Edinburgh International Book Festival - Day Three
Delegates told to "Fight Fight Fight!" at legendary lit fest
Fifty years ago, Edinburgh hosted a legendary conference, credited as the world's first literature festival.
There was plenty of drama: enfant terrible Alexander Trocchi nearly sparked a brawl with Hugh MacDiarmid; Sonia Orwell struck John Calder with a wine bottle at a planning meeting; and French writers refused to participate because August is traditionally a month spent on the beach. The conference had far-reaching implications, not only launching the career of William Burroughs but also affecting a seismic shift in attitudes towards censorship and sexuality in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
In 2012, the conference is back – but many things have changed in the world of books, and now there are new topics under debate. This year's conference involved 50 delegates from 25 different countries discussing and debating the role of fiction in society with a public audience.
Day one of the conference started with a bang. The debate Should Literature be Political? was chaired by Turkish author Elif Shafak. Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif delivered the keynote speech, in which she suggested that "In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction."
Although she suggested that at present, in the wake of the Arab Spring, writing novels, at least in Egypt, has become redundant; she expressed hope that “Fiction will come again”.
Crime fiction author Denise Mina claimed that the production and consumption of literature is affected by your surroundings: "Crime fiction is a privilege. If you are in a refugee camp you don't want mysteries to be solved. The mystery is 'why am I here?'"
Day two began with keynote speaker Ali Smith encouraging the audience and delegates to "Fight! Fight! Fight!", and a fierce debate ensued about the place of fiction in the modern world and the impact of bestsellers on the writers' profession. Much debate centred on popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey: poet Nick Laird argued that its author, E.L. James, was "dangerous", while author Patrick Ness pointed out that "[E.L. James] has the ear of more people than everyone in this room put together." Novelist and performer Alan Bissett argued that it is the content not the style of the bestseller that makes it "dangerous".
Day three of the conference featured a discussion on the impact of national identity on the novel, led by Scottish novelists Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh. Welsh praised several Scottish authors including Alan Warner, James Kelman, Jenni Fagan, Ewan Morrison, John Niven and Doug Johnstone, whose books "clearly could not have been written by non-Scots". However, he expressed the fear that the publishing industry is getting blander and that if written in 2012, his novel Trainspotting would probably not be accepted by a large publisher.
Ending on a positive note, Welsh encouraged Scottish writers to embrace culture both at home and away: "Firstly, let's have a look around. It's a big world, and if bits of it move you, don't be afraid to write about it. Second, be bold. Be proud of who you are and where you come from."