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That odd notion of throwing a party for people who prefer to be alone, writing

5 May 2012 One Comment

PERHAPS the funniest recent satire about writers’ festivals is Michael Wilding’s Superfluous Men, published in 2009.

Having recently re-read Wilding’s expose I thought I’d go to see and hear him at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which is being held from May 14-20.

Imagine my annoyance when I noticed Wilding was on at the same time as Frank Moorhouse. This seemed more than a bit careless since Wilding and Moorhouse have, over the years, attracted virtually the same audience: “The two parts of a pantomime horse”, as Martin Johnston rightly called them. So what sort of sloppiness would timetable Wildling and Moorhouse simultaneously?

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Then I thought I’d hear the always-passionate independent MP Bob Katter Jr talk about his new and highly controversial history of Australia from 1890 to 2010, ‘An Incredible Race of People’. Even if that meant hearing his fellow Queenslander, the cruelly deposed ex-PM, Kevin Rudd, as the interlocutor!

But a large doubt remains.

At a time when our novelists, short-story writers and poets are increasingly marginalised, don’t our politicians get enough airspace? Why should they take the oxygen from often struggling Australian writers?

Then I looked at the glossy pamphlet for the Sydney Writers Festival. Predictably this picks out the highlights, almost all of which are authors from overseas – and disregards the rest of the writers from Australia, which must mightily annoy the latter and their readers.

This led to two other doubts: does promoting the overseas visitors and celebrities such as A. C. Grayling , who hail from what some regard as our former colonial oppressors, really fulfill the aims of our local stakeholders?

And is this the best use of Australian taxpayers’ money, which surely should be used to encourage emerging writers?

As Wilding’s leading character from ‘Superfluous Men’, Henry, so wryly argues, these days writers festivals are often part of the problem: “Full of people who don’t buy books. Devoid of real writers with any interest in literature and art.” And featuring often-wealthy celebrities who sometimes may not have even fully read the book published under their name!

But as Wilding’s fictional festival director concedes: this is “the way of the future”.

Yet the fact is that many of our best writers don’t relish or enjoy performing or pontificating in public. What they do, and do best, is write!

A mea culpa.

Over the years I’ve appeared at most of the large writers’ festivals in Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Gloucester, Brisbane, Adelaide.

The reality is that, not being a writer at the top of the first eleven, all of my publishers keep insisting that I can’t afford not to.

In many ways, writers festivals are a contradiction. Reading and writing are solitary activities for often shy, private practitioners, many of whom don’t like festivals, or crowds, or people, even.

Yet, increasingly, their publishers’ publicists, who so often rule the roost, dragoon writers to attend as many festivals as possible.

Publicists know, or claim to know, that most writers these days only receive an interview if they are appearing at a festival. They also know that, even if circulation may be declining, a great many more people read newspapers – online or in hard copy – than ever turn up to writers festivals, where relatively few books are actually sold.

Increasingly, our publishers are coming to resemble our universities – run by bureaucrats and administrators who have little notion about what their essential “product” (books and knowledge) are all about.

And, more importantly, they seem to show little care or understanding of how writing should be esteemed and valued.

Recently there was much seemingly confected outrage from publishers and writers objecting to the feisty new premier of the Sunshine State, Campbell Newman, withdrawing state funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

The former lord mayor of Brisbane argued that the $244,000 per annum saving was part of the Liberal National Party’s promised economy drive.

Thinking about the matter, it’s hard to resist the rhetorical question: why shouldn’t literature take its share of cost-cutting, especially when most such awards in Australia seem to go to established writers and thus do not help our emerging writers, who really need assistance?

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the co-authored sexual/political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’, set in a fictitious Mangoland.

The Weekend Australian May 5-6, 2012, Inquirer p. 24

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