Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part eight: why Australian literature?

Instead of doing this session by session (as the last two days are a blur) I’ll just write it as it comes out.

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keneally20tom1First of all, Why Australian Literature? looked at our national literature and it’s current ‘crisis’, that of globalisation and the possible ‘swamping’ of other voices and literatures. The panel featured Peter Goldsworthy, Thomas Keneally and playwright Hannie Wrayson. Peter Goldsworthy couldn’t find his speech, so he rambled on the spot (and it was really quite rambly). He is ‘ambivalent about the subject’. He says we still feel Aus lit is vulnerable, but he has had positive experiences overseas where he has seen how our works are received as unique and exotic. He took from Marjorie Barnard’s essay in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, that ‘we can still catch it at it’.

Hannie Rayson shared hilarious (and worrying) anecdotes from working on a US TV show. She says Aus lit is actually booming, and that we need to hold onto our voice, in a way, while being unafraid to seek moments of universality, as creators, and cross those cultural boundaries.

Both Goldsworthy and Rayson opened with the first time they’d met Keneally, and then it was Keneally’s turn (who had met himself quite some time ago). He seemed a little weary of the subject – one that has been around at literary festivals since he was young. The ‘tussle always remains’, he said, though for different reasons. He said we should look at the swamping of other cultures as a challenge, not a threat. The biggest danger is the Productivity Commission’s threats to remove parallel import restrictions. Keneally said one thing he faced as an Aus author overseas, was the fact that people viewed Australia (as we often viewed ourselves, self-consciously so) as being less sophisticated than other Western cultures. He said when Schindler’s Ark came out, people would ask ‘how come an Australian wrote this? Like I’m an Antarctic penguin!’ Cuter than, Mr Keneally.

When it came to question time, I put my hand up and asked if the authors were aware that many people my age weren’t reading Australian literature. Judging by the age of the audience, people my age really had no concern about it at all. My voice cracked because I was looking directly as Goldsworthy (whose work I admire) and then it ended up coming out like an accusation, and I felt terrible. It’s a serious concern for me, but no one on stage had any thoughts about it at all. Goldsworthy said he wasn’t aware of it. He is now! It’s not the authors’ faults – they write what is true to them. There’s some missing link between the publisher and the audience, I think. On the way out three separate women grabbed me and said there were no young people in their book groups, or their daughter/son baulked when they suggested an Australian book.

While this is a stigma that may take time to overcome (and there is a younger ‘Aus lit’ which perhaps doesn’t seem relevant to these discussions, or sees itself as not being so, because it ispart of a globalised culture), another part of the question was answered in Sally Warhaft’s conversation with Christos Tsiolkas. Tsiolkas was ‘blown away’ by the success of The Slap, but feels that much of it possibly comes from the fact that there is a ‘hunger for contemporary stories’. Indeed, where is the Monkey Grip for my generation?

I also felt inspired by the whole festival, though, in that here is something worthwhile I can help with. Through this blog, word-of-mouth, through writing stories relevant to my generation, perhaps even teaching one day. I’ve touched on this before. That maybe I can be at least a small screw in a larger bridge (and I think Rosemary Cameron and Steve Grimwade have been steel beams in this – including many youth-appeal session at this festival). The bridge will be the kind where an old-school rock-star and a troubled youth meet. Think of it as David Malouf meeting young Larissa; Helen Garner getting through to Johnny; Gav finding himself in the expanse of Patrick White’s Voss.

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slapSpeaking of Christos Tsiolkas, he absolutely silenced the room with the power of honesty. He spoke of challenging the reader, giving them ‘something to think about’ – ie. the most joyful moment in The Slap being when the kids are on drugs. He talked about the ‘inner misogynist’ in all males, and that its true revealing ‘would be monstrous’. He was thoughtful, and cared about the potential for literary experience, which he explained much of when I interviewed him. Tsiolkas said his characters are unlikeable because ‘we became so unlikeable’ in the Howard era – insular and selfish. He spoke about ‘what got left out’ in that era and its effect on future generations. The characters of his generation in The Slap are the most unlikeable because he thinks his generation should look at the responsibilities they are neglecting. Childcare was brought up – the overprotection of children (and protectionism and the ‘entitlement’ in society in general), but also how the ‘extended family’ is missing from conversations about childcare. The child/adult divide is greater than it has ever been. The conversation was highly refreshing and he had the largest line for signings afterwards that I saw at the festival.

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The McSweeney’s launch was strange and fun. I’ll sum it up in a few words. Appropriated leather computer-sound instruments going on far too long; great readings from Wells Tower and Heidi Julavits; closing comedy/improv act featuring Chuck Norris and Maxibon; telling Heidi Julavits how much I loved ‘The Santosbrazzi Killer’ in The Lifted Brow 4; having not yet read Wells Tower’s book so having non-writing-related conversation (and heart beating very fast); tired friends sipping drinks at Recorded Music bar and hankering for chips; chips on the way home. Buzzing.

