Reflections on Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012

Over a week ago I attended a handful of sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The last time I had attended the festival was in 2009, as I was overseas in 2010 and moving out of my house in 2011. The Sydney Writers’ Festival is always an exploration of ideas and unknown writers for me. The festival rarely represents my personal reading interests but on a professional level, as a readers’ advisory librarian, every session is important, every session has relevance. Writing festivals reflect a segment of the reading publics’ interest and in the months that follow there will be a raised awareness of the authors that were in attendance and with it a higher demand for their books both in bookshops and libraries. With that in mind, it was lovely to bump into several librarian friends and colleagues over the 3 days I attended and I would love to think that there were many more librarians in attendance.

Audience

I find the writers’ festival appeals to a conservative audience. That is, tertiary educated and women. Please don’t misunderstand me here, I feel this is a wonderful group – I AM this group! It is imperative that this audience base is retained but I would like to have seen a little more experimentation with the events so as to appeal to, not only a broader readership, but a broader cross section of the greater Sydney community. Surely risk taking with writer events is not only the charge of emerging writer’s festivals and fringe festivals. The organisers might point to the hiphop poets but hiphop has been around for many decades so I don’t count that as experimental. Perhaps I would have noticed a broader audience if I had attended some of the Western Sydney events but I was only able to attend the city events this time.

The other thing I felt was the distinct difference between attending a readers’ convention and a writers’ festival. Here, I am comparing SWF to the Australian Romance Readers’ Convention. The differences may be more due to the volume of the individual events where there are about 200 people at ARRC compared to the thousands that attend SWF. However, I don’t really think this is the difference. At the SWF the writer is coveted. Most don’t walk and talk amongst the other attendees whereas the readers’ convention is about connecting reader to writer both at scheduled events and at social events where you get to meet each other. Perhaps it is Writers’ Festivals focus on the writer experience whereas readers’ conventions focus on developing the readers as fans. I think that this is a grey area which I am interested in exploring futher.

National Year of Reading

I found it very peculiar that in the National Year of Reading there was no mention or presence of the National Year of Reading campaign. I am happy to stand corrected on this point but from my own observations (and I cannot be omnipresent so I can only comment on the sessions I attended and the tweet stream I read) this didn’t cross the radar of the organisers nor the presenters of the sessions I attended. Richard Glover’s blurb makes mention of NYR, as do the CBCA events as they are NYR partners. I’m not completely naïve and I realise that it is a complex case of sponsorship, advertising, grants approval etc but to have a zero connect is like having a forestry convention during the National Year of the Tree with no crossover. SWF is on the National Year of Reading’s events calendar but I’d love to hear from others on this. Maybe I missed something. Is this unique to the Sydney Writer’s Festival or has the National Year of Reading been missing from all the other Writers’ Festivals around Australia.

Kids at the Festival

I think that kids programs at the festival is one area that is excellent. Every year seems to have the same consistent good programming. There is a broad representation of literary authors and mass market authors. I love this. It shows that you can have the benchmark literary authors alongside benchmark mass market and genre authors. Ranging from picture book authors to young adult authors reflecting the different age groups. Hopefully, the adult programming will start to shift and be more like the kids programming.

I took my son to hear Jeff Kinney speak. I was fortunate enough to have won tickets from @BookdOut on Twitter (thank you! once again).

Jeff Kinney is fab! Jeff Kinney writes books that appeal to children because he “gets” kids. He remembers details from being a kid. I found it quite interesting that he said that he kept being told that he “appeals to reluctant readers” and that he didn’t know what a reluctant reader was until it was explained to him that it was boys. Yet boys are not reluctant to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because the writing appeals. My funny son, did say that Jeff Kinney was up there as a favourite but not his absolute favourite (this from a boy who sleeps with Diary of a Wimpy Kid books framing his bed).

What I did find peculiar in the kids program was the omission of Eoin Colfer from a standalone presentation or talk. Eoin Colfer has a huge readership in Australia. Many adults, along with kids, love his Artemis Fowl books as well as his Worst Boy books yet the only way you could get to hear him speak is if your school chose to take you to a Schools Day event that he presented to. I was very disappointed by this.

Beating the genre drum – Writers don’t get it but the critics did

There were several thought provoking comments during different sessions which were made during the writers’ festival that I will outline. The panels that I’m talking about had a varying degree of my presence from reading a tweetstream, to sitting outside a theatre and listening to a panel to actually attending two sessions.

