The hidden talents of writers

Perhaps I should begin by confessing that I’ve never been a fan of author discussions. It’s their books I’m interested in – not the authors themselves. I think I fear being disappointed, finding out that someone with whose ideas I shared a passionate affinity turns out to be dull or unpleasant.

So I attended the joint Folio Society and Telegraph debate between Will Self and Craig Taylor on landscape in writing with some trepidation. I’ve read several of Craig’s articles in The Guardian, although not his books, but I have read several of Will Self’s novels.

The event completely changed my pre-conceptions. Not only did it make me want to read more of the authors’ works, but it also made me realise how multi-talented authors need to be. Both authors gave a reading as well as talking about broader questions of literature (and politics, and modern life…) and then took questions from the floor. That’s quite a range of different skills required by a profession that is traditionally about sitting alone to produce 80,000 words of deathless prose.

Of course, Taylor’s work is often about recording other people’s stories. Listening to him answer questions, it became easy to see why the rural farmers he had met for his book Return to Akenfield would have been prepared to talk to him so openly. He had a quality about him that made it clear why he is such a good journalist for eliciting stories – he came across as considered, non-judgemental and a very good listener.

Will Self reads from The Book of Dave

Will Self, by contrast came across as gloriously judgemental in his views. From his dismissal of modern office-tower architecture (they only have a lifespan of 70 years – look on them as tents) to his dead-pan description of English culture (we’re Brazil with our great, warm, beating sexuality). No wonder Self used to be a stand up comedian – and what a great training that must be for these author readings and debates.

 The event drew a group of over 100 people to come to the British Library on a Monday evening. After listening to Craig Taylor’s quiet, thoughtful remarks and Will Self’s brilliant off-the-cuff rants, I can see why. Sign me up for Edinburgh Book Festival – I’m sold on author debates… although I still fear not all authors will turn out to be quite as well-qualified to entertain and enlighten as these two proved themselves to be.

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