How Should a Writers’ Festival Be? – a random sampling of SWF 2013

rebel angels

UNTANGLING THE WEB May 23, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Social psychologist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski has spent a decade probing the effects of the web on our lives. She broadcasts and writes on our increasing dependence on the online world. Aleks talks with ABC Radio National’s Marc Fennell.’)

Not having heard of Dr Krotoski before, I turned up out of interest in the topic. And frankly, I was grateful for the late start and punctual finish; I heard nothing new, nor even something familiar expressed in a new way. Luckily, Dr (‘still struggling with jetlag, very confused’) Krotoski seems aware of her limitations and opened the floor to questions from the get-go. She may be a little too close to (tangled in?) her subject to be ruthlessly objective – no doubt true of us all, relatively speaking; and to be fair, I haven’t yet read Dr (‘I love tangents’) Krotoski’s work. I’m reminded of novelist Jennifer Egan’s comment (which I do find provocative), in a 2011 interview with Salon’s Laura Miller. From the transcript:

I’m also interested in just sort of identity and how it works, and I think too that, you know, technology interacts with that in all kinds of ways, so it feels impossible to escape from it. I wonder—I don’t know whether my own reluctance to plunge forward technologically at the same pace as other people—I mean, I’m not that behind, but I’m not forward, that’s for sure. I don’t know why—whether there is something about that that is wanting to let me—that I feel maybe—or maybe I’m just rationalizing—that it frees me to go forward a little more imaginatively if I hang back a little in real life. I don’t know. I don’t know.

And I don’t know either. But if I thought really great novels (or even profoundly exploratory failed novels) weren’t the real cutting edge of social psychology, I mightn’t be quite so obsessed with fiction and its possibilities. Krotoski is also apparently very interested in identity, the concept of which she says is currently ‘under negotiation’. Though I would have liked some case studies to contrast her own process, I’d just noticed a good example in the London Review of Books. Nick Richardson writes of James Lasdun, author of Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked:

It isn’t acts of violence that Lasdun is afraid of, it’s the damage Nasreen may do to his reputation – the Amazon review gave him a ‘sense of personal emergency’ by putting his reputation in ‘imminent and dire peril’. ‘You are what the web says you are, and if it misrepresents you the feeling of outrage, anguish, of having been violated in some elemental layer of your existence is . . . peculiarly crushing.’

A member of the audience, which was on the whole noticeably older than average, asked if Krotoski was looking at ‘the older cohort’, i.e., septuagenarians and octogenarians. After posing what I found to be the most interesting of all the questions, the woman said she blogs and has no idea why, but ‘it seems to be a way of telling myself I still belong’.

GRIFFITH REVIEW: WOMEN AND POWER, TURNING THINGS AROUND May 23, 1–2pm (‘Join Anne Summers, Mary Delahunty, Chris Wallace, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Julianne Schultz for a discussion about the changing relationship between women and power.’)

In contrast to the abovementioned session, Julianne Schultz, who chaired this one, chose to start early because the audience was switched on and ready. This panel was as electrifying as the web discussion hadn’t been. That the unifying or unified energy in The Loft was so palpable is evidence for me that feminism, for want of a less loaded word (and by loaded, I mean liable to evoke negative associations, as well as loaded in the sense of ready to fire), is as vital as it’s ever been: vital as in vibrant, and vital as in desperately needed.

One poignant point made was that the words pornography (noted by Delahunty) and, more troublingly, rape (exampled by Abdel-Magied), have been ‘normalised’. Personally, I find the normalisation of rape as a word/concept disturbing irrespective of the implications in feminist discourse, and not simply because it’s not just women who can be raped. It follows that if the word is trivialised, then so is the act. But also, if a word – the noun or the verb – with such extreme connotations is used to refer to events of lesser intensity, then it’s because words of greater subtlety are dropping out of circulation. (And this is something on which Krotoski might have usefully commented, re her new book’s subtitle – ‘What the Internet is Doing to You’ – if language is a focus in social psychology? Just now taking a look inside her book on Amazon, I’m persuaded that she’s better value on the page than onstage. Oops – does that sound like I’m commodifying her? Politically incorrect?)

