Fifty writers met at Edinbugh a few days ago to re-visit debates that first took place at the seminal writers' conference of 1962. Then, there were protests and provocations (some declared their homosexuality at a time when it was illegal). I turned up to the reconvened 'world writer's conference' at the Edinburgh International Book Festival braced for action. Surely someone would smash a bottle of wine over someone else's head in intellectual fury, as they'd done in '62? No. There was no misbehaviour from the phlanx of authors debating the state of literature. The most (wryly) "provocative" pronouncement came from Jackie Kay: "I'm from Scotland and I'm a lesbian".
What we got instead of '60s radicalism was 50 shades of opprobrium in a debate on 'style versus content' (led by Ali Smith) that was hijacked by a certain bestselling erotic novel. Authors at a previous debate got through two hours without mentioning it by name. In what became a 'don't mention the war' scenario, writers kept referring to the unmentionable 'it' with the same contempt. Someone finally broke ranks at the 'style versus content' talk and said it out aloud: Fifty Shades of Grey. Suddenly, a surprising debate began to take shape that tied together style, content, sales and possibly, literary elitism.
Nick Laird got a round of applause when he called the book "dangerous" because its style revolved around consumerism and branding. It's a compelling argument that makes sense of why so many are buying it –because it's the thing to buy, like the latest pair of Nike trainers.
But a couple of booksellers threw a curveball at him. Fifty Shades has rejuvenated marriages, they reminded us, and added spice to readers' lives. How many novels can boast of bringing about such transformation in the real world? At James' first public Q&A in Britain some weeks ago, I found myself surrounded by (mainly) women who couldn't stop thanking her for changing their lives. It made me uneasy to think that by looking down my nose at Fifty Shades, I was looking down at these women, and what they were saying.
I'm hardly an advocate of the book. I did try but it lost me 40 pages in. Yet the debate flaring up in the conference room made me wonder 'what exactly are we saying when we call Fifty Shades a terrible book?' Terrible on what level?
Both its style and content have worked wonders as its readership shows, just as Dan Brown's "terrible" book did before it. Does such popularity trigger intellectual snobbery? And resentful envy of sales? Neither bestseller has pretended to be high literature so who is the real complaint against? Readers?
Another bookseller claimed that readers had come back after reading Fifty Shades and asked 'what else have you got?' The hope was that from this beginning, they might start to mine the wonderous store of literature that awaits them. Not all roads from Fifty Shades will lead to say, James Joyce, but they might lead to more books being read. At times, the content-versus-style debate began to sound more like a sales-versus-style debate. Joyce's Ulysses was repeatedly name-checked for its ambitious, groundbreaking style, and while few would dare to disagree, stylistically difficult doesn't always equal good. It can leave the reader behind. Or it can, at times, have a false dazzle, with very little of substance beneath it.
The tide turned for Fifty Shades. Patrick Ness spoke up for readability. Someone else asked: "would you write a novel that we all agree is superior in style that has three readers or one that is accessible and is read by millions?" It doesn't have to be such a stark either/or, but the latter is no less worthy than the former.
Sleepless nights and stage fright at the book fair
Never have I seen authors so nervous at chairing events as I did at the 'writers' conferences' at Edinburgh. Elif Shafak (right) was the first to admit to a pre-conference panic attack, speaking of broken sleep and an anxious 5am chat with her young daughter, before chairing her discussion with Ahdaf Soueif in front of her peers. Nathan Englander seemingly even more traumatised. Staring out at the writers filling the front rows he said " This is almost like an anxiety dream, seeing all these authors here."
Would you sign my e-reader?
Roy Cross, former director of British Council Scotland, noticed a new trend emerging at the books signings in the Edinburgh Book Festival. Some readers queued up not to get their books but their scrap books signed by authors at the events he chaired. "They'd read the book on their e-readers so didn't have a copy," he said. "I've seen quite lots of them this year." He seemed to approve, saying his house was groaning with too many books. Not everyone was so good natured. Nathan Englander made a barbed e-reading joke at the start of the debate he was chairing. Holding up a paperback he pointed out: "This is a book, for the younger people in the audience". It's some way off before we forget the book, but it got a laugh. Then there were the bookless fans who brought along their vinyl for über music producer, Nile Rodgers, to sign on Sunday night.
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