National Writers’ Conference

The first National Writers’ Conference took place on Saturday in Birmingham. It was a warm summer day, and outside the venue, on the leafy campus, marquees being prepared for graduation celebrations gave the place a festive air.  But as everywhere in Britain today, the appearance of normality was deceptive.

We writers, clutching our freebee tote bags (thank you, Penguin), clustered in to the Elgar Concert Hall to hear the opening plenary address by the journalist and broadcaster, Rosie Goldsmith.  Goldsmith, a linguist and champion of European literature, took for granted that she was speaking to an audience of confident Europhiles.  No doubt many in her audience, like me, remembered her High Impact tour of writers from the Low Countries, which introduced us to our witty and diverse colleagues writing in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Goldsmith addressed the question of the Brexit vote head-on, not in political, but in cultural terms.  Urging us to become “literary activists” to resist “a Brexit of the mind”, Goldsmith raised our spirits and challenged us to seek out the best creative work of writers and translators across the continent of which we are, and will always be, a part.

This very much set the tone for the day.  Even before Goldsmith’s talk, I’d had conversations with old friends and new ones which tended to be along the lines of,”…the first thing I remember with a groan when I wake up is morning is…”  Creative practice is not a delicate thing detached from the world, but integral to it, and sometimes we must feed on the grit to transform it into a pearl. Quite an angry pearl, if you can imagine such a thing….

Take Stuart Bartholomew from Waterstones.  It was a line said in passing, but I noted it as striking.  Asked to describe his customers, he used a new coinage among marketing descriptors.  He said, “Our customers are Remainers”.  No one seemed surprised by this, or in need of further explanation. ‘Remainer’ has become a shorthand for those who are curious, cultured, knowledgeable, open-minded, nuanced, empathetic, reasoning.  And I can anticipate the objections of those who see this as the self-delusion of the loser, but they are wrong. ‘Remainer’ is now an accepted term for a range of virtues. If anyone objects to that, as one of the ‘Leavers’ said on Any Questions a couple of weeks ago, “Suck it up”.

After the discussion on the book trade in which Bartholomew had made his comments, I went along to a session on working with agents and editors. It felt to me that the rumbling political undercurrent was felt there, too, in part in the diversity of voice and outlook represented by those edited by Ailah Ahmed, but also in the inspiring curiosity of all three panellists, the agent Carrie Kania and Nine Arches publisher, Jane Commane.  I can’t say that I learned anything new in the session, but it is useful to have the lessons reinforced by people as inspiring as Ahmed, Kania and Commane.

The session that most troubled me was after lunch, when I went along to ‘Changing the Writing World: Projects and Campaigns’.  Possibly the fault was mine.  I’d expected a very different kind of session, though to be fair to the panel, Nikesh Shukla, Melanie Abrahams and Tina Freeth, who all spoke compellingly, they may also have expected a very different audience.

This is my problem.  I’m an old hack when it comes to this sort of thing (a Father Ted-ish circumlocution for the dread word ‘diversity’).  My heart began to sink as I heard yet again the same old arguments and experiences I came across two or more decades ago.  The old phrase, then new, invented by the late, great Stuart Hall came back to me – “the burden of representation”.

Hall was talking about the ‘burden’ minorities carried in the world of cultural production.  They – we – were ‘expected’ to represent not ourselves, as individuals, but all our ‘kind’.  And that is unfair and impossible.  Yet most of my working life has been devoted to carrying the ‘burden of representation’.  It was what I taught, what I researched, what I wrote, until it nearly killed me.  That’s why I wanted to write fiction seriously.  Because when I ‘make it up’, I am freed of the burden of representation. I am liberated to be myself, to just tell stories.

So what I wanted from the session was to hear tales of uplift, of change, of the newly possible.  That I didn’t get that brought me close to panic, gave me an almost physical sense of being unable to breathe.

Thank goodness, then, for Bali Rai, who gave the closing address.  He continued the theme that had so depressed me in the previous session, but in ‘Being The Diverse One’, Rai gave it an ‘eff you’, kick-ass, charge of energy.  ‘Burden of representation?  No way. You, mate, are the burden, now get out of my way.’ That, in summary, was kind of the message, and very welcome, too.

As always, some of the best bits of the day came in conversations snatched between sessions, or over lunch or coffee.  Writing is a solitary business, but writers are a garrulous lot!  I came away at the end of the day energised, inspired, and keen to get back to work.  Thanks to Jonathan Davidson and the team at Writing West Midlands for the best conference yet.

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