‘The easiest argument in the world, and the most specious’ - David Robinson on style versus content in literature
STYLE versus content in the novel: which is more important? Doesn’t your heart sink a little bit at the prospect of writers chewing over that one for a couple of hours? Won’t it be a bit like a solemn symposium on whether a face is better off with skin or eyes and ears?
Oddly, no. Not at first. Not with Ali Smith starting Saturday’s World Writers’ conference with an address that bubbled up like a spring – promisingly, brilliantly (though she rushed its delivery) – a dazzling defence of style as something deep, not skin deep, in story; as something that “can and will do many things at once, be ironic, ambiguous, challenging, questioning, quicksilver”.
That’s what her speech was too. “As chair, I declare that to be awesome,” Nathan Englander said as she sat down. And then the spring started to seep away into a swamp.
Maybe it was always going to. As Smith herself had pointed out, style versus content is “the easiest argument in the world, and the most specious”. What else was there to say?
Alan Bisset tried. Style can be to exclude, he said; writing can disappear into it, and if it is fetishised all we are left with are style-obsessed people talking to each other.
China Mieville thought that was patronising, and that “the important thing is not to give readers what we want but to want what we give them”. Just for a second, there was a hint of a debate sparking into life, but no. Young adult writers like Patrick Ness made the point that style wasn’t everything and they had to meet their readership half way. Fair enough. But already the spring was heading back underground, to that dank, swampy place where the success of Fifty Shades of Grey seemed an important topic. Forty minutes in, James Robertson said the debate was coming to a dead end. Sadly, there was a whole hour more to sit through.
Irvine Welsh wasn’t at the style v content debate, but he should have been. As ever, the content of his late-night reading to a packed main tent was deliberately challenging to write up in a family newspaper (here, an extract from Skagboys about competitive defecation). But he was good on style, talking about the “long and painful journey” away from writing Trainspotting in standard English into something that sounded right both in his head and on the page.
He was, he revealed, particularly influenced by Evelyn Waugh, especially in handling the psychology of group friendship. “Once on a flight to Australia, I sat next to his son Auberon and I told him. I don’t know whether he was happy or sad to hear it.”
For Chinese writer Yiyun Li, a key formative influence was William Trevor. At first, you might think the stories about dislocated lives in boomtime Beijing she describes in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl have nothing in common with those of hill farmers in rural Ireland. Listen again, though, and the sense of quiet desperation is exactly the same – indeed, the title story is a direct homage to ‘Three People’, the opening story in Trevor’s The Hill Bachelors.
The solid quietness of Li’s stories would, indeed, have made a perfect contrast with the hyperactive fiction of Hari Kunzru, who was unable to attend the event. All the same, and even with a quarter of the seats occupied, this was one of those gems that seem easier to discover in Charlotte Square’s smaller tents.
The same can be said for the event with John Jeremiah Sullivan and Craig Taylor. Again, the tent was only a third full, yet it hardly mattered.
Sullivan’s journalism is crafted with the same skill as Yiyun Li’s fiction: while he has to remain detached at the point of writing, he revealed, his best work – whether it is on Christian rock music, Bunny Wailer or (as in the story he read) about the death of a nonagenarian mentor – only happens when in the grip of an obsession at the research stage.
For me, though, the revelation was journalist Craig Taylor, editor of the London literary magazine Five Dials. His interviews for Londoners are so good they read like one of the playlets in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. No higher praise.
Except there is. In a festival that also contains Seamus Heaney, there is always room for higher praise. Especially when, as here, he deliberately played – as did Andrew O’Hagan – a supporting role to their mutual friend, the veteran literary editor Karl Miller, co-founder of the London Review of Books, back in his native Edinburgh to promote his collection of essays Tretower to Clyro.
The programme promised something that sounded like a literary Last of the Summer Wine, with the three friends talking about their joint journeys featured in the book – to Yeats’ Sligo, Burns’ Ayrshire and other writerly haunts.
Instead, Miller read an essay about the revival of writing about the countryside that was full of generous tributes to such writers as Kathleen Jamie and Andrew Greig as well as Norman MacCaig before them.
Heaney discussed the dreamy nostalgia for nature in Housman’s poetry and the harsher portraits of rural Ireland in Kavanagh. O’Hagan talked about how his own view of the countryside had been changed by reporting the foot and mouth epidemic, but this was always an event that, no matter how modest he wanted to be in making it Miller’s event rather than his own, was always circling round Heaney.
He read one superlative poem about his father, then someone asked him to read another. And he chose the very first poem he ever sent off to a magazine, the one Miller would have pulled out from an envelope when he was editor of the New Statesman back in 1963, the one that started Heaney off on that great journey to and past the Nobel Prize, the one great modern poem that even those who don’t know any other modern poem would have heard of.
He recited it by heart. ‘Digging’. That soft, wise, Irish voice. Those words, so perfect, so beyond themselves. The hairs on the backs of the audience’s necks starting to rise. If I remember nothing else about this year’s book festival, I shall remember this.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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