Why Be Private When You Could Be Public? – reflections on Sydney Writers’ Festival



In the wake of another late-autumn mass orgy of words and ideas by the water, books lie sprawled across my bed – a volume of visionary poems Allen Ginsberg wrote in the ’50s, because someone told me ‘Howl’ changed his life and I’m open to poetry changing mine; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, because I’m exploring Jeanette Winterson’s sources; and a few other titles with more lasting appeal, I suspect, than the bulk of those authored by festival guests.

‘The 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival focuses on the line between the public and the private,’ runs artistic director Chip Rolley’s program message. ‘The question of the limits of what is personal is one of the hottest topics around.’ Undoubtedly…

JEANETTE WINTERSON May 16, 9–10.30pm (‘Jeanette Winterson will read from her new memoir… She will talk about books, life, love, death, madness and creativity, and answer all your questions.’)

In her solo show at the Opera House Concert Hall, which she said reminded her of a gospel tent, JW strutted her most public persona, opening with a stand-up routine that segued into a long, comic reading. Having just read and loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? without finding it LOL funny – rather, I was unnerved by how much her childhood mirrors mine – I wondered if she ever tires of spoofing her adoptive mother. (She did wind up a few minutes early.) Might Mrs W’s death in 1990, before she’d forgiven Jeanette, underlie a need to keep her legend alive?

To gauge from the show of hands, a fair few in the audience had never read Winterson before. Yet the ticket price would have bought two or three titles (more, if those were e-books). Is this a symptom of the high value our culture accords personality? If JW spruiks her book with enough charisma – and she assuredly did – the public will buy work that took form in private. But will they engage with it on its own terms?

In a more serious vein, Jeanette urged us to use the neglected words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, touching mine most when she recited some lines from Yeats on forgiveness. She clearly believes that poetry saves lives and I went away convinced and inspired.

IS CODE POETRY? May 17, 4–5pm (‘Are computer geeks authors? Do we need to expand the notion of composition to take in the aesthetics of coding?’)

The title of this session seized my imagination, provoking a string of analogous musings (Is sampling music? are martial arts dance? etc.) According to author–inventor Mark Pesce, code and poetry share elegance – ‘expressiveness and concisiveness [sic] combined’.

Author–academic Anna Gibbs spotted lots of ‘geeks’ in the audience; did the contrasting presence of lots of poets make them more conspicuous? Most attendees claimed to be either poets or programmers; only three put their hands up for both.

Poet–programmer Benjamin Laird said that language, like code, is performative – but only in the mind (and then, not always?). He also pointed out that code gets outmoded faster than poetry, and that metaphors only get us ‘halfway’. Perhaps the same goes for these sorts of panels? Though Gibbs cited experiments that bring code and poetry together, no-one showed us examples of how that might look or sound.

FRIENDS REVIEWING FRIENDS May 18, 4–5pm (‘In our small literary community it is inevitable friends review each other, but should there be some ethical guidance? And how do outsiders get a look-in?’)

To gauge from the abject attendance at this session, which looked no less exciting than the others in the same timeslot, it would seem that hardly a soul cares who’s reviewing whom. Is that just because now we’re all reviewers? Or do personalities pull bigger crowds than topics do?

Journalist Gideon Haigh (whose inclusion, missing from the print program, came as a bonus) said of capsule reviews: ‘I think they’re worse than useless.’ Perhaps he assumed that his fellow panellist, Kerryn Goldsworthy, has a thick skin: how else could one survive writing four condensed reviews per week for a living? Echoing Haigh’s sentiment that ‘it’s poor form to respond to a review’, Goldsworthy complained of poisonous author emails tainting her coffee some mornings. (One supposes it’s her choice to open them.) Here’s the thing: to review four fiction books per week, you must first read them. If they receive equal treatment (though only one gets featured), that leaves 1¾ days each. Forgetting that an author might spend years writing a book, and though Goldsworthy’s ‘trained’ re what to look for, doesn’t she get psychic indigestion (not unlike when one crams for exams)? Goldsworthy describes herself as a consumer guide. Fair enough. But there’s more to reading than consumption. And if you spend all week reading new releases – even your pick of the bunch – when do you get to read what feeds your soul, lifts your spirit and broadens your mind, those relatively rare works one must sometimes raid the past to find? Isn’t there something narrowing, numbing, about being bound, week in, week out, to one’s own historical time?

