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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Christine Lehnen

Bookfest digital

During the pandemic, literary events have migrated online. Over the past year, whether you were based in the centre or the periphery, in London, Liverpool or Luana, you were afforded easy access to the most successful and acclaimed anglophone novelists of our time, among them Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and Maggie O’Farrell. Considering that artists learn most effectively from other artists, it is important to continue these online events, ideally in hybrid form, to ensure equal opportunities for writers from diverse regional and social backgrounds, especially for those who find themselves at a disadvantage in the contemporary publishing landscape.

You might be hard-pressed to find someone who will say that they liked the lockdown. Especially in the arts, everybody just wanted to go back, back into the museums, back into the theatres, back into the publishing houses, to the book fairs, to the literary festivals, the informal gatherings of the publishing industry. After all, how many opportunities are there to drink a variety of cocktails at the Victoria and Albert Museum, wearing the fanciest dress or suit you could find in your closet, cursing yourself for picking the most painful shoes you own, and all of that for free?

As much fun as the HarperCollins summer parties are, and as much as I am looking forward to taking the jumpsuit out of the closet, hopping onto a train and having too many cocktails at the V&A museum, I suggest that there is something good that has come out of lockdown in the publishing industry and the arts sector, and that we should hold onto it: digital events. They democratize the industry through providing easier access, especially to those who are outside of London or on low income. They will inspire practitioners and enable careers that would not have otherwise been possible.

I should know, because my professional career began at an event.

How a cold, rainy day in Edinburgh made my career

I am a novelist, one of those rare specimens of the profession who can make a living from writing fiction. While I still turn in the occasional piece of journalism and teach when I find the time, my main source of income are novels, books with stories in them, and none of that would have happened had I not been in Edinburgh in the year 2013.

It was the summer holiday, and my partner and I had decided to travel to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. Once there, I realised that it was also the season of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. What a stroke of luck! I booked tickets for my partner and myself, whether he wanted to or not (he didn’t), and we both went to see Samantha Shannon and James Smythe, who were there to talk about their dystopian novels.

This event would change my life. I was working on a dystopian novel myself at a time. Sitting in a white tent on a cushioned plastic chair in Charlotte Square gardens (let’s say it was raining, too – chances are high that it was, even in August), I took one look at Samantha Shannon and realised that she was just like me. I listened to her speak, and after one hour, I knew that if she had managed to do it, if she managed to make a living from writing the stories she loved, then so could I.

Living, breathing artists demonstrate: you can make a living, and a life, of this

It was important, perhaps even decisive for me to attend that event on a rainy (probably), cool (definitely), beautiful (what else) day in Edinburgh. As a consequence, I began writing in earnest, by which I mean not merely with narrative or aesthetic sincerity, although they all played a part: I mean with the earnest intention of earning my bread and butter writing novels.

The privileges that led me to this pivotal moment are immense: I had the financial means to go on a holiday to an anglophone country; I had the cultural capital to feel at ease at a literary festival; my parents had read to us all through childhood and always fostered our love for reading, they gave us books when we wanted them, no questions asked; I had received an education that made me proficient in English and enabled me to go and feel comfortable abroad.

And yet, even with all those privileges, I did not feel that it truly was possible to have a career as a writer, to make a living as a novelist. My parents were the first in their families to go to university, I was born and raised in a former mining community with high unemployment. We knew no artists, no writers, no publishers.

Until that day in Edinburgh.

Eight years later, I am forcefully reminded of the empowering quality of events in the arts, where those who do not feel like artists yet can meet the professionals they strive to be; we realise they are made of flesh and blood just like us, they stumble over their words sometimes, they laugh at their stupid jokes, they are friendly and oftentimes baffled by their own success. We can ask them for advice and learn from them as they speak about their craft.

Spread the privilege!

As the pandemic forced us into lockdown all over the world, literary events quickly migrated online. In the last twelve months alone, I have attended events with some of the most successful and acclaimed anglophone writers of our time, from Maggie O’Farrell over Margaret Atwood to Hilary Mantel. I was able to ask them questions, to listen to them speak about their work, in short: to learn from them. And in all these instances, I needed nothing other than my laptop, a set of headphones and a stable Internet connection – all of which are privileges, but, I would argue, much more widely spread than the means to travel to another country (and to Edinburgh during the Fringe, too!).

Due to the pandemic, access to literary events has become democratized. Whether you live in London, Liverpool, Lüneburg or Lviv, you have been able to attend events with the most successful and acclaimed writers of our times. A ticket is often much cheaper than it would be at a literary festival: Waterstones sells tickets for five pounds, the Writing on the Wall-festival sold a festival pass at 21 pounds, the lit.Cologne, Europe’s largest literary festival, is offering an all-access pass for 49 euros, and some events are entirely for free, especially when organised by public bodies such as universities or museums.

Learning from the living, learning from the dead

This is not trivial: looking at my own career, I realise that it was essential for me to ‘meet’ Samantha Shannon, to know of her and about her, to hear her speak, read her texts, share vicariously in the experience of writing a debut novel, finding an agent, finding a publisher. Other authors will have similar stories to tell: Pat Barker famously began her literary career in her forties, when she took a creative writing course taught by Angela Carter. After Neil Gaiman interviewed the late Sir Terry Pratchett, they kept in touch and eventually collaborated on a small book called Good Omens. Storytelling is a craft, and writers learn most effectively from other writers, only that we – as opposed to practitioners in the visual, fine or dramatic arts –, rarely have teachers. The anglophone education and instruction of novelists is becoming increasingly institutionalised through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing, but there are no equivalents yet of art schools or acting academies such as the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf or the RADA in London.

And perhaps that is a good thing, too. It keeps the industry open, open to new people, to people who never attend such an institution, especially those from low-income or non-academic backgrounds.

Still, as writers, we learn from the dead, reading Shakespeare and Gilgamesh, Austen and The Lord of the Rings, but we also need to learn from the living, because it is them who are being published in the present: when they share their knowledge and experiences with us, their thoughts and questions, their doubts and bafflement, we learn how to be a novelist, how to make a living, build a career, make art today. Especially amid the ongoing debates on diversity, we should not go back after lockdown: not go back to London and nowhere but London, not back to Paris and nowhere but Paris, not back to New York and nowhere but New York.

We should come out of lockdown, without going back to locking out the world

By all means: we should return to the theatres, the museums, the publishing houses, the literary events, the universities. At the same time, the theatres, the museums, the publishing houses, the literary events, the universities should keep coming to us: to those of us who cannot afford to travel, to take the time off to go on a holiday, to buy expensive tickets to festivals. We need to develop hybrid event formats, taking place both online and offline, and make them our standard.

We live in a world with an intense power imbalance, favouring the centre over the periphery, both nationally and globally: London is favoured over Liverpool, what we call the Global North over the Global South. Your opportunities increase the closer you are to the centre and decrease the further you move out towards what is considered the periphery, both spatially and socially. Keeping events online – as well as establishing publishing houses and branches outside of London, such as HarperNorth in Manchester and Heroic Books in Liverpool – may go a long way towards redressing the global, national, regional, and social imbalance of opportunity.

And that is all many people need: given the opportunity, there will be as many excellent writers in Liverpool, Lviv, Lüneburg and Luanda as there are in London. All we need to do is make sure that – as we come out of lockdown, as we go back into the theatre, the museums, the publishing parties at the V&A – that we do not go back to locking out the world.


Christine Lehnen is a novelist, lecturer and academic. Her novels are published by HarperCollins UK and Penguin Random House Germany. She teaches the Novel Writing Workshop at the University of Bonn and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester on contemporary feminist rewritings of the Trojan war. Her research has been published in Alluvium and the Journal of Literary Theory. She has completed two Master’s degrees in Bonn and Paris III, studying both English Literatures and Cultures and Political Sciences, and writes for The New Federalist, Deutsche Welle and 42 Magazine.

Twitter: @chrisseleh

[image: (c) Eva-Lotte Hill]

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