The Future of the Novel: story is here to stay

By Vikki VanSickle

Saturday’s round table discussion, Zombies, Witches, Killers and Cowboys: Visions of the Future of the Novel, featured a group of authors from various genres with a wonderful natural chemistry. The scope of the discussion was large, touching on themes such as genre, love, the imagination and the writing process. The audience was very welcoming—and obviously full of Jo Nesbø fans.

Moderator Andrew Pyper kept the tone of the discussion light and fun. At one point Nesbø described storytelling as inviting people to your house; if they like it, they will come again. The event very much felt like we had been invited into a cozy collective living room. The discussion included a number of personal anecdotes and I’m sure if given the opportunity the audience would have stayed all afternoon to hear these mix of authors talk.

Andrew Pyper, Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø and Corey Redekop at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The question of genre and categorization was one of the more interesting and heated discussions. Genre writers often feel sidelined or undermined by the literati. According to Nesbø, crime fiction is respected and prestigious in Scandinavia, but this is not the case in North America or England, causing Pyper to surmise what a M.G. Vassanji or Anne Michaels crime novel would look like, to much laughter from the audience.

Redekop brought up the case of Margaret Atwood, who made her mark as a literary writer and poet before diving into genre fictions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Redekop wondered if she had written these novels first, would she be considered “merely” a science fiction writer? Atwood herself refers to these novels as “speculative fiction,” which many sci-fi writers find evasive and suggest that in using this term Atwood herself is aware of (and avoiding) the stigma of genre writing.

Deborah Harkness and Alen Mattich talked about the constraints of genre. Harkness referred to genre as a weapon, used by critics and literary award committees to demean so-called genre writers and exclude them from the literary elite. She also talked about genre policing, in which readers and critics are quick to exclude titles based on an arbitrary set of rules or perceived notions about genres.

Harkness is a historian and a professor and talked about the snobbery of her own colleagues, who assumed she would write her fiction (which features witches and vampires) under a pseudonym. Mattich agreed that in North American and British literary circles there is some derision of genre fiction, but he felt that the constraints of genre fiction benefit the writer. With no constraints, Mattich believes it would be harder to succeed. The framework provided by these categories, as arbitrary as they may be, allows the author a framework to push against or an opportunity to test the boundaries and perhaps come up with something fresh and new.

There was some discussion as to why we categorize. Harkness believes the categorizations exist only for the reader, and Redekop confessed that as a librarian, categories are are a useful tool when readers are seeking something to read.

Nesbø pointed out that genre is all about expectation. When a reader picks up a crime novel or a paranormal romance, they expect certain conventions. Like Mattich, he felt that these expectations make it easier to frame a story. So what of the cross-over novel, that holy grail sought by publishers, which seems to defy genre or categorization? The panel agreed that to write for the masses, or seek something as elusive as the cross-over novel, would endanger the story. As Nesbo says, don’t go to the people, invite them to come to you.

As for the future of the novel? The group steered away from discussion of format (re: e-books) and instead focused on content and what readers want. The panelists all agreed that story is here to stay. As Mattich says, people don’t like random events or information. We like a story to explain things.

Redekop took this one step further, suggesting that we are genetically predisposed to create stories in order to understand the world around us. Nesbø suggested that some of the most interesting writing is not in the novel, but in other formats, pointing to cable TV and shows such as Mad Men. He believes that in the future readers will want to be challenged, and that writers of all forms and genres should be ready for a world of intelligent readers.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

Miéville & Doctorow: from Dungeons and Dragons to politics and writing

By Corina Milic

The night started with a few bad jokes and ended with a debate on human nature (consensus: good, though invariably more time was spent talking about the evil).

The Lakeside Terrace was packed for a joint reading and interview with Cory Doctorow (The Rapture of the Nerds) and China Miéville (Embassytown). The SPACE channel’s Mark Askwith hosted.

The authors are similar in some essential ways: both live in London, and both approach science fiction quite politically.

Doctorow read from his new novel Pirate Cinema and reminisced about growing up in Toronto: “I played Dungeons and Dragons here [Harbourfront Centre] on alternating Saturdays for most of the 1980s.” He credits the city, with sci-fi institutions like Bakka Phoenix book store and the Judith Merril Library, for his pursuit of genre fiction.

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Cory Doctorow and China Miéville in conversation with Mark Askwith at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Miéville, who treated fans to an unpublished short story reading, said that he simply never grew out of his fantastical childhood imagination. “As a writer I can sustain almost nothing that doesn’t have a fantastic element.”

To say the conversation was far reaching is an understatement. The authors talked about everything from copyright laws (Doctorow’s activism centres largely around the issue) to blog anxiety to waterboarding to Hurrican Katrina and Cormac McCarthy. They even threw in a requisite trekkie reference.

