I absolutely loved the Book Festival this year (I know, I’m writing this in October. I had deadlines, OK), and felt really involved thanks to Edinburgh City of Literature giving me the opportunity to read in the Spiegeltent for Story Shop. I was also reviewing events for The Arts Journal, discovering new authors as a result. I also particularly enjoyed Unbound, although due to other commitments I only made it along to Illicit Ink’s Magic Words.
It is, of course, the year of the Edinburgh World Writers Conference. Based on the first conference in 1962, debates took place over five days in August looking at various hot topics affecting literature today. The conference is currently on tour, and all the events are available to watch here.
The following piece largely covers the Style Vs Content debate, and is possibly maybe a little too quotetastic, but I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from the event (which you can watch in full here).
Edinburgh World Writers Conference: Style Vs Content ‘How Should Authors Approach the Task of Writing a Novel Today?’ with Ali Smith and Nathan Englander
Saturday 18th August 3pm
“How should the novelist approach the novel? With ingenuity. With humility. With a hammer. With energy. With erudition. With naivety. Traditionally, anarchically, adventurously, brokenly, wholly, any adverb you want, but always only with an eye to what the story asks, because that’s more than enough. The story will dictate its style. (And you won’t need adverbs anyway. Lose them in the edit.)”
– Ali Smith
The second conference event began with a funny and charming introduction from chair Nathan Englander, although his comic and self-conscious uncertainty possibly wasn’t what this conference needed in a chair. Englander’s intro was followed by an electric, spellbinding performance from Ali Smith, who gave an opening speech (available here) that exploded with energy and her trademark wit. Smith’s main argument was that style could not be divorced from content, that there is no ‘should’ in literature, and “nothing is harmful to literature except censorship.”
When the discussion was opened up to the other delegates, it quickly turned to issues of market pressure, which was an interesting turn I wasn’t expecting. At least, I wasn’t expecting there to be such an emphasis, but it came up again and again, and much to Smith’s chagrin, Fifty Shades came up again and again. What was interesting about this was that it highlighted the pressures on writers.
“We are very limited by commercialisation, by bookshops. Most of my books were rejected not by the publisher but by the bookshops ordering. How can we as writers protect our genuine creativity, fight the commercialisation, the easy reading, the lazy consumption? The big seller doesn’t affect us as writers, but it does affect the conversation between the publisher and the bookshop and you have the stress – you must publish your next novel in order to exist as a writer.”
– Xiaolu Guo
“How do we measure success? Is it sales?”
– Nathan Englander
An audience member, obviously quite irritated by the emphasis on earnings, asked: “Are we supposed to be businessmen or are we artists? I mean, do artists give a fuck whether you’re going to sell or not? I think the point is, you’re supposed to be a writer, you’re supposed to ejaculate on the page, you’re supposed to bleed on that page, you’re supposed to give it everything.” He said he doesn’t care if anyone reads his work, but I care if people read my work. I want to make a career out of this. This isn’t masturbatory navel gazing – I want to share my work. It smacked of naivety and arrogance, and he is obviously seduced by the romantic idea of the struggling and starving artist/writer as some sort of authentic way of being, completely ignoring the reality of what it means to be a professional writer. An artist or writer is not a martyr, and writing is a career like any other. Writers, like anyone else, need to make a living.
Janne Teller stated that “Where the problem is, it’s style and content Vs the market forces, because the market forces push us all in one direction, and that is to measure literature quantitatively. The question is what do we do when publishers ask us to write for the broader masses. And the pressure’s there. If we can’t eat tomorrow, how will we write our next novel?” Carlos Gamerro’s matter-of-fact response to this was: “If you’re really worried about what you’re going to eat tomorrow, get a job. You teach, or whatever.” But writing is a job (see the wise words from Okri below). Of course, the reality of it is that you’re unlikely to earn your living from doing that alone, so you either have to keep the day job, or you write reviews/articles etc, teach creative writing, become a writer in residence, or any of the other myriad of things writers do to make ends meet. This multi-tasking and moonlighting is taken for granted in the arts, but generally not from other careers (although, I’d like to add that I realise many people in low wage jobs are often forced to do so). I do, of course, wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith: “We’re not in this for money.” I have no desire to earn a ridiculous amount of money. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to earn a living.
