Monday, 17 September 2012

The Non-Future of the Novel

A month or so ago I wrote about China Miéville's exciting visions for the future of the novel and mentioned the upcoming continuation of the discussion in Berlin. You may remember I expressed some scepticism as to whether the German writer Georg Klein was really the right person to continue the job in his keynote speech.

Well, I attended the public event on Saturday evening, where Georg Klein gave this speech. If you read German you might notice that it's beautifully written but less about the future of the novel and more about how the novel relates to time in general, the past, the present and the future. You might also assume that Klein either hadn't bothered to read Miéville's thoughts on the matter or found them so wildly imaginative and upsetting that he preferred to ignore them.

So there was Klein giving an accomplished waffle about how old science fiction doesn't really reflect modern-day life and how people should find more time to read and write novels. And he was joined by my old favourite Tim Parks, who told us (again) that "I think we all agree" that writers now thought they were addressing an international audience and adjusted their output accordingly. On that subject, I held a one-sided argument in my head with him here. And then there was Sophie Cooke, who said in a not very convinced tone that "what we need" (as readers) is novels that address the big issues of today, the multis and the news. Which both men disagreed with but failed to say quite why, leaving it at passive-aggressive stabs in Cooke's direction. The word "dangerous" was bandied about quite a lot and Klein said that no writer knows who their readers are. Upon which someone I ended up eating pizza with afterwards commented that all he needed to do was open a twitter account and he'd soon find out.

It all left me feeling rather angry, frankly. I know that on a global scale of things, the future of the novel is not hugely important. But the British Council has thrown a fair amount of money at the whole thing, inviting various writers to an exclusive discussion session yesterday morning. You could have watched it via livestream but you were probably asleep like I was. I'm told no significant progress was made. And the whole event was billed as a continuation of the discussion in Edinburgh, which was itself billed as part of a present-day re-staging of the 1962 International Writers' Conference there. Yet while there was some continuity of participants in the closed discussion, what the public got to see in Berlin was simply a non-conversation in a vacuum, with no reference to what had gone before or to the recent German debates on intellectual property and so on. There was no utopian thinking, no reference to the opportunities and risks presented by new and future technologies – and no chance for the audience to ask questions, incidentally.

Which leads me back to my original supposition. While a very skilled writer, Georg Klein was a bizarre choice of keynote speaker on the subject of the future of the novel – especially in a place like Germany where there are plenty of writers doing much more experimental stuff and thinkers coming up with out-of-the-box ideas about authorship and literature. A wasted opportunity - go to Litflow instead.

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