It is impossible to synthesize Doctorow’s jaw-dropping on-the-spot metaphors or Miéville’s eloquent arguments (both full of rather large words this blogger was ill-equipped to successfully transcribe). Instead, here are some of the highlights:

Miéville, on structuring his novels: “My books are very planned, in part because I’m very neurotic. The idea of starting a book without knowing where you’re going, oooo, hives!”

Doctorow, on good writing advice: “’Write everyday’ crops up as writing advice all the time. What was revelatory to me was that when I did this, writing every day, I saw in hindsight that the days I felt the words were good and the days I thought they were bad were actually indistinguishable.”

Doctorow, on why he blogs his daily writing: “If I don’t put [the words] out for public consumption, I cheat myself. I won’t do it.”

Miéville, on the relationship between his politics and his writing: “I have been an active socialist since I was 18. I see the world politically, but I also see the world as a D and D* geek. Anything I write involves political issues. It’s not like separate boxes in my head.”

Miéville, on the idea of crisis: “In a very banal way crisis is aesthetically interesting, but it’s not an aesthetic indulgence. Things really are fucked. I’m not a pessimist. One of the great blunders is [believing] that people are horrible.”

Doctorow, on writing young adult novels: “YA protagonists do a very brave thing all the time. They do a lot of things for the first time without knowing how these things will change them. It makes them really exciting to write about.”

Miéville, on writing young adult novels: “What he said.”

*Dungeons and Dragons

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.

Intellectual companionship at IFOA

By Janet Somerville

The crowd gathered in the Brigantine Room on Friday night accompanied first by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and then Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” piping through the sound system. From where I sat I could hear Richard Ford’s irresistible Southern drawl trickling under both songs, a few tables away, a distinct rhythm of its own.

Hosted by CBC’s Jeff Douglas, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight began with its founder Noreen Taylor praising Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary—the most recent recipient of the prize—as a book “that defines the borders of what’s acceptable and not acceptable about humanity” and thanking IFOA Director Geoffrey E. Taylor for understanding that “nonfiction deserves a place on the podium.”

Andrew was the first of the authors to take the stage, marvelling that “10 years ago I came to IFOA to hear a writer I idolized and wanted to follow: Richard Ford.” That he was sharing the evening on the same bill with Ford seemed to fill him with wonder. Explaining that his book was “a Canadian story of resilience and recovery,” Westoll continued that one of the marvels of being named the Charles Taylor Prize winner was the previously unimagined doors that it opened for him as a scientist and a writer.

Perhaps the most charming moment of the evening belonged to him as he recalled an evening where he introduced Dr. Jane Goodall to an audience of 1,000 at the University of Toronto and she dragged him to the mic and insisted “let’s test Andrew on his knowledge of chimpanzee behaviour,” after which “this Dame of the British Empire told me to pat her on the head.” And simulated simian hell broke loose.

Perhaps America’s finest contemporary social satirist and certainly a celebrated man of letters, Richard Ford called IFOA “the gold standard of literary festivals. It’s a real treat, and slightly daunting to meet young writers, but also so encouraging.” He read from Canada, his voice dropping, masterfully controlling the pacing, parsing each line as if it were a poem. To hear him read from his own work is to be invited into a trust, an intimacy, and to facing one of the essential questions that his novel poses: Isn’t this a way of making sense of a life?

Stuart Clark, author of The Sensorium of God, who also writes for the European Space Agency, introduced his historically-grounded novel by referring to the “grand tradition of using narrative to discuss grand ideas and science” as Galileo did. In his book the ideas of astronomer Edmond Halley, a spy for the British monarchy, a “shadowy figure in Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was practising the dark art of alchemy” and experimentalist Robert Hooke all intertwine as “science is born of hot passion, rivalry and intrigue” in the late 17th century. Wisely, Clark noted, “there are always those who will never understand.”

It was a pleasure, indeed, to bask in the intellectual companionship of these three fine men. If only for an hour, one rainy Toronto evening, we inched closer to understanding.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Miéville & Toews: fiction as a living thing

By Vikki VanSickle

Last night’s event, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, featured two very different speakers covering two very different topics.

From England, award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer China Miéville postulating on the future of the novel, and from Canada, literary darling Miriam Toews dissecting the idea of a national literature. Thanks to moderator Rachel Giese who drew clear parallels between these two very different keynote addresses and lead the audience in a rich discussion.

I made it, it’s mine.

Miéville is a commanding speaker who delighted the audience with wry and at times critical observations of the literati and an imaginative and open view of the future. He spoke passionately about the demise of authorial authority, envisioning a future where “guerilla editors” get their hands on texts and edit, embellish, and “re-mix” content. Texts will no longer be “closed” in an era of digitally distributed texts. We need to change our perspective and put the book ahead of the author. Once authors can get over the fact that they aren’t special, they are workers like anyone else, it will allow the focus to be on the book.

