Indyplus round up: Independent Bath Literature Festival


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Top Gear makes Saudis look liberal, Kirsty Wark tells Independent Bath Literature Festival

Women have more chance of driving a car in Saudi Arabia than they do of getting behind the wheel on Top Gear, said one of the BBC's most prominent presenters yesterday.

Kirsty Wark singled out the popular entertainment shows Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing and Mock the Week, as well as Question Time, for their male bias and said that broadcasting still had serious issues when it came to giving women a voice.

"There are more women driving in Saudi Arabia than you will ever see on Top Gear. In fact, you actually have more chance of hosting a driving show in Saudi Arabia than you have of hosting Top Gear," said the presenter. "Five out of 38 guest panellists in the last series of Mock the Week were women," she added.

Last month, the BBC's head of programming, Danny Cohen, banned all-male line-ups on comedy panel shows. Question Time has also responded to criticisms of its male-heavy panels lately. On the current series, the proportion of female guests has been 44 per cent. The problem remains that women do not want to appear on the show, said Wark.

"Question Time has made great leaps in terms of putting more women on. But for a long time the reason they wouldn't... go on was that they felt like they could talk very passionately about a single subject, but they couldn't talk about the waterfront, they thought. Men couldn't care less – they just talk about the waterfront.

"Broadcasting has a lot of issues," added the 59-year-old journalist, citing Strictly… as another "unbelievable" example of gender bias. "What is Bruce Forsyth now – 80 odd? And his female co-presenter is in her thirties. Just imagine the reverse – it's never going to happen."

Wark was chairing a discussion about women's role in public life at The Independent Bath Literature Festival. The all-female event for International Women's Day also featured Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of Whistles, the editor-in-chief of Red magazine, Sarah Bailey, and the writer Hadley Freeman. The "hard-won battles" for equality of the 1970s were only the start of the story, said Wark, introducing the debate. "In fact, I think we're only at chapter two of the story."

Independent Bath Literature Festival: AL Kennedy - book trade obsessed by thirtysomethings

“Bland, dull and repetitive” and obsessed with the lives of thirtysomethings in north‑west London – that is the parlous state of new literary fiction in the UK, according to one of its top practitioners.

A L Kennedy, who won the Costa Prize in 2007 for Day, made her assessment while blasting the “self-defeating” publishing industry.

The novelist, who was on the 2013 judging panel for Granta’s prestigious Best of Young British Novelists (BYBN) list, blamed nervous agents and editors for not taking risks on new forms of writing.

“In a way you’ve got just six or seven novels which reappear now. I’ve done some judging over the last few years and it’s depressing what has happened to literary fiction,” she said on Thursday.

The exciting areas of fiction are now sci-fi and other niche areas, where publishers allow writers the freedom to be experimental, she said.

“It’s not the fault of writers. I know that new writing is still out there and it’s wild and wacky and crazy. It’s that a lot of other people are screening you, the readers, and saying: ‘No, you want the novel about thirtysomething people in Kensal Green again.’ For the 12th time. It is self-defeating but then most of British publishing is self-defeating.”

Among the writers chosen by Kennedy and her fellow panellists for the Granta BYBN list last year was Zadie Smith, who has set all of her novels in and around north‑west London and has spawned a generation of imitators.

Kennedy was reading from her new collection of short stories about romance, All The Rage, described last week by The Independent as “dark”, “terrifying” and celebrating love “like a hungry dog celebrates the corpse of a rabbit”.

Asked if she agreed with Hanif Kureishi’s comments at the festival earlier in the week that creative writing courses were pointless, Kennedy said: “I wasn’t aware that anybody had ever not thought that.”

Courses can be helpful in pointing out mistakes to budding writers, or giving them a “little toolkit” of tips for the future, she said. But she added: “The trouble with courses is that people would like, and I know I did, a golden key; a magic thing to make everything fine; a shortcut... and there aren’t any. A lot of it is just about slog, really. People really have to fail.”

