the first quick victories in the war that was forced upon the German Reich, in the first flash of excitement, fell into arrogance of supposed invincibility and as a consequence of that attitude took foolish, senseless and unrestrained measures, that is a tragedy that no one could anticipate, myself included as my rank was too low."
The English interpreter’s voiceover says: ‘Then the helm of the government after the first victories in the war that was thrust upon Germany – then the helm of the government passed to other people and it was translated later on into unbridled and senseless measures which I was not able to anticipate at that time because of my rank.’
The fact that the interpreter misunderstood the beginning of Eichmann’s sentence shall not concern us here. Rather I like to draw the attention to another – in my view more important – aspect that is not rendered into English, namely the overall tone of the statement.
Eichmann’s sentence is longwinded (even for German ears). Furthermore, it is filled with heavy nouns (Überschwang, Überheblichkeit, Unbezwingbarkeit) and surplus adjectives. This creates an aura of detached objectivity and a hint of moral superiority. It also empties the sentences of any real reference to the shocking crimes that lie at the source of these words.
Eichmann’s utterance presents an example of how Nazis employed language. Nazis used language to create an alternative, clean, logical reality. They did not apply words to describe and address the crimes they committed.
Generally, we assume that we all use our different languages in more or less the same way for more or less the same purpose – to communicate and understand the world we live in. We tend to overlook that languages, with their idiosyncratic syntax and phonology, create their own realities. In order to understand history, that of others and of ourselves, we have to enter those linguistic realities. But how can we do that if we don’t speak the language?
By listening to how others tell their stories. In other words: by reading their literature.
Listening to Eichmann’s statement I, as a German, am immediately aware of the authoritative, bureaucratic language that seems to claim a monopoly on psychological and historical truth. I am also aware that deep down inside me the tone of Eichmann’s utterance has given rise to a worry that I might not possess valid enough arguments to dismantle his statement. I am more than seventy years removed from the Nazis. So the effect such language had on my grandparents’ generation must have been far more frightening.
Ludwig Wittgenstein tells us that ‘what expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language.’ Novels, novellas, short stories and poetry use images, structure and plot to express what cannot be caught in words. They go beyond the content of language and point at the realties created by these languages. They give insights into the invisible forces that shape history.
Eichmann’s interpreter understood the general content of the German but was not able to pick up on the true meaning. In my view, he – unwillingly – deprived Eichmann’s statement of its true horror. It is a powerful example of a poor translation. Moreover, it shows that the difference between one language and another goes far beyond lines of words. If we don’t want to stay on the outside of understanding – of ourselves and the larger world that we are part of – we have to listen to how others tell their own stories.
Meike Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press, an award-winning independent publishing house that specialises in the translation of European literature into English. She is also the author of two novels, Magda and Clara’s Daughter, both published by Salt. www.peirenepress.com www.meikeziervogel.com This piece is part of our National Conversation - a series of conversations, with the nation, about literature.
Daniel Hahn on Literary Translation
In the third event of the National Conversation, Ali Smith will speak on Living Translation. Here, Daniel Hahn, who will moderate the conversation, gives his thoughts on the importance of literary translation.
It’s simple enough: translation allows us to read things we would otherwise not be able to read. It allows me to read Norwegian crime fiction, and Pushkin, and Hans Christian Andersen. It allows Italians to read Joyce and Woolf, Brazilians to read Flaubert and Dickens, Indonesians to read Harry Potter or the Canterbury Tales. It allows a couple of billion Christians to read the Bible. Translation moves us – slowly and modestly, but so very optimistically – towards a world where everyone can read anything.
And how does it do this? By pretending. A translator rewrites a book, changing all the words, and asks a reader to collude in the pretence that nothing has changed at all. Maybe all the important stuff will survive the journey – through the translator’s sensitivity,writerly skill and, well, deviousness – but all the words do have to be lost along the way, replaced by new ones. We readers accept the deceit. Have I read Don Quixote? Of course I have! Admittedly it had none of Cervantes’s words init when I did, because the book I read was written not by a one-time prisoner of war in seventeenth-century Spain, but by a twenty-first-century New Yorker, reigniting the text in her apartment on the Upper West Side. But she and I agree to pretend that the book I've been reading is pure Cervantes.Have I read Don Quixote? Of course I have.
Translation is a great literary enabler,and any thoughtful reader should know why it matters. If you love detective fiction, why would you choose arbitrarily to dis-able the possibility of ever meeting Maigret? Is it possible to love theatre and yet have no interest in experiencing Ibsen, Molière, Sophocles, Pirandello, Chekhov or anybody who didn't happen by pure chance to share your native tongue? Middlemarch and Vanity Fair are in, Bovary and Karenina are out. We get to keep Shakespeare,but we lose the opportunity to read almost anybody who influenced him… It’s arbitrary, this deprivation. As if one were to say: from now on, I'm limiting my reading to Sagittarian writers whose names begin with vowels.
