Worlds is the UK’s premier international literary Salon, hosted by Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN) in June each year. In a unique residential week, novelists, poets, memoirists, biographers, critics, teachers and translators from the UK and around the world gather for an extended conversation over four days about writing as an art, craft and profession in Norwich, England’s only UNESCO City of Literature.
The theme for this year was Reputation. The word can evoke uneasy feelings about literary rivalry and biased judgements. It also provokes questions about how literary reputations are made and unmade. Pascale Casanova has analysed the processes that confer literary reputation in her book, The World Republic of Letters: they are contingent on a writer becoming “recognised” by certain people (editors, agents, critics) in a certain place or places (Paris, New York, London) and in certain languages (English, Spanish, French). This finds a concentrated expression in the award of literary prizes and such awards, in turn, stimulate debates about why prizes are awarded wrongly. Taken together, these circumstances delineate awkward boundaries between literary authorship and celebrity culture, between who occupies prominent positions in a notional literary establishment and who doesn’t, between recognition in one culture and absence in another.
Vesna Goldsworthy’s passionate defence of Creative Writing as an academic discipline was written in answer to D. J. Taylor’s nostalgic encomium for the vanished pre-War heyday of the independent literary freelancer. Alluding to Cyril Connolly, Taylor asserted that “the contemporary writer is fated to discover that most of the conditions that attend his or her professional life – from the modes of modern publishing to the vengeful ghosts of the technological machine – are enemies of promise.” The time-consuming “snares [that] lie in wait for the young writer of today” are no longer “creeping domesticity, marital obligation, interest-free mortgages, all the urgent summonses of hearth and home encapsulated by [Connolly’s] immortal phrase ‘the pram in the hall’,” Taylor argues, but rather teaching on MA Creative Writing programmes: “a further step towards the institutionalisation of literature, which, I would suggest, is the last thing that literature needs if it is going to appeal to the wider community of readers on whom the survival of that literature beyond the status of rarefied academic pastime depends.” Vesna, the incoming director of Malcolm Bradbury’s old department at UEA, disagrees.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett looked back to the birth of literary Modernism (and modernity) out of fin-de-siècle Decadence, revisiting her hit 2013 biography of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike, and exploring the unsettling rise of her subject to artistic, sexual and political notoriety. D’Annunzio seized control of the means of mass production, the print newspaper, the popular stage, and the motor-car, with gusto, assiduously promoting his own reputation as a literary star in the making and as a prophet in the wilderness. What moral pitfalls await, the paper prompts, when the gospel to be disseminated with such flair is one of fascism, war-mongering and hatred?
Sigitas Parulskis (one of Lithuania’s most eminent authors, though one who has yet to find an English publisher) brought us up-to-date with a courageous reckoning of his country’s troubled history of anti-Semitism and cultural amnesia. Accompanied by a powerful reading from his new novel, Darkness & Partners, he sardonically interrogated who writes, and what is permitted to be inscribed in, the national narratives of contemporary statehood. Alongside other authors from around the globe, including internationally bestselling novelists such as Amit Chaudhuri, Anna Funder, Elif Shafak and Kirsty Gunn, and exciting newer writers like Kyoko Yoshida, Liz Berry, D. W. Wilson and Susan Barker, we explored these and other changing imbalances of power in the World Republic of Letters.
Listen to the full range of Worlds 2015 podcasts here.
Worlds 2015 was curated by Jon Cook, Chris Gribble and Jonathan Morley.