2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference kicks off with trenchant debate on the politics of literature

50 years after Edinburgh hosted a legendary conference, credited as the world’s first literature festival, the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference got underway today with the first event asking ‘Should Literature be Political?’ chaired by Turkish author Elif Shafak. Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif delivered the keynote speech arguing that “The question becomes critical in times of crisis.” She went on to suggest that “In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up - for the moment - on fiction.”

Soueif argued that at present, in the wake of the Arab Spring, writing novels, at least in Egypt, has become redundant. However, she expressed hope that “Fiction will come again”. She continued “And maybe I’ll tell the story of Boulac sands, not one kilometer from my home, where the police killed Amre el-Bunni last week and a community is being terrorized out of its homes to make way for a luxury development, or maybe I’ll tell the story of Samira Ibrahim who put a stop to the Military’s virginity tests, or Ahmad Harara whom they shot in one eye on 28 January and in the other in December, or Khaled Said’s mother who’s adopted all the young revolutionaries in lieu of her murdered son.”

The Edinburgh events of this worldwide conference, which is an ambitious programming partnership between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council, involve 50 delegates from 25 different countries discussing and debating the role of fiction in society with a public audience.  Today’s discussion, which was streamed live around the world and was accessible to 43,000 people on twitter, was attended by writers from 25 countries around the world including China Miéville, Xi Chuan, John Burnside, Ben Okri, Melvin Burgess and Kamilla Shamsie.

Following the keynote speech the discussion was opened up to the floor. Ewan Morrison argued that these days there are seldom political consequences achieved by writing, asking “Has the superabundance of books on Wall Street affected the financial system?”. Denise Mina claimed that the production and consumption of literature is necessarily predicated by your surroundings:  “Crime fiction is a privilege. If you are in a refugee camp you don’t want mysteries to be solved. The mystery is ‘why am I here?” John Burnside claimed that rather than questioning whether literature should be political, the real issue is “Should literature be dissident?”, stating that the author has a duty to rally against the status quo.

Earlier in the day John Calder and Jim Haynes, organisers of the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference discussed the organisation and impact of the original event. They reminisced about its tempestuous gestation, which memorably included Sonia Orwell striking John Calder with a wine bottle at a planning meeting; French writers refusing to participate because August is traditionally a month spent on the beach; and protests from Edinburgh citizens who argued they needed ‘drains not culture’. They claimed the conference had far-reaching implications, not only launching the career of William Burroughs but also affecting a seismic shift in attitudes towards censorship and sexuality in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference continues tomorrow (Saturday 18 August) when Ali Smith will lead a discussion about ‘Style vs Content’ chaired by Nathan Englander.

Edinburgh World Writers Conference Sessions at the Edinburgh International Book Festival run from 3.00pm to 5.00pm daily until Tuesday 21 August.  Tickets, priced at £10 (£8 concessions) are available from www.edbookfest.co.uk or through the Box Office on 0845 373 5888.  Each session will also be broadcast live on-line on www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org.

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