Writers should welcome a future where readers remix our books
China Miéville by Murdo Macleod
China Miéville at the Edinburgh international book festival, where he called for a uniform, blanket salary for writers, novelists and poets equivalent to the 'wage of a skilled worker'. : Being Poet
China Miéville, author of novels including The City & the City and Embassytown, has described anti-piracy measures for literature in the digital age as "disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual" and "artistically philistine".
Speaking in Edinburgh at a debate on the future of the novel, Miéville said that just as music fans remix albums and post them online, so readers will recut the novel.
He and his fellow writers should "be ready for guerrilla editors", he said, adding: "In the future, asked if you've read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?"
There was, he said, a "blurring of boundaries between writers, books and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction".
The comments were made during the last of the five debates at the Edinburgh world writers' conference, which has brought together 50 authors from countries ranging from Scotland to Argentina and the Dominican Republic to Pakistan.
They include Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Yiyun Li, Ahdaf Soueif and Jackie Kay.
The event, part of the Edinburgh international book festival, was a 50th anniversary restaging of the 1962 Edinburgh writers' conference.
The original event – notorious for its passionate exchanges between writers – was attended by such figures as Rebecca West, Muriel Spark and Mary McCarthy.
The effect of the internet and digital distribution on fiction, said Miéville, would not be about creating "enhanced" ebooks, which he called "a banal abomination".
Rather, the effect would be to heighten the openness of texts. "Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will … be able to do so without much difficulty."
But Ewan Morrison, author of Tales from the Mall, called Miéville's vision of the future "naive, and based on what I would call dot-communism, which is a spurious leftism based on collectivity, that we are all heading towards a world where information will be shared".
The problem of this new world was that it would be "demonetised" for writers, he said, "and therefore none of us will be making a living when we have all these books that are mashed up".
Poet John Burnside said he doubted the existence of a future online utopia, arguing against Miéville's view that the "original text will always still be there. It will not be stolen".
Burnside said: "You say that the text will always be there. I don't trust the state, big companies and religious nuts not to try to erase the text and replace it with their version – so that at the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov [its main character] ends up finding Jesus and moving to Utah and lives happily ever after.
"I am not arguing about the excitement of technology, I am just urging a lot of caution and a lot of mistrust of the kind of people with an axe to grind who may try to erase the texts we care about."
Miéville also called for a uniform, blanket salary for writers, novelists and poets, equivalent to the "wage of a skilled worker".
Such a move, he said, would cut against the "philistine thuggery of the market" that failed to sift the good from the bad. And, though it would cause writers at the top of the bestseller lists to lose income, such collectivisation would for most writers "mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full time".
Writers at the debate also spoke about novelists' negativity about the future of the form.
Poet Jackie Kay questioned the gloom, saying: "Just as religious people are often predicting the end of the world, so novelists are often predicting the end of the novel. Poets never talk about the death of the poem. Why do novelists have this extreme anxiety?"
Kamila Shamsie, the Pakistani novelist, talked about the creativity engendered by significant technological change. Writers such as Italo Calvino had emerged, she said, in the wake of the rise of TV and film, when the dominant storytelling form was changing from page to screen.
"The novel has to find somewhere else to go. If the threat of something new and different and bigger than you creates Calvinos, then it is not a threat," she said.
Towards the end of the debate, Kay came up with an impromptu play on words that may have summed up the mood.
"What's not novel about the novel is navel-gazing," she said.
Miéville spoke of a broadening of opportunity brought about by the internet's "long tail". He hoped, he said, that the English-language publishing sphere would start "tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels".
He pointed out that "obscure works of Russian avant garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of … decreasing parochialism."
Citing Ubuweb – the online archive for avant garde poetry – he added: "With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious."