Monday musings on Australian literature: Notes on the Sydney Writers’ Festival from a non-attendee

One day I swear I will get to the Sydney Writers’ Festival – properly, I mean. I have been to one session once, but that barely counts. Late May, though, tends to be one of my busiest times of the year, so the years pass and I don’t get to the Festival. I do, though, try to follow it a bit, and so today I thought I’d pass on a few, very idiosyncratic things, that I’ve picked up around the traps.

Discovering new writers

Festivals are great for discovering new writers. Although I watched Q&A last week and enjoyed the panel discussion with several writers from the Festival, my festival experience really started on Thursday with Michael Cathcart’s live interview with South African writer Lauren Beukes (broadcast on Books and Arts Daily on Radio National). Not being a big reader of psychological thrillers, I hadn’t heard of her before and wasn’t really sure I’d be interested in the interview but I would have been sorry to have missed this. Cathcart asked some pointed questions, including the implications of writing in detail about violent acts against women. Beukes, though, was up to the challenge. She spoke of how the real victims of violent crimes tend to be just names, that we don’t hear their stories, that we are never encouraged to think about the sort of deaths they faced – the terror, the pain, they go through before they die. She wrote her latest novel The shining girls from the girls’ points of view because she wanted us to know them, to empathise with them, though she recognised that titillation is also always there in the genre. She also set this novel in Chicago, not South Africa where rape and violence against women are rife, because she wanted to make it clear that there’s violence and corruption everywhere, not just South Africa.

Beukes believes that fiction has a social function. She writes, she said, because there are things we need to talk about. She doesn’t write to lecture, to specifically change people’s minds, but to encourage discussion.

For more interviews with writers from the Festival, do check out Radio National, particularly Books and Arts Daily’s page.

Dilettantish interests*

The secret River cover

Famous Chong cover (Courtesy: Text)

An important part of my Festival experience in recent years is reading John’s reports on his Musings of a Literary Dilettante blog. To date, John has written three posts on the Festival. The first was on a session called The Uncommon Reader, a panel discussion with critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White, chaired by Tegan Bennett Daylight. In the session these critics named the books that they go to again and again. John’s post is interesting for this alone. Don’t all we readers love to know what books other readers love?

John’s second post was on book design. If you are interested in this topic, do read his post. He reports on what several designers had to say, including Text Publishing‘s award-winning designer, WH Chong. If you read Australian published books you are sure to have seen some Chong covers. John’s post resulted in a discussion (in the comments section) regarding design in the e-book world and the commercial function of design.

John’s third post is a moving tribute to Gillian Mears, author of Foal’s bread (my review), who, many of you will know, suffers from MS and needs to manage her energy carefully. It’s therefore a real treat to see her in public forums. John’s post provides a lovely insight into Mears now – the struggles she’s facing, the things that still interest and concern her, her love of nature and the outdoors, her change of mind concerning euthanasia, and, despite it all, her sense of humour.

Flying high … on poetry, stories and creativity*

This year, I also read another blogger’s reports, Jonathan of Me Fail? I Fly. Jonathan went to two days of the festival. In his first post Jonathan describes a few events, starting with the launch of four chapbooks of poetry by the poets, David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken. I loved Jonathan’s comment that “The mutual respect and affection among the five people [including poet Luke Davies who launched the books] on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous”. Jonathan then went to another poetry event, Harbour City Poets, at which five poets, Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks, read. His post concludes on two more events that day: Robert Green on Creativity and Stories Then and Now. This post gave me a good sense of how busy attending festivals can be – particularly since Jonathan had to rush home in the middle to feed his dog!

On his second day at the festival, Jonathan attended two events: Writers who blog with Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott and Angela Meyer, and Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet with Jeff Sparrow, Robert Manne and others. I was of course most interested in his report of the blogging session. Jonathan says he managed to ask the first question at the end of the session:

I asked about difficulties with comments. Mark had a ready, sensible answer: ‘Don’t start an argument on the Internet.’ Tara took the microphone: ‘My advice is, Start arguments on the Internet.’ They were both right, of course. I liked Tara’s final note: ‘When you do get into an argument, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see quoted in the newspaper.’

Love it … don’t you?

The Guardian doesn’t like Sydney’s rain

Yesterday’s Guardian (UK) online has an article titled “Ten thoughts to take from the Sydney Writers’ Festival”. The article is more entertaining than usefully edifying, but I did love “Five: on euphemisms” regarding “the sorts of euphemisms reviewers use to disguise their negative thoughts on books”. James Ley said that “‘Interesting’ is a usefully neutral term”, and Susan Wyndham suggested that “ambitious” is helpful, saying that “you don’t necessarily have to say whether the work achieved those ambitions or not”! I have two somewhat contradictory questions to ask you regarding this. Should reviewers disguise their negative thoughts? And, what euphemisms do you use? I must say that I try very hard not to use “interesting”!

But, what really made me laugh was the Guardian‘s parenthetical eleventh thought that “Sydney doesn’t do rain well. Know that you will not be able to buy an umbrella at the festival, anywhere, ever.”  The Guardian people clearly aren’t used to a country where drought is common! It wasn’t until we travelled to Japan that we discovered there are countries which sell umbrellas everywhere.

* I hope I haven’t stolen John and Jonathan‘s thunder. Their posts say much more than I’ve noted here. Do go read them at the links I’ve provided.

POSTSCRIPT: Podcasts are available of some talks. Go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival site and click on SWF Blog tab to find them. Thanks to DKS of Pykk for reminding me.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Notes on the Sydney Writers’ Festival from a non-attendee

    • No, I haven’t DKS, though I thought they probably did. Thanks for residing me … I forgot to check when I got to the end of my post. Will try to remember to remember to add it to the end of my post after breakfast.

  1. 1. I feel silly, but for some reason I’ve never thought about the fact that there exist dedicated/career book cover designers! It makes complete sense, of course. I wonder if authors ever get much say in it?
    2. Lorraine!!! I’ll have to click through and see what he thought of my Spay Lady.
    3. Hotel Fifty in Portland gave me an umbrella for free this morning when I was checking out and heading to the airport via public transit in the rain. So nice!

    • Well, silly you! But now you know. I probably didn’t know when I was in my twenties either … wouldn’t have thought about it. There’s a Canberra blogger who’s a designer who does books: Ampersand Duck. Thought you’d want to check out Lorraine. And, nice Hotel eh!

  2. I’m flattered to be quoted, Sue. I did get to the weekend as well, and am hoping to get something about it up on my blog today. The thing about Other People’s Blogs is that they can confirm, and occasionally disprove, the ever-present suspicion that one has made the wrong choice of event to attend.

    • Glad you didn’t mind Jonathan. I’ll read your new posts when they come up, and hopefully people coming here will notice them when they go check you out. It’s very frustrating when there are multiple sessions you’d like to go to … but at least you got to some, eh?

    • Thanks Stefanie … I hope so too. I think it is still the biggest in Australia though the Melbourne One is growing by the year. They are both significant festivals that I’d like to attend.

  3. I’m with you! Every year I say to myself: “I really really really must go to the Festival this year” and every year, for some reason or another I am outwitted or outgunned or simply fail to make good on the promise to myself. Like you, I have seen one Festival event – Marcus Zusak and John Boyne talking about their books – respectively The Book Thief and The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas – and I loved loved loved it! Woe is me for missing out on another year! … I guess there’s always next year??

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