Thursday, 14 April 2011

Oxford Literary Festival Part 1: Trying on Voices

It's been a mad week (it's a mad time of year) so I'm later than I'd intended in reporting on Oxford's Literary Festival, which ran last week. Before writing this post, I took a look at my earliest report on the festival, back in 2007, the year I set up this blog. The post was called Public Showman, private shaman? Be true to the kind of writer you are. Here's an excerpt from it:
Writers, once elusive, mysterious creatures who retreated from the world to think deep thoughts and emerge with sybilline wisdom every now and again - writers are now unashamed showmen, practising all sorts of huckster-techniques, giving us the well-honed schmooze, the well-turned anecdote (and I've been to enough of these things to have heard the same worn anecdote or witticism trotted out just that once too often). And yes, I know there were always writers-as-performers (Dickens springs to mind immediately) - but the point is that nowadays, published writers are automatically expected to be performing seals too, whether it's congenial to their nature or not; it's part of the pact with the publishing devil, it's part of what a publishing house considers before they take you on: are you marketable?

Well, been nothing's changed, even though over the long-term the festival has transformed itself a great  deal since it began in 1997 at the Oxford Union. Back then it involved only a few events held over a weekend. This year's festival involved around 550 speakers at over 300 events, over the course of eight days. Now, that's big.

Every year there are the famous names, the big draws - this year these included Melvyn Bragg, Princess Anne, David Lodge, Philip Pullman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colin Dexter, Joanne Harris, Michael Holroyd. There are the  literary big-hitters, the genre masters, the historians, the politicians and polemicists, the poets, the scientists,  the celebrities (Stephanie Powers, anyone?), the cooks, the rising stars, the as-yet little-knowns, the locals. It's an almighty melange of literary competitiveness, genuine mission to communicate, strident commerciality, literary envy and dollops of preening self-satisfaction.

Every year I check the website early on, because the printed programme comes out very late indeed and is the size of a brick. I list every event I want to visit and then start to whittle it down to what I can visit, partly because there are other claims on my time at this time of year, teaching-wise, and partly because of the expense. I'm sorry, I understand that setting up and running a show like this must cost a fortune, but most events now cost £10 a pop - and that pretty soon mounts up to a scary amount (not factoring in the books you buy to get signed in the book marquee afterwards ...) So, I have to restrain myself. I hear the same complaint from others and wish the organisers would take that on board - I really would go to more events if the cost was slightly less.

Oxford is seen as a prosperous city and the festival certainly draws the North Oxford ladies and gents out, and the plum Home Counties accents reverberate in hall and tent. Quite a few of the 'introducers' were of a very Home Counties vintage and one or two were so fond of their own voices their introductions ran the risk of lasting longer than the talk they were introducing!

Magnolia by St Mary the Virgin University Church
Before I discuss the events I attended, one thing was particularly striking for me this year. Oxford. Now, I've lived in this city for the best part of thirty years and I absolutely love it, but every so often I'm jolted into a new appreciation of it - the festival, because we were blessed with wonderful weather, gave me the chance to stroll around, look, and absorb all over again how special a location this is. I played tourist, taking loads of photos, as you can see from this blog-post. It felt like one of those renewal-of-wedding-vows ceremonies. I don't see myself ever being able to divorce myself from this city (though the cottage with a sea-view in Cornwall is still a dream!) - whether Oxford, in all its glory, has any time for me, is quite another thing. Oxford is patrician and lofty, completely and supremely pleased with itself. It always has been and always will be.

Corpus Christi College
Christ Church Tom Tower
The festival is centred at Christ Church, the most patrician college of them all. Other events were held at Corpus Christi, in a modern lecture hall, where one wall is the ancient city wall; at Merton, at the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bodleian Library. So even if the speaker is as dull as ditch-water you've got lots to look at.

The first event I attended was a panel discussion involving Philip Pullman, Kate Clanchy (whose book Antigona and Me impressed me so much last year) and poet Patience Agbabi. All are Creative Writing Fellows at Oxford Brookes University and their subject, 'Voice', was of interest to me because I taught a course on this and narrative perspective at Winchester Writers' Conference last year and will be running another as part of my own fictionfire programme on 21st May (course details on the fictionfire website). 

It hardly needs to be said that all three were wise and clever speakers with an edge of humour but a deep understanding of their craft. They drew our attention to the main differentiation when we come to speak of voice: you have the 'voice' of your character or narrator within the text you are creating and you have your own voice as a writer. Patience Agbabi talked of 'trying on a range of voices' - and well she may, for she is engaged in a new version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. She has also written sonnets in the form of an agony aunt's replies to writers from history, which sounds really interesting. Philip Pullman pointed out that in some narratives, the narrator purports to be quite a detached third person 'voice' but that voice is as much of a constructed character as any of the others within the book.He said his voice is different when he's writing his fairy tales versus the fiction destined for slightly older readers. He claimed that he doesn't think about readers at all when he's writing: 'It's none of their damn business!' - and that he hears the appropriate voice in his 'mind's ear'. Literature, he said, 'belongs in the mouth and the ear as much as it does in the eye.' Kate Clanchy said we opt to choose a particular camera distance: with some works you feel you're right on the character's shoulder whereas in others it's appropriate to be a long way off. Patience said of her characters 'I don't think of them sounding like me. I think of them sounding like themselves.'

Then there is the other kind of 'voice' isn't there: writers are always advised to find their 'own voice' (as if they'd left it under a cushion somewhere) and this is a daunting idea for new writers. The fact is that you only discover your voice through writing and writing regularly. All writers try imitating the writers they admire and all writers despair at times of finding that recognisable voice which will mark them out as unique: we all know how Dickens wrote, how Hemingway wrote, how Martin Amis writes - how can we find our individuality? Through practice, commitment, experimentation, through being open to new techniques, through not being lazy and settling for the predictable.  Through listening to your characters, through playfulness and openness, through time. Through, as Philip said, having the 'silence and secret time' to hear what your true voice is.

And now my voice is going to take a rest: I'll save the rest of this report for my next blog-post!

BOOK NOW for my courses on Essential Story Construction (7th May) and Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice (21st May) - all details and booking form can be found on my website:


Joanna Penn said...

It's marvellous to read this Lorna and know that I will be at the festival next year. I'm sad to have missed Karen Armstrong who is one my favorite non fiction authors, hopefully she'll be back! Thanks for e great reporting!

Jenny Beattie said...

I wish, I wish, I wish I could go to things like this.

Thanks for the report.