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Diabolus In Festum

This week, as the National Young Writers’ Festival kicks off, and the Wheeler Centre announces the launch of yet another literary-themed festival, I am reminded of the enervating words of Gilles Deleuze:

We sometimes congratulate writers, but they know they are far from having achieved their becoming, far from having attained the limit they set for themselves, which ceaselessly slips away from them. To write is to become something other than a writer.

Putting aside, for a moment, the begged question of what exactly the ‘something other’ is that one becomes when one writes, it strikes me that nowhere is Deleuze’s complex of ‘unbecoming’ more evident than in the proliferation of the literary festival. It is, after all, the subtle duty of literary festivals and their variations to assure writers, with a vague but potent authority, that they are – despite their knowing self-doubts and anxieties – ‘writers’.

Likewise, the audiences who fill the expectant rows of plastic chairs set out before ticketed, hour-long panel discussions on serious subjects such as ‘Morality, Money, Entertainment and the Truth’ and ‘Is History Recoverable?’ can assure themselves that they must be amongst that rarefied category of citizens who go by the epithet of ‘reader’, or at the least, consumers (and creators, why not) of some virtuous quantity called ‘culture’.

If this sounds a little cynical, a tad polemic, then allow me to distract you with an anecdote: At a recent festival, after a pleasant panel discussion on ‘How to Make It’ between myself and three (much better known) writers, I was escorted to a signing table. Lacking both a pen to sign copies of my book, and people interested in possessing either book or signature, I was well placed to eavesdrop on a conversation between a Miles Franklin winner and an author short-listed for the Booker.

‘That panel was all a bit of a wank, I’m not sure what the point was’ said the former.

‘One might say the same of these festivals in general’ the latter replied.

At this point, the conversation ceased, as both men began to engage with their timid but slowly thronging fan-base. It struck me, as the queues to meet these quasi-celebrities accumulated before my eyes into an embarrassingly large number of people who didn’t want to talk to me, that if two writers from the upper echelons of Australian letters were uncertain about the point of writers’ festivals, then there was perhaps no clear and present point to such events at all. Which is not the same as saying that literary festivals are without purpose – were writers’ and readers’ festivals truly without a reason for being, they would have at least that in common with literature itself. But alas, as a shameless festival-hopper, I can attest that there is something suspiciously purposeful about your average literary ‘festival’.

In my own, admittedly paranoid, view, festivals and their attendant events – though often advertised as opportunities for writers to connect and share their wisdom with their readers – are more akin to a form of trial in which the writer is put on stage to answer to the collective judgement of over-enthused readers. I mean no disrespect to those reading audiences – their hearts are in the right place – and they gaze up at the writers in front of them with affirming smiles and encouraging, almost knowing, expressions. But nonetheless, those hapless writers who do not conform to the conventions of this abrasive trial-by-sensibility are in for a gentle public shaming (on the level of a thorough skin cleansing) and will be ‘daintily’ ostracised from the festival circuit and thereby exiled – even if only by their own embarrassment – from an increasingly significant dimension of the writerly life. Thankfully, this happens rarely, as writers are preselected from the population to be the most malleable, passive and desperate-to-please people in the land. Despite the spinelessness of the writing demographic, so-called ‘author talks’, in my reading of them, are powerful affect-driven ceremonies (we laugh for those we love, cringe and fume at those we don’t) which shape and reshape the writer according to the will of the market (which audiences have no choice but to stand in for at any given literary event).

The public performance of ‘writer’ that festivals and other literary occasions are set up to curate is an awkward amalgam of serious intellectual and clownish entertainer. Unfortunately, most book-makers – innocent vessels of linguistic reflex – are neither by nature.

Behind the curtains of the literary ‘show’, young writers are a-tremble with nerves as they whisper to the panel chair, ‘it’s my first time!’ Luckily, a complete ineptitude for public performance (or even a total lack of character) is not as bad a handicap as the nervous young writer might believe: the dull medium of the panel discussion is its empty message. The curtain is pulled back, the young writer emerges into the glare of the spotlight and, after being asked about the origin of their debut work – a miracle: words, of varying degrees of coherence, flow forth. If the young writer pleases with her expulsions, then applause is sure to follow, and the transformation from scribbler to fully-fledged ‘writer’ is complete. The Emerging Writers’ Festival is perhaps best up to facilitating this painful transformation, its very name promising a gentle progression into that definite form which festivals ask inchoate scribblers to assume.

