Monday, 17 June 2013

Worlds - A Guide for Readers

Worlds (a Writers' Centre Norwich gathering of writers) takes place in Norwich from Monday 17th-Friday 21st June 2013

Every year for the last decade a unique and wonderful gathering of writers has been taking place in Norwich. The Worlds Salon is an open space where writers come together to discuss the art, craft, and profession of literature, share ideas about what is happening now and might happen in the future, and develop friendships that inspire and influence their writing for years to come. There’s an impressive list of writers who have been involved, including J.M. Coetzee, A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, and Xiaolu Guo, alongside many other internationally celebrated authors.

And yet, few people really know what Worlds is. It is often called a festival but it isn’t. Not really. A festival is a gathering dominated by public events, where audiences encounter literature and ideas and there’s a buzz of excitement that comes from a shared passion. Books are bought, reading adventures begun. Authors pop in for a few hours before heading somewhere else.

But Worlds, the heart of Worlds at the Salon, has no audience. The discussions necessarily take place in private – it frees participants to explore together, try out ideas, debate in substance and be wrong on occasion: all fundamental aspects of the creative process – and even though there are brilliant events around the edges these often have little to do with the core purpose of Worlds.

The fact is: Worlds isn’t about readers. It is about writers. Some of you may have noticed that I can be a bit bolshy about the way readers are sometimes sidelined from the processes of literature, treated as passive consumers of whatever is dangled in front of us rather than active participants in the art of literature. At the Edinburgh World Writers Conference last year I got so frustrated about this that I threatened to create a rival readers conference, and I hope to do this in the next couple of years. Readers must and will lead the transformation ourselves. But the truth is that I don’t feel angry about Worlds. It is one of the most incredible weeks of my year. And readers benefit from what happens there.

The best books I read are those that are original and exciting. Great writing comes from writers being enabled to write what they want, to push boundaries without worrying about whether a publisher, politician, or anyone else thinks it is something they should write about, or something that readers want to read. There is so much writing out there that failure shouldn’t matter to readers. If a writer takes a risk and it doesn’t work, so what? If a writer takes a risk and it pays off, we all have a book that will be loved for decades to come. Creativity cannot be constrained. If we readers want to have access to brilliant writing across forms and genres and from around the world, then events like Worlds are imperative to making this happen.

Furthermore, Summer Reads was created in 2010 to open Worlds up to readers. Some of the best books we’ve featured in Summer Reads including The Longshot by Katie Kitamura, The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld were discovered through Worlds. Had it not been for Worlds I would never have read them, and all the wonderful conversations we’ve had about them would never have happened. And even though Summer Reads has grown so that it can now feature great writing wherever we find it, regardless of the authors availability to come to Worlds, that facility of introducing great writing from around the world to readers remains at the heart of everything we do.

I first encountered Worlds in 2006 when, at Waterstones, a couple of colleagues got to meet Andrey Kurkov (author of Death and the Penguin – one of my favourite books at the time) at an outdoor event that also featured Steven Fry as well as two authors, Aleksandar Hemon and Shahnush Parsipur, that I’ve since read and loved. I gave them my books and wished I were there with them. The next year I made sure I was there and in the coming couple of years I followed the public programme like a groupy, planning my days carefully and making sure I could see everything it was possible to see. I sold books and discovered amazing writers from all corners of the world. In many ways, it was my on-the-job training for world writing. I still remember the thunder storm that halted Sheila Hancock in the middle of a Norwich City of Refuge reading at the Cathedral, the feeling of worlds opening upon hearing the masterful poetry of Adam Zagajewski and Kei Miller, and the sense that the world had been turned on its head as I sat behind one of my favourite writers, J.M. Coetzee, at an event about climate change at the Playhouse.

That I now work at Writers’ Centre Norwich is largely because of these experiences. I loved Worlds and I wanted to be a part of it. Over the last five years that dream has become a reality and I’ve been fortunate to have sat in on these discussions at the Worlds Salon. The flash of ideas around the room never fails to inspire and excite me. I tweet like a maniac, desperately trying to keep up with the pace of discussion and share some of the topics with those not in the room. Last year conversation revolved primarily around the relationship between truth and imagination in writing, and some of the thoughts remain with me to this day. A participant described fiction as being ‘a lighthouse that guides us towards truth, or something resembling truth.’ Another talked about the process of writing as ‘letting fascination rule language’, and a third said that: ‘literature sets out to add to the enchantment of the world.’

Three are beautiful, idealistic, wonderful phrases that catch glimpses of why I love literature. I can’t wait to see what this year’s Salon will bring. Our theme is Ways of Writing, Ways of Reading, an exploration of the ways that technology is changing how we write and read, and the possibilities this opens up for cross-art collaborations. It promises to be an amazing week.

But it saddens me that more of my fellow readers have never had a chance to discover the wonders of Worlds, and will miss out on all the conversations taking place, for they impact upon what we will read in years to come. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So here, friends, is a short guide to getting the most from Worlds.

Watch or listen to content from the Worlds Salon. Each one kicks off with a 10 minute provocation to get the discussion flowing and these are recorded and shared through the Writers’ Centre Norwich website promptly. In the meantime, why not look back through the annuls at some of the great provocations already delivered. I particularly love American poet C.K. Williams on Nature and Panic which takes in his sometimes regret at having to hold the unimaginable panic of The Road by Cormac McCarthy in his consciousness, no matter how wonderful it is, and his clarion call that ‘beauty saves us, beauty will save us, the beauty of art, the beauty of spirit, and most fugitive of all, the beauty of hope.’ I also love Gillian Beer on The Reader Resists from last year, in which she wondered what the role of the reader is in engaging with the written word.

Attend events. There are afternoon readings every day featuring writers you have probably never heard of before. They are free and amazing forums for discovery. Come along if you can. Evie Wyld will also be launching her second novel, All The Birds, Singing, at a Granta Best of Young British Authors event on Wednesday – don’t miss that!

Join the Conversation - If you are on Twitter, follow #Worlds13 for live commentary throughout.

Read reports from the Writers’ Centre Norwich marketing team throughout the week.

Come on. Get involved in Worlds. And start your own adventure today.

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