Monday musings on Australian Literature: Australian Literary Festivals

I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a Monday Musings on Australia’s Literary Festivals but I have finally been spurred to do it after attending the Canberra Readers’ Festival last weekend. This is partly because I actually managed to attend a festival and partly because the last speaker was Australian literary doyen, Frank Moorhouse, who caught my attention with his statement that literary festivals are really a thing of the last 10-15 years.

Hmm, I thought, is that right? I’ve been aware of literary (and arts) festivals for way longer than that, and I recently read that the Brisbane Writers’ Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. However, I think his main point was that over the last decade or so they have started to make their presence felt. They are multiplying in number, and attendances are increasing significantly. Moorhouse said that last year over half a million people attended literary festivals in Australia and that this number had increased by 10% on the previous year. The Melbourne Writers’ Festival had around 50,000 attendees this year, and around 80,000 have been attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival since 2007. Wow!

Of course, as a librarian, I wanted to know the source of his information, so I went looking. I didn’t find all the figures I wanted, but I did find find some interesting things to share with you:

  • there is an excellent website (which I have seen before) for Australian Literary Festivals, and they have an associated Facebook page. It’s not foolproof – our Canberra Readers’ Festival was not on it – but it’s a start. It has a calendar, which is always useful for holiday planning!
  • bloggers (of course) blog about festivals they attend – which helps spread the word about how great they are (or can be) to attend. And some bloggers provide lists of festivals, such as writer Jason Nahrung, whom I discovered through the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.
  • authors, at least some anyhow, like attending festivals*. Not only do they get to promote their books and engage with readers (through Q&A sessions and book-signings) but they get to meet and talk with other writers! Earlier this year Thomas Keneally said about going to a festival in the USA that “It will be particularly delightful to walk in the presence of other writers in the same streets and districts that formed Tennessee Williams’s sensibility.” Nick Earls has likewise commented on how the Brisbane Writers’ Festival aims “to unite local writers with those from abroad”.
  • literary festivals are about as diverse as literature is itself. There are the big city festivals and the regional festivals (like the now well-known Byron Bay Writer’s Festival which started in 1997); there are festivals devoted to general literature and those that are genre-based; there are festivals which focus on big names and those which foster local writers; there are festivals designed specifically for children and young writers and those for poets; there are those – well, you get my drift. Check the links in my second dot-point above and you’ll see what I mean.
  • literary festivals can rejuvenate dying country towns. Just look at Clunes for example. Who had heard of Clunes, Victoria, 5 years ago? Now every reader worth his/her salt will heard of Clunes and its annual weekend book and literary festival. It started 5 years ago specifically to revive the town and this year earned “a coveted international Booktown listing”. First-day attendance this year “smashed” previous attendances.

The value and role of these festivals is supported by the Federal Government’s major arts funding arm, the Australia Council which, in its Literature Sector Plan for 2012-2014, lists the following under its Sector Issues of Concerns:

The Literature Board welcomes the fact that each year more and more regional towns in Australia are establishing their own writers’ festivals. These, along with the major capital city festivals, form a vibrant infrastructure for Australian literature and provide increased opportunities for writers to earn performance fees and promote their work. However, within the limited financial resources available to the Literature Board, it is not possible to offer support to every applicant.

Ah, money … there’s the rub. Festivals, even small ones, aren’t cheap but they are “a good thing” – for the attendees (wh0, as Moorhouse said, demonstrate by their attendance, a hunger for ideas and discussion) and for the health of the arts and therefore society as a whole.

Do you like literary festivals? Why or why not? And, if so, I’d love to hear which ones you attend, and what makes a good festival for you.

* But they do, funnily enough, like to be treated well. I like this post from an English author on “how not to run a literary festival” from an Author’s point of view.

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian Literature: Australian Literary Festivals

  1. My word, Amanda Craig’s a bit liverish, eh?
    Seriously, I love literary festivals, and was a bit peeved to miss this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival because I was overseas. I usually go to Clunes, go to suburban ones like Bayside’s and Williamstown’s and try to get to at least one other Victorian regional one such as Airey’s Inlet or the Henry Handel Richardson one which moves around to dfferent towns where HHR lived.
    I’ve never been able to go to any of the other big ones (Sydney, Adelaide etc) because they’ve conflicted with work. One day maybe…

    • I know what you mean about being peeved about missing events you love, Lisa … I try to organise holidays around them (like the National Folk Festival) but can’t always manage to do so. I don’t get to as many actual literary festivals as you do – it’s been hard to get away – but we are lucky having the NLA here and a pretty active literary scene for our size that over the years I’ve got to some great literary events and seen people whom I’ll never forget – Jolley, Malouf, Coetzee, Janette Turner Hospital, John Marsden, Geraldine Brooks and so on. I’ve been wanting to get to the Byron Bay festival for some years — it’s a good place to go in a Canberra winter! (I wish I’d done it when Astley was there!). I keep saying there’s still time … but ….!

