Saturday, 18 August 2012

Edinburgh World Writers Conference: Should Literature be Political?

Edinburgh World Writers' Conference

Today I was fortunate to be in the audience for the renaissance of the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference.  Following a session that looked at the legacy of that original conference (and mostly demonstrated the incredible capacity with which we mythologise the past!), the first full session began. The question to be examined: Should Literature be Political?

Sitting in the audience, I was deeply impressed with the quality of chairing from Elif Shafak, and presentation by Ahdaf Soueif, and afterwards drawn into a wide-ranging dialogue that caused me to repeatedly nod my head, clap, and/or take notes as the various participant authors debated around the subject, most notably around whether literature in itself is political, and whether writers have a duty to participate in the politics of their society or not. Ben Okri, particularly, stood out with his statement that literature can only be political if it is first literature, and that the author who sets out to write politics is unlikely to succeed in writing literature.

So wide-ranging were the points being raised, that I even found my hand waving in the air to add to the discussion. Despite a fantastic summery from Owen Sheers, the debate was losing its way amid an orchestra of different voices. I was terrified to speak my mind, and yet felt compelled to do so. And matter how hard it waved, my hand was never called on to join the debate.

So now, dear blog, I commend to you the words I was to add in that setting. They feel important to add, even now, hours later, on a blog that few read. That is a sign of what an inspiring first discussion it was.

'I've sat here for the past 90 minutes, and I've agreed with much of what has been said by the authors in the room. Particularly the statements of Ben Okri on literature needing to be literature first and foremost, and the provocation of Ahdaf Soueif on the impossibility of not being political. Yet I'd like to add my own tuppence-worth, from the perspective of a reader and someone who works to promote and develop literature.

Fellow literature enthusiasts, we need to trust our writers.

Sitting here, I've been impressed by the variety of fascinating arguments that come across as well considered and well conveyed by those participating here. We must let writers speak with their own voice and write with their own pens. To answer the question of whether literature should be political or not for anyone other than ourselves would be an act of censorship as grave as any other. It would be a tragic world were any writer to feel compelled to be anything they are not. Our writers are valuable and valued idea-smiths precisely because they do not follow the direction of anyone but themselves. The challenge for the literary world is in making Ben Okri's statement true, in ensuring that it is the quality of the work that determines its success, rather than the politics it may or may not wear.

Yet it is not so easy, I am aware. We must celebrate that a writer like Chika Unigwe feels compelled to write from a politically aware stance, yet afford her no higher opportunity to reach a readership than a writer who does not feel so compelled. We must ensure that Ewan Morrison can stand and declaim as he does so eloquently, yet judge his work by its literary merit rather than its politics, just as we might with Louise Mensch.

In short, we must not ask our writers to be anything other than who they are. We must trust our writers to be the writers they must be. And then we must ensure that the best of them find readerships with whom they can converse.'

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