Move on from the Nazis, historian pleads

By Alice Jones

Don’t mention the war, or at least don’t mention it quite so often – that was the plea from one historian.

“Four years ago 850 books were published in England on the subject of the Nazis alone”, said Miranda Seymour, biographer and historical novelist. “It's time that we stopped only dwelling on that. It's time that we gave our children what we owe them, which is a richer understanding of the past and of the importance of all that Germany has done for England and that England has done for Germany. It's not fair to restrict them to just that one area of history.”

Seymour added that the war and the evil deeds of the Nazis should never be forgiven or forgotten. “[But] I think it is a problem that for children there is always the attraction of evil rather than good and therefore the subject of the Nazis remains irresistibly interesting to English children studying history.”

Seymour was speaking at The Independent Bath Literature Festival about her book, Noble Endeavours, a rare study of the special relationship of “trust and mutual respect” between England and Germany over 300 years, from the marriage of King James I's daughter Elizabeth to Prince Frederick in 1613 through to Christopher Isherwood's 1920s Berlin heyday. 

The fact that one newspaper greeted Angela Merkel's visit to the UK last week with a picture of the German Chancellor in a spiked helmet shows that despite a rich history of positive cultural exchange relations are still “uneasy”. “We are still picking at sores.”

Seymour's book also reveals her own extraordinary foothold in Anglo-German relations. In 1931, her uncle John Scott-Ellis was having a driving lesson in Munich when he turned a corner too quickly and knocked over a small moustachioed man in a brown uniform. It was Adolf Hitler.

“So my uncle is the man who almost killed Hitler”, said Seymour.

Two weeks after the accident, Geli Raubal, who was living in Hitler's apartment in Munich killed herself with his pistol. “It's my theory that he stepped off the pavement and didn't see the bright red Fiat that day because he was out of his wits with worry about the situation at home”, she added.


Art is as powerful as politics, claims Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell says he now believes art can be just as effective at bringing about social change as politics – after undergoing a change of heart since leaving Westminster.

Tony Blair’s former director of communications said he had no time for arts people who “constantly badgered” him when he worked at No 10 Downing Street, but he has had a rethink since researching the UK’s relationship with alcohol for his third novel.

“The cultural space can have just as big an impact as the political space. Take Steve McQueen accepting his Oscar the other day and dedicating it to the 21 million people still living in slavery – until he made that film, did people really think that?

“Sometimes the cultural space can do more than politics. And that’s something I did not think when I was in government.”

Campbell was talking at The Independent Bath Literature Festival about the three novels he has written since leaving politics.

His first, All in the Mind, drew on his own experiences with depression and alcoholism. It was an emotional process. “I had the idea of how one of the characters was going to die on my way to a football match. So I pulled into a lay-by and wrote about 7,000 words on my BlackBerry. Someone tapped on my window to check if I was all right because I was in floods of tears.”

His new novel, My Name Is…, tells the story of a teenage alcoholic girl through the eyes of 27 people around her. Campbell said that the UK has a drink problem that is exacerbated by high-impact advertising of alcohol at sports and music events, too-low prices and the “normalisation” of binge drinking in society.

“Carlsberg is the official beer of the England football team. Every soap opera is set in a pub,” he said. “One day perhaps we’ll see a bit of a link.” He admitted that Labour had taken a “step in the wrong direction” when it introduced 24-hour licensing.

“Vladimir Putin is not the most popular man in the world at the moment but the only country in Europe that has really tried to tackle this is Russia. Sometimes the state has to step in.”

Poetry royalty Frieda Hughes shares experiences as a counsellor

Frieda Hughes, the poet, painter and daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, has a new occupation – as a therapist and a bereavement counsellor.

“I believe in recycling, I don’t like to waste experiences. I thought, all my life experience has got to be useful for something,” she said. “I work alone all the time and I need a job where I can be out among people. I’m not qualified for anything except living, after a fashion. This is how I’m going to put it to good use.”