      Re Craig, I was quite coincidentally thinking about the arts and income as I was driving around earlier today. What’s a fair thing? I thought Craig was making a fair enough point in that we do tend sometimes to take our arts people for granted, expecting them to do things for the love of it. Yet, she does need to realise that some authors will pull more patrons in, which will result in her being paid at all. And, after all in the “real” world, travel money – airfares, accommodation – is often higher for senior staff than for middle management staff.

      • IHi Sue, I thought Craig made some valid points, but it was the tone of her comment: ‘Even small places such as Rock in Cornwall – best-known for its splendid surfing and the ill-mannered teenagers this attracts’ – to begin like that just made her seem like a ‘grumpy old woman’. What a mean thing to say about a little place trying to change its image! But also, she’s clearly got no idea that in small places, these events are run on a shoestring and mostly by volunteers who are usually volunteering for everything else that needs to be done in the town and don’t have time to meet hordes of authors at the train station etc. Even big festivals like Melbourne’s rely on volunteers and crowd funding to some extent and many festivals would not happen without a ‘love of it’ element.
        It’s the world we live in! Sport makes money and the creative arts don’t.

        • Oh Lisa … yes, that’s a fair point, I see what you mean. I was focusing so much on her points about what makes a good festival I didn’t read it carefully. In fact I was nearly going to conclude my post – when I referred to the money – on the issue of the organisers doing it pretty much for the love of it/smell of an oily rag and all that! Thanks for making that point. They are saints.

  2. I would love to go to the Literary Festival in Washington DC, it is huge! One day maybe. And my sister who works at UCLA has only been once to lit fest held there every year because she doesn’t like bothering with the traffic. I tell she is crazy but you know how sisters can be! We have a Twin Cities literary festival but it is so tiny and there are usually none to only one or two authors there I’d want to see so I have only been once. I feel kind of guilty about that, but there it is.

    • Well, LA traffic is not fun!! When we arrived there to live – hubby was posted to work with an American company – with a 6yo and 3yo in tow – no-one came to LA airport to welcome us or pick us up. (We had to pick up a hire car and drive 50 miles on the freeway to Yorba Linda after a 15 or so hour flight). That really surprised us but we quickly learnt that the people we knew did not like going to the airport! I do hope you get to the DC one one day. This one I attended was wonderful – small and just one day but really class authors. Hard to resist!

      • Not a very nice welcome! I always meet people at the airport even if I don’t like going there! Traffic is all part of living in LA just like cold and snow are all part of living in Minneapolis. I will make it to DC one of these days. I am determined!

        • I agree … that’s what we did when the next Aussie family arrived a week after us.

          Glad you are determined … I look forward to reading all about it one of these days!

  3. I began going to the Sydney Writers Festival in the ‘old’ days when it was still run at the State Library. I love the new site at the Wharf, but it is now simply too crowded for me – queuing to get into a session for 30 minutes and then still not getting in is not my idea of fun! So I’ve decided this year was my last one there. Byron is great – far more relaxed and no queuing, but being biased, I love our own, the Bellingen Readers Festival, the most. Why? 1) It invites Australian authors only, who in my view are undervalued. Most festivals regard the international authors as their money spinner, but what about supporting our own? 2) It works with and involves the local Gumbaynggirr people. 3) It has lots of innovative events, set in the amazing natural environment we have here. 4) Because it’s smaller, it allows genuine interaction between authors and readers.

    • Oh, I agree, Annette. That’s what I like about the Melbourne Festival: you buy your tickets in advance and then you know you can get in. And we’re on the same page as far as Australian literature and indigenous authors being undervalued – that’s why I started my blog and why, this year, I hosted Indigenous Literature Week during NAIDOC Week. I’ve added the Bellingen Festival to my calendar and hope to get there next year.

    • Good for you Annette … I think the small festivals can be really focused that way. I rather like seeing the odd international author but the biggest thrill really is to see our Aussie writers. When I got back into serious reading in the mid 1980s it was the Aussie women writers I wanted to focus on … they are still a special love of mine (which is partly why this festival was so wonderful – though the two male authors were good too! And, of course, Anita Heiss was wonderful).

  4. A really interesting topic to read about – and timely for me. I’ve not attended many times but I’ve experienced the Melbourne Writers Festival, once just before the crazy boom and the one this year. I have to say I was disappointed because it was just too big, too crowded and I really felt disconnected from it all. I understand that they need to bring in crowds to make it ‘successful’ but it didn’t feel as welcoming as I had the time before. I think I’ll try to attend a country festival next time. My days with major city literary festivals are over…

    • I know what you mean ifnotread. Not being a big city girl I have a love hate attitude to the big festivals. I want to go because of the wonderful variety they offer, but I’m not a huge fan of big crowds. My mantra is “small is beautiful”. I live in a small city, my kids went to small schools, when I travel I like to get into the smaller towns, and I like novellas! LOL!