China Miéville at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The crowd rallied behind Miéville’s vision of the future in which writers receive a salary, a somewhat far-fetched idea that would require the toppling of current political and economic systems—but one can dream, right?

Miéville’s address was a perfect example of how content can be re-mixed, as it was based on a speech given earlier this year, with some alterations based on the discussion it generated. Talk about metafiction! You can check out his original keynote address here.

Serve your nation by serving your story.

Miriam Toews is a warm and endearing speaker who wears her heart on her sleeve. Toews spoke candidly about the odd position she has found herself in as a sort of expert in Mennonite culture; a position that has been imposed by others due to her background and content in some of her work. She talked about being both criticized and praised by the Mennonite community, and how this also typifies the demands of a so-called national literature. Communities demand allegiance; they expect their members to “reinforce certain pre-approved narratives.”

Miriam Toews at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Toews believes this is the crux of the problem with a national literature—that it demands obligation and confines the writer to ideals that may not exist.  Ideas of national identity belong to the past, and any attempt to construct an identity will be outdated by the time the reader comes to it.

If the writer has any job at all, Toews said, it is only to serve the story. By serving the story the writer is ultimately serving her nation.

Some thoughts to take away. Toews described fictional stories as “a secular bible of a community,” which struck me as a sage observation. Think of this year’s Canada Reads format, in which people are asked to vote for books that represent a region and then one book will be chosen out of these books that ultimately represents Canada. Celebrating regionalism only to pit the regions against each other seems contradictory. I’d be curious to know what Toews take on this format is.

Both Miéville and Toews spoke about the book as living thing, and how interpretations are as varied as the individuals who read the book. Being surprised by a reader’s take on a character or receiving fan art work or fan fiction exemplify ways in which a book “lives.” An audience member asked, “But what if they get it wrong?” Both Toews and Miéville insist that there is no such thing as a wrong interpretation, and just because an author created a work does not make them the ultimate authority.

Some heady discussion and lots to ponder! Looking forward to Saturday’s double bill!

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

House of Anansi turns 45

By Corina Milic

“The first sound I make,” said Graeme Gibson, as he commenced reading the opening lines of Five Legs, “you have to realize is an alarm clock. I’m not very good at alarm clocking…Ring.”

Gibson set the tone for Thursday night’s round table recognizing the House of Anansi Press’ 45thanniversary. It was a funny and poignant romp through the publishing company’s history, which began in 1967 with Dennis Lee, David Godfrey and 12 bottles of beer.

Dennis Lee and Nick Mount at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Lee joined the round table, along with Gibson, whose experimental Five Legs was the first novel Anansi published in 1968. In honour of its anniversary, Anansi has rereleased the title, along with several other classics. Along for the ride were Lynn Crosbie (Life is About Losing Everything) and president Sarah MacLachlan. Nick Mount, author and fiction editor at The Walrus, moderated.

Lee credits his partner for starting the press, by insisting they publish Lee’s book of poems, Kingdom of Absence. In the year that Godfrey was part of the company, he also brought in Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.

Anansi formed during a time when young, Canadian writers were mostly working alone, said Lee. Anansi provided a place for an “extraordinary process of writers emerging at the same time, becoming aware of each other and creating community.”

Gibson said he too wrote in isolation—in the eight years he spent working on his first novel, he didn’t meet a single writer.

He added that at that time small press mentality defined Canadian writing, and came to define the type of work Anansi published. “We knew we wouldn’t make money. There was no advance, no expectation of royalties. It created an intense, emotional ferocity.”

Sarah MacLachlan, Graeme Gibson and Lynn Crosbie at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Lynn Crosbie joined the House in 1996 with her book Pearl. She said it was a logical choice, because Anansi “did and still does take a risk on writers.”

That is something that hasn’t changed much over the years. Anansi is known for publishing books on the edge of the mainstream (moderator Nick Mount joked, wouldn’t just selling Fifty Shades of Greybe a better bet?). The authors on stage agreed the house maintained that focus, even as Anansi faced bankruptcy in the early 2000s, was purchased out of oblivion by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2002 and expanded with Sarah MacLachlan at the helm from three to 27 employees.

“I think its important for us to keep publishing things that are on the edge, that take risks,” said MacLachlan. Later she added, “We make a pact with writers: we aren’t going to give the biggest advances but we’re going to stick with you. This is a vocation, not an occupation.”

From the early days when Gibson and his friends papered Toronto with 800 posters of Five Legs to several years ago when Anansi got its first button maker, MacLachlan says they haven’t lost their folksy touch.

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.
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