Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Michelle on our Brave New (online) World

Book coverToday, I present another Monday Musings guest post coordinated for me by Bill (The Australian Legend), this one from Michelle Scott Tucker, author of the wonderful Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review).
Thanks so much again to Bill and to Michelle for helping me out with my Monday Musings. Read on … and of course we’d love your comments  … Do you think your online activity will change significantly post-COVID-19?

Michelle’s post

Hands up if you’re quite the expert at videoconferencing now. Got your lighting all sorted? Your headphone hair? De rigueur Indigenous artwork behind you?

With the onset of the COVID-19 shutdowns, the Australian literary community has moved its events online with commendable alacrity. A few organisations, like the Wheeler Centre, were ahead of the curve. They’ve regularly livestreamed some of their events for a while now. But for the rest of us, the haste with which the move to online ‘events’ had to happen resulted in a few bumps along the way, but overall, the experiment has been a success, I think.

I’ve no insider data for you, no formal evaluation, but in the last three months I’ve been involved in quite a few literary events via Zoom, or similar – so let’s take a closer look at how the experiment is going.

The Stella Prize usually hosts a glamorous, invitation-only gala event at which the annual winner is announced. Egalitarianism be damned! The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards have an equally glamorous event which, in the past, was at least ticketed. This year, though, the events were cancelled, and the announcements were livestreamed. Well, I say livestreamed but what they really meant was pre-recorded clips of the relevant hosts and authors were livestreamed to the web at an agreed announcement time. That was a little disappointing, to be honest, although understandable logistically. It wasn’t that the winners weren’t fabulous, or the speeches less interesting but what was missing was the buzz. The excitement. The little jokes and patter that are part of a live event. Frankly, though, even big-budget events like the Logies (Australia’s version of the Emmy Awards) or the Academy Awards are pretty tedious. It’s only the fashion that gets them over line and let’s face it, fashion isn’t going to rescue a literary award – everyone wears black, or Gorman. Apparently that’s the law.

The organisers of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival managed to pivot from face-to-face to a live-streamed extravaganza with swan-like grace. I can only imagine how hard the organisers had to paddle beneath the surface. The livestreamed festival was a very professionally run event, and it showed. And it was actually ‘live’, which was nice. The organisers clearly had access to excellent video and tech support. Whispering Gums blog-host Sue wrote about the sessions she watched here, here, here and here. I “attended” the festival too, largely because I found their pricing to be irresistible. For $15 I could watch a whole day of sessions live, and for an additional $20 I could continue to have access to the recordings for the next two months. Bargain. To compare, attendance in-person would have cost me $75 for the day, plus food and petrol.

In the pre-COVID world there’s little chance I’d have attended the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. It was at least two hours’ drive from my place, and family commitments usually fill my weekends. So in terms of accessibility, the revised format was a winner. But I found it difficult to stay watching and engaged for more than a couple of sessions, and eventually spent the afternoon doing something else. I kept meaning to go back and watch those later sessions but somehow never got around to it. I would rather, I belatedly realised, have listened to them in podcast format while I was doing that ‘something else’. And my insider sources tell me I was not alone – the online version of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival could best be described as a qualified success.

Other writers festivals were not so confident about executing the pivot from face-to-face to live-stream and so sensibly aimed for a much less ambitious offering. The volunteer organisers of the excellent Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, for example, ended up cancelling the festival although they managed to salvage the Poetry Slam, which they ran live via Facebook, as well as some other book launches and workshops. I genuinely feel for the organisers, and for the would-be audiences, the local businesses and the speakers (of which I was going to be one. I was lined up for a couple of sessions at Bellingen, but the one I was looking forward to the most was facilitating a discussion between three Stella Prize winners: Heather Rose, Vicki Laveau-Harvie and Carrie Tiffany. How good would that have been?). On this last point, I should flag that I accept speaking gigs because I enjoy them. The fact that I occasionally also get paid for them is a happy bonus. But many writers rely on their speaking gigs as an important source of income. Some earn more from speaking than they ever will from sales of the book itself, especially those who speak at schools. This is yet another example of the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on artists’ incomes.

During the shutdown period, I also “attended” an online book launch and, separately, a bookshop event where a panel of three writers were interviewed about their work. Both these events were held via Zoom on weekday evenings. The book launch was a free event, and the bookshop panel discussion was sensibly priced at $5. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, and would have been unlikely to physically attend either in a pre-COVID world (not least because the bookshop in question was quite literally a thousand miles from my place). But, again, I had some reservations.

