Though I’ve sampled each of the last twelve festivals, this year’s program failed to excite me. Am I jaded, or has the literary climate changed? The festival logo has changed – but why? Does the overblown triple apostrophe after writers’ signify ownership? Omission? Speech bubbles? Growth? The festival’s grown: lots of panels on hot topics + more guests filling smaller slots. I ummed and ahhed over the options:
Reasons to book…
· Without risk of missing a beat, you can arrive at the last minute and sit up front, at speakers’ feet.
· Unlike in previous years, nothing appealing-sounding is free.
Reasons not to book…
· Fewer free events than before = less value for money.
· If free podcasts of popular sessions become available later, I could spend $20 or $30 (average ticket price up $5 from last year) on books to read while I wait.
· Queuing for free events can be a great way to meet other readers (and writers).
As for the slogan, ‘Bibliotherapy: let’s talk writing’, meh. Unlike pricey, bourgeois elitist psychotherapy, books are for everyone. This year, I sought only free ‘therapy’.
My first choice was ‘New Australian Voices’: Miles Allinson, Josephine Rowe and Antonia Hayes took turns reading from their recent debut novels and chatted with Meredith Jaffé. These authors write very well/intelligently (not the case with all festival guests, on which, more later), yet what they said about their own work engaged me more than what they read out. In fact, I’d come along not because I’d read Allinson’s novel, but due to the intriguing reviews it inspired, plus his own review of Ngarra: The Texta Drawings (the late work of a late Aboriginal artist from the Kimberley), in which he says:
Like his novel’s character, who shares his name (and like myself), Miles Allinson, as you can perhaps tell, is a visual artist as well as a writer. Jaffé called Fever of Animals ‘an anti-coming-of-age novel’. But the opening read rather like an essay – an increasingly common trend at the literary end of the fiction spectrum. Are authors becoming more educated, turning into academics?
That afternoon, a friend and I joined the ABC studio audience for a recording of The Book Club, in which Marlon James, Kate Tempest, Vivian Gornick and Paula Hawkins talk with Jennifer Byrne about ‘Books That Changed My Life’. The erudite James sparked my interest in X-Men comics. Tempest sparked Gornick’s interest in William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), Gornick praised Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence, and Hawkins discussed Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, which I could have guessed is a thriller – because, by chance, I had Hawkins’s best-selling The Girl on the Train in my bag.
Spoiler (and sidetrack) alert: The plot centres on six main characters: three narrators (commuter included), all females; and three males. Obsessed with sex, babies and relationships, the three women struck me (and one of the men) as interchangeable. While therapist Kamal bonks only his patient Megan, and Anna is loyal to husband Tom, Megan’s de facto Scott also bonks Tom’s ex-wife Rachel (who stalks him). Since the big (if predictable) twist involves Megan’s other lover, Tom, she and he each bonk three different characters. So Tom’s murder of Megan appeals to my sense of symmetry, if nothing else, as does Anna and Rachel’s joint murder of Tom.
And yet, it’s not plot contrivance that grates, nor even bulk clichés, but too many similarities between the sketchy characters. Two of the three main men are violent (if not without provocation) and the third, too, is abusive and sexist; two of the women are also violent, but not by nature, only when desperate. One question lured me on: why does this pap get compared to the witty satire Gone Girl?
Genre: domestic noir thriller
Author: middle-aged, middle-class female
Girl in title (whether ironic or not)
Theme: dysfunctional/pathological relationships
Stellar sales + mainstream film adaptation
I spent the next two days writing, then went to ‘Avant Gaga’ on Saturday evening. Arriving close to the start time, I was surprised to find seats in the lounge. Were local poetry buffs lapping up the international talent (because in theory they can see these avant-garde wordsmiths all year)? Many pieces seemed more geared for page than stage, if not Lionel Fogarty’s, with his intense presence and physical expressiveness. Passion tends to confront, yet has the power to transform, as the wildly popular Brit poet Kate Tempest amply demonstrated.
On the Sunday arvo, my partner and I saw ‘Why Women’s Voices Matter to Men’. Writer and director Samantha Lang moderated the panel, but due to a technical hitch, her example of a female character – Denmark’s first female Prime Minister from the TV series Borgen – lost impact. Playwright Tom Holloway followed with his idea of a game changer, Carmela Soprano from the HBO series. Then US gender studies sociologist and writer Michael Kimmel unearthed the orgasm-faking journalist from the yet more dated When Harry Met Sally. At last, the luminous Nakkiah Lui – screenwriter, playwright, producer and actor – saved the session from obsolescence, showing us side-splitting highlights from the recent Oz TV sketch series Black Comedy, on which she’s a co-writer, star and associate producer. Hmm. While the panel’s women cited a political drama and a subversive comedy that airs Indigenous issues, the men leant on old tropes (more women than men seek counselling and moan during sex) and tired genres (crime drama and rom-com).
After the session we were all treated to a free buffet and drinks in the ambient space of Pier 2/3. Better yet, we received a free copy of Lumina: journal of screen arts and business – the 2015 women in film edition, comprising 33 essays by and interviews with female filmmakers, critics, producers, scriptwriters, journalists, academics, actors, executives etc. Here’s a sample, from an interview with director Gillian Armstrong by editor and journalist Jessica Prince-Montague: