David Crystal was a lively speaker, talking to a mixed audience of all-comers, so it was a tricky task to pitch this talk to say anything illuminating about e-language without either patronising some members of the audience or going over heads of others. He is an entertaining speaker and accomplished communicator who puts his conclusions across in an interesting way. I was pleased to have heard his particular take on a number of subjects.
He began with examples of some of the old chestnuts such as 'You know you're a Netizen...when you check your email on the way back from the loo at 3am...when you check it there isn't any, so you check it again.' He also expressed mock-surprise that we were actually there in the outside world in the first place.
He divided spheres of internet language into five areas - which he rather confusingly called "domains". In general I found his terminology and grip of internet language forms convincing but this particular choice seemed rather odd, given the more familiar context for the use of the word online. He described these five distinct uses of internet language as being 1. email, 2. the web, 3. bulletin boards, 4. chat rooms and 5. MUDs.
David Crystal suggested that the advent of electronic text communications was as big a third step in linguistic terms as firstly spoken language evolving and secondly written language developing. Digital language, he said, was a cross between speech and writing and a signicant third type of language use. This assertion might be considered to contain a touch of hyperbole and he undermined it a little by also discussing the advent of broadcasting. He used this to illustrate the fact that there were forms of spoken language which simply didn't exist before mass broadcasting, such as sports commentary and news bulletins.
He spoke about many of the characteristics of internet language, the use of informality, the immediacy of communication, impermenance of language (on web-pages for example) also lag in communication, the framing of language (by quoting in emails and the potential this gave for selection and re-contextualising), forwarding (with copyright issues plus the potential mis-representation) and the anonymity of language (in MUDs for example).
He rejected protectionism of language and cheerfully pointed out that it didn't matter at all what academics wanted to do anyway. Language would change. He regards the informality of language used in internet communications as simply one range of clothing in a wardrobe of forms of writing. As an academic linguist he receives emails which range from 'Hi Dave' to 'Dear Professor Crystal' in approach. Some have been meticulously speel chucked and others are quickly dashed off, unpunctuated and uncapitalised and he simply regards these differences as styles. Some people like to wear bermuda shorts and some people wear suits, others will simply change their clothes to suit the mood or the occasion.
Interestingly, he saw the advent of the net as a salvation for minority languages rather than being another coffin nail which would advance greater globalisation in the use of the English (for which read American) language. Apparently English had fallen to representing only around 70% of internet content and Alta Vista had estimated that by the end of 2003 it would be down to only 50%. He felt that the net could link the speakers and writers of dying or minority languages and cited the fact that there are already Navajo chat rooms. He also spoke a little about how there were many different Englishes anyway in the countries in which it is used.
When questioned about the effect of new forms of language — such as that used online and in phone TXT messaging — on child language development he said that all the evidence he had found so far suggested that children were perfectly capable of being bi-lingual in the two written forms just as they were with spoken language that was 'their own' as opposed to that used with adults.
This is the session I enjoyed most. Jeanette Winterson spoke passionately and memorably and somehow the emotional content of her connection with writing struck a chord with me. She appeared to read her talk rather than just speaking from notes but it still communicated directly, reminding me of the way in which Alistair Cooke's Letters from America are very carefully and clearly written speeches. She took questions at the end of the session but was just as lively during the main presentation.
She spoke about her own discovery of books as doors and escape tunnels and about the value of art as a canopy, a protection from every day life because it enriches and of the Arts as a way of feeding the inner life which is missing in a secular society. She said that the failure of humanism to replace a widely held religious faith within modern society was in its neglect of this aspect.
She talked about the conversation which takes place between writer and reader, between artist and viewer. She described this as a form of connection, as is the connection that the artist makes with their own imagination when creating. People often expect literature or art to come with signposts to explain it, whilst really it is like life, a journey in a dark wood.
Jeanette Winterson spoke about the need to re-tell stories anew all the time, in conversation with the writer's own inner energy and how there is something mysterious about the way that novels form. She described the sensation that last month there wasn't anything there, but now there is a nebula forming. She said that "you have to heat yourself up to story temperature" and once you are there almost any idea or connection will combust and form part of the story. Until you are there then almost nothing will burn.
