As is often the case, it began with a tweet. Patrick Ness mentioned on Twitter that he would be “chairing” China Miéville at an event in Edinburgh (cue hilarity) and also giving a - Polemic? I wasn’t clear on the details, but you don’t say (basically) KITSCHIES AWARD WINNERS NESS & MIEVILLE, TOGETHER LIVE ON STAGE ONE NIGHT ONLY and NOT get my attention. I quickly booked tickets for Ness’s polemic keynote on the afternoon of Monday 20 August, and the Miéville event, chaired by Ness, later that evening.
Then - quel drama! It was announced that the final Polemic of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (I was only starting to realise that these polemics were part of a festival within a festival) would now be given by China Miéville, on the little topic of ONLY THE FUTURE OF THE FREAKIN’ NOVEL, YO. Reader, it was never an option for me to be sat on a train heading south during said polemic, so I got online and changed my tickets. Now I could stay in Edinburgh until 6:30 PM on Tuesday 21 August. Next up: a comic email missive of Sunday 19 August in which I blithely informed my partner that It Was Totally Fine, I would sit in Kings Cross Station between midnight and 5 AM before getting a train back to Oxford and going to work. I pressed Send and the phone rang. “YOU ARE NEVER, NOT EVER sitting in Kings Cross overnight. Get a hotel.” With some reluctance, I booked a hotel. (He was right. In This Instance.)
The train left Oxford at 7 AM. Despite the many ways that train travel can and often does go wrong, this trip was blissfully trouble-free. Naturally, I travelled with All The Devices, and can report that the 3G signal in much of the Scottish Borders is superior to that in central Oxford. From the train, I could see lines of giant electricity pylons stretching into the distance, reminding me of a Ken Reid drawing that Miéville mentioned at the Institut Francais BD Festival last year.
Waverley Station, Edinburgh. I was not awash in extra time, and all too aware that “Latecomers Will Not be Admitted.” I found Princes Street, and was able to stop gawping at the park and Edinburgh Castle (ERMAHGERD GOHRMERNGHARST) long enough to reach my hotel. The day was gloriously hot and sunny. I thought Oxford had a lot of tourists - they are as nothing compared to the crowds in Edinburgh at festival time. Quick scamper up the hill to Charlotte Square Gardens, or “Reader Nerdvana” as I came to think of it (Oh look, there’s Junot Diaz!) and into the queue for the #worldwritersconf debate on Censorship Today from 3 − 5 PM, with keynote by Patrick Ness.
A little background on the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. This event echoed and commemorated a similar event held in 1962, when writers gathered in Edinburgh to debate issues of the day as they related to literature. I can’t do it justice here, but you should definitely check it out. William Burroughs and Mary McCarthy were in attendance, and an early planning meeting was briefly interrupted when one person knocked another unconscious with a wine bottle. EWWC 2012-2013 was attended by fifty writer delegates from around the world, and the Edinburgh portion similarly lasted for five days, with a public polemic and debate on a given topic each day. The debates were live-streamed, and are now available on the conference site in their entirety. In addition, the five polemics were published simultaneously in the Guardian. Having watched some of the earlier debates from home, and “participated” via twitter, when I finally reached the actual venue, I had a slight sense of déja vu. The conference continues in other locations and online for the rest of the year - see the website for further information.
I won’t cover in detail the content of Patrick Ness’s keynote or the subsequent debate, ably chaired by Chika Unigwe, at length, as Ness’s text can be read in full and video of the debate is available online; I highly recommend both. Ness took an unexpected tack by not addressing the external forces that censor writers, but instead focussing on the internal self-censorship to which they can fall prey. I do have one comment for the conference organisers: while I understand the desire to publish each keynote, as delivered, on the actual day, it requires the speakers to read from a prepared text. This has the unfortunate effect of constraining the writers, some of whom were clearly more comfortable with this arrangement than others. Patrick Ness, whose delivery was nonetheless engaging, made no secret of finding it awkward, as he is accustomed to speaking more spontaneously. It seemed a shame that he couldn’t do that in this instance.
Concerns over format that were aired in previous sessions raised their heads again - how much of the allotted time should be devoted to contributions from writer delegates as opposed to questions from the “reader” audience? Tensions did occasionally flare, although there was nothing to rival the bust-ups of 1962. The global nature of the participants made for a wide variety of experiences of censorship. Those who argued for complete freedom of speech were answered by those who (and I paraphrase here) countered with “Yes, say what you like, but don’t then tell me that I can’t criticise what you say.” It was mooted that sometimes it is a laudable decision NOT say/publish certain things, given the effect it would have on others.
Later that evening, following a convivial Scottish beer with my partner’s former boss at the Oxford Bar of Rebus fame (nb, I am not ONLY about the genre fiction) it was back to Charlotte Square Gardens for the Miéville/Ness event. As far as I know, this was not live-streamed or recorded, so I will try to cover it in a bit more depth. The photo of Ness and Miéville that I snapped with my phone captures the overall mood - congenial and funny as hell, but always serious about the writing. The tone was established when Ness began to launch into a full biography of Miéville, looked out at the eager crowd and said “Oh fuck, you KNOW who he is.” They began with a discussion of Miéville’s latest fictional work, Railsea, and Ness lavished it with the kind of praise that writers don’t volunteer unless they genuinely like a book. Some of his adjectives: “tremendous, genuinely inventive, playfully written and moving.” Miéville spoke about the origins of Railsea in “two gags” - Moby Dick, but with moles instead of whales and train tracks instead of an ocean.