A question was asked (by Wallace, I think): ‘How are we helping other women?’ And the panel seemed to be in agreement about helping or at least wanting Abdel-Magied to become Australia’s Prime Minister one day; the older women really gushed over her. While I enjoyed Abdel-Magied’s feisty presence a great deal, I wondered if mechanical engineering is an ideal training ground for politics as it functions today. It certainly guarantees experience in handling a male-dominated workplace.

For me, it’s been – is – really exciting to have a childless woman running the country – not because a suitably qualified mother couldn’t do it as well, but because childless women sometimes aren’t seen to be as worthwhile or respectable as those who fulfil their biological potential (the first word that sprang to mind – programmed by our culture’s dominant paradigm, Science? – was ‘imperative’, but the first word isn’t always, or even often, the best one).

I enjoyed listening to lefties who refrain from Gillard-bashing; that posture has struck me as short sighted and self-sabotaging for nearly three years now. Delahunty pointed out that no male politician’s legitimacy gets denied or attacked in a comparable way. Who else – and I can think of a few, off the cuff, who deserve the title – has even been branded a liar (never mind witch or bitch)? Chris Wallace described Gillard as the ‘high tide of the second wave [of feminism]’ and said there’s ‘an ebb’ underway. She said you (or I) can only be ‘one of two things’, i.e., a fighter or a collaborator.

And Anne Summers said we’ve been too polite for too long.

It was galvanising..

WHY CRITICISM MATTERS May 24, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Why is it so important to have a robust culture of criticism? James Wood, Susan Wyndham and James Ley discuss this and more with Sophie Cunningham.’)

According to James Ley, editor of the online journal Sydney Review of Books, a review has three main functions: journalistic (who the author is etc.), editorialising (good/bad?), and critical (meaning/significance?). The third function engaged the panel. Susan Wyndham referred to loss of diversity in the print press. Her Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum book pages have shrunk in number and share all reviews with The Age and the Canberra Times (so, for instance, while Richard Flanagan’s over-the-top praise of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s long memoir-cum-novel reaches more readers, fewer mainstream forums exist in which Flanagan’s view might be contradicted).

James Wood cited ‘pressure against seriousness’ (bestseller lists, bullet points etc.) as an issue, meaning that those of us for whom meaning matters are ‘fighting a strong rearguard action’, but acknowledged that ‘We are still a branch of the entertainment industry’, and ‘telling stories about stories’ is ‘a slightly impure activity’, one that ‘has always been a literary form like the poem or the play’.

The general consensus seemed to be that the role of long-form lit crit is to ‘illuminate [a] book by [one’s] process of engagement’ (Ley), and thereby act as ‘a counterforce against the commercial pressures’ (Wyndham). Despite the popularity of hatchet jobs, and Wood’s concession that ‘Maybe they do have the better one-liners’, Ley considers it ‘very rare for a book to have absolutely no merit whatsoever’.

TENSION AND SUSPENSE May 24, 1–2pm (‘Every novel needs a narrative drive, a reason for people to keep turning the pages. Hannah Richell, Julienne van Loon and Caroline Overington discuss with Matthew Condon.’)

I snuck in here because it was free and there was no prohibition on eating, but lingered to listen to award-winning journalist Caroline Overington. Asked why she writes fiction, she said it’s so she can tell the truth, a luxury journalists usually aren’t allowed: hardly breaking news, but gripping to hear examples from the horse’s mouth.

LITERARY MAG REVIVAL May 24, 2.30–3.30pm (‘Are literary journals going through a revival? Join our expert panellists, Craig Taylor of Five Dials, Rebecca Starford from Kill Your Darlings and Sam Cooney of The Lifted Brow, as they discuss with Alice Grundy (Seizure) what formats are working, and what’s next.’)

