As noted in my prelude post, the decision to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival session described today was very much a last-minute one. However, being a fan of the longest form of fiction, a session entitled The Future of the Novel was always going to attract my attention 🙂 The session was one of many around the world celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary World Writers’ Conference held in Edinburgh, and while this session was a little more low-key than the chaotic events in Scotland in 1962, it was still entertaining.
The session was chaired by Scottish-Kiwi academic and writer Liam McIlvanney and also featured ‘transmedia creator’ Christy Dena (even after briefly chatting to her, I couldn’t tell you exactly what that means – my fault not hers, I assure you). The star attraction though was Teju Cole, author of the prize-winning novel Open City, and it was Cole who kicked things off with a ten-minute keynote address.
He started by explaining what he felt about the novel, focusing on works which (in the words of Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky) ‘elongate the perspective of human sensibility’, with Cole saying that: “…excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional.” After a brief summary of the history of the novel, including a comment on the retreat of English-language writing into the safe realm of consensus and prize shortlists, he moved onto his main focus, Twitter, which he described as a novel with no end, evergrowing, but with no single responsible author. Is this one form of the novel of the future?
After this, the three writers sat down for a panel discussion, one which primarily focused on Twitter and other forms of social media. Cole and Dena discussed the idea of the ‘perpetual present’ of Twitter, whereby the ‘reader’ is carried along on a stream of… well, consciousness. In fact, it was suggested that Twitter may well be the end destination of the journey of writers like Joyce and Woolf towards penetrating the human psyche and exposing it to the world. Nobody was saying that this is entirely a good thing though 😉
A further idea which was explored was the effect that online exposure has on a writer and, consequently, on their work. Cole talked about readers: “finally having that conversation with the author you admire – and being disappointed”, to great laughs from the audience. McIlvanney asked whether this time spent online could affect writers and eat away at their valuable writing time, but Cole was of the opinion that, for him at least, this time was productive and helped with his thought processes. He doesn’t like the mindset which tries to convince him that he’s wasting his time online and that he ‘should’ be working…
However, he does admit that the immediate nature of responses on Twitter can affect the writer and their thoughts. As he wryly noted: “All opinions are valid – until you start encountering all opinions!”. It is here that the novel has a great advantage as it still offers the reader solace, in what Cole described as ‘a place of perfect slowness’. This relaxation is something you may find hard to find online…
In the following Q & A session, I asked the panellists what they thought the novel would look like in thirty or forty years (mainly as I thought the discussion had wandered away from that focus at times). Dena thought that the print book would still be around, but mainly as a collectors’ item, and she envisaged the future writer as a master of multiple media, print, social media and audio. Cole’s initial response was of information downloaded instantly to contact lenses – and everyone would be reading something like Fifty Shades of Grey 😉 Afterwards though, he said that it didn’t really matter whether the print novel would survive in its current form. There would always be people with drive and talent (or, as he put it, ‘forceful creativity’), and these people would always create great works of art 🙂
This was a great session, very entertaining and informative, even if I’m not quite sure that the speakers really stuck as closely to the topic as I’d expected. While McIlvanney and Dena spoke well, their role was really to act as a foil for Cole, a very intelligent and likeable speaker who namedropped international writers (including Australian poet Les Murray) in a way guaranteed to endear him to me. While it’s probably a very bad idea to read books based on how nice a writer is, I may well have to check out Open City at some point soon… (postscript: I’m about half-way through the book and enjoying it immensely.)
And that’s all for today, but stay tuned for my final piece from the festival. My next post will be my report from the Andrés Neuman session; hopefully, Cole’s comment about meeting authors you admire won’t ring true…