When questioned about writing YA as opposed to adult fiction, Miéville responded with “The me in my head I’m telling it to is a young me.” Ness asked about Miéville’s prolific output in recent years, to which Miéville answered that publishing schedules can sometimes be misleading, because books come out a long time after you finish them. His recent non-fiction work, London’s Overthrow, was mentioned. This pre-Olympics essay about present-day London was first published (lamentably not in full, and not with Miéville’s photographs) in the New York Times Magazine. The full text, with the original photos, now exists on a website, and also in printed from The Westbourne Press.
Ness asked an intriguing question: where does Miéville feel he is when he’s writing his books? This elicited an unexpected answer: “I don’t really know.” Miéville continued, opining that a writer is “often the last person to the party learning about [their] own book. Writers can be wrong about their own book.” Both writers talked about how their books often start with a single image that has emotional resonance. Moving on to whether “genre” has been helpful to Miéville as a writer, the subject of Priestgate came up, and Ness decried Priest’s remarks in (hilarious) terms that I won’t repeat here. To Priest’s complaint about Sheri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising - “…it has a talking horse!” - Ness responded that “Maybe it needed a talking horse.” Miéville owned up to being “genuinely interested in the way genres work” and to reading Regency romances of late.
The issue of “literature of recognition versus literature of estrangement” was touched upon. Miéville laid his cards on the table, stating that, in his opinion, there is “something better about estrangement.” Next topic: the problematic conflation of writer with oracle. Miéville expressed mock surprise at learning there’s a difference between the two; cue laughter from the audience. He said that he finds the the concept of writers’ blogs problematic, also the notion that everything you write should be read by others. “Some writer’s blogs are terrible.”
The event closed with audience questions, which Miéville answered thoughtfully. The rapport between Ness and Miéville continued: Miéville suggested that a particular question could possibly be answered by both of them. “No, I’m fine,” said Ness, not missing a beat. There was a rather specific question about language in Embassytown - Miéville made the answer comprehensible to the wider audience, who might not have read the book, but threw the die-hards a bone at the end by specifying “Language with a capital L.”
Afterward, a long signing queue formed. I was clutching a recent issue of the comic Miéville is currently writing, Dial H for Hero. While standing in said queue, I overheard a man proclaim that he was “off to seek a woman wearing a mole badge.” This was, of course, me, and I finally made the IRL acquaintance of @GeekChocolate, who seems to spend much of his time interviewing the luminaries of SFF. He later saved the day by lending me a Sharpie so that my comic could actually be signed - as it turns out, byro is not an option. I also picked up two copies of London’s Overthrow.
The next day I spent a little time sightseeing in the New Town, inexplicably eating Mexican food for lunch. I had threatened to lurk in Charlotte Square Gardens in an attempt to buttonhole Miéville for an interview, but in the end I didn’t return until 2:30 pm, in time for the final polemic at 3. As luck would have it, just as I approached the festival entrance, who approached in the opposite direction but China Actual Miéville in a suit. I’m sure no one is interested in seeing the picture I took. Oh wait. OK, OK. SETTLE DOWN. Here Is The Photo. Geez.
The closing debate of EWWC 2012, "The Future of the Novel", chaired by Janne Teller with keynote by China Miéville, has received a good deal of media attention, and I can’t add much to the comprehensive coverage, other than to explain that the background noise on the recording is torrential rain on the tent roof and extremely vocal seagulls. The full text of the polemic is here and the video of the two-hour event is online as well. I particularly like Damien Walter’s take on the debate in the Guardian - more than anyone, he picked up on the political aspects of Miéville’s contribution. In addition to being a forward-looking glimpse of how writing may develop in the future, the polemic was possibly a heartfelt plea for fanfic (wait for it: Perdido Street Staycation) and also the most polite call to tear down this flawed system and remake it that you’re ever likely to hear.
And then it was over. I bought a last coffee in the café, and drank it on the way to pick up my suitcase. Seeing a nearby dumpster, I opened it to dispose of the cup and saw a broken black umbrella - a little Un Lun Dun in Edinburgh. The train journey south was uneventful, and as promised, I made my way to the hotel near Kings Cross at midnight. I judged the trip a success when I was unfazed by waking a few hours later for my taxi to Paddington and the 5:18 train. Later, as we approached Oxford, I looked out the window to see enormous, silent pylons silhouetted against the morning sky.
A few random observations from my trip, in no particular order:
Jackie Kay is, hands down, my first choice to lead an independent Scotland. Not that anyone’s asking.
It’s funny when Patrick Ness swears.
If you want your comic signed, BRING A SHARPIE. #Derp
I am frequently in danger of shouting out requests for responses from authors, as if I’m at a rock concert demanding Free Bird. “SAY THE THING ABOUT ENID BLYTON - THAT’S SO AWESOME! WOOOOOOO!”
Some delegates believe that the correct response to 50 Shades of Grey is to KILL IT WITH FIRE.
China Miéville is NOT on Twitter. Seriously. Either that, or he’s very good at feigning surprise when he sees me at his public engagements.
Penny Schenk is an avid SFF reader. She lives on a narrowboat in Oxford with her partner and a small ferocious dog. Since leaving the US ten years ago, she has become a UK citizen and moved ever further left, now occupying the virtual Land's End of British politics. She has also been kettled. At the moment, she is working on a YA novel that would probably be finished by now if someone hadn't gone and invented Twitter. You will find her there as @galoot pretty much ALL THE TIME.