Fifty shades of opinion: ‘Whip Lit’, Ulysses and the future of the novel dominate second day of Writers Conference

Keynote speaker Ali Smith opened the second debate of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference with an exhortation to the audience and delegates to ‘Fight! fight! fight!’ and a fierce debate ensued about the place of fiction in the modern world and the impact that bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey have on the writers’ profession.

Smith gave a passionate and well-received meditation on the ‘Style versus Content’, defending Ulysses ‘in the style corner’ against recent criticism by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho; opining that ‘Joyce would’ve made a really good tweeter’; and concluding that ‘all of us (all seven billion of us here now in the world, not forgetting all the people in the future, and the past) with all our individualities, all our struggles, all our means of expression, will find ourselves, one way and another, when it comes to the novel, content.’

Portuguese author Jose Rodrigues dos Santosthen defended Coelho, who in an interview earlier this month claimed that ‘Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit’,arguing that in Portuguese translation the seminal work had perhaps lost some of its resonance.The debate continued with a discussion about what writing means in different countries with German author Matthias Politycki stating that ‘In Germany, if you are unreadable everyone thinks you are a genius.’ The debate hinged on the impact that EL James’ work is having on its readers with poet Nick Laird arguing that ‘EL James is fucking dangerous’ whilst author Patrick Ness pointed out that ‘She has the ear of more people than everyone in this room put together.’ Alan Bissett argued that it is the content not the style of the bestseller that makes it ‘dangerous.’

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. It takes place 50 years after Edinburgh hosted a legendary conference, credited as the world’s first literature festival, and evoking the spirit of GK Van Het Reve’s defence of homosexuality, Scottish novelist Jackie Kay got a warm round of applause when she stood up and said ‘I am a lesbian.’

Members of the public sitting in the audience expressed a hope that great literature would continue to emerge across all genres.  The Writers’ Conference trended on Twitter for the second day running, and the live streaming of the event was viewed in over 43 countries around the world.

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 or through the Box Office on 0845 373 5888. Each session will also be broadcast live on-line on

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