Such public ‘emergings’ and – or in the case of established writers – mutations, are framed as enriching ‘cultural events’. This framing is somewhat suspect, but the way literary festivals typically describe themselves is outright duplicitous. One need only glance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s marketing to see that something doesn’t add up. On the press image for last year’s festival, we see someone lying in what appears to be a field of barley, holding up an open book in the late afternoon sun. If the image is meant to evoke Sydney, then it is a side of the city unfamiliar to me, and certainly nothing to do with Walsh Bay. Then again, perhaps that’s the point; reading is itself a kind of transportation, a movement between worlds. But that too is a problem, because the hands in the field belong to a reader, not a writer, and she is alone, as far from the festival as one needs to be in order to make the most of a book. In other words, the reader in the festival’s own image is able to read because she has given the festival a miss. But perhaps I am being pedantic, and should leave the reader alone in her field, and I would, but hovering above her is the tag-line for 2014’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: ‘It’s thinking season’. What thinking has to do with the typical author talk or writer’s panel is a mystery to me, and there – I know for sure – I am not alone. Even the SWF’s hand-picked blogger, columnist and opinion-maker Benjamin Law, upon reviewing what he had learned from the festival in 2015, seemed only able to settle on the thought that he ought to be ‘watching more TV’.

Perhaps I am looking at things the wrong way around. After all, despite what appears to be a lack of meatiness in the ‘thinking’ done on panels, it must be noted that Twitterers seem wholly committed to sending almost anything a writer has to offer into the eternal orbit of the digital ether, accompanied by epithets such as ‘food for thought!’ or ‘#insights’. There must, therefore, be something appealing enough in the rehearsed answers and well-practiced performances that ‘writers’ meander through on panels to deserve reproduction ad infinitum. It is increasingly in the endless re-hashing of such speech-acts on the whirling gyre of Twitter that literary festivals live and die. After any given panel, one can observe writers furiously tapping at their Twitter feeds, searching vainly for something they said to have been selected for dissemination. The Digital Writers’ Festival is perhaps the ultimate testament to this tendency for festivals to live on the internet, removing altogether the largely inconvenient and flabby necessity of festival venues, and running, instead, a series of online events that can be streamed live from writers’ bedrooms and offices and directly into yours – whoever you are.

At this point I hear an internal critic accusing me of blatant disingenuousness. After all, won’t I be knocking at the festival doors when they put out their calls? Won’t I be down at the wharf sipping champagne, nodding my head in some awkward encounter with someone I’ve never heard of as I stuff canapes into ziplock bags for my son’s preschool lunches? Yes, indeed, I will. Come next year, I shall desperately await the invitations and the placements on panels – hopefully panels associated with a prize or two (another Premier’s Award would be wonderful). For whatever horrors there are associated with the mechanisms of the literary festival, they have carved their diabolical mark upon me, and from that, there’s no turning back.

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Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel is the subject of our first essay this week, ‘Listen to the Siren’ by Rosemary Sorensen.  The Natural Way of Things is a ‘virtuoso performance’, writes Sorensen, and Wood’s control of her material is ‘masterful’.

The novel invites us to think about the difference between sexuality and gender, between femaleness and femininity. This is what feminism in the 1970s discussed with such vigour. Since then, that discussion has swerved, understandably, towards the fight for women’s rights, political, economic and social. While Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) imagined a future world faced with a fertility crisis, and government intervention that returned women to subjugation through financial and social dependence, in Wood’s fictional imagining, the mechanism of punitive control is simply to remove those whose sexuality has become a provocative inconvenience to powerful men. It’s galling, but is it impossible?

Our second essay this week, ‘Shadows of the Shoah’ by Alice Nelson,  addresses Leah Kaminsky’s new novel, The Waiting Room, a book that ‘takes as its impossible project the redemption of the dead’:

Just as the dead and the living are forced together into uneasy proximity inThe Waiting Room, so too do resonant objects jostle with and overcrowd the lives of the characters. An ancient abacus, an eiderdown that her mother brought with her from the displaced person’s camp in Germany, her father’s glass eyewash cup, her mother’s old shoes, cufflinks and hair curlers, indecipherable letters in Yiddish and uncaptioned photographs discovered in an old tin: these objects are the tangible relics of pasts that will never truly reveal themselves.

If festivals mediate the relationships between writers and readers, so too do screens. From the Archive this week turns to Joshua Mostafa’s 2014 essay, ‘Crowds vs Clouds’, which considered new works on social media, digital labour and cultural production:

These changes to media are centrifugal: the proliferation of new venues leads to a fragmentation of the media landscape. It is striking, however, that for media that did not exist prior to the internet – digital-native media, we might call them, such as social networks – the tendency has been towards centralisation. Not everyone has an account on Facebook, but enough of us do that not having one has become inconvenient. The transformation of how we communicate with each other has been extraordinary in its suddenness. A decade ago, keeping up with our friends’ lives was a hit-and-miss activity, entirely word-of-mouth. Now, we stay in touch passively via a stream of updates and photos that the system guesses, based on an aggregate of behaviour: ours, our friends’, and our friends’ friends’.