It was good, observed Alice Grundy, to see so many young people in the audience – a mirror, of course, for the four onstage. But as the discussion progressed, these editors struck me as old beyond their years. Is that a prerequisite for or an occupational hazard of a job overwhelmingly geared to nurturing others? I once saw an OPSM ad that said ‘77% of people believe glasses make you look professional’. I’m in the other 23% – personally, I’ve always felt that glasses make their wearer look vulnerable. Aspiring writers tend not to think of editors in that light. Yet when these four alluded good-naturedly to the hardships they endure out of passionate commitment to fostering what they deem good writing, well… I felt far more forgiving of their editorial biases.

Like their older counterparts, they stressed the necessity of familiarising oneself (the more intimately, the better; and ideally, as a subscriber) with the style of a journal before sending work (a process that’s not called ‘submitting’ for nothing), and weren’t impressed with would-be contributors who obviously haven’t read their product. Yet, what to do if, on studying such journals, one can’t find one’s own bent reflected? Craig Taylor suggested one blogs, in a tone that I hoped wasn’t condescending.

MOUTH TO MIC May 24, 4–5pm (‘International spoken wordsmiths Kate Tempest and Anis Mojgani join Australian Poetry Slam Champion CJ Bowerbird, trading samples of powerful poetry. They discuss the whys and hows of their craft with Miles Merrill. Presented with Word Travels.’)

These four panellists, while not all as young as the last four, exuded youthful exuberance. I began to suspect that a greying writer could as easily carve a niche onstage as satisfy the coded requirements of literary pages.

LAUNCH: STONED CROWS AND OTHER AUSTRALIAN ICONS May 24, 6–7pm (‘Watch poets taking the pith out of Australian icons when Newtown Review of Books launches Spineless Wonders’ annual anthology, Stoned Crows and Other Australian Icons.’)

Despite the apparent predominance of female involvement in this sassy local small press, it seemed clear to me, on hearing a range of readings from their latest anthology, that Spineless Wonders is a broader church than many voguish local fiction publishers. I relished being exposed to such vibrant vocal diversity.

THE SILENT HISTORY May 25, 10–11am (‘Sam Cooney speaks to Eli Horowitz about The Silent History, his revolutionary novel written for the iPad and iPhone. With readings from Australian contributors Josephine Rowe, Krissy Kneen and Sam Cooney.’)

To my great consternation, and I still have good recall of other events, I don’t remember any of the promised readings (one reason I bought a ticket). After chatting awhile, Sam and Eli were joined by Josie and Krissy, and the chatting continued. Readings would have made me feel less like an eavesdropper on a private conversation; apparently, collaboration excites no-one more than the collaborators – though anyone, in theory, could collaborate by submitting a ‘field report’. Anyway, five minutes of reading FAQs on the website has clarified what the panel failed to. I only hope I didn’t doze?

QUESTION TIME WITH SHEILA HETI May 25, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Sheila Heti blends the real and imaginary in her novel, How Should a Person Be? In this Q&A performance she asks the audience questions to find out what makes a person “interesting”.’)

The performance began with all of us standing. Then Sheila read out questions, and each of us sat down as soon as our answer was ‘yes’. I didn’t look around to see who (if anyone) sat when she asked the first two – had we killed anyone? Ever had sex with a parent? (Would murderers or incest survivors care to announce the fact?) The point was that the last person left standing, tame as they must be in theory never to have had a nipple pierced nor an out-of-body experience, is shown when randomly quizzed by strangers not to be boring at all. This approach, or something akin to it, would have transformed a few bland events. After the hype I’d just heard about innovative use of technology, it was humbling to be reminded of what’s possible just with human contact. A few times tears filled my eyes. Note to self: check out Heti’s writing.

WORDS COLLIDE: KATE TEMPEST AND ANIS MOJGANI May 26, 2.30–3.30pm (‘Performance poets Kate Tempest and Anis Mojgani are both described as “fierce” and “genius” – a potent combination. Here in Sydney their worlds and words collide. Also featuring Q poets, hosted by Miles Merrill. Presented with Word Travels.’)

Far and away the most inspiring event I enjoyed at this year’s festival. These performers give everything they’ve got (and it was free). If you ever get the chance, check out Mojgani or Tempest – they offer outstanding possibilities for how to be.

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