Sunday, January 22, 2006

Back from the abyss

Appearances to the contrary, I have not abandoned this blog. It's just that very little happens in the Aust Lit world over the Christmas/New Year break. But it's time to start sorting out one's working life v. one's Arts Festival program on a detailed daily basis (I have already made one bad double-booked blue here) and that means getting organised for Adelaide Writers' Week.

The Australian names I have ticked on the program as absolute must-sees include Robert Drewe, Delia Falconer, Helen Garner and Gail Jones, all of whom are Not From Here (which means I rarely get to see or hear them), and are not only exceptional writers but can be absolutely 100% counted on in any given public forum to have prepared carefully, to engage fully with whatever panel they're on and whoever is interviewing them, and to be interesting and civil no matter how brutal the hecklers or the weather.

Gail Jones has a new novel, Dreams of Speaking, that I think is even better than Sixty Lights. It's due out in February, so it will be particularly interesting to hear her talk about -- and, one hopes, read from -- that.

My deplorably predictable picks of the OS guests include Margaret Drabble, Val McDermid, Vikram Seth, Minette Walters and Simon Winchester, but that says more about my patchy knowledge than it does about the others on the list. What's happened at every writers' festival I've ever been to is that some totally unexpected star emerges and charms everybody. In 2000 it was US writer and academic Michael Ignatieff, now in politics, about whom there was a huge buzz by the end of the week.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Minette Walters' Devil's Feather and it's reminding me why I stopped reading her stuff: while brilliant, it is too deeply creepy and weird to read for unadulterated pleasure. I managed to finished American Psycho -- yay me -- so can claim a reasonably strong stomach, but Walters is a much more sophisticated manipulator than Easton Ellis of narrative pace and of psychological extremes. Too often her message, or one of her messages, is that there is simply no place to hide, and this just is not something that I wish to know.

Often the first week of March in Adelaide is summer's last gasp, and since Writers' Week is still held at an outside venue, it can get pretty brutal. But it's never as bad as what usually happens at the Melbourne Writers' Festival*, with the August ice and sleet pelting down outside the Malthouse and five thousand people huddling in the indoor space, shouting at each other in order to be heard, pushing each other out of the way in the staircase queues and stinking of wet wool. True, the Adelaide punters tend to smell of wine and sweat by the end of a brutal day -- but at least we're outside.

*Note position of apostrophe. Robert Dessaix was once seen to look up from a program on which was written 'Melbourne Writer's Festival' and inquire gently 'Who is this lucky writer?'

Image from here, where there's also a full list of guests.


Perry Middlemiss said...

I'm curious as to why readers go to Writers' Festivals - do you think they go to be introduced to someone new, or to listen to an old favourite?

And is there any reason why the Adelaide and Melbourne events couldn't both move a bit later in the year?

KLG said...

I wrote a whole ABR essay called 'Watching Writers Read' on this subject, back in the mists of time -- 1992 to be precise, how scary is that? My thesis then was that it is to solve a mystery or penetrate a mystique; gain some understanding of where texts come from, close the gap somehow.

But there are lots of other reasons too. The celebrity factor. An odd kind of consumerism that I sometimes think borders on the cannibalistic. (Most punters are very disappointed if they can't get a piece, as it were, of the writer -- I remember from around that time a wonderful Elizabeth Jolley reading from the MS of a not-yet-finished novel -- pure gold to some of us -- after which one woman was overheard to say very snakily: 'I thought she was going to talk, and all she did was read.'

Most punters come to hear favourites, but one reason why Adelaide is unique and in my view superior (apart from the fact that it's still free!) is the outdoor structure of it -- big open tents with rows of chairs beyond, as per photo in post -- means people can wander from session to session, and it's easy to settle down to hear a new person and get hooked.

Adelaide Writers' Week has from the outset been part of the Adelaide Festival (Melb ditto, I believe) and therefore wound into the logistics of the larger infrastructure.

And Adelaide WW, the first one in the country and a brainchild of Geoff Dutton who was also right in on the inception of the Festival as a whole, was originally conceived not for an audience at all, but as an opportunity for writers to get together from all over the country and meet and talk and hear each other. And also so that they had a chance to come to the international theatre & music, if they hadn't already beggared themselves paying their fares.

Perry Middlemiss said...

Ah, yes, the loaded question: what's the best way for a writer to present themselves at a festival/reading/signing?

There has been a lot of discussion over on a number of US author weblogs about this very point. Most are of the view that promotion is just an integral part of the business, and that if you don't like it then either you a) better learn to put up with reduced sales, or b) get some help to improve your performance.

Speaking for myself alone, I don't want to see an author reading from a published work. What would I get out of that, unless the writer were a natural performer? (And, with all due respect, not many are.) If I'm a fan of the writer I've probably read it anyway, and if I'm not then listening to a reading probably isn't going to sway me.

Reading from an unpublished piece is a good move so long as it isn't presented in isolation.

I want some context, some insight into how the writer came to write this particular work, why they chose the genre they did, why that setting, how does it fit with the rest of the author's work, and so on.

The idea of setting up a festival so readers can wander around and stop wherever they chose is a good one. Better, I think, than paying for individual sessions. Chances are, then, you won't make any choices on spec.

From what I've seen and heard of the Melbourne Writers' Festival it needs a better venue.

Have you thought about posting your "Watching Writers Read" on your weblog? 15-year-old copies of ABR are a bit difficult for some of us to scrounge up.

KLG said...

Barry Hill was very good in this respect in Adelaide in 2002 -- put together a session that was a combination of short bits of his writing in various genres, strung together with a sort of line-of-argument and narrative-curve, talking about how and where and why the pieces had been written and how his own desert poems related to the Strehlow book, that kind of thing. It was very well received. I think one of the things punters do want is some sense of the interiority of being a writer, the process of making connections.

And I do so love a writer who actually does a bit of preparation. Hermione Lee was impeccable in this respect at the same festival.

Thanks for the kick up the backside re links -- I've been meaning to upload and create links to a few of the Austlit-related things I've written over the years. Will meet a couple more deadlines (!) and then work out how best to proceed.

be_zen8 said...

I am going to start Gail Jone's book very very soon. I so so loved 'Sixty Lights'. Beautiful prose and fantastic imagery.