These days I usually attend bookish events because I know the author and want to support them. For authors I don’t know personally, but whose work I admire, I simply seek out their interviews in podcast format. ABC Radio is a great source of interviews with Australian writers, via The Book Shelf, The Book Show and Conversations, as are the excellent podcasts The Garret and The First Time. So all this Zooming has made me think about WHY I attend literary events.

I think that it’s less because of the formal proceedings, and more because of the interesting conversations that follow – with the author when I buy their book, and with the other book-loving attendees. At the last book launch I attended in person I ended up having a good chat with Helen Garner! At writer’s festivals, the same applies. I enjoy listening to the sessions, but I REALLY enjoy meeting new people or bumping into acquaintances in the crush of the coffee queue. To continue my blatant name-dropping, at Bellingen Writers Festival last year I had an impromptu pub dinner with Dr Marcia Langton AO and Dr Jane McCredie, CEO of Writers NSW. Halfway through we were joined by actor and director Rachel Ward AM. Yes, I managed to play it cool – sort of!  And, to be clear, while I know that Jane remembers this dinner very fondly, I very much doubt that Marcia or Rachel do!

So the online book launch I attended, and the online literary event were interesting, but they lacked buzz. I missed the face-to-face interactions of real life, and in this I’m not alone. A friend started up a Zoom book club as we moved into the COVID-19 shutdown. She reports that they were very popular early on, but enthusiasm was waning by the three-month-mark. Many reported that after spending much of the day using Zoom for the day job, the thought of logging-in again in the evening was less than appealing. I can vouch for that, too.

But what of the core purpose of literary launches and events – to sell more books? It appears that Zoom and its ilk have only been a qualified success. Writer and bookseller Krissy Kneen had some super interesting things to say on the topic recently, during a podcast interview. She was pleasantly surprised by the number of sales that livestream events generated but didn’t pretend that those sales were as high as they would have been for a face-to-face event.

So, in essence, livestreamed literary events have been a useful stop-gap but may play a decreasing role as physical distancing restrictions are eased. There is, however and of course, an exception to that rule.

Writers Victoria, in a usual year, hosts large numbers of face-to-face workshops, seminars and events. They adroitly managed to move most of these online and my sources tell me that the number of participants has been pretty much the same as usual. This is impressive, given that fees for a full-day online workshop remain at $155 for members (concessions are available, and non-members pay more) but the sweetener is that most online courses include, afterwards, personalised feedback by the presenter on a piece of writing up to 500 words. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that delivering online sessions often costs much the same as delivering face-to-face sessions. Fee-paying participants can also subsequently access a recording of the session, so they can go back and review what they learned.

The delightful part, though, is that the online workshops have provided access to people who otherwise could not have participated. Attendees have included people from overseas, from interstate, or who for various reasons would have been housebound even without the COVID-19 threat. Apparently there’s a mum with a newborn who has happily attended several! I delivered one of these full-day online workshops and was pleasantly surprised by how interactive it was, and how much we were able to engage with one another. The word is that Writers Victoria will return to face-to-face workshops when they can, but – beyond the shutdown – will continue to provide online workshops too.

And there, for me, lies the answer. As we move beyond a strict shutdown, I hope that we’ll be able to enjoy a blended approach to accessing literary events. By all means hold a live, face-to-face event but livestream or podcast it too. Include separate webinars as an integral part of your festival offerings, alongside face-to-face activities. By doing so, the literary community might become a little more open to the wider community and might become a little more accessible to readers – whoever, or wherever they are.

What do you think?

Michelle Scott Tucker is the author of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (Text Publishing, 2018) – a compelling biography of the woman who established the Australian wool industry, even though her husband received all the credit.

Elizabeth Macarthur was shortlisted for both the 2019 State Library of NSW’s Ashurst Prize for Business Literature, and the 2019 CHASS Australia Prize (from the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences).

Michelle is a freelance writer and consultant, with a successful career in government, business and the arts – including a recent stint as Executive Director of the Stella Prize, Australia’s top prize for women writers. She has served as Vice Chair of the Writers Victoria board and is currently one of the organisers behind the inaugural ‘Mountain Writers Festival’. The festival’s focus on the environment, story and place not just as a theme, but as the festival’s entire purpose now and into the future, is unique in Australia. Passionate about Australian literature, history and storytelling, Michelle lives in regional Victoria with her family.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Michelle on our Brave New (online) World

  1. What’s this? A festival I hadn’t heard of? I’ve signed up for more info, and have my fingers crossed that we can find a nice B&B nearby:) (Recommendations warmly received. You have my email address. )

    What do I think about the digital initiatives? I don’t know. I sat glued to my computer for the Yarra Valley festival and blogged just about the whole thing, and I’ve done the same, more or less, for the Auckland Festival free online Winter Series, which I went to f2f last year. But the Williamstown Festival required me to use Zoom, and because my French lessons are on Skype, I was so over learning new things by then, (I mean, mastering the Woolworths interface was a real pain) that I decided to skip it and anything else that uses Zoom.