In a frank talk at The Independent Bath Literature Festival, Hughes, 53, talked about her “eclectic rollercoaster ride of a life”. Her mother committed suicide when she was two years old, her father died of cancer in 1998 and her brother, Nicholas, committed suicide in 2009. Her third marriage broke up that year. All of this led her to train as a therapist. She is mid-way through training and currently works as a volunteer counsellor for Cruse Bereavement Care.

“I felt very lucky to have got through everything,” she said. “I have a very logical streak. I thought, ‘OK my life is in the toilet, things are looking pretty bad right now. What can I do?’”

Hughes worked as a waitress, an estate agent and for the Inland Revenue before she signed her first publishing deal in 1986 for a children’s book she had written. She has since published seven children’s books, four poetry collections and holds frequent exhibitions.

For years, she avoided writing poetry out of fear of criticism. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to get my head kicked in.’ People think, ‘Her father’s a poet, her mother’s a poet. She’s probably a bit of both’,” she said. “I didn’t want to reject them. I wanted to reject poetry and the inevitable comparisons... I couldn’t take it. My skin is so thin.”

It was only when she was diagnosed with ME in the 1990s that she rediscovered poetry. “I was only awake for four hours a day and I thought, ‘Why am I not spending my time writing poetry?’ Poems would leak out of me in my sleep. I would wake up, scribble one down and shove it into a box file under my bed never to be seen again. I couldn’t read them but, oh my God, it was like uncorking a bottle.”

In 1988, Hughes moved to Australia where she lived in a hamlet in Wooroloo for a decade. “Nobody knew who I was, or who my parents were. It was a marvellous freedom,” she said. She now lives in Wales and has made peace with her heritage. “Do you know what, tiger cubs don’t have a problem who their parents are, they are so obviously the product of another tiger. They’re never going to get away from it.”

She added that she tends not to read reviews: “The general rule of thumb is if my parents are mentioned in the first two lines, I put it in a box and never look at it again.”

Don’t write it off - Hanif Kureishi’s criticism of creative writing courses riles new authors

By Nick Clark

Hanif Kureishi may not see the value of creative writing courses, writing them off at a talk on Sunday night as a “waste of time”. Yet those who chose to hone their craft in the classroom include a string of Booker Prize winners from Ian McEwan to Eleanor Catton, as well as rising stars of the literary world.

Many have been quick to point out the importance of academia to the advancement of their careers. Rising star Emma Healey, whose first book Elizabeth is Missing has caused much excitement in literary circles ahead of its publication in June, completed an MA in creative writing for prose at the University of East Anglia in 2011.

“The course made me take writing more seriously as a profession and a craft. It made a huge difference,” she says. “I found it incredibly useful; it gave me an idea about how to take my writing on.”

Naomi Alderman, who was named on the once-a-decade Granta list of best young British novelists last year, says a creative writing MA was a “proving ground”, adding: “You can find out whether spending a year on your work makes your work better.

“You find out whether you enjoy dedicating a year to your writing. You try it out. You meet other people who are dedicating themselves to writing. You’re around teachers who’ve published books themselves.” She adds that she would not have discovered these things about herself without the MA.

Mr Kureishi told an audience at The Independent Bath Literature Festival that many of his students “just can’t tell a story”, adding: “It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

But Sarah Moss, professor of creative writing at Warwick University, says: “It’s a funny thing to say. If you can teach someone to write a sonata you should be able to teach them to write a novel.” She adds that she has heard similar sentiments expressed, “but most of us are not so cynical”.

Jonathan Myerson, director of the creative writing MA course for novels at City University London, says learning the right skills takes time. “You can teach it, but you need two years to do it. You can nag the students until they get enough plot. The one thing they find hardest is plotting.”

