An original provocation from Jon McGregor for the finale event of WCN’s National Conversation, Cambridge Literary Festival, 29th November 2015

All writing begins with a blank page, and with the fear of the blank page. The silence before we begin to speak. The silence into which we can say anything we like. Telling stories with words on a page – or words in the air, or words on a screen, or words whispered into ears – is a very flexible form. There are no budget constraints or logistical hurdles or collaborative compromises. The page really is blank. We can say anything we like. And it’s that ‘anything’ which often proves so terrifying – so intimidating – and which, instead of feeling like a wonderful opportunity, provokes a kind of paralysis of the imagination.

Often, not just as writers but as anyone involved in literary culture, we can forget what a privilege it is to start with these blank pages. It can be easier to retreat to the comfort zone of familiar templates, well-worn paths, the successful habits of successful people: If I write this story in numbered chapters then when I get to 70,000 words I’ll have written a novel. If I publish this manuscript which reminds me of a book that sold well last year, I can count on the support of the sales department. If this Cambridge graduate works as well as this for free all summer, it makes sense to give her the job without advertising it. If we broke even on these festival events last year, then let’s stick to the same format this time around.

We do things the way they’ve been done before, because they seem to work. To not want to err is human, after all.

But what if we look at these blank pages for a moment longer? What if there are other ways of doing things? What are we losing by not more fully considering our options? What are we missing out on? Who are we leaving out?

Let me look at one example in detail, one to which I’ve given a lot of thought precisely because it has often seemed so alien to me and yet seems so taken for granted: the public reading, or ‘author event’. Note, just for starters, how at a public event the writer becomes an ‘author’.

Picture the typical literary event: There will be a long, narrow room, with chairs set out in straight rows. The audience members will gather in attentive silence. The writer will stride confidently to the front of the room, be introduced by an event organiser, pour himself – and the default image is, still, of a him – pour himself a glass of water from a jug on a low table, and move across to the lectern to begin.

From this lectern, the writer will talk for a time about their latest novel: how the research was done, where the idea came from, how the idea was developed, what a personal struggle it was to wrestle this beast into being … they will give a lecture about themselves, essentially, often for many long minutes.

They will then read some pages from their novel, with much harrumphing and mumbling and fiddling with bifocals.

This reading may go on for some time.

The audience will politely pay attention.

The author will then be ushered over to a comfortable chair on the stage, and joined by one or two others on equally comfortable chairs, there to have a conversation with each other to which the audience is expected to listen.

The conversation will be about the writing of the novel, or the argument of the novel; the author will be given the opportunity to very gently defend or justify what they have written. The conversation will then be ‘opened up’ to the audience; meaning that the more confident members of the audience will call out questions to which the writer is expected to respond instinctively.

Afterwards, there will be glasses of wine set out at a table. Always wine, notice. Sometimes there will be smartly dressed young women handing out these glasses of wine. The author will make small talk with individual members of the audience, and then leave to eat M&S sandwiches in a hotel room or on a late train, spending the next forty-eight hours crippled by doubts and insecurities about what he said or how he answered the questions or whether he could be heard or why no-one bought copies of the book afterwards.

There are variations to this broad template, but not many. Sometimes the room will be a marquee; sometimes the chairs will be set out in slightly curved rows; sometimes the crippling self-doubt will only last for twenty-four hours.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this format; it is evidently an appealing format for some, and an entire industry of literary festivals is built around it. But why is it more or less the only format? What does that mean? Allow me to unpick the semiotics just a little. Let’s start with the lectern.

Why do so many writers give their readings from a lectern, as though standing in a lecture theatre, or a pulpit?

Why do so many writers give their readings from a lectern, as though standing in a lecture theatre, or a pulpit? Do we really expect our writers to be teachers and priests? And then there’s this business with the comfortable chairs and the staged conversation – the low table, the vase of flowers, the jugs of water; would it be fair to say that this staging is designed to mimic the Oxbridge student meeting with a tutor to defend an essay? And the audience members calling out questions; can we say these are the members of a debating society, or an academic committee?

I would argue that the entire format is based on a 19th century idea of the public intellectual: the lectern, the lecture, the silent audience, the spirited conversation, the debate; even the wine.

It’s a format which deliberately privileges those from a specific cultural and educational background – the privately educated, the Oxbridge educated, those who have grown up with dinner parties and salons and debating clubs, those who feel comfortable and confident holding forth, those who expect to be listened to.

This all makes sense, of course. It’s entirely fitting that the novel should be presented and discussed in settings such as these. Because the novel itself is a peculiar artefact, a product of a very particular socio-economic class. That the telling of stories was devolved to the object we call the novel is an historical anomaly born out of a particular set of technological and economic circumstances: printing technology, the availability of a specific size of leather binding, the educational shift from Latin to English, and the growth of a leisure class with the time to read long novels and the disposable income to collect them. And wasn’t that leisure class itself founded on the wealth drawn directly from the exploitation of the labouring classes, from the pillage of empire, from slavery? Shouldn’t we consider the novel itself to be a freakish indulgence, forever tainted by the stain of colonialism and slavery, as ugly in its way as the stately homes and gilded statues which shame our landscape?

