A Report from the second Folio Prize Fiction Festival

Written by Lizzy Siddal

folio prize festivalThe second Folio Prize Fiction Festival at the British Library began for me with the second talk.  There’s no way to get down for 11:30 from Scotland – as it was my day started at 5:30. I was happy to forego a Saturday lie-in, as this festival is different. It’s not about selling an author’s latest book.  The program of talks entitled On Desire, On Conflict, On Wit, On Inheritance, On Betrayal, On Endings, places the emphasis firmly on the craft of literature.  With the illustrious lineup of speakers, listed in the picture on the right, including all of the 2015 Folio Prize shortlistees, this weekend promised to provide a masterclass in the art of literature.

Indeed it was so, and my notebook is bursting with mots justes explaining how literature works, together with a list of reading recommendations as long as the train journey from London to Glasgow! Just as these will inform my reading and appreciation of literature in months to come, I’m sure too that aspiring authors in the audience took back many tips that they will put to use in their own work.  Far, far too much information was passed on to provide a comprehensive report here. So in order to provide a taster of the breadth and depth of entire festival, here are a few key points and reading recommendations from each session.

On Desire  (notes courtesy of Kim from Reading Matters)

  • Desire is what motivates characters to behave in the ways that they do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual; it is simply something that a person wants, whether physically or emotionally.
  • Deborah Levy says  “We’re all concealing it” and,  once a character unveils his or her desire, “something transformational happens” in the story.
  • Desire doesn’t have to be expressed in great detail.  It’s best to leave gaps for the reader to figure it out, says Eimear McBride.

Reading recommendations: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (the desire for true love) and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (sexual desire)

On Conflict

  • Conflict is the engine which powers all fiction.  An example attributed to John Le Carré: The cat sat on the mat is not a story.  The cat sat on a dog’s mat is a different proposition altogether.
  • Conflict is intrinsic to literary form. Condensing one’s thoughts into the 14 lines of a sonnet results in an extremely productive jostle.
  • William Fiennes (chair of the 2015 Folio Prize Judges) once earned the following school report: “William would be a good student if he stopped thinking about Star Wars”.

Reading recommendations: Charlotte’s Web – E H White (conflict of being socialised), Antigone – Sophocles (conflict of two opposing goods – the private and the public), Father and Son – Edmund Goss (conflict of two temperaments)

On Wit

  • “The quickest way to kill a gag is to dissect it.  It’s like bleach down a toilet.  It kills all known germs.” – Rachael Cook, a 2015 Folio Prize judge. (Ed’s note – unfortunately this proved prescient for this session, which died at times.)
  • Wit works in drama because it appears to be in real-time.  It doesn’t work in prose because it is not spontaneous.
  • Humour isn’t a distraction from the dark side. It is a response to it.

Reading recommendations: P G Wodehouse (what David Cameron’s weekend would be like – A L Kennedy); Changing Places – David Lodge (“turned by dad from a sexist ******** into an adorable buffoon” – Rachel Cooke); Short Stories – Pushkin (“He wrote the first and the funniest ghost stories as well as the first and the funniest romances.” – Akhil Sharma)

On Inheritance

  • Panel members Jeanette Winterston and A M Homes were both adopted, and spoke of writing being a means of creating their own identities.
  • Jeanette Winterston “It could have gone horribly wrong.  I could have ended up in a rented flat with a brussel-sprout green carpet in Accrington, having been made redundant from Woolworth’s when it shut down.” (Ed’s note – my favourite quote from the festival …. because so could I!”)
  • The past is present.  The skeletons in the cupboard have a way of showing up and demanding acknowledgement.  The novelist interprets but does not have to be right.  History unpacks over many years and interpretations can and do change.

Reading recommendations: The King James Bible (for the language – “simplifying it robs us of 400 years of culture” – Jeanette Winterson), the novels of John Cheever (“for the articulation of the American experience” – A M Homes)’ anything by Marquez (“for the power to render the absurd, normal” – Yvonne Ouwour.

>On Betrayal

  • It’s the moment when the world around you reorganises itself and you have to reorganise your narrative – Ben Lerner
  • Every writer strives for the Platonic ideal, yet every sentence you put on the page takes you away from that.  Is that a betrayal?  I call it failure and with each novel I fail better – Val McDermid
  • Betrayal is only made possible by love and faith.  That we are restored to ourselves by betrayal is a fundamentally Shakespearian concept.

Reading recommendations: Madame Bovary and Don Quixote (characters betrayed by the works they read), Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates (a character betrayed by his self-perception), Charlotte’s Web – E H White (betrayal is the way of nature).

On Endings

  • Knowing the final sentence before you begin is just a scaffolding which you may have to dismantle because it does not support the building you actually erect.
  • Poetry has a better toolkit than prose.  If you can’t find a good ending, conclude with a good image.
  • What happens when readers don’t like the author’s ending? They create fan fiction!

Reading recommendations: The Great Gatsby – F S Fitzgerald (perfect last sentence); Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson (Redemption on last story is so unexpected); A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway (the edition with the 47 different endings – an object lesson in what could have been …)

And on that note, with my mind boggling at the thought of Hemingway the Great struggling like a mere mortal to find the right ending, Folio Prize judge Suzi Feay brought the festival to an end in matter-of-fact journalistic fashion.


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Lizzy Siddal blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The Folio Prize 2015 was awarded the day after the festival to Akhil Sharma for his novel Family Life. (More info here.)