BWS Day 6: Food For Thought at the Mitchell
After a week of travel around some of Book Week Scotland's top spots and events, I returned home to Glasgow to take in the Pop Up Festival at the Mitchell Library – a Saturday jam packed with events.
Since the week was almost over, I binged on literary treats at Battle for the Book, My Favourite Place with Liz Lochhead and Aidan Moffat, and Literary Death Match.
The Battle for the Book debate set the motion, "The book has a bright future: but only if it forgets its past". While it is not traditional for a motion to hold a stipulation, this was a discussion about casting off tradition and the search for new publishing and business models. The event was expertly chaired by Sheena McDonald, with a varied panel of Neil Best, Head of Business Development at Waterstones; Glasgow Life Head of Libraries and Cultural Venues Karen Cunningham; Saraband publishing owner Sara Hunt; and writers and commentators Ewan Morrison and Pat Kane.
Karen Cunningham argued for a future of libraries that democratise access, but suggested that they needn't necessarily continue to be buildings that house books. She also stated that ebooks are not an answer: they are an addition, never a replacement. Neil Best said that the digital move has brought booksellers and publishers closer together, commending publishers for expanded ebooks with added value as well as focussing more on beautiful books: objects that ask to be owned. He reminded us that the internet has not brought about the paperless office, as feared, but it has encouraged a culture in which we read and write more. The role of the bookshop in this, he said, is quality control, taste-making and a place for readers to browse and discover.
Sara Hunt changed gears, giving a short history of the past 10 years in publishing: a rot begun with superstores, mergers and celebrity books (or "the big prizes") – but she says there is hope. Twenty-five percent of the Man Booker long-list came from indie and niche publishers, and Glasgow's publishing scene has grown considerably in recent years. She said that in the future we must address problems of authors being paid, hold more live events to connect and excite readers and favour good writing and storytelling over devices and formats.
Ewan Morrison shifted the discussion from books to authors. Where do authors fit in the Long Tail of capitalism? He spoke of the squeezed Midlist authors who have lost 80% of their advance price and support from publishers. He argues that not all authors can get rich (and certainly not quickly), and that we must defend our cultural industries with price production on books and greater respect and support for authors.
Pat Kane took a slightly different approach. He thinks that the book will survive as it gives structure – a beginning, middle, and end – amidst the endless stream of digital text we experience in daily life. Learning from the music and newspaper industries, he argues, publishers must use what is ubiquitous to drive people to what is scarce. He picked up on what I would argue is a pro of the Long Tail model: a culture that encourages and allows writers and creatures to connect with their audience, to talk about their craft as well as creating it. We are losing objects but keeping cultural material that enriches our lives – though we no longer own physical CDs, we keep the music and the album structure.
Throughout the discussion, it was clear that these changes are forces interesting cultural thinking, and that all five panellists agree that there is innovation afoot. Much was made about the move towards beautiful books that are worth owning, but sparked concerns about accessibility in a world that values material objects only under special (and more expensive) circumstances. The overall feeling was that we must value the book, and its authors, in order to give the book a future that has cultural significance and that makes good writing something worth paying for.
The next event was My Favourite Place with Liz Lochhead and Aidan Moffat. Each spoke about their experience writing about their favourite places, and some of the My Favourite Place book contributors read. Glenn Merrilees was back with another smashing rendition of Arrochar; Aileen Jardine glided and gesticulated through G is for Glasgow, and Alison Clark gave a rousing performance of The Clyde at Rothesay Bay. The Scots Makar provided some excellent writing tips, distilled on this page. Though she declined to read her contribution to the book, it was a delight to hear her read from a new poem titled The Optimistic Sound, about her late friend and playwright, Michael Marra. Aidan Moffat rounded off the event with Wall Song, his piece about the wall in Falkirk that he calls his favourite place.
After that the evening got rather rambunctious with Literary Death Match, hosted by its creator, the exuberant (and not at all bug-eyed) Aidan Zuniga. The theme was Scotland versus England – and since Scotland had beaten its neighbours to the south 4-2 in the day's football match, the competition was getting hot. The judging panel of Kirsty Logan, Andrea Gibb and Julia Sutherland took to the stage to award points on literary merit, performance and intangibles (respectively). Meanwhile Scots Kevin Williamson and Christopher Brookmyre went head-to-head in the deciding first round to see who would take on the English.
Kevin Williamson went for a hilarious dialogue poem about his brush with a TV License employee, while Brookmyre lowered the tone considerably with his scene in which police investigate a – shall we say – excrement-filled crime scene. As poetic as they were dirty, it was a hair's breadth between them, but the judges called Williamson winner. Round two saw the English matchup: Graham Joyce's apt, earlier experience of playing goalie in a Scotland versus England football game, in which he showed off his atrocious Scottish accent. He was beaten out by Joe Dunthorne, with his hilarious and slow-burning story of identical twins in a Dumfries and Galloway pole vaulting contest.
The overall winner is decided not by literary merit but through a series of small contests. Joe won the book shot-put while Kevin reinstated Christopher as a ringer to receive an excellent score for synchronised listening. The deciding round saw a poster of Irvine Welsh become the subject of a lipstick-adorned bow and arrow shooting event. It was close, but in a delightful twist of events, Joe Dunthorne emerged triumphant, dedicating his award to his true home country: Wales.
With a late-night finish, it was a delightful day at the Mitchell Library with Book Week Scotland. There is one more to go – so stick around for my final day and closing thoughts in the next blog.