Friday, 18 October 2013

You know how it is... there are no literary festivals, then three come at once. This week I've glutted myself on fantastic literature events.

First off, on Thursday, my bestie and I went to see Will Self reading from his latest novel Umbrella. It was a bloomsbury Festival lecture hosted by UCL, with Dr Nick Shepley, discussing The Madness of the Modern City.

The evening really began when a man on the front row with a camera started taking flash photographs of Will Self. Self asked him to stop. When the man unblushingly bantered back, Self told him to shove the camera up his arse. There were a few sychophantic cheers towards the back of the audience and anxious shuffling through bags and pockets to do the just-in-case OCD check that phones, pagers, any other sources of irritation, really were off. Subsequently, when the photographer continued to take shots while Self read, albeit without the flash on, every time he lifted his camera our whole row, seated just a couple of spaces back, shrank in their seats wincing. I am so averse to confrontation that I wished Self had clarified whether he just didn't like the flash (it was quite distracting) or any photographs at all. It took me a while to let go of this and just enjoy Will Self reading from Umbrella.

But Self reads brilliantly. There is a delight in listening, akin to being a child, hearing a really great story told in all the voices. The novel's stream of consciousness narrative, about the treatment of Audrey De'Ath who has encephalitis lethargica, is fast and intricately written. You feel you need to hold on tight, like the story is a balloon that could spiral away from you if you don't stay focussed.

Self talked later about his interest in writing fiction that demanded more from the reader. He spoke about the intertextuality of the work. About how readers through history have approached literary texts. He talked about correlation between city and mind, about how mental illness is written, prescribed and understood, about the fads and fashions that accompany mental health treatment and dialogue. There was time for questions.

Later, over cocktails, my friend and I discussed the questions we'd wanted to ask Will Self, but didn't, in the aftermath of camera-gate, for fear of being made to look like a tit. Plus, the highly intellectualised evening had given us both a desire to leap lemming-like into the realms of silly. A bit like when you feel a convulsive urge to point out a comedy moment during a cremation, or to burp the alphabet in a meeting with your accountant. Our questions included: 'What is your favourite animal and why?' 'Cake or death?' and 'What would you cook if you were on Come Dine With Me?

But the question I genuinely wanted to ask was about Self's writing process - something I'm always interested to hear about from writers I admire. It was touched on tantalisingly briefly a couple of times and in reference to Elizabeth Day's interview with Self in The Guardian last year, about Self using Post-It notes to map story and research.

There was a dumb pause when Self stated that the literary novel is toast; a dying beast, due to the impulsive short attention spans of generation-COD and the banal narratives propagated via online and digital. (Self explained he wasn't passing judgement on this societal shift, just that he was observing it.)  I found Self's declaration of lit-novel-as-toast a bit trite, (although I don't necessarily disagree) because I think he was saying it to effect reaction from the audience, and I find this desire to shock somewhat feeble. A bit like the vicar who stands at the front of church and declares, anticipating the gasp of surprise, that church is often boring and outdated. But it sparked an interesting conversation later (over more cocktails, natch) about the importance of tat - the kind of inane formulaic and short gratification narrative that Self indicated was the death of the literary novel. Does it perhaps have a role to play as a foil to the cerebral and literary? In the course of a day, when an individual has been working on a task at a particularly intense cerebral level, switching gear from that for a while feels healthy; there is something satisfying about watching or reading or interacting with an undemanding narrative. For my friend, currently undertaking a Phd, spending hours over intense chemistry lab work and processing the sort of statistics that would make Carol Vorderman weep, Eastenders works pretty well as a hit of narrative pleasure and cerebral breathing space. For me, after stints chewing over my own writing, struggling to create something worthwhile, honest, trying to capture in words difficult emotions that are probably best avoided, lunch is down time. Before returning to my writing in the afternoon, lunch is Neighbours time. Every day. Without fail. God help anyone who rings or calls round at 1.45pm. And I know the soap is utter guff, but for me at that point, it is breathing space. If it were my only source of narrative fulfilment, I'd be deeply unhappy. I need the persistent nourishment of quality, challenging narrative. But for that moment, for that space, it is soul food. So, perhaps my never-asked question to Will Self should be, just like a Masterchef sometimes craves the simplicity of beans on toast, is there a beans on toast narrative that Will Self would choose, and if so, under what circumstances?

I got my copy of Umbrella signed after the event and started reading it on the train back up north. I'm enjoying it very much. I recommend seeking out Self at a reading or event, he's engaging and dynamic and it was an enjoyable event. Just be sure to leave your camera at home.

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