Ali Smith; Style vs Content – Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012

If you’ve read my Gay Girl’s Guide To The Edinburgh Book Festival, you’ll know that Ali Smith is undoubtedly my favourite author; her books are engrossing and intense (as one particupant said, she truly is a ‘writer’s writer’) and yet funny, touching, whole. Having heard Smith’s speech on the topic at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, entitled Style Vs Content, I can only say I am more admiring of my favourite of authors.

I must firstly say that my recap of this event will only ever be a pale imitation of that of author Kapka Kassabova, who was tasked with making notes for the World Writers’ Conference during the event. Her recap of Ali Smith’s speech, and the following discussion, can be found here – I find it an intelligent and complete overview of the 2 hour event.

So, what did I make of this (quite academic) discussion? Well firstly, the whole event was peppered with a level of humour which caught me off guard at odd moments. From Smith taking the piss out of the number of points in her speech through to Carlos Gamerro stating that James Joyce was probably the only person to be able to actually read his novel, Finnegans Wake.

I genuinely can’t adequately summerise Ali Smith’s speech which kicked off proceedings. As Kapka Kassabova stated, Smith delivered “a love letter to literature”; tying together style and content, concluding that style is what happens when voice and form come together, becoming more than either would be alone, that style is story and story is content, making all things tied together in a way that makes it difficult to unthread them from one another. She was funny and eloquent and she sewed her ideas together in ways which made sure they made perfect sense; a wholly impressive enterprise. I really urge you to watch the event here, if only to hear Smith’s speech.

Once Ali Smith had concluded her speech, the floor was opened to the other writers at the conference as well as the audience. There were strong opinions flying around in this discussion forum, particularly from the ‘established authors’; those who struggle to balance creating stylistic, creative content with being commercially successful and therefore bringing in the cash. At times, this event felt like an authors’ therapy session; established writers’ trying to balance their integrity with their need to be commercially successful; for  people to like them, to like their work. It was incredibly insightful for someone who works a 9 – 5 with a guaranteed wage each month, to see people who work in a creative industry struggle with their desire to be creative. It’s easy for me, in my situation, to agree with Ali Smith when she says that ‘writers’ don’t write for the money’, and with Ahdaf Soueif who said that writers’ don’t choose their stories – but I don’t rely on my stories to pay my bills; I am a mere reader, not a writer.

This is a rather intense a scholarly post about an event which was in equal parts insightful and intelligent and worrying and intimidating; does it represent the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference? No. I couldn’t make a post anywhere near as bright or witty as the event was. Being in the same room as some of my favourite authors (including Jackie Kay, who at one point stood up and introduced herself as an Afro-Scottish lesbian from Glasgow) was daunting, and amazing and perhaps one of my highlights of the festival so far.

(After the event, I managed to choke out enough words to ask Ali Smith to sign my copy of her last book, There But For The. I genuinely cannot describe how shy I become, standing in front of people whose creativity and intelligence silence me. However, Ali was so friendly that I actually even managed to spell my own name out for her… A feat I don’t think I’ve ever found that difficult since I was about 5 years old!)


1 Comment

  1. A great post, Carley! I can identify with a lot of what you said. When I went to the last day of the conference it was great to be in the same room with so many wonderful, talented writers (Jackie Kay is one of my all time favourites too). China Mieville made a really thought provoking speech and it did spark some spirited comments but overall the debate seemed to peter out. What can I say? As a writer I felt a little let down, I wanted to be inspired and I wasn’t but maybe my expectations were too high? Thanks again for the post!

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