Friday, October 26, 2012

The Edinburgh World Writer's Conference @ IFOA

I've been appointed a delegate to the Edinburgh World Writer's Conference Canadian Section which is happening this week at the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. As a delegate, I go to panel discussions offered under the EWWC banner, sit in the front row, ask questions, contribute to the discussion. We're also invited to Tweet (which hasn't caught up to me yet) and/or blog (which has).

Thursday night's session was a two-part keynote address delivered by Britain's China Mieville and Canada's Miriam Toews. Mieville's analysis of the future of the novel was smart, funny, irreverent, and to the point. The gist: it's time writers recognized that the world has changed irrevocably; copyright and creative control of a work of art vanish once they're in the digital realm and we have to be prepared for a world in which fans, amateurs, and virtual revisionists will tamper cut and paste, alter, and generally play with our work. The business model for publishing is finished and copyright is meaningful only to those under the illusion that there's still money to be made in the marketplace by producing books. His suggestion: that a new system for establishing merit be established and that recognized authors be put on salary--a daring proposal in the current economic climate.

Toews delivered a reflection on the viability of a "National Literature" in today's world and confessed that she was dubious of the idea, largely because it opens the door to an author's becoming subject to artificial constraints and obligations imposed by prescribed notions of what a national literature should be. As an author, she said, you are "not a soldier." Your first duty is to "serve your story." And the only true literature is one that is constantly "falling short of certainty."

Hard to quibble with these fine speakers. The only caveat I would add to the discussion is that at the heart of the literary experience is a sense of the particular: of the individual reader engaging with an individual author who has concentrated whatever time, effort and talent they can muster to lend shape to the chaotic flow of our lives. Bring on the fiddlers and tamperers, but let's not forget what's at the heart of this process and do what we can to ensure that the particular voice of the dedicated author survives. Similarly, I think it's important that national voices are preserved. These too, are particular voices, however artificial the definitions we lend them. It's important we keep those definitions loose, but I value a world in which an Irish literature, a Kenyan literature, and a Canadian literature can exist side by side, if only as constructs that ensure that voices from all parts of the world are heard.

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