I’ll admit I’ve been so busy with the festival I’ve started to lose track of a lot of other interesting and important things.  Now that the dust has almost settled from the Edinburgh World Writers Conference which I’ve been glued to for the past five afternoons (my only break from our festival planning and scheduling) I’m going to try and attempt reflection and contexualisation (realising that I’m still very close to the events and thus unlikely to succeed) or at least point people (and myself) towards some things I think are important.

I found the Conference very frustrating at times and not as ‘open’ to online comment as they claimed (or maybe even hoped – it may be time to accept that twitter is not the place for online debate!) I tried for more than 24 hours to get an ‘open letter’ commented on.  I had more or less given up in frustration when the Keynote Speaker of the 5th day – The Future of the Novel – finally did acknowledge the existence of epublishing AND stood up for ‘indies’ in so far as he pointed out quite baldly that ‘writers are nothing special’ and that quality of writing is not related to whether or not a work is published or how widely it is disseminated. That’s all we wanted acknowledged. You can find a transcript of the keynote speech HERE. There’s a lot of controversial stuff in it about piracy etc and some more esoteric stuff about novels – both of which threaten to hide the issue that most interests ‘indie’ writers (and possibly readers) which is the debunking of the myth of the cultural elite as anything other than a (corrupt) power system.  Now, the only thing I found sad about all this was that it came up in a debate on the FUTURE of the novel. This isn’t the future folks, this is happening NOW and we need to be aware of it.

So. Having got that off my chest, there’s a couple of things I find important and I wanted to flag up.

5 days of ‘debate’ at Edinburgh World Writers Conference didn’t really do a lot to convince me that people had a lot to say that was a) interesting or b) other than navel gazing or self interest about the novel. Part of this undoubtedly was the restraints, constraints and format of the Conference (and I heard that they had a ‘closed session’ debate about economics and the market –which I would have been really interested in – but you had to be invited to that one!) Part of it was the fact that the ‘openness’ to the online ‘audience’ was really that – we are an ‘audience’ rather than stakeholders. It was brought up several times by writers that READERS are key to the whole debate and I felt that both readers and non mainstream acknowledged writers weren’t well served by the whole affair.

Until China Mieville gave his keynote speech about THE FUTURE of the novel.  Shame it was titled the FUTURE because most of it seems to be about the NOW.

It was controversial and raises many issues that people get all hot under the collar about. Including:

Piracy and copyright  – but I’d ask people to READ and REFLECT on what he says about this not just take up their same old positions.

A wage for writers – again THINK about this don’t just take a stand. Think beyond the political on this one. Think about society. Think freely. Think about the world you would like to live in both as a reader and writer and (hopefully) active citizen.

The strength of Mieville’s speech (for me) was in the fact that he SAID THINGS that others weren’t prepared to name. He went beyond the coy references to ‘the internet’ or ‘the market’ which was the only way epublishing got mentioned up till that point. He relatively well side stepped getting bogged down in partisan version of the ‘market’ argument which is about the only we tend to hear and beats us constantly over the head by those who are benefitting from the traditional models restated their desire to keep things that way – that ‘the market’ (usually the detractors mean Amazon here) will ‘kill’ ‘good’ writing.  Marx was misappropriated and misquoted spectacularly by one who thought it clever to suggest that if ‘we were all writers’ this would be the most horrific thing imaginable.  A great soundbite – like dotcommunism and epublishing bubble – but beyond soundbite really not that valuable to debate.

Personally, if Marx meant that we will all be ‘free’ to be writers if we choose, I applaud and if he meant we will all be ‘good’ enough to be writers (culturally aware and educated) then I also applaud.  Other than that I don’t understand what the soundbite misquote meant – oh, be very afraid, everyone in the world wants my job and YOUR job and we must protect CULTURE by protecting THE PUBLISHERS who give us our Jobs.  It’s not a very mature argument I suggest!

And Mieville dismissed it too:  he suggested that there were plenty of other writers bar those under the patronage of the current cultural gatekeepers, equally capable of writing good things.  He pointed out (as surely it shouldn’t need to be) that quality isn’t decided either by publisher or by a capitalist driven market economy model where quantity = success.

For me, the more writers the better, the more good writing the better, the more writing people want to read the better, and I think that if you stopped writing being an aspirational gravytrain then everyone and their cousin would stop wanting to BE  a writer. Writing is time consuming, quite hard work and often as boring as any other ‘job.’  A lot of people like the idea of it but baulk at the work involved.  If writers were people who wrote rather than people who WANTED to be writers we’d all be better served as readers. The big issue, for me, is how people get to find out about good writing.  Without gatekeepers of quality or economy. Without the organs of power telling us what is good or what we can or should buy.

This is of course a huge debate and not one I can get into right here. Later maybe!

Mieville talked about collaborative writing and this was more of a ‘future’ prediction. Though it exists and isn’t necessarily a bad thing (if you think about it hard enough!) In fiction writing it’s not something I have much experience of. I had enough experience of it in screenwriting to last me a lifetime!

