Thursday night saw the beginning of the Birmingham LiteratureFestival, an event put on by Writing West Midlands, and it was kicked off by The Man Booker Prize Short List Event at the Studio Theatre which is part of the main library in Birmingham.
The event was sponsored by the creative writing department of Birmingham City University and as part of the introduction to the event we were treated to what is best described as a micro lecture on the history of the novel from Prof David Roberts who is the Dean of faculty. There were also free anthologies of writing published by the department available at the end of the event.
This was not just an event for academics and pseudo academics the BLF is intended for the whole community and there were all ages represented in the audience for this event.
The two of the short listed writers represented at the event, Sunjeev Sahota and Tom McCarthy. The award they are competing for, which has the winner announced next week, is for a prize which aimed to encourage leadership.
The chair for the evening was Dr Greg Leadbetter, one of the lecturers on the creative writing course. He moved between language styles which meant at times it felt as if one was constantly moving between a discussion in a seminar and another in a pub.
Tom McCarthy read from his book Satin Island. He explained that the narrator is a corporate anthropologist and it is written in the form of numbered paragraphs. The excerpt he read was about buffering which was a key theme of the book. Unfortunately it just got my brain thinking of the EE advert featuring Kevin Bacon which talked about the buffer face.
I found myself not adverse to the idea of reading this book which is essentially rooted in that space where philosophy, history, sociology and cultural studies meet. According to the author it is a novel of ideas and that has shaped its evolution. He wanted to move away from distance and romanticism and talked of the complex relationship between fiction and reality which is why he has placed an ethical problem at the centre of the novel.
As I listened I wondered on one level if he was taking the mickey out of academia. His style seemed similar to Douglas Coupland in some ways but without the wry smile being apparent. As the evening wore on things got clearer to me. This was a clever bloke who was clearly really academic and had examined a range of philosophical, historical and cultural texts and just knew stuff and spoke in the form which the academy generally demands. He did not seek to patronise the audience by suggesting they would not or could not understand what he was on about and was particularly interesting in answering in a toned down by not dumbed down way to the questions coming from school kids in the q&a.
Then we moved on to Sunjeev Sahota who is an Asian from Derbyshire and was slightly younger than both the chair and McCarthy. He was reading from and discussing his book The Year of the Runaways which is set in 2003 and contains the stories of four protagonists being interwoven.
During the discussion it was great when the chair in a very academic way said the book read “like a social expose” and asked “did the writer see it like that?”
Sahota replied “no” and went on to explain it had just sprung from his personal life. This guy who was a writer, writing about what he knew and working damn hard to refine his craft (at one point binning 60,000 words) was clearly not part of the academy. Yet, he was clearly not stupid and was well read. What I absolutely loved about this author was he is somebody who is a writer but he wasn’t up for a fake pseudo-intellectualism. As a result in some of his answers he was able to make the audience giggle and connect with us in a way in which I don’t think McCarthy could.
Both writers gained our respect and certainly from me an interest in their work. I warmed to Sahota because he was more ordinary, whilst clearly through his talent as a writer being extraordinary.
One really interesting quote about what his book was about was when he said he was telling in its story of immigrants and that is “what it is like to live in the gaps in the global system.”
The q&a at this type of even is fun because you really do have no idea what you are going to be asked. The questions varied between the mundane, the bizarre and the really clever. I did like the older Scottish lady who had read the McCarthy book and said it was thoroughly depressing. She asked if that was how he thought the world was going.
My personal favourite question which somebody asked was “What makes your book different to what’s out there already” which one could easily paraphrase to why should I read either of these? That one appeared to put the writers on the spot. McCarthy talked about his being a radical way to the roots and what he was trying to do was configure what was already there. In answer to this question which came from one of the youngsters who were there on a school trip he said “modernism is grave digging”.
Whilst I don’t think this event will probably be my favourite of the festival which continues until the 17th (and for which season passes are available to make it a little cheaper) I did enjoy it and would like to read the books.