Yet, for all kinds of reasons, the Anglophone literary world resists translation. Or rather, it resists inbound translation.We are more than happy for our writers to be recreated into other languages, and they sell very nicely thank you. Bringing other writers into English, however, is another story. (A very short story.) So English readers suffer. But that is not the worst of it. English writers, who are readers too, also suffer,and their writing suffers with them. A culture flourishes when exposed to the currents of oxygen borne across with influences, ideas and aesthetics coming in from outside; but we've long been locked into a domestic literary world with little access to what everyone else is saying and, if you ask me,it’s getting a little stuffy in here. There are about 6.7 billion people in the world whose first language isn't English. All the world’s best writers are among them. And I’d like to be able to read them. Wouldn't you?
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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
What do you think?
Share your thoughts below, or on Twitter via the #NatConv tag.
What is the Future of Storytelling?
A Publisher’s Perspective, by Dan Franklin.
"Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment."
Dan Franklin is Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House UK. He is taking part in our National Conversation event 'On Writing, Reading and Losing our Minds' with Will Self this Saturday and in anticipation of that event, Dan warms us up with a thought-provoking post about the future of publishing and storytelling. Do check back on Latest News this Saturday at 11.45 to read Will's full provocation, and please do comment or tweet @WritersCentre to share your thoughts on the conversation.
Five years ago the mainstream e-reading culture was non-existent. Now, most publishers make a quarter of their revenues this way and digital self-publishing has exploded. If reading books on screen is intrinsically different to reading on paper, are we seeing a fundamental shift in the types of writing being consumed? Can we expect the popularisation of the 'digitally native' text?
Reviews for new e-readers valorise how close they are to the print experience, hailing what is an almost perfect replication of the print reading experience in digital form. We are reading books on screens, but it doesn't seem essentially different. In fact, for many, it seems comfortably the same. Commentators posit that publishers are satisfied with this state of affairs, being custodians of a certain way of promulgating culture. The problem with this reading of the situation is that publishers don't self-define themselves as gatekeepers, not the good ones at least. As much as she might repeat publish according to successful commercial formulae, the publisher's business is one of pursuing the new. Each new book is an irruption into culture, giving readers what they don't know they want. A publisher provides seed-funding and investment, and a means of amplifying a text to the marketplace.
The huge upheaval that occurred in music industry was the digital compression of a song to a twelfth of its size, and the dismantling of its container, the album. Driven by a new technology (the MP3), there came a significant widening of the listenership, commensurate to the contraction of record companies' revenues from CDs. The labels couldn't make up the difference of what they were losing to digital. This is simply not the case for books: the market is (relatively) stable. In this situation, we have created a digital mirror of the Gutenberg model, and it feels like the digital tsunami has broken over us. Time to relax? No. This is a dangerous moment. Reading on a screen might be transforming us all, but the effects haven't been registered by reader, writer or publisher in any considerable way except on the fringes, where experimentation in digital texts has been going on for decades now.
The power lies with readers and in the main they are happy reading a mix of print and electronic books in the contained, linear fashion they have been for hundreds of years. This will change, and the greatest challenge to the publishing industry will be what we change for an audience that doesn't care for this experience. One way is to work on literacy and the importance of the long-form reading experience through education and the other is to adapt what that experience is, to innovate around new types of digital reading. This can only be achieved with 'authors' who are innovating in this space.
The question arises then: what is the future of storytelling? Who will emerge in this landscape? Publishers are ready to experiment, refine and lead this process because, rather than being mere gatekeepers, that is the essence of publishing.
Find out more by clicking below.
A little bit of free TLC for your Manuscript
There's that well known phrase - "money can't buy you happiness" which is in many ways pretty true. However, money can buy you the things you need to be happier, and help you to get a foot into doors that may otherwise remain firmly closed.
Although writers are 'meant' to be tapping away in garrets, in reality a lack of funds can make it very difficult for writers to get ahead.
Writing the first draft can be hair-pulling work, but when you have to edit, re-draft and revisit your work that’s when it some help comes in handy. Words meld together and you start to genuinely wonder whether the structure of your plot has any virtue whatsoever. An outsider is needed.
Having another set of eyes, preferably experienced ones, taking a look at your manuscript is incredibly useful, and many writers turn to a reading agency or editor for help. Unfortunately, this is where the money comes in, and it can be galling for a writer with limited funds to find that their crucial next step is just out of reach, all for the sake of a bit of extra money!
The Literary Consultancy is one such agency that writers turn to, for an impartial eye, and is the UK's leading manuscript assessment service. Aware of the financial restrictions many writers face they, through a generous Arts Council grant, are offering a solution - free reads! I know, FREE! It's not often you get something completely free, so this is a really exciting opportunity.
Recommended by Arts Council England, along with various big name publishing houses, TLC has a strong track record of helping writers get into print. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain access to a very useful service - so if you live in the East of England, are on a low income and are in need of the kind of invaluable assistance that The Literary Consultancy can offer then Free Reads is for you.
Writers will be selected based on merit, so if you think your manuscript has what it takes, then get applying, and you could be taking that next step on the ladder to literary success, for free.
Deadline - 5.00pm Thursday November 13th 2014
for more information on the scheme, and for how to apply.
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
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.