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Monday musings on Australian literature: Regional literary festivals

May 19, 2014

With the Sydney Writers’ Festival kicking off today, I thought it might be interesting to turn our thoughts briefly to the regions. We (well, Aussie readers anyhow) know the big well-established city festivals, in particular Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, but there are also many smaller festivals, some rural, some suburban. In this post I plan to write about some of the rural/regional festivals. You never know, there might be one near you – or one in a location you’d like to visit for your next holiday. Perhaps we can even lure some people from overseas to our interesting smaller towns and regions!

I’m going to list a randomly selected few in the order of their establishment, starting with the oldest. Most of these festivals are shorter than the big city ones, and usually run over a weekend.

  • Byron Bay Writers Festival. Established in 1997, this festival is on my bucketlist, partly because it is well-established now but mainly because Byron Bay, on the northern coast of New South Wales, is also a great place to visit. In fact, it apparently started, the website says, when a few locals wondered “whether authors might accept an invitation to spend a winter’s weekend in Byron Bay”. They did! It is now well enough established that it can attract significant Australian and overseas writers. This  year’s festival will be held 1-3 August, and one of the featured authors will be Stella Prize winner, Clare Wright.
  • Clunes Booktown Festival. Established in 2007 as a one-day event, converting to a two-day festival in 2008. Clunes in a small town in, roughly, central Victoria. It became the 15th accredited member of the International Organisation of Booktowns in 2012, and is the only booktown in the southern hemisphere. (It’s somewhat of a joke, that we Aussies like to claim the biggest, first, only, etc “something” in the southern hemisphere!). This year’s festival was held over the first weekend in May. It is a little different to the others I’ve listed here in that while it has author talks and events, its main focus is the buying and selling of books. However, it does include a literary program which this year included a special feature on book art, and speakers like novelist Alex Miller and historian Henry Reynolds.
  • Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. Established in 2009, this festival is Arts Margaret River’s flagship event. The 2014 festival was held last weekend, 16-18 May, with scheduled speakers including Joan London, Peter Goldsworthy and Graeme Simsion. Associated with the festival is a Short Story Competition, which is run in conjunction with Margaret River Press and results in the publication of an anthology of winning and selected stories. Last year, I reviewed the 2013 anthology, Knitting and other stories, and will review this year’s anthology in the next few months. Margaret River, in southwest Western Australia, is also a beautiful location, famous for wine (among other attractions). 
  • Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. Established in 2011, this festival very specifically frames itself as a “readers” and “writers” festival. It has several aims, including the aspiration to be “unique among other literary festivals in using the region’s rich environmental and cultural heritage and the passions of local writers and readers”. Apparently, Peter Carey is its patron. Like Byron Bay and Margaret River, Bellingen on the New South Wales’ mid-coast, is a gorgeous part of the world, making it yet another one I’d love to attend. This year’s festival will be held over the New South Wales long weekend, 6-9 June, and speakers include Alex Miller, Kristina Olsson and, wonderfully, Yolgnu authors from Arnhem Land.
  • Batemans Bay Writers Festival. The new kid on the block, this festival is being held for the first time this year on the same long weekend as the Bellingen Festival, but for just two days, 7-8 June. It’s only 2-hours drive from my home but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be making it. It has a good lineup of speakers, though, including Clare Wright, Debra Adelaide and Marion Halligan, which hopefully augurs well for its becoming a regular event.

These are just a few of the plethora of regional literary festivals in Australia. It may be a product of my random selection, but did you notice that four of these five festivals started in the 2000s? Is this indicative of an increasing interest in and support for books and reading? The answer is probably a little more complex than a simple equation, but I hope there’s something in it!

I haven’t included in the list what I would call a subgroup of these which comprises the festivals devoted to a particular writer, such as the Banjo Paterson Festival (in Orange, NSW), Jane Austen Festival Australia which celebrates all things Regency, and surely the grand-daddy of them all, the Henry Lawson Festival (Grenfell, NSW), which is holding its 57th festival this year. There are also festivals devoted to specific literary forms (such as poetry) and genres (such as romance). I may do a post on them another time.

