The second instalment of the National Conversation had a key similarity to the first part that took place at Edinburgh International Book Festival with Michael Rosen at the end of August: we were under canvas. In Cheltenham, however, the rain beat down on us, providing an ominous drum roll as Will Self took to the stage to talk to us about reading, writing and losing our minds.
You can read Will’s elegant provocation in the Guardian or on our website, where you’ll also find Dan Franklin’s opening response. So what happened on the day? For the full podcast scroll to the bottom of the page, and find out. Here are my highlights.
Will was pretty clear that careful reading is on the wane and the difficult novel is doomed as readers lose the capacity to lose themselves in the maelstrom of language on the page. Dan Franklin shot right back, claiming that he didn’t buy into this scenario. Things are changing: the new generation of readers value access over ownership; we should be thinking of ways to engage them meaningfully beyond the confines of the printed book. Maureen Freely highlighted the passion and commitment felt by young people and noted that not only did ‘digital reading’ enable permeability between the text and the online world, but that it also enabled freedom of movement for literature across geographical and linguistic borders.
We debated quality, excellence, elitism and how the author might start to take control of the changes around us instead of passively reacting to them. There was nothing passive about the audience. In the tent, online, before, during and after, the audience made its voice heard and changed our event from an experience into a real conversation. Writers are also readers, and readers are rewriting the narrative of how stories are being read. From the individual reading to her children, to the translator making available stories from places and people we might never have heard of, we are all part of a community with an interest in what is happening to readers, writers and the collective mind.
It was an exhilarating occasion and the perfect preparation for our next National Conversation instalment, when Ali Smith will start a debate on the value of translation and the dangers of ignoring its strengths for whatever we choose to call ‘British literature’.