navel gazing and the future of the novel …

Yesterday I went to the last in a series of five lectures-cum-debates as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at The Book Festival 2012. In case you don’t know, the conference  was a 50th anniversary restaging of the 1962 Edinburgh writers’ conference. Fifty writers debated (with the audience) a different topic every day over five days. The original event was –

“– notorious for its passionate exchanges between writers – and was attended by such figures as Rebecca West, Muriel Spark and Mary McCarthy.”

Muriel Spark

Yesterday’s topic for debate was the Future of the Novel. It was  led by China Miéville. He made some interesting points about the anti-piracy measures suggested for literature, calling them ‘disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual’ and ‘artistically philistine’. He talked about how we can expect the future novel to be interfered with in the same way as music is, in other words, books will be downloaded and added to and remixed and re-released.  He said writers needed to be ready to deal with,

“… guerrilla editors… In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?”

It was thought provoking stuff. Some comments stood out: Denis Mina (one of the 50 writers) reminded us that interfering with a text was not new and not to be feared – it already exists in some Irish poetry; Alan Bissett (another one of the 50) suggested that reading novels via an I-phone and/or e-reader is affecting the attention span of readers, who are beginning to want to read books in bite size chunks. I’m not sure I agree, but it was certainly an interesting point. But although a lot was said, for me the debate never really got going and, surprisingly, there was hardly any mention of young people – the future readers of the future novels!

Overall, I found the event a little disappointing – the discussion was often rambling and there was too much talk about securing an income for the writer in the future – perhaps the event should have been called the Future of The Writer? I would have liked to have seen some  discussion on the latest phenomena  in China, where writers scramble to sell/write their novel  on the internet, chapter by chapter, on demand. Those writers whose chapters are most in demand/bought, are the ones whose books get finished (and survive). Is this where we’re headed? Where would that leave ‘literary fiction’ writers? I digress …

Ironically, the night before this event I saw  Planet Lem in the Fringe festival, which is what the little YouTube clip is about. Planet Lem is a wacky production based on the science fiction writer,  Stanisław Lem’s books.  I wrote about Lem once before. Here’s a section from his book Return from the Stars, written in 1961, where his character talks about an “opton” which sounds like an e-reader…

[…] I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I have looked forward to them, after the micro films that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation …  Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. My handful of crystal corn – my books […]

It seems incredible that Lem in 1961 was able to imagine a kind of e-reader and that in 1962 (at the original World Writers’ Conference) there was talk of an “automatic writing machine,” but over fifty years later at a debate on the future of the novel, no one seemed that bothered – apart from the chap who made an impassioned  plea to fight the library cuts, there was a distinct lack of passionate exchanges between writers. The final word has to go to the wonderful writer and poet  Jackie Kay, who said (twice):

“What’s not novel about the novel is the navel gazing.”

You can read about the event in depth in this very good Guardian article. Thanks again to Clicket and EIBF for the ticket!

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4 Responses to navel gazing and the future of the novel …

  1. I’ve read a couple of articles elsewhere about this debate too, I think a lot of the ideas that came up were really interesting, though it’s also interesting to read about what you felt was lacking from the event!

  2. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Hi Juliet, there was a lot that was good. Ben Okri was interesting and a lot of others spoke well, especially the Syrian writer who sent an online message to say the future of the novel was irrelevant in the face of what is happening in Syria. Interesting stuff all around but shackled with a kind of pervading pessimism – at least, that was my experience! Maybe I was just tired? Thanks for comment 🙂

  3. That’s ain interesting comment from the Syrian writer, i read something similar in one of the literary supplements i picked up at the Book Festival, I think it depends how you look at it, perhaps the right novel could be more relevant than anything in the face of what’s happening

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Yes, in fact the woman who chaired the debate but whose name I can’t remember at the moment (she wore a great dress, fantastic shoes and tights and gloves!), made this point ie: poetry helped her survive through a time of despair… I wish I could remember her name, she’s very well respected!

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