Interview with Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

On the last weekend of the Edinburgh International Book Festival Claudia Ott of the European Writers’ Tour had the chance to sit down with Nick Barley, director of the festival and chair of the Man Booker International Prize 2017, to talk about the importance of inviting European and international writers, their impact on establishing cultural connections and the future of translated fiction in the UK. He also revealed the plan for the next Edinburgh International Book Festival and disclosed his own preferences regarding literature.

Edinburgh International Book Festival has over 800 events this year with debates, talks and discussions about current affairs. How important do you think this festival is to promote and strengthen cultural ties between countries?

I think this festival has a very important role in helping people develop cultural ties. In fact it is actually around 900 events this year, so even more than we suggested when we counted up, very close to a 1000 events, a 1000 writers. So it’s the biggest festival we’ve ever done and I’m not sure if any other festival has had a 1000 writers. But it’s not just this sheer number that matters, it’s the connections that can be made between writers, when you have a lot of writers coming together in one group, which is conducive to helping conversations happen. That is the important thing – writers are meeting writers, writers are meeting readers and readers are meeting readers. In all these different encounters an understanding is being developed and now at a time when walls seem to be being built it is really important that we can hear each other. And I think the reading in itself is a kind of listening. If we read the words of a writer from Sweden or Italy, then we are listening to their or their characters perspective on the world so we are listening to other voices. And then when writers come to Edinburgh to talk about their work we are hearing their voices again in their representations of their books. We are listening to each other and that dialogue in a festival like this is what makes it such an important place I think and this year more than ever that dialogue is going on around us.

In your essay issued in ‘In the Morning After’ by the British Council last year after the Brexit vote you mention that “Festivals can play a frontline role in the quest for European Enlightenment”. How can European writers and translated fiction help to encourage ‘European Enlightenment’?

The reason why I think that writing matters is because it is a lens, like a camera lens, through which to look at the world around us. It helps us to understand why the world is the way it is. So whether it’s novels or non-fiction – they are like theories of how the world is through the eyes of the characters and through the eyes of the writers. Books and characters are like a lens which helps us see the world. I think the more we can understand other people’s perspectives, the easier it is for us to understand why the world is shaping up to the way it is and to be imaginative to find solutions to problems. Although fiction is by its very definition untrue, nevertheless somehow the way in which it approaches the world, and writes a model for the world, it allows truths or understanding to seek through in a different way. So I think fiction is a crucial way to help us understand and be enlightened about the world. Human beings are made up of stories, we are molecules, we are atoms and we are stories. The proof of that is that children are coming to terms with the world through little stories and fairytales, stories about parents, families and themselves. So stories are a keeper of our understanding of the world. Inevitably a literature festival helps us to make sense of other peoples stories.

According to a report published by the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, translated fiction remains low in the UK. At her keynote address at this year’s European Literature Night A.L. Kennedy pointed out that this is due to the British publishing’s fear of taking a risk. Do you agree with this and what do you think needs to be done to increase the amount of translated fiction in the UK?

I agree with Alison to a certain extent, but not entirely because I think that any publisher in order to exist has to be a risk-taking body. To publish writers is a risky business so they have to take risks. But of course they can only feel able to take a certain amount of risk and I think that the picture is changing. It is true to say that over the last 10 years translated fiction represented a very small percentage of books published in the UK but things are rapidly changing. The Man Booker International Prize is one of the things which is helping to recalibrate these percentages. In the last year or two, since the Man Booker International Prize changed its way of giving out prices, we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of books sold in the UK. There are figures emerging from the Man Booker Foundation which suggest that there has been a rise in the number of books purchased in translation and certainly from my perspective as a Festival Director the audiences are telling me that they are much more interested now in reading books in translation. A really tangible increase in the number of people asking to meet authors who write in languages other than English. In a way I think it may be connected to the vote to leave the European Union, which was of course a perfectly reasonable democratic expression by British electorate, and yet some people have responded to that by feeling an urge to be more international. If you voted to remain in the European Union, now there is a strong urge to find a way to be international in any case, whatever the political structures we exist in. We are international people here in Britain and we want to emphasise that so there is an increased desire and appetite for international engagement and more international books will be purchased. So I think in the next five years we are going to see a really exciting increase in the number of international authors and there are some great examples – Karl Ove Knausgård from Norway for example, is a bestseller in the UK now. Ten years ago you would have been surprised if he would have been bestseller.

You mentioned that the Edinburgh International Book Festival nearly had 1,000 events this year – what is the outlook, the ambition for next year?

My ambition is never in terms of the number of events we do. The number of events we do comes after we try to deliver on ideas. My ambition is to continue to try to make sense of this changing and worrying world and to try to bring together writers and readers to think about that and to improve our understanding and to feel better informed about how we can play a role in holding society together at a time when society feels like it’s under pressure.
There are a number of different forces here. One of them is the digital age we live in which sometimes creates a kind of solitary existence online. We click on ‘friend’ on Facebook and yet it’s only a digital friendship, we are alone online in some senses. It’s a fracturing space. So there’s that fracturing of society because of the digitalisation and then there is also the forces of isolationism which are perfectly reasonable democratic forces. But we want to think these worrying forces through and try to keep hold of the good aspects of the digital area, which is international connectedness, international communications and to try to hold together a good sense of society, which means finding a space for democracy and to allow individuals to participate in society in a democratic way. If the electoral system in place is delivering divided opinions and division, then something like a book festival can bring thousands of people together and help think about unity and society, face to face – a kind of grassroots democracy. So my ambition is to deliver grassroots democracy and an understanding between international people, however many events and authors are needed to deliver that, we will follow on from that basic urge.
Next year I am particularly interested in exploring the question of ‘Freedom’, which was the holy grail of the liberal democracies. In the USA the word ‘Freedom’ has been used as a kind of beacon of what we thought of as American ideals. Freedom seemed to have been delivered when women got the vote across the world, freedom seemed to have been delivered when colonial countries became independent from the British Empire for example. But to what extend do we actually feel free? To what extend can we actually really be free in this 21st century? This is the question I would like to explore next year.

On a personal note: Why do you read translated fiction? What is your motivation?

Translated fiction is interesting because in order to be published at all, a writer has to be fortunate, they have to be lucky. It is hard to be published. But to be published in translation a writer has to get through another hurdle which is that they have to be either a bestseller in their own country or some kind of cult. It’s an extra difficulty to get translated so the quality of literature in translation tends to be extremely high.
So for one thing if you read a book in translation the chances are that it will be really good. There is a much higher success rate than if you read a book in your own language, where the quality can be very variable. The other thing of course is that the world is a big place and reading is full of listening. Imagine if we only listened to the voices of people who lived in our own community, what kind of a society would that lead us to? A closed society perhaps. I want to listen to voices from across the world, I find it exciting to discover ways of looking at the world, particularly from Latin America, from Asia, Africa. At the moment particularly countries in the Southern hemisphere are producing writers who have an extraordinarily interesting vision of the world, different from the Northern hemisphere, which is also of course interesting but personally I think Southern writing is really interesting right now and I am very excited about that.
And as you may know I was selected to be the chair of the jury for the Man Booker International Prize this year and that gave me the opportunity to read really nearly everything that has been published in translation in the UK this year and it is joyful to have a sense of an overview of the best translated fiction from around the world and incredibly fulfilling. I am not saying I am a better person, but I am most certainly a happier person for having had the chance to read all these novels.

Interview & Picture by Claudia Ott

Nick Barley was interviewed on 28 August 2017. The interview was originally published on the European Writers Tour website. Thank you to EWT and Claudia Ott for letting us republish.

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