I was following the tweetstream from Kathy Lette & Toni Jordan’s Girl Trouble session seemed to be more anti-chick lit than for chick lit. Lette showed her lack of understanding of the genre with comments about clitlit and Mills and Boon. There is a Storify of the tweets and the ensuing wider audience comments about these comments. I love that a tweeted comment could get so many people not in attendance discussing the talk. Such is the power of social media. I also understand that comments can be taken out of context and that this is the negative side of social media. I spoke with some friends who had attended this session and said that she was very funny and the comments were just flippant. But isn’t that always the case when someone is being derogatory about something that they feel is inferior to them? The flip comment is not necessarily the ignored comment. Perhaps authors should allow their work to stand on their own merits rather than trying to elevate their work through the discrediting of authors and publishers whose work I doubt they have read.

This was not a comment isolated to that session. As you do at the SWF, there are times you walk around and listen to panels being piped out into the forecourt. One session I listened to the closing 20 minutes of was Old Scrags and Other Sheilas.I have no idea which of the speakers was saying the following but when their book was described as “chick lit” the author – very respectfully and in no way flippant or denigrating – stated that her book was not chicklit which was a subgenre of romance as chick lit had plot points and specific requirements for the order of events that need to happen. She emphasised that her book was not chicklit because she played with these ideas and changed them around. She then proceeded to discuss how she loves the conventions of crime fiction and how different authors played with these conventions.

I respect that an author may not identify their work as a certain “type” and have no issue with the author rejecting the “Chicklit” label but to describe romance/chicklit genre negatively due to the rules that they follow yet in the same breath celebrate “crime conventions” seems obtuse to me. What is derided in one genre is celebrated in another? How could that author not have seen that formula=conventions. A bit of a “Duh” moment really.

Another session that I attended was “But is it a good read”. Stella Rimington’s controversial comment that the Booker prize judges panel were going to choose “a readable” book was the basis of this talk. Stella Rimington brought up that she possibly should have used the word more “accessible” rather than ‘readable’. Other panellists were Stephen Romei, Chip Rolley and Neil James from the Plain English Foundation. There were a wealth of statements such as

“We are all different readers”

“what is difficult for you will be a zip along for someone else”

“I love being challenged but not challenged and bored”

“A good read will always be noticed by the public whereas a difficult read needs the prize to be noticed by the public”.

The idea of privileging difficult reads was brought up. Somehow, society consider the difficult read to be the better read. This did bring me to think that perhaps this was a Christian ideal, harking back to the narrow, less travelled road. It also is reflective of St Augustine discussing the guilt he felt for his enjoyable, leisurely reading.

There was a lot of discussion around the readability of Ulysses. Many people in the audience admitted to owning it but not reading it. One of the questions/statements from an audience member was on having rejected reading Ulysseys but having loved the audiobook as it is a book of rhythms and quite dependent on the auditory experience. Stella Rimington immediately dismissed this idea “That is acting. That is not reading”. (As an aside – this seemed quite startling for me as I have always thought of audiobooks to be a reading experience. But upon further thought, audiobooks do not require any decoding. They are a natural experience.) So telling may not be reading but certainly a story, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, can be much more enjoyable in an auditory capacity.

I want to write that Stephen Romei’s positive comments on genre writing were pleasing to hear. Romei pointed out (in relation to the Booker Prize) that genre novels do not get chosen not because of the judges but because of the publishers. The judges already receive a vetted list before they decide on a longlist as each publisher can only enter two books. So it is the publishers who are the ones who are setting the agenda against genre here.

Another mention of genre was at Criticism and Witticism and the Pascall Foundation’s Critic of the Year award which was awarded to James Bradley who was described as a “polymath of genre” and that “Bradley argues for a wider sense of what literature can be”.

Wrap-up

I had an invigorating 3 days spent browsing the different sessions at the festival. Sydney had brought out its best weather for the event. There were a few other sessions I attended on memoirs, the environment, politics and war that I have not discussed here. In the end, I chose not to attend any Sunday events because I felt recharged and I spent a day at home reading with my family. My 3 year absence highlighted to me that organisers, moderators and critics are aware that there is a broader readership with which to engage but this is not yet evident in the programming. Perhaps, this will come around next year (she whispers optimistically).

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