She spoke about the need for a concentration upon "the thing itself" in determining merit, rather than "things about things", solely the opinion of critics. She said that it might be difficult to begin to determine the worth of new forms but that the way to separate 'art' from 'tat' was to engage with the work itself, and not to be wishing that one had been at such and such a place at a given point in history to experience this or that trend, but to find out what was actually happening and alive today and make a connection with it in the present.
There were somewhat contraditory messages expressed about funding the arts; being anti a reduction to a capitalist, market-led approach but on the other hand pleading for a better deal for the Arts in a separation of funding in the grants for sport and art, which come from the same coffers in the UK.
One thing I found interesting in the questions session at the end was the way her northern accent became slightly more pronounced. It was probably detectable throughout and she puts it on when impersonating her mother, whom she uses as a rather stock comic character on the assumption that most of the audience will have a passing familiarity with her childhood background as fictionalised in her autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Although, to be fair, she sketched this out for the audience in telling the story of how she hid books under her bed until her mother discovered her hoard and threw them all out.
When asked how she went about researching some of the more baroque details of her stories she laid the emphasis on writing first from imagination and then possibly researching some detail later.
Asked whether she wasn't just evangelising for Art, just as her mother had for God she laughed and admitted "Of course. If you grow up in a gospel tent..."
In places during the talk it seemed that there was simplification and idealism but on the whole it was very inspiring to share someone else's buzz and gain an insight into Jeanette Winterson's own connection with the art of writing.
This session with Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write psychological thrillers together under the pen name Nicci French, was conducted as an interview by Maureen Freeley. She is a friend and colleague of the husband and wife writing team and this was by far the chattiest of the three presentations. Although both writers spoke articulately on interesting subjects it was a much more off-the-cuff presentation and sometimes ideas tumbled out over one another becoming almost incoherent.
Their first novel, The Memory Game was written "in secret" while they were newspaper columnists and bringing up a young family. Sean French had previously tried to write novels on his own, when he had "all the time in the world" and yet had failed to complete them. Paradoxically, writing in this much more pressured environment had actually resulted in novels that came to fruition.
They prefer to write in the "white heat" of excitement of an idea, using the "pull" of something which draws them to write, rather the "push" of obligation. Several times they had abandoned projects to work on others instead which gripped them more at that point. They prefer to write about subjects which disturb or cause them to argue or discuss, those thoughts which continue to come back and bug them. When writing about areas in which they had no personal experience, such as forensics, they tried to research thoroughly and make use of their prior journalistic experiences and techniques.
They usually write in separate rooms. On the one occasion a computer broke down and they shared a room to write they were horrified by what they discovered. It was the first time that they really realised how differently they wrote. Nicci Gerrard sits down and concentrates for long blocks of time while Sean French frequently paces, procrastinates and does crosswords. Their joint method is to write a chunk and then hand it over to the other. Once passed over each has freedom to edit the writing as though it were their own. They have tried to adopt the same technique with stories for which they have sold film rights; handing them over to film makers and scriptwriters entirely to make what they will, hanging around out of interest to see sets and actors but not taking further creative control.
They make it a rule to never reveal who has written which parts of a novel and seemed certain that even people who knew their individual writing styles well wouldn't be able to tell. They felt that a third writing voice had emerged, that of Nicci French, which was different from their own individual voices. They also felt that (particularly as a husband and wife team) writing together allowed them access to each other's pool of experience in a way that they simply could not plunder if writing a solo novel.
Wrapping up warmly afterwards
Afterwards we tracked down a large Indian restaurant still willing to be feeding us food and then took a futile tour of the taxi ranks before finally managing to flag down a cab so that we didn't have to trudge back up the hill.
On Sunday we enjoyed a stroll along the canal — which, oddly, runs high above the town — and out to the village of Bathhampton for a drink. Then back into Bath to take a look round Bath Abbey, visit a friend for tea and head home, thankfully without any untoward delays on the return journey.
Connect with Pauline Masurel's own fiction at unfurling.net
Other Days Out 4Writers Junction may be found at: Articles