Map showing the countries the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference will visit
As the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference draws to a close, we are featuring short excerpts from posts written for the conference blog by three attending writers: Owen Sheers, Kamila Shamsie, and John Burnside.
“My 2012 Writer’s Conference began with listening to two of the founders of the 1962 conference, John Calder and Jim Haynes, speak about their experiences 50 years ago at an early morning session at the book festival.
Chaired by Charlotte Higgins the event set going several themes that would return throughout the day. The first was a somewhat coy fascination with the antics of the ‘62 conference; the drink, the heroin, the ‘naughtiness’ of the conference delegates.
Alongside this, however, was a genuine appreciation of the ‘62 conference as being at the genesis of the counter-cultural revolution in Britain. Occurring three years before the famous 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading, the Edinburgh conference, with its heated debates on sex, homosexuality and internationalism versus localism, would really seem to have ‘put a bomb under Scottish literature’ (another day-long repeated phrase) and in so doing also lit the fuse for cultural change in the rest of Britain.”
Owen Sheers is a Welsh poet, author and scriptwriter. He describes how the first International Writers’ Conference in 1962 came at a pivotal moment of British culture.
“We are writers, not physicists but even so we all know that there is such a thing as ‘Conference Time’ which moves differently to Time. 48 hours in Conference Time is either an eternity or lifelong. If you’re bored or isolated it’s an eternity.
If you’re making new friends or re-meeting old ones who you last saw during another stretch of Conference Time you quickly enter the feeling that these friendships are not merely destined to be lifelong but that they’ve already become lifelong. Small wonder then that the atmosphere of day three of the EWWC felt so different to the politeness of day one or the undirected punchiness of day two.
The topic under consideration played a part, of course. ‘A National Literature?’, discussed in Edinburgh, was always going to get some sparks flying. Irvine Welsh’s keynote speech equated internationalism with the global marketplace which is resistant to difference and exists to convert art into entertainment – and there followed an attack on the upper-middle class Englishness of the Booker prize. But the first sparkiness that followed from the writers came not in direct response to this but instead, from Owen Sheers, in the form of a rebuke for all the talk of Scottishness and Englishness which left out the very people who form the keynote speaker’s last name. That polite day one feeling was a thing of the very distant past already.”
Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie‘s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She writes that the writers’ and readers’ discussions grew increasingly energetic on the third day of the conference.
“Day Four of the Writers’ Conference brought the debate on censorship, the proceedings of which I painstakingly recorded in my notebook – which I then lost somewhere between Charlotte Square and my hotel. Censorship by circumstance, perhaps, (it’s cheap and tatty with loud stripes and the label from a VW parts order stuck on the front; if anybody finds it, I’d love to have it back).
So this brief account is from memory, (a highly reliable source as we all know) and summarized in the extreme. My apologies for any omissions.
What seemed to emerge was a view that there are two main types of censorship: that imposed by the state or by repressive religious cultures, and the kind of self-censorship writers impose upon themselves, either because they fear the possible repercussions, or because they do not wish to offend. Often, this latter impulse could be considered praiseworthy, arising as it does from respect for the views of others, or the inherent possibilities of grace in a culture – but all were agreed that we do not need that principle enshrined in law. It would be a mistake to allow the state to tell writers what they could and could not write – unless, in the belief of some present, such writing set out to promote violence or cause direct harm to others.
The idea emerged that writing was, or could be, a process of negotiation – with an editor, with a specific audience, and with one’s own reservations about what ought to be said.”
John Burnside is a Scottish poet and novelist whose awards include the Forward Poetry Prize and the TS Eliot Prize. He writes about censorship – the topic under discussion on the fourth day of the conference.