I felt that Mieville didn’t focus enough perhaps on the collaborative ‘behaviour’ of writers or the setting up of ‘co-operative’ working patterns. But then he couldn’t say everything and his audience didn’t seem that geared up to being co-operative with anyone but publishers!  (That may be unfair, it’s just how it seemed from the sidelines. It’s an interpretation and I’m happy to acknowledge it may be a misinterpretation. )

While Mieville was able to bring a number of ‘home truths’ to the fore, I don’t think he really managed to say anything critically substantive about the novel – but then I don’t think the forum was right for it. I certainly don’t think it’s something that came out of the whole five days of the conference. Perhaps it couldn’t.  It doesn’t mean it’s a discussion not worth having. It is. And I’m very, very glad for the things China Mieville did  say. Having spent more than 24 hours trying to get heard in the open debate, I’d more or less written the conference off as a ‘you have to be there’ or ‘you have to be in the club/at the party’ event.  And Mieville, I felt, at least opened up some of the difficult questions and forced them into the arena of debate (I note most of the comments on the Guardian etc since have not been on these issues but then that doesn’t surprise me.) The Chinese Whispers of the comments sections added to the ‘I just want to say what I want to say’ style of ‘debate’ in these forums is enough to keep me from them on most occasions.  I don’t like being constrained by twitter character length, or by a comments box. Some things are too important and complex to discuss in these ways.

So. While I’m happy that Mieville spoke up for ‘the digital masses’ and reminded writers that they are not some special breed apart, they are just the lucky ones who have got the backing of the cultural gatekeepers (a point I’d been trying to get across in our open letter to the conference) I do think there’s room to look at the whole question of THE NOVEL.

And that’s where I turn to our Poet in Residence Dan Holloway, writing his regular blog post at Authors Electric this month. I’ve not had time to give this the consideration it deserves but it raises a lot of interesting points for us to THINK ABOUT again.  And I’m flagging it up here as much as anything to remind myself that what comes up on ‘the internet’ and blog sites isn’t ephemeral. You don’t consume it one day and move on. You can return to it for reflection after the event.

Interestingly (given my slagging off of the use of the comments box)  The comments on this piece bring up a link to a facebook page

For me this is an example of the ‘collaboration’ and ‘cooperation’ between writers which is an exciting possibility of ‘the internet’ the Conference so coyly spoke about.  Finding new ways to engage in discourse with like minded people and people who have not made up their mind to the point of adopting a ‘fixed’ position.  I like flexibility in debate. There’s too much on ‘the internet’ of people shouting each other down and promoting their own opinions with which they want to beat everyone else over the head.  (I have indeed been accused of using this festival for just this purpose. It’s an opinion. I reject it. But it’s been said! So I urge you. Question everything I say. If you think I’m talking rubbish that’s your privilege. Doesn’t mean you have to threaten to punch my lights out – just means you stop reading what I write! I’m happy to discuss any of my views or opinions. But not in comments boxes and not as part of a dialogue of personal abuse. I’m not that hard to find via ‘the internet’ if you want to engage in long form discussion.)

That aside, a discussion about what the novel ‘is’ in form or style is of more interest to me personally than endless debates about whether people will ‘mash up’ my work or whatever.  So when I get back into the real virtual world I’ll be turning my attentions to such things and places where I can engage with the issues that are of interest to me. I would urge everyone to do the same. Find what interests you and get active. Don’t waste time on circular Chinese whispers with people who just want to beat you senseless with their opinion.  It’s easy to fall into the temptation when you are being ‘threatened’ but often walking away and finding someone who plays nice is a much better option.  We need more positivity and less being dragged down into the mire of jaded negativity.

Under all this there is a very serious discussion to be had not just about literature and its place in our culture, but what culture itself is and who owns it.  I don’t think it’s one we can dodge as ‘indie’s’ and I don’t think it’s one we should take fixed positions on. We are the revolution. We need to be smart and bright and forward thinking and most of all flexible.  Currently we are no more than pawns in a bigger game and if we aren’t smart we’ll lose the chance to become something more, the creators of our own game.

One thing that excites me about an emerging ‘indie’ culture is the possibility that people start to think more freely. That they don’t just hold onto their traditional fixed positions on things but that they start to explore and experiment and give time to other ideas. That we might all open our  minds.  As indie writers/publishers (WAPS) we are fighting against prejudice and close-mindedness enough and I’d be really happy to feel that amongst ourselves we develop a culture (in the true sense of the word) of being open to challenging and new ideas, not just dismissing those who we disagree with because of old political or habitual allegiances.  It’s a revolution folks.  Things are going to change. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time to engage in the debate. But engaging in debate doesn’t mean shouting at other people and putting their ideas down. Or firing back a smart tweet, or a snarky comment to a blog post or facebook status. It means listening, really listening. Questioning both other and self and finding new ways to look at old problems and new ways to challenge and change them.  It means opening your eyes and your mind and working out what you believe and what you believe in and stating your beliefs without trying to bludgeon the opposition into the ground. That’s the mode of the oppressor and we are not trying to throw off one oppression simply to replace it with our own version. At least I’m not. I’m for freedom. In thought, word and deed.

Cally Phillips