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My final two SPUNC Spectacular nights in the Festival Club were great fun. On Saturday I spoke to Melinda Tankard Reist, editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press); Emmett Stinson, fiction editor of Wet Ink; Miriam Zolin, editor of jazz/writing/improv journal extempore; David Winter, associate editor of Griffith Review; and Paul Collins, author of The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler (Celepene Press).

On Sunday night, I spoke to Tiggy Johnson, editor of Page Seventeen; Dion Kagan, editor of The Death Mook (Vignette Press); Nicole Taylor, literary editor of Sketch; Jaine Konarik, publisher of Tactile Books; Paul Collins again (with his other hat on), publisher of Ford Street; and the last guest was Chloe Jackson Willmott, who represented Going Down Swinging with a vivid performance piece.

Read more about all the publishers and publications at the SPUNC website

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I’m still gathering my overall thoughts on the festival. All I can say now is that I truly enjoyed living and breathing it. I have no food in the house and I bought so many books (that I’ll never have time to read) – I’m broke as. There’s no come-down time for me. Back to work tomorrow, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards on Tuesday, Kathy Charles’ book launch on Thursday, two reviews due in a week, my Overload Poetry Festival gig on the 7th, and only a month until National Young Writers’ Festival and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival – and I have lots of prep to do for panels at both. The most exciting thing, though, is that I recently had a short story accepted, and have been commissioned to write another. These are the joys at the forefront of my mind.

Festival photo journal to come soon.

[update] Thuy Linh Nguyen has reported on my final SPUNC Spectacular.

10 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part eight: why Australian literature?

  1. Congratulations on the short stories! That’s fantastic news. 🙂

    On the topic of Australian literature vs younger readers… from my p.o.v. I think the gap is really only apparent in regards to adult Australian literature. Australian YA literature is thriving, and certainly seems to be being read and loved!
    I’d be curious to hear how successful that side of the festival was. Certainly my one day at sessions by YA authors was packed by young and old alike.

  2. I wish I went to ‘Why Australian Literature?’ and especially the session with Christos Tsiolkas. The Q&A last night had me really interested when you all spoke of the book being confronting. I love confronting.

    I would’ve gone to ‘Why Australian Literature?’ as someone who doesn’t like the question but it’s refreshing to hear comments like “He said we should look at the swamping of other cultures as a challenge, not a threat.” and I agree with you that the kind of Aus lit that attracts me are books that don’t define themselves as being Australia. They just happen to interest me as much as a book from any other country does.

    The last thing I want to read is another book that advertises itself as “Australiana.”

    Oh and SPUNC was way fun; didn’t know NYWF was so soon! And congrats on the acceptance.

  3. Lisa – that’s interesting. I haven’t read Loaded yet.
    Jo – I agree that there are probably many YA books that reflect our contemporary concerns etc. I’m sure some bloggers would have covered the children’s/YA program. I’ll have a look out soon and include links to other MWF coverage, perhaps within a photo-journal post.
    Ben – Tsiolkas, for me, is confronting in the best kind of way. And Keneally is a treasure. It’s funny that you say that about ‘Australiana’, because that does mean a different thing to our gen than it does to older ones – it’s cringe-worthy. There’s a whole ‘Australia’ that is not ‘Australiana’, though. And it is still Australian literature. Peter Goldworthy’s books are very different from Keneally’s. So much to think about here. I forgot NYWF was so soon too. You should definitely come – you’d love it.

  4. Congrats on the short stories!

    I was only down for three days of the festival, but I too thoroughly enjoyed, as you say, “living and breathing it”. I came away feeling motivated and, well, somehow more literary. Pity I didn’t see you around — perhaps I will at NYWF.

    As for Aus lit, I tend to agree with you. I’m not in any way adverse to reading it, and I can certainly find it very easily at my local (independent) bookstore; so I have to wonder too whether there’s something missing between publisher and reader.

  5. I think because of that stigma to do with Australiana and a fair one, I think younger readers are more likely to read Australian literature if it’s defined as literature alongside writing from anywhere else in the world. As soon as someone says you should read this because it’s Australian, it’s then I’m more likely to step away.

    I think the emphasis on trying to separate Australian literature holds writers back from being assessed on their merits. I definitely think a lot of Australian writers have talent and tell great and relevant stories but it’s not because they’re the same nationality.

    I would so come to NYWF is I wasn’t so broke and needing to save money to visit my parents in Sydney in the Christmas holidays.

  6. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part eight: why Australian literature? - LiteraryMinded [crikey.com.au] on Topsy.com

  7. Congrats on the short stories! Hope you will have details when publication arrives.

    Have enjoyed your MWF diaries, almost felt like being there.

    Sigh, so many festivals, so little time, so little fundage.

  8. Pingback: Cut, print, that’s a wrap: 2009 – LiteraryMinded

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