As I was researching this post, I was sorry to discover that the Kimberley Writers’ Festival, which was to have been held for the 10th time this year, will not be going ahead due, says the organiser Jo Roach, to “changes in government grant funding criteria and reduction in spending by local companies”. She hopes, however, to hold it next year. Such is the difficulty of holding specialised festivals, particularly in remote places like Kununurra.

Finally, there is a festival that is not held in Australia but that has strong Australian associations, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which will be held for the 11th time this year. Ubud is in Bali and this festival was established by Australian-born Janet DeNeefe “in response to the 2002 Bali bombings”. She says on her website that “it has been named by Harper’s Bazaar, UK,  as ‘one of the top Festivals in the world’ and by ABC’s Asia-Pacific network as ‘the next Edinburgh Festival of Asia’.” (The “next” Edinburgh Festival of Asia? Is there another one?). Anyhow, this year’s festival will be held 11-15 October. I first heard of it through blogger Bryce Alcock’s 8-post report on the 2011 festival. 

Phew, this ended up being longer than I intended.

Are you a keen attender of literary festivals? And if you are, what makes a good festival for you?


25 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2014 3:47 am

    We’ve got the Twin Cities Literary festival in October. I’m not big on the bookfair portion of it but if they have good panels and authors there talking I like to go. It’s only a one day affair but it’s fun. I’d really love to go to the DC book festival one day, but that will take some planning!

    • May 20, 2014 8:16 am

      Ah yes, I remember your talking about the DC before. I’m with you. I wouldn’t be up on the book fair part of Clunes though I’d love to go to the town OUT of festival and wander around the bookshops. Does that make sense?

  2. May 20, 2014 7:49 am

    Great post WG. I’m in Sydney, ready and waiting to go to my first session of the SWF today! Bit exciting. I’ve made the grand ambition of trying to get to every Australian writers festival. It will take a while…. I know. I’ve done Melbourne and Mudgee so far.

    I went to Mudgee Readers Festival (I like how they change the emphasis) last year- it was great. So compact. You can stay in the same hotel as the venue, and wander down from your room to sessions- a vastly different experience to what I’m expecting in Sydney. And I got to see most of the visiting authors (10 of the 12) in the various sessions I went to.

    Sadly I won’t get there this year.

    There is a website that compiles all the festivals- did you see that?
    Which makes my quest a little daunting…

    • May 20, 2014 8:19 am

      Hi Louise, yes I came across that website towards the end of my research. I’ve been to one SFF session a few years ago. How many days are you going to go for?

      I noticed the Mudgee one but as I already had three NSW ones in the mix I thought I’d better mix it up more. Some I wanted to include didn’t have god websites which made me worry about how active and well run they were … Hmm, that’s a bit snooty but I did want people to be able to find out more.

      Are you going the the bookbloggers forum today?

    • May 20, 2014 8:20 am

      Oh, and have a great time in Sydney.

  3. May 20, 2014 9:54 am

    We had the first festival in Beaconsfield Tas not long ago and it was a runaway hit. Much more attended than thought it would be so very successful. I didn’t get to it because my husband was housesitting a friend’s farm for a couple of weeks so I had to take care of my menagerie but would have been nice. There are a few literary things that crop up down here and it’s getting better. Have never attended one but would like to.

    • May 20, 2014 9:59 am

      Oh I saw that one listed Pam but as you say it seemed a bit new and I wanted to do ones that looked like they’d been going for a while. Let’s hope they do manage to establish themselves and you get to it! They are immense fun … regardless, almost, of the speakers, just because of the being there with other readers.