    • It’s the venue. I love Fed Square as a building, but for the festival, it doesn’t facilitate people getting together. When the festival was at the Malthouse, there were big refectory tables on the ground floor so that people automatically sat down for coffee with other people and starting chatting. But the cafes at Fed Square means that you see lots of people sitting alone at tables. if you don’t know anyone, it can feel rather bleak.

      • Thanks for this Lisa … I think you are right. The venue is important. I have been thinking about the venue for this one last weekend and the thing that was missing was that opportunity to sit and talk with other goers (besides the ones you went with). There was a big space but I felt it didn’t work as well as it could have. Something like refectory tables, rather than lots of little permanent stand-at only tables (it was a theatre foyer), would make a big difference I think. That’s exactly what was missing … I couldn’t put my finger on it. The space was there but it didn’t quite work to encourage discussion.

      • I definitely agree with your point about the venue. It’s interesting that you said ‘if you don’t know anyone…’ I went alone and didn’t know anyone there. I’m not in the literary circle at all, I just love books. But this time I felt the festival was for the publicists and the journalists, not the readers.

        • Exactly, if you’re not part of the literary scene, that’s why the type of venue matters. It needs to encourage people to chat with each other. It’s only at the most recent festivals where I’ve been able to organise meeting up with friends at the festival – all of them people I have ‘met’ online, because there was never anyone in my f2f life who loved books like I do. Even so, I’m mostly on my own.
          I think we readers need to make sure we give the organisers feedback because it’s very easy for a festival to become hijacked by publicists and the book trade. Of course they have to make money, of course they need to grow a younger audience as well as keep the ‘women of a certain age’ who have been the lifeblood of all these festivals. But it needs to be done carefully so that the spirit of the festival isn’t lost.

        • All very true Lisa … they have to make money (after all we don’t want out authors to starve!) but they need to encourage readers to do that so as you say it needs care to get the balance right.

          I think I’m lucky to have quite a few keen readers amongst my friends. It was a core group of friends who loved to read that resulted in my reading group – and then from that we’ve gradually found other keen readers. We got to the point very quickly where we just had to turn people away because we were getting too big for discussions to work well (and for people’s houses to accommodate us!)

  5. I am really hoping to make it to Clunes next year! I do love the whole festival thing – or bookish conventions or author events. The chance to meet some of your favourite authors or to discover new ones is always exciting.

  6. Interesting to read about literary festivals in Australia! I think they’re on the up in Britain too, and probably other parts of the world. I read an article about it somewhere that said it was part of the future of literature – authors would be like rock bands, making less money from the sale of books but more from live performances. I agree with the comment above about a balance – I do think that sometimes festivals pay too much to authors, especially big-name ones, and then charge ridiculous prices for entry. I think festivals can be a great thing for spreading a love of books, but only if they’re affordable. Otherwise they can become too elitist and lose their original spirit.

    • That’s good to hear Andrew … libraries over there might be struggling but the festivals clearly indicate reading itself is not! Cost is a big issue I agree … it’s paradoxical that we’ve worked so hard to make reading a democratic activity (free libraries, freedom of expression) but that attendance at many of these events can be pretty elitist partly due to cost. This Canberra one was amazingly cheap ($32 for the full day, $25 for people with concessions). I wonder if they’ll be able to sustain that into the future. It would be good if they could.

  7. Fascinating. Sounds like Australia has a vibrant litererary scene (but not so much on the West Coast?).

    For myself I have very little interest in literary festivals and on the whole don’t get a lot from hearing writers talk about their work. We have literary programmes on BBC Radio which are quite useful, but half an hour is enough for me. I prefer reading about books – which I do a lot of

    • Thanks for joining in Tom … I must say I don’t know a lot about the west coast in terms of specifics but I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a good literary scene. Fremantle Press is an active publisher which gave many WA writers a start, like Elizabeth Jolley. WA also has amazing writers like Tim Winton and Kim Scott. It has an active creative writing program at at least one of its universities, so I expect it does have an active literary scene.

      As for literary festivals … I must say I don’t chase them, but I do love literary events like the panel discussion with the winners of the Prime Ministers’ Literary Awards, an afternoon Conversation with a specific author or a Literary DInner with an author as guest speaker. I enjoy those events. I’ve heard people like Elizabeth Jolley, JM Coetzee, David Malouf, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Janette Turner Hospital and so on and so on, this way. Not sure why it is, but I love hearing the author in person (but I don’t think it should be expected of them. They chose writing not performing as a profession and they shouldn’t be expected to do what is not comfortable for them. We readers should respect that I believe.)

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