    But podcasts? Lots of people love them, and I often see people listening to them as they walk around the neighbourhood and so on. But I like to think when I’m doing mundane things so I rarely listen to them.

    I will be devastated if I can’t go to the NF festival in Geelong this year. Each November I abandon the spouse and the dog and have a marvellous time. Although I like being with bookish people, I’m not there to socialise, I’m there to indulge myself in being an introvert and hear wonderful speakers and then head back to the hotel and blog the day and read the books. I am going to sulk big time if I can’t go…

  2. I haven’t read much Australian literature – I have plans to change that. I’d also like to read more African and Asian writers. Generally I read Irish, American and British books. As regards attending bookish events, I find I prefer to talk about books rather than about writing – although I do both, a lot. Thanks for an enjoyable post.

  3. The opportunity to still hold some events virtually during the pandemic is really fortuitous. If this had happened 25 years ago it would have been unthinkable. I agree that this has opened possibilities and the future now holds the prospect of lots of blended events.

  4. I’m not a luddite, I tell myself, I haven’t smashed any looms (though the combination of driverless truck and sledgehammer might prove irresistible). But. I am yet to listen to a podcast, participate in a video phone call, to view let alone to speak on a zoom conference. I’m also yet to attend a writers festival – I’m not sure I even like the idea of writers talking. Books should speak for themselves.
    Good luck with all your conferencing however carried out, it’s black marks on white paper between cardboard covers, in a corner on my own, for me.

    • Is ‘curmudgeon’ is the word you’re looking for, lol? No, I jest, of course and you’re absolutely right and the little black marks are definitely where it’s at. The rest of us just like to come together from time to time to exclaim about the wonder and magic that those little black marks represent, given that they are a means of transferring thought from one mind to another. And while I’m here, a huge shout-out to you for curating these guest posts for Sue. It was a genuine honour to be asked.

      • Nice of you to say so. This is the third or fourth guest post you’ve written when I asked for one, so I’m the one who is grateful. (have I mentioned Gen 3 Week, part II recently? Third week in January.)

        It’s interesting, as you’re finding out, just how much people appreciate listening to speakers. As you sort of imply above, writing a book is just a way of getting on the speaking circuit.

    • I’ll join you in the curmudgeon corner, Bill. The book is it, and I’m not at all sure I want to hear from the author about what they were on about. Perhaps this might enhance my experience of the book, but it could also destroy it! I’m not a huge fan of reviews either, though I sometimes delve in to them after I’ve read a book for a laugh. Having said that, I find the material in this blog very helpful in extending my boundaries, though sometimes it is a simple “I really enjoyed Blah Blah” comment which will pique my fancy. And if I’ve read a book reviewed here, I enjoy rereading the review after the event.

      • I’m rather like you Neil. I tend to read reviews after I’ve read books. I’m not a big reader of review pages or journals, but I regularly look for reviews after the event. When it comes to blogs, I don’t read reviews of books I plan/expect to read but try to remember that they exist so I can check them later. Sometimes, of course, I do read reviews of books I end up reading – either because it piques my curiosity or because the book comes my way unexpectedly (such as being a reading group choice.)

    • Not surprising, Bill, that you didn’t take part in many of these events – Zoom conferences etc – given that you pretty much kept working throughout (notwithstanding, I suppose, your NT quarantine period.)

      What you say about black marks on white paper reminds me of a chap who played a significant role in my internet reading groups. He had strong views, so much so that we all knew P*****’s rules! One of them was, essentially, never listen to the author. Others of us, though, preferred a middle course (you know how wishy-washy I am). Of course the black marks on white paper are the critical thing, but it never hurts to listen to the author. And, the thing I’ve found is, how articulate (funny that) authors are. They can be a joy to listen to. However, that doesn’t mean that what they say they were doing should override your own experience of the work. How well did they communicate their intention is one issue, but another is, how do your own experiences interact with what you read.