  4. May 20, 2014 10:08 am

    Hi Sue, A timely post as I’m gearing up for my annual SWF pilgrimage. I like a varied program, with a mix of international guests and local authors, some spotlighting of new authors as well as book designers (sadly, the annual book design session at the SWF this years seems to have disappeared). I like Louise’s goal of going to all of the Australian events. That’s a nice bucket list. And, like you, I’d dearly love to go to the Byron Bay festival one of these years. Another thing, and they rarely get a public thank-you at the events, are the volunteers! Cheers, John

    • May 20, 2014 3:33 pm

      Thanks John … I’m relying on you to report some highlights. I remember, I think, your writing up a book design session in the past. What a shame it’s not on this year. And volunteers! Where, I guess, would arts events be without them. Thanks for mentioning that!

  5. Deb Stevens permalink
    May 20, 2014 10:34 am

    The Snowy Mountains Readers and Writers Festival is into it’s third year. Their children’s festival was held to great acclaim in April. Guests included the current Children’s Laurette Jackie French.
    The adult festival will be held later this year and there is sure to be another great line up.
    I will post details when the announcements are made.

    Last year we had divine venue choices in Jindabyne Thredbo and a literary lunch at Crackenback.

    • May 20, 2014 3:35 pm

      Oh thanks Deb, do … if I can get to the adult one this year I’ll do my darnedest. Another beautiful location for a festival. Looks like a lot of them are framing themselves as Readers and Writers Festivals these days?

  6. Brona permalink
    May 20, 2014 5:05 pm

    I see Louise has already got in about the Mudgee Readers festival which I hope to get to one day soon as it’s in my old home town (I wish it had started when I was still there!!)

    I’m also hoping to get to some SWF events but have come down sick and won’t be going anywhere for the next day or so 😦
    I’m pinning all my hopes on Saturday at the wharf.

    • May 20, 2014 5:14 pm

      Oh poor you Brona … I hope you get there on the weekend and that it’s a glorious Sydney day for you. The venue there is special isn’t it?

  7. May 20, 2014 8:24 pm

    I honestly wish I could be more generous spirited about these. But I am too full of bile. What a nasty old fart I am. 😥 I blame it on you-know-who(m).

    • May 21, 2014 9:40 am

      About regional festivals? There’s clearly something I don’t understand about how festivals are organised?

      • May 21, 2014 9:43 am

        Nono: I mean about having not had my book put forward for anything except that single WA set of awards. See how egocentric I am ? 😦

        • May 21, 2014 10:07 am

          I guessed that, but I guess I didn’t realise that publishers also put books forward for festivals? Do they? Or do festival organisers go looking for authors they know are around and would like? I reckon you could almost approach festivals yourself, but I also suspect many don’t pay. Some may be able to help with transport and accommodation but I don’t know.

        • May 21, 2014 10:10 am

          Don’t worry about it, Sue – you know how one-eyed I am about all this. Just go on being you and writing your stuff and I’ll do my best to prevent myself from being a boring whinger.

        • May 21, 2014 3:47 pm

          Oh you are never a boring whinged MR but I hate to see you unhappy if we can find an answer!

        • May 21, 2014 3:49 pm

          The answer is for me to pull my finger out and STOP WHINGEING, basically. Come to terms with it. Acknowledge that it’s all too late to change, and just accept. I shall turn my febrile ( ! ) brain in that direction.

  8. May 25, 2014 8:15 am

    Your version of being a Grey Nomad could be spending a year going to every single literary festival in Australia…

  9. May 31, 2014 7:28 am

    Hi Sue, thanks heaps for this fantastic summary – so very helpful. The growth of regional writers festivals is such a positive development, for both writers and readers…and the nation generally. One worth mentioning is the Southern Highlands Writers Festival – a terrific, intimate event

    • May 31, 2014 10:08 am

      Ha, Nigel … I have just returned from three days in the highlands. Love pottering around there. Will check it out … Did you attend last year? It rings a bell.

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