Discussing and analysing your own work with teachers and other students can also be helpful, says Rufus Purdy, editor of new writing at Curtis Brown Creative, a creative writing school. “So much writing is done in isolation that when you’re in a group situation with people you trust and respect, it can focus your mind and critical skills,” he says, adding that Mr Kureishi’s comment were “not particularly helpful”.

Creative writing courses first became popular in America. The term was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in The American Scholar in 1837 and was first used as a course title by Hughes Mearns, who brought the subject into the Lincoln School in 1922.

Possibly the most celebrated institution for creative writing on either side of the Atlantic is the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was set up in 1936. Its alumni include 16 Pulitzer Prize winners and this year’s Man Booker Prize winner Ms Catton, for The Luminaires.

The first creative writing MA in the UK was set up at the University of East Anglia by Malcolm Bradbury, who had lectured in the US, and Angus Wilson. Mr Bradbury said in 1992 that the British initially viewed such courses “as a suspect American import, like the hamburger – a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat”.

The founders hoped it would help breathe new life into the British novel. Alumni of the UEA course include McEwan and Alderman as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Remains of the Day, Booker Prize winner Anne Enright and many others.

Mr Myerson said: “The UEA course was the first in the UK by decades,” adding there were now “hundreds of courses, and they do vary hugely in quality”. Wannabe writers can now enrol in courses at universities around the UK. Publishing houses such as Faber and Random House also provide them – and there’s even one at trendy Groucho Club in Soho.

The teachers on the creative novel writing MA course at City University have all had work published, which Mr Myerson says “isn’t true of all of them”. “My analogy is to surgery, you wouldn’t want to be operated on by someone who had only learnt it from a book. You want to learn from someone who’s done surgery and the patient survived.”

Creative writing courses are a waste of time, says Hanif Kureishi (who teaches one)

The author Hanif Kureishi has rubbished creative writing courses as a “waste of time”, saying that the vast majority of students taking them – including many of his own pupils – are “talentless”.

Kureishi teaches how to write novels, screenplays and plays at London’s Kingston University, which awarded him a professorship in October and made him guest of honour when its writing school launched in 2011.

Yet speaking on Sunday night, the author of The Buddha of Suburbia said of his students: “It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.”

He added: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

Kureishi was appearing at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University. “A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” he said. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”

Last night a spokesperson for Kingston said Kureishi was teaching an “extremely demanding and valuable course”, adding: “Professor Hanif Kureishi is employed for his thought-provoking, inspirational contribution which he provides through supportive masterclasses, tutorials and PhD supervisions. Students consistently praise him and benefit from his advice.”

Kureishi, 59, who began his career writing pornography before joining the Royal Court Theatre, said that if he were starting out now, he would not pay thousands of pounds to enrol on an MA in creative writing. “No. I wouldn’t do it like that. That would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” he said.

“It’s not about the course. The whole thing with courses is that there are too many teachers on them, and most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you. And a lot of students work with each other in ways that are not very helpful or creative. You’ve got to try and find one teacher who can really help you.”

Kureishi’s latest novel, The Last Word, is about the relationship between a young biographer and a cantankerous old Indian author, widely held to be based on VS Naipaul.

He said that he saw his relationship with his students as part-mentor, part-therapist, and that it was not his role to produce future best-selling novelists.  “I can’t give them talent but I can say to them: ‘Look, if you do that, you’re going to waste a lot of time,’” he said.

“What’s more important with teaching creative writing is that everybody gets to speak. It might not have much literary value but it might help them say something about themselves. So you’re helping them, as it were, to therapise themselves. The idea that you’re in a school for producing great writers is not the point.”

He added: “I work with my students for a long time. They really start to perk up after about three years. And after about five years they really realise something about writing. It’s a very slow thing.  People go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, ‘A weekend?’”

Kureishi said that having three sons meant that he has had to earn money from writing in any way he can.

“You start off wanting to be an artist, and once you’ve got children, you’ve got to work in the market. You look at them and think: ‘I’ve got to support you through writing.’ It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer for a long time... It’s been touch and go.”