  5. I’m not sure about writers talking either… I did go to hear Tim Winton talk at the Cremorne Hayden Orpheum in Neutral Bay a few years ago, in front of a few hundred people – he had terrible stage fright and for a while I thought he wasn’t going to be able to continue – once he got onto answering questions from the audience about his writing he was OK – but honestly most of the time I just felt sorry for the guy and was sure he was glad to be out of there! He seemed very pleasant, but I do wonder why we expect writers to be good speakers. I did like his humility about his writing – when asked if he liked his own writing, he said he liked bits. That sounded pretty honest to me.
    I have never got to a writer’s festival – am I missing something good?

    • I don’t think they are necessary Sue, to enjoying literature, but they can be really interesting and I have vivid images and wonderful memories of many writers as a result. Some panels can be great fun. But, I don’t think writers should have to do it. They are writers, not performers. One of the most uncomfortable author events – not a festival – I’ve been to featured J M Coetzee. He came, he read, he left. No chat, no Q&A. It was disappointing but I understood. Murnane and Castro avoid events too. Michelle loves talking I know – and that’s great, but I’d be like Coetzee, Murnane and Castro! And, it sounds, like Winton too.

      • Yes Sue, it was clear he didn’t really enjoy being in the limelight at all – and I’m sure he has a wardrobe with seven identical black tee shirts and two pairs of jeans, bless him! One of the least pretentious people I’ve met I think.
        I’m sure I’d enjoy a writers’ festival, but none have been held when/where I could get to them. No hope during Covid19 I fear.

        Good to see you back here, I can imagine what a tough time you’ve been through (& are still). I think your lovely Mum was very fortunate to have such a caring daughter, I’m sure you were a wonderful comfort to her Sue. I worked in palliative care, and I’ve lost count of how many times I went home after a shift and had a cry – both about the patients and their families. It was a real privilege to do that kind of nursing, My Mum died before palliative care existed, and I think that’s what made me go into PC nursing – to make sure nobody else suffered like she did. The nursing staff really do care. Sending warmest wishes to you Sue. Take care.

        • You are so lovely Sue … I’m glad you decided to join my band of commenters.

          I am slowly creeping back into the real world, and it is slowly starting to feel OK to be a bit normal, but of course there are good times (and not so good ones like now, when I can’t sleep.)

          I think being a palliative care nurse is the most amazing thing. We could have stayed at the hospital where she was when she was diagnosed. They said they can palliate, and they were very nice there. However, Mum didn’t want to spend her last bit of life there despite all its positives, and, intuitively, I felt that a palliative care place would just have that little edge in knowing exactly what a dying patient needs because that’s all they do. The food, for example, would be more geared to dying bodies rather than healing ones, and the nurses would immediately know what sort of help a dying person needs. And so it turned out to be. The nurses were lovely and just spot on, adjusting almost imperceptibly, to changes in her condition and ability. It takes a special person to do that sort of nursing and come back again the next day – so kudos to you Sue.

  6. Thanks Sue, I loved PC nursing – we were given much more time to spend with patients and their families and it is a real privilege to be entrusted with the care of people’s loved ones at such a time. I don’t know a single nurse who didn’t go off and have a quiet cry sometimes! Glad to hear your beloved Mum received such good care.

    It’s a pleasure to be here Sue – after all, if you went to Hornsby Girls’ High we were practically neighbours – we probably passed each other sometime! Take care of yourself won’t you.

  7. By coincidence I was reading a section in Normal People (Sally Rooney) where 1 of the main characters goes to a reading and reflects on how it had taken the soul out of the book and then goes on to question why people go to such events. He wasn’t very enamoured with them clearly. But he never mentioned the social aspect – the chit chat before and after with other like minded people. Since I don’t have that many friends who share my reading tastes, that part of the event is an enjoyable element of the event.

    I’ve joined a few of the online literary sessions offered during the lockdowns. I loved the convenience (no travel or parking or working around meal times) and heard some fascinating talks by people I might not have travelled to see. So it opened up my horizons. But I did miss the ‘buzz’ element.

    So like Michelle, I suspect we’ll see a blend of on and offline emerging.

    • Thanks Karen. That character must have gone to a bad reading! I think if the author chooses well – and, of course, is a good reader – a reading can inspire you. That said, I prefer to hear authors talk than to hear them reading. I often find that I don’t engage in much buzz, unless I’m there with friends, because I’m usually too busy rushing from session to session. When I get to a festival I try to pack in as many sessions as I can. I do though chat to the people sitting next to me when waiting for a session to start, and I usually enjoy that.

      Like you, I did like the convenience of the online events, and the fact that I cold attend some that I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise.

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