Edinburgh Writers’ Conference

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nice to see John Calder’s Edinburgh Writers’ Conference getting some publicity. Alongside a nice Today Programme bit, it’s good to see the Guardian on board with it.

And China Miéville’s keynote has been the best thing yet: a state-of-the-(literary)nation address seen askew, a quiet and non-grandstanding, non-totalising intervention into many of the big literary debates of the day. And with such clear sight and sensitivity to the real things – like the idea of writers earning a living.

I loved his particularly acute choices of the “wind-blown straws” of people sitting up and noticing Christine Brooke-Rose and Ann Quin. Quin, especially, seemed the most apposite choice, and a perfect symbol of where Miéville was and what he was arguing. Quin is, in one way, a great lost chance for British experimental fiction, straddling interestingly a line between French (Sarraute, Beckett) and American (Burroughs, her friend Robert Creeley) influences, with a strong sense of place (her Brighton, her Greece come to mind), of sex, of people pulled down by their own interiorities. She was a writer with great possibility. The trajectory of her career was not certain, and the writing she left is full of verve and variety. I’ve just come back from looking at the Calder & Boyars  archive at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana (a real gem), and was touched by the support Calder (who of course is behind the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference) and Marion Boyars gave to Quin, not only in promoting her work with a real belief and commitment, but also by supporting her financially and professionally, advancing her royalties, applying for grants and fellowships for her. The correspondence the Lilly has is deeply touching, especially considering Ann Quin’s early death, and what struck me the most was the weight that she felt pushing down on her from the burden of her constant financial need. She wasn’t from a wealthy family, she wasn’t university educated, and wasn’t a networker in the literary mainstream of the day. Seeing her turned down for an Arts Council grant in the final year of life was crushing.

Quin can symbolise so much, then, beyond her vital status as a kind of lost 1960s modernist: she was a voyager of the kind we (in the wake of psychogeography) appreciate more and more now; she was a working-class writer outside of the confines of social realism; she was a female writer offering an entirely different vision to the dominating broad-sweep vision of the majority of British female writers of her time (I’ll always offer Muriel Spark and Christine Brooke-Rose as an exception though); she was an experimentalist too, in life and literature, through-and-through. So Miéville chose well, and I hope a few more people reading his speech find their way to Quin (heroically kept in print of course by the godlike Dalkey Archive Press).

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