Yet, according to an audience member, authors deserve no right of reply: to claim such for oneself is ‘undignified’. Might these trigger-happy comebacks from wounded author-egos be a symptom of something much bigger, something about the whole business that sucks? Still, Haigh maintains, despite his frustration with the ‘banality’ of the lit. pages, that the unlucky author should be capable of ‘sucking it up’. But then, Haigh is satisfied with his own ethical standards, the bottom line of which seems to involve ‘working toward an idea of good literature’. And chair Chris Flynn has given up a welcome source of income, because to review debut novels of others when his own has just been published would amount to a conflict of interest.

Partly due to their tameness (spawned by the mores of a small pond?), the Oz book pages often bore me. So I recently took time to explore the London Review of Books online. And it’s to these pages I now turn, to forestall the charge of a personal stake (as local reviewers might include ghosts from my past). Besides, not only do they tend to know more about their targets, some LRB reviewers share none of our festival panellists’ scruples.

Take Adam Mars-Jones’s 5909-word review of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir (these elite Brit reviewers get to indulge in expansive essays). Mars-Jones’s 1901-word clearing of his throat includes an embarrassing anecdote that flatters his vanity if it’s accurate. Maybe he should have saved it for his own memoir? His pseudo-psychologising, based on having known Jeanette three decades ago, reads more like padding than analysis. He even uses her misattribution of an Austen quote (amended in the paperback edition) to posit ‘Winterson’s great ambivalence about her project’. But apparently Mars-Jones, who won the 2011 Hatchet Job of The Year Award for dissing Michael Cunningham, is letting JW off lightly (see Chris Flynn’s delightful crit of Mars-Jones’s winning display of bile). Not so, one female LRB reviewer, Jenny Turner, on Winterson’s The PowerBook (2000):

I am sure she also likes swanking about this good life she has brought into being, like the demiurge, through her own desire: the seclusion, the devoted lover, the opera and the garden, the Bloomsbury Set first editions, the pseudo Old Master paintings, like the ones she used to put on the jackets of her books.

Does this tell us more about Winterson’s work or Turner’s understandable envy? (The debut novel the latter produced, years after that sour-grapes review, appears to have sunk without a trace.) How do critics keep their bitterness out of their evaluation? And if they did, would readers who relish blood sports still be entertained?

As Winterson says in a 1997 interview for the Paris Review: ‘I take the Ezra Pound view that you shouldn’t take any notice at all of anybody who has not written a significant work themselves. […] But … I got fed up with being continually thrashed to bits and having my personal life exposed in ways that were vicious and designed to destroy.’

SPOKEN FOUR May 19, 7–8.30pm (‘Take one award-winning, Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican wordsmith, Australia’s own Poetry Slam champion and two acclaimed playwrights. Mix well. You’ve got Lemon Andersen, Luka Lesson, Skye Loneragan and Benito Di Fonzo. Hosted by the director of Word Travels, Miles Merrill.’)

Though I doubt this style of poetry’s what JW had in mind when she claimed that reciting it can heal, even save your life, these street-wise performers beat most local ‘literary’ poets (maybe all of them?). To test its lifesaving grace I’d need to listen from within a darker space, but some local poetry that’s getting published is so far up itself, you have to eat shit to appreciate it. I can’t wait to see these magicians again.

iSPY May 20, 2.30–3.30pm (‘When we Google, every keystroke delivers information about ourselves to companies and governments. Should we be worried about what happens to this information?’)

A highlight: one sweet young gen Yer asked what’s wrong with sharing so much of yourself online (like, why consider the consequences in 10 years time?) – to which I could only think, Who’s never shared one personal fact they haven’t lived to regret? And here – i.e. Facebook – we’re talking no end of facts accessible to anyone.

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