Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Eastern Thoughts

A few days back from Norwich and the richness of the week's experience, the new acquaintances made, the new voices heard: all of this are yet to be properly processed.

In some ways, because we were talking about "the creative writer" we were able to talk and think concurrently about the two obsessions of any writer, which are, I think, both the work, and its reception. We all know that poetry collections (and academic monographs) number their readers in the hundreds, but first (and later) novels as well might be no more "successful."

The chimera of a "writing career" is that the writing may lay unread, or under-read.

I recalled going to my old tutor's house and seeing the many editions of his books, with boxes of unsold copies piled up in the bedroom. Yet, I didn't think of this as being a sad thing at all, but a recognition of the writer as an artisan, a shopkeeper, a cottage industry.

There were more than a few writers in Norwich last week who had something of the travelling tinker about them, moving from town to town with their collection of magic potions (in this case, slim volumes) ready to be sold. Yet, writers are also bashful, and I wish I'd been less reticent in asking to see what books people had under their magic capes.

The Indian writers mentioned that Amazon won't deliver to India, and I wondered whether the Book Depository might? With Abebooks also now part of the Amazonian forest, the need for independent bookshops seemed more important than ever.

Yet, each country has different problems. If the Indian writer finds it hard to get books delivered, the American writer finds their country indifferent to exporting their culture. Perhaps American mainstream culture exports itself - but I was shocked in the years after 9/11 how little America seemed interested in promoting the more positive side of its country; of which culture is surely a large part. There is no American Institute in Manchester alongside the cultural outposts of Germany, France and Spain. That brief period when American Studies was the subject du jour at university, now seems long gone. American books - those beautifully produced, often austere editions - are not so easy to find here in the UK.

Norwich is vying to be England's first UNESCO city of literature, and I wish it well. Where else could take that role? London is too vast and doesn't need any other vain boasts, but literature's other centres aren't the industrial towns (though Manchester boasts de Quincey, Burgess, Gaskell, and even a visit from Borges to see de Quincey's house), but small towns with a writer or two of (great) note; Stratford, Haworth, Lichfield, Why not Norwich then For at least it takes literature as seriously as it deserves. In an era of frippery and short termism, the slow burn of the book's writing and reputation makes for much warmer nights.

Giles Foden, introducing the Norwich bid, spoke of the need for a literary magazine in the city, as something that was missing that should be there. Though there's "The Rialto" at Ely, the disappearance of Pretext and Reactions, once of the UEA, seems remiss. The literary magazine of note is rarely a long-lived animal. Icarus would make a good name for a literary magazine, as they should always fly too close to the sun.

In the gardens of Somerleyton Hall we meandered through the manicured maze. It seemed an appropriate metaphor for poetry. I think writers like puzzles, labyrinths, halls of mirrors and being lost in the wood. We have to keep a little mystery for ourselves, not just serve it all up for our readers.

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