Just a thought.

We’ve heard a lot, in previous contributions to the National Conversation, particularly from Kamila Shamsie and Kerry Hudson, about the lack of diversity in publishing, and about the stifling of voices which results. But this lack of diversity is more pervasive than even these previous contributions to the National Conversation have suggested. The problem is one of structure. The problem is one of form. The entire culture and apparatus of the published novel was developed by an economic elite with leisure time on its hands, and the descendants of that class work to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home, while others are accepted only as hyphenated anomalies: the working-class-writer, the black-writer, the gay-writer, the disabled-writer, the woman-writer.

Here’s my suggestion: if we want to open literature up to a much wider range of voices, and if we really want to hear the stories our fellow citizens have to share, we could start by entirely revising our idea of how we expect writers to behave; how we expect them to look; how we expect them to present their work to us when we ask them to perform. We could remind ourselves that we do have these blank pages from which to work.

We could start by getting rid of the lecterns.

We could start by asking some simple questions about what it is an audience might gain from experiencing a piece of writing in a live context, or from an encounter with a writer.

Why, for example, do we expect writers – those who have chosen to spend their working lives alone with the voices in their head, and who by definition are likely not to be comfortable in company and certainly not articulate at volume – to be convincing performers of their own work, or advocates for it? Is it a coincidence that we have such apparently low expectations for an author reading? Have you ever read a review of an author giving a reading? Why are we expected to find it charming or endearing when a writer can’t find their place in the book they’re reading from, or doesn’t know how to use a microphone, or reads for too long, or shuffles through their papers asking if they have time for just a little bit more? Isn’t it time we dropped this cult of cheerful amateurism, this embarrassment about being seen to make an effort? An embarrassment that comes, again, from the Victorian tradition of the Gentleman Amateur?

Why, having asked the writer to stage a performance of sorts, do we require them to lecture and debate on their own work immediately afterwards?

When was the last time you went to a gig which concluded with a Q&A? Can we not just knock it on the head with the Q&A? And whose idea, incidentally, was the open-mic?

Why does the audience have to sit still for an hour? Can we not have a break to go to the bar, to absorb what we’ve just heard, to talk to the friends we came with? Why does the audience need to look at the writer at all? Could the writer stand at the back of the room? Could we all sit in a circle, around a fire? Could we just go to the pub, or back to someone’s house?

Why don’t writers go on tours of book clubs, where there’s a ready-made and enthusiastic audience, where the chairs are more comfortable and the wine is better? It couldn’t be because book groups are mostly made up of women in a domestic setting could it? Why don’t more writers go on tours of libraries, or prisons, or schools?

And when giving a reading, why do writers insist on reading from a book at all, when it’s just one more barrier between them and the audience? Why not make the effort to prepare, all the better to connect with an audience?

Why do we want to hear writers reading their own work at all? Might it sometimes sound better when read by someone else? Why do we want to meet the writer in person at all? Might their work come across better on film, or in audio? On headphones? Between the pages of a book?

I’m not asking for the wheel to be reinvented every time a writer appears in public. Some events in the traditional format can be wonderful: captivating, surprising, engaging, revelatory. Some writers are comfortable reading at a lectern, and holding forth from a stage; some of those are even quite good at it.

But other writers are better at small talk, in small groups. Some writers benefit from preparation and rehearsal and can perform their work wonderfully, but not talk about it coherently afterwards. Some writers can work with musicians, or theatre-makers; some can work well alone; some prefer the intimacy of a bookshop; others, the privacy of a brightly-lit stage. Some writers can communicate wonderfully through social media, while an actor performs their work. Some events in the traditional format suit some of the writers, some of the time. But they exclude many writers – or, at least, squeeze them into uncomfortable positions in which they struggle to thrive – and they exclude great swathes of potential audiences.

This exclusion – this exclusivity – should be a matter of urgency for all of us who care about literature.

In her contribution to the National Conversation, Erica Wagner said: ‘Books may vanish, but literature will survive.’ She was talking about the forms of storytelling which long predate the printed book, and will outlive it. There are many ways of telling a story; there are many ways of presenting a book in a live setting; there are many different writers who have many different things to say in many different styles and many different settings.

It’s time to open the doors to these many different writers.

If we’re serious about diversity, and about wanting to hear the great stories that we’re currently missing out on, then it’s time to do things differently.

It’s time to stop asking our writers to conform to a Victorian idea of the public intellectual. Time to get rid of the lectern, to move the chairs around, to celebrate the art of the storyteller. Let’s take literature out of the lecture theatre, out of the drawing room, and away from the pulpit; let’s set it loose from the soiree and the salon. Let’s start with a blank page, and open the door to new audiences; and to the new writers who will come from those new audiences.


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