Three Monkeys Online

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The Istanbul Declaration of The European Writers’ Parliament 2010

The idea for the European Writers’ Parliament grew out of a proposal by the late José Saramago and Orhan Pamuk, although P{amuk says he can’t remember the conversation. Saramago was to have given the guest of honour speech at the Opening Ceremony. Undoubtedly, had Saramago given that address things would have been different, but it is difficult to imagine what Naipaul would have said that would not have provoked a riot. In any case, I regret their absences, Saramago’s above all.

Prior to departure from Ireland we three ‘delegates’ (nobody knows how or why we were chosen) – Jamie O’Neill, Glenn Meade and myself – were, like everyone else, asked to opt for particular ‘commissions’. I opted for ‘Literature In The Digital Age’. In the event, it was probably the most focused group of the four. Some day, perhaps, the other two Irish delegates will write about theirs.

The Digital commission divided between what I would characterize as ‘the futurists’ and a small, group of critics or sceptics, mainly of the Left. The futurists were either entirely for or entirely against everything digital, but in either case they saw it as the complete disappearance of all barriers, boundaries between literary forms and genres, the disintegration of literature as we know it and the development of something entirely new. Sometimes this was expressed in the vaguest possible terms (‘Some day we will write novels on clouds’, as one writer suggested), and at other times in quite precise form. One writer suggested that some day young people (they tend to envisage ‘young people’ doing these things) will read texts in which key words are hyperlinked to images, cartoons, animations or games that will enhance the experience of reading the text. It didn’t take long for an anti-digital futurist to point out that this would over-determine the text and abolish imagination. All of the futurists were quite clear that the internet represented freedom of expression and was the future repository of all information and the death of the printed text, regardless of whether they thought it a good or bad thing. They tended also to be concerned with author’s rights, in particular, copyright, which they saw going the same way as musicians’ rights (an unmitigated bad thing in their view).

The ‘leftists’ adopted a more nuanced position. Ola Larsmo from Sweden, and representing Swedish PEN, noted firstly that technologies do not replace earlier technologies – he called it the x+1 theory and contrasted it with the Dinosaur Theory (digitisation would make books disappear). TV didn’t replace radio, for example. The book would continue to exist but would have to share readership with the eBook. He cautioned against the dangers of censorship, and proposed that writers do not need the level of copyright that exists for corporations (pointing out that he could not even draw a pair of mouse-ears without infringing Disney’s rights) and that we should campaign to have copyright rolled back to where it was in the 1970s, rather than striving for ever more stringent copyright law. Kaya Genç, from Turkey, objected to what he regarded as the obsessive concern for copyright. He called for a commons of literature, literature as a liberatory and resistant action. He cited the WWII resistance magazine Combat as the model. In Combat all work was anonymous. I said that I found the ‘commons of literature ‘ very attractive, and had already published some of my own work under the Creative Commons Deed. I objected to the idea that the internet was in any way free, given that we knew it was subject to total government and corporate surveillance, a form of censorship that was relatively invisible by comparison with censorship of the book, and suggested that the eventual declaration should include our opposition to all forms of digital censorship. Pat Kane (Scotland) deepened our understanding of such censorship but kept a foot in both camps by maintaining that the internet was a potential neo-communist vehicle for sharing information. Kane, a radical thinker, activist and musician (and writer to boot!) was one of the few members of the commission who had actually written directly about the internet. His website Thoughtland, is stimulating reading.

While convinced that we had divided in such a way that a true summary of our commission’s discussion could never be included in the Declaration, we were shocked to discover, on emerging from the first session, that the other groups were even more divided. The Naipaul issue, for example, had provoked furious debate. The question of the ‘boundaries of European literature’, first addressed by Vikram Seth (Indian by birth and citizenship, but a delegate for England) at the opening ceremony, had provoked wide-ranging argument which would eventually find its way into the first draft as the simple expression ‘There is no Europe’! Needless to say it was eliminated in revision, however the debate would be reflected in almost every paragraph of the declaration, in such sentences as: ‘Political, ethnic, religious and national boundaries should not present an obstacle to the writer. We support cultural diversity and exchange.’

What did the Parliament achieve? Inevitably such a heterogeneous gathering of writers from so many cultures would bring a wide range of private and public concerns to the table. But it was surprising how much agreement developed. Take the idea of ‘multiculturalism’, which cropped up again and again. Most delegates were agreed that it was originally well-intentioned but had been largely hijacked by corporations and governments and used to ghettoise minorities and their rights. Most of us favoured a more positive interaction between cultures that would allow a two-way learning process between minority and majority cultures. The term ‘hybridisation’ was proposed as an alternative but was rejected as too technical (it’s a term in cultural theory). We were concerned that whatever we declare should emphasise the extent of shared ground, that we rejected the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, that we rejected boundaries. In particular we claimed ‘the republic of letters’ as our common land and opposed all attempts to limit its scope by government or corporation. We defined the role of the writer in opposition to repression, censorship and the hegemony (the word itself was deleted and ‘standardisation of expression’ substituted – an example of the kind of compromise that seems to always develop in these situations) of any one culture; and in support of biblio-diversity, minority forms and languages, free thought and speech and the protection of new and existing literary genres.

Inevitably too, much of what we said could have been said, and much of it was said, at any gathering of writers from the Enlightenment onwards (‘the republic of letters’ is a term used to describe the enlightenment). There’s nothing much that is new in the declaration. Nevertheless, in the highly charged atmosphere following the Naipaul case, a gathering of writers from Europe and its neighbours reasserted the traditional ground of free thought. That in itself was a valuable action, particularly for those countries where that freedom is restricted or endangered, but also for countries like Ireland where ‘sleeping dog’ legislation, such as the Blasphemy Act may eventually be used against us.

The Istanbul 2010 Declaration was passed with only one dissenting vote – that of Cihan Aktash, the left-wing, feminist, Hijab-wearing Muslim novelist and short story-writer. I attach a link below to an article for a Bulgarian newspaper (in English) that helps to explain something of her rationale. It will be clear from that article that the argument is, as always, a complex one. By attempting to explain ourselves we learn the complexity of others.

Web Links
The Istanbul Declaration –
Hari Kunzru –
Pat Kane’s Thoughtland –
Ola Larsmo on The Temptations of Dinosaur Theory ­–
Kaya Genç’s Musée Des Beaux Arts –
Fatima Sharafeddine –
Mehmet Yashin –

William Wall is the author of four novels, a volume of short fiction and three collections of poetry, the latest of which, Ghost Estate, is published by Salmon Poetry. More information from his website at:

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