Lit Chic: Misogyny, micro-blogging and matrimonial double acts

Originally published on Fest magazine’s website:

My inability to read a Sunday bus timetable meant that I arrived at Charlotte Square today having run the length of George Street, but the opening event  – Zoe Strachan and Ned Beauman – was enjoyable enough to make up for this trauma: no mean feat. After a discussion covering Nazi memorabilia, the moral intelligibility of characters (versus their straightforward likeability, naturally) and casual misogyny, I can safely say that both books – Beauman’s Boxer Beetle and Strachan’s Ever Fallen in Love– have made it onto my rapidly-expanding wishlist.

The big event of the morning was the wonderfully ebullient Ali Smith, who read from her latest novel There But For The and told a rapt and adoring audience: “books are what produce books. All the books we’ve ever read become the books we write.” A strong argument for reading good books, certainly – she added that “we have to trust what we take in, which makes it very important what we choose to read.” Smith may have claimed not to care about what people think of her work (“if I cared I wouldn’t do it”) but if the crowd here was anything to go by she’d be just fine: the amount of applause left her squirming with embarrassment.

Lunchtime saw Edinburgh’s literary crowd enjoying the sunshine once again, with those Guardian-branded deck chairs in serious demand. As Caitlin Moran fever mounted – possibly more so on Twitter than in Charlotte Square itself, with supposed sightings and claims that 10,000 people tried to buy tickets – I became increasingly irritated with the number of people boasting that they were going to be ‘live tweeting’ from her event. It perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my complaint (on Twitter, of course) about this wasn’t well-received. Most responses were along the lines of “organisers don’t mind, and some authors encourage it”, which I suppose is fine, but, being very much of the “absorb it properly now; tell us later” mentality, I find it hard to understand why people would go to an event and then spend it tapping away at their phones.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when Maggie O’Farrell told the audience in the Teenagers in Trouble event a few hours later to only tweet after the house lights had gone up at the end. I suspect this is more coincidence than any great influence on my behalf, but nonetheless, a worthy ally.

The event itself was fairly self-explanatory. Novelists Kathleen Winter and Megan Abbott both deal with the troubles of growing up in their work: Winter explores issues of gender with a hermaphrodite protagonist, and Abbott’s 13-year old heroine attempts to unravel the mystery of her missing best friend. Under the empathetic eye of O’Farrell, they chatted about being “the quiet girl at the back” and those “tiny little moments that change everything”. They each admitted to having been eager to finish their respective books, with Winter ending the event by saying that “there’s always something else beckoning to be written.”

Across the square, the second Amnesty International event drew a smaller and less overtly emotional crowd than yesterday, but the works read aloud – today by Charlie Fletcher, Hari Kunzru, Lin Anderson and Francesca Simon – were no less intense; harrowing and hopeful in equal measure.

Despite some big names on the bill today, it was an unannounced guest who caused the heftiest furore. Sarah Brown’s talk was always going to draw a huge crowd in its own right, but ten minutes in she invited her husband Gordon onstage to join her, saying “we can’t pre-advertise this sort of thing, because of the security risks, but we’ve always wanted to do something like this together”. A surprisingly charming duo, they rattled through anecdotes, from the silly – their son thinking Gordon had become leader of the “lady party” – to the erudite, with Robert Frost and Alfred Tennyson among those referenced. More to come on this later.

Tired, and vowing to spend more of the next 24 hours sleeping than watching Festival events – a modest aim – I ended my day with the soul-soothing Poems From Small Islands. This was a real joy: the translated poems were read in English and whichever language they had initially been written in – Turkish, Catalan and Maltese. Linguistically challenging, perhaps, but the lyricism in the works was accessible and appealing, providing a lovely end to another wonderful day.


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