Suzi Feay: A mushroom? For me? Hugh, you shouldn't have

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The Independent Culture

You've got to keep your wits about you at Ways With Words. Introducing Lynne Truss and Howard Jacobson as comic novelists at the Dartington Literature Festival, I was immediately assailed by HJ: "I don't consider myself to be a comic novelist." "He is the author of seven novels," I persevered, and heard a distinct hrrumph from the corner. "Isn't that right, Howard?" "Eight." (Thanks, Cape, for the up-to-date author biog.) "Howard, do you think we take comic writing seriously enough?" "Well you clearly don't. You described me as a distinguished comic novelist and then suggested that might be a contradiction in terms." Ouch! Not so much a literary debate as a white-knuckle ride around the funny but fierce author's sensibilities. As for Lynne Truss, she now needs to be protected from enthusiasts who accost her over the finer points of comma usage. And people think it's easy chairing these events...

I forgot to take my notebook on stage for Roy Hattersley's talk on the art of the book review, and found myself scribbling wildly on the back of a programme. Not in disagreement, but because I wanted to add, explain and debunk a few myths myself. Why are reviews of political books generally so inadequate? fumed Roy. (Because, more than any other type of book, political biography is susceptible to "review by index" - indeed, one political writer submitted a piece to me a mere two hours after receiving the book under review. He had simply looked himself up in the index and commented on every entry.) Book reviewing has almost nothing to commend itself as a serious job: it's badly paid, marginalised and thankless. And yet, as Roy and I agreed, it's also addictive, uplifting and bloody good fun.

The Chinese broadcaster and activist Xinran apologised prettily for her lack of English skills, then kept the Great Hall spellbound with her tales of the Tibetan women who inspired her book, Sky Burial. "What can women in the West learn from women in China?" asked an audience member. "I love this question!" beamed Xinran. "It's usually, how can Chinese women change..." Xinran had shared with us some tales of shattering poverty in rural China. Yet, she explained, the women she met always had a smile, contrasting this vividly with the Western women "who have a nice life, husband, children, house, and who look so sad... You are too concerned with the materials," she said gravely. "Excuse my honesty!"

More plain speaking from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who came to bang the ethical-produce drum and chide us out of our bad habits. Hugh demonstrated his food-for-free philosophy over breakfast, arriving with a large plastic bowl of chanterelles the chef had given him. There are kilos of them nearby, apparently, but the chef wasn't saying where. Hugh presented me with one - "there, perfect" - like a tiny buttonhole, and went off to cook.