“Writers write. That’s what they do. That’s what they’ve learned how to do. Writing is an infinite craft. There’s no end to it. It’s a specialist trade. A highly technical, specialist trade. I’ve been learning how to write for 35 years. I’ve really not done anything else. It takes time to learn the trade. It takes time to learn how to write well. It takes time to learn how to write a good sentence.”
– Ben Okri, The Future of the Novel, Edinburgh World Writers Conference, August 2012
Janne Teller responded to Gamerro and MrDon’tGiveAFuckIfISellOrNot: “Yes, I write the fuck what I want, but I also have to survive, and that is the reality. We’re dealing with a reality that is pressuring us. In a way, it was easier before I published my first novel not even to think about that reality because I didn’t know it. In the beginning, when I was published people were asking about the content of my novel. Today they ask how many I sell. That’s the bloody reality.” Earnings were again touched on in The Future of the Novel conference (which you can see here, with China Mieville’s keynote speech available here), and there was the suggestion of a wage for writers. I have no idea if that’s the solution, but there definitely needs to be a change, given the current anxiety felt by many authors.
“Writers have never been rich. We just never have. We’re always surviving from book to book. And sometimes we don’t survive from book to book. Writers who ten, fifteen years ago were on the supposed shortlists, you speak to them, they’re in their 70s, they find it very hard to get published. There’s always pressure. There’s always this horrible pressure.”
– Ali Smith
In another element of the discussion, Alan Bissett and Ewan Morrison were concerned about the elitism of style, and of the conference topic itself. Morrison was rebuked by Jackie Kay, who insisted this was an important discussion: “I honestly think this isn’t an elitist debate, and I resent the idea that talking about style, and talking about what really matters to us as writers is somehow elitist.” China Mieville countered Bissett, arguing it can be patronising to say that experimental style is too difficult for readers. “If we try to second-guess readers, it’s a fools game. For everyone who’s put off by a style they find difficult, you can also find some auto-didact who is delighted by not understanding a book, and really struggling with it, and finding their way into a love of words. Our job is not to give readers what they want, it’s to try and make readers want what we give.”
Gamerro concurred, and in response to Bissett’s point about “very stylish people talking to each other,” he asked what’s wrong with a writer who writes for a writer who writes for a writer who writes for the public, and Englander quipped “I like writing sounding like syphilis.” A reader from San Francisco, para-phrasing David Foster-Wallace, said “real life doesn’t feel like a linear narrative,” and he wanted to encourage authors to experiment more with style.
“I give three cheers for difficult writers who just write for other writers.”
– Carlos Gamerro
“When we talk about Style Vs Content, the underlying theme is the way in which we modulate reality or the way in which we argue about reality. When we think of content we think of language that appears to give us the world as it is. When we think of style, we tend of think of language, or fiction, that gives us the world as it is modulated through our consciousness. Every relation that we have with reality is a modulation through consciousness, it’s just that style exacerbates it. It tells us that reality is not neutral. Reality is affected by culture, by psychology, by preconception. The way we live is a debate between content and style.”
– Ben Okri
It was a lively discussion, but it went round in circles, and there was too strong a focus on the novel, despite contributions from poets and passing comments about the different technological platforms now available. Readers’ contributions were actively encouraged, but physically separating authors and the rest of the audience did make the session feel divisive. There was no mention of new writers, who surely made up a part of the audience but weren’t given a voice. The discussion of market forces, artistic integrity, the difficulties writers face in earning a living, and use of experimental style, surely would have benefited from the point of view of emerging writers (I’m hoping MrDon’tGiveAFuckIfISellOrNot isn’t the voice of emerging writers). As much as I found the discussion on market pressures interesting, I would have liked a little more debate on the topic Style Vs Content, rather than the financial implications.
Towards the end of the event, Kay highlighted that the discussion had moved away from what Smith opened with – style is content: “The clichéd view of style is that it’s a surface thing, a fraudulent thing. Everything written has style. How something is told makes what’s being told. A story is its style. A style is its story. Style is never not content.”
I’m going to end by asking you all who your favourite authors are who experiment with style, and what books you would recommend. My favourites are B.S. Johnson (The Unfortunates, House Mother Normal) and Don De Lillo (Cosmopolis).