Books: ‘Finding emotional truth in collectively produced work is like finding love in an orgy’ - Are novels still special?

“A WRITER,” the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld once wrote, “writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it’s because he is faithful to himself.”

There’s nothing there that Proust wouldn’t have disagreed with: writers are special, and their novels are the proof.

Appelfeld, however, was unable to travel to Edinburgh to give the keynote address at the closing session of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, so the honour fell instead to China Miéville. And his take on the future of the novel could hardly be more different.

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Writer’s aren’t special, he argued, and in the future they will be even less so. Their texts will be readily available and open for everyone to mess around with. “Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty – and some are already starting.” Copyright? Forget it. Guerrilla editors? They might even improve the books. Writers? How about giving them a skilled worker’s pay? “For some it would mean an income cut but you know what? It’s been a good run.”

Feisty debate-starter or feckless fantasy? The debate was fascinating to watch. No-one spoke up for publishers, or for copyright, so forceful had Miéville’s attack on the old way of doing things. But they were unsure about the new: “Storytelling is never interactive,” said Melvyn Burgess. “As soon as it becomes a conversation it dies on its feet.” Finding emotional truth in collectively produced work “is like finding love in an orgy,” added chair Janne Teller.

This has been a curiously consensual conference, free of open feuding or ad hominem attacks. Maybe that’s how writers are these days, pulling punches out of mutual respect, muting antagonism in code-words. So writers who disagreed with Miéville’s scorn of “specialness” talked instead about the importance of writers as “witness bearers”.

Chinese writer Yiyun Li, for one, sounded politely sceptical. “Bearing witness requires us to have some sort of disloyalty to our native land,” she asserted. Ben Okri, too, wasn’t prepared to “water down our idea of what a writer is out of fears of elitism”. In any case, he added, the novel still has potential – not least in Africa – and wasn’t even dying, let alone dead.

Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie agreed. Fifty years ago in Italy, the rise of cinema led to similarly pessimistic talk about the eclipse of the novel. This was nonsense, the great Italian writer Italo Calvino pointed out at the time; it was just another challenge.

The last word should go to John Calder, who got this whole ball rolling in 1962. “As long there’s life,” he said, “there’s art.”