Edinburgh International Book Festival: AL Kennedy, Toby Litt & Rachel Cusk

Review by Bram E. Gieben | 16 Aug 2013
  • al kennedy

Hosted by Ian Jack, the chair of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists panel in 2003, the year AL Kennedy, Toby Litt and Rachel Cusk were all featured, the purpose of the discussion is to reflect on the efficacy and impact of the award, but soon digresses into a wider examination of the way these authors earn money. Jack described the significance of the Granta list in bringing recognition to literary fiction writers, stating that before the list started, “authors were people one read but never encountered.”

For Kennedy, her first inclusion on the list in 1993 was “overwhelming and peculiar... it was too big to be comprehensible.” The second time, it made her feel old. To be included ten years later on the same list made her feel slightly like she hadn't done as well as she had hoped. For her, the rigmarole of marketing, promotion and awards are something of a sideshow, disconnected from the act of writing, but she also admits that if she could “get better” at these things, it might help her career.

For Litt and Cusk, the Granta list is vital because it is not as implicitly competitive as other literary prizes, seeking instead to create a group or 'generation' of writers. Kennedy agrees with this, criticising prize hustings like the Booker for being more about the winner than the writing, like a literary X-Factor.

Both Cusk and Litt augment their earnings from writing with teaching jobs on creative writing courses (Cusk is at Kingston College, while Litt teaches at the University of East Anglia). Cusk speaks of the “many versions of the expressive need” to which these courses cater, but admits: “It's harder now to make a living out of writing.”

Jack suggests that by helping to teach emerging writers, Cusk and Litt could be training their literary replacements, but Litt dismisses this. The majority of his students study creative writing for purer motives: “If someone wants success, or money, or ego-boosts, it's not about that.” Kennedy remains sceptical, suggesting that many of these courses are exploitative on some level, and “ripping off people's dreams.” Cusk disagrees, saying that rather than teaching people how to get published, the best teachers show them “how to be more alive.” Nonetheless, she admits that “in pursuing the desire to write, the mystique of writing is destroyed.” She has always “resisted seeing writing as a career or job.”

Litt suggests that the publishing industry has changed greatly since he published his first novel. Now, “an advance for a good first novel won't allow the writer time to write her second.” Further discussions of the role of high-street booksellers, the influence of the 'golden generation' of lit-fic writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kennedy's description of the volume of writing she does to make ends meet (“You have to pre-diversify...”) were revealing, making this an intriguing and educational panel, if somewhat downbeat. As Litt, who once stacked boxes in a “pizza factory” laments, instead of being a writer, perhaps he “should have done a City and Guilds.”  

AL Kennedy, Toby Litt & Rachel Cusk appeared at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 12 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/rachel-cusk-al-kennedy-toby-litt