Fragments from the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012

‘As a writer, what you leave out says as much as what you put in.’—Jeanette Winterson

Lying in the hotel room—white walls, painted beams and sheets—feeling sick with nerves, scribbling questions in the margins of questions.

Jeanette Winterson, so far away from me in the Opera House that I cannot make out her face. But such a presence, confident, stalking the stage. ‘If you think about art as a luxury’, she says, ‘then being human is a luxury.’ She makes a direct appeal to the importance of our ‘inner lives’ in her talk on art, literature, love and (that still useful word, she says) the soul. When she talks of the life of the mind, the heart, and of the importance of connection, she doesn’t come across as earnest. And this is partly because she is so hilarious.

LOL. Charlotte, Chris & Paddy.

On Thursday I chair a panel on humour in fiction. The authors’ books, the characters’ voices, are so different, but a general consensus from the panel is that humour is not only one of the best ways to convey serious ideas, but that humour (for them as readers) is essential. Basically, for the text to not take itself too seriously, to be aware of its place in the larger scheme of (absurd) existence.

Jeanette Winterson has the audience in stitches talking about the ‘banana beagle’ who meets her at Sydney airport. She was once caught with a banana skin, but the banana itself was already digesting.

She relates this to her talk by encouraging us to access our inner banana.

My banana sometimes pokes out of my mouth. I try to restrain the banana, when appropriate. I let the banana loose with my friends, especially on Saturday, over a trout fishcake at Fratelli Fresh, a walk around the harbour, some drinks on Pier 2/3. At other times the banana settles deep in my gut, unsure of itself. With someone who sees restraint as a virtue, my banana attempts coolness, patience.

‘I don’t think books make a home, they are a home,’ says Winterson. In the hotel bed I dream of a home that is cavernous, like the Opera House, but made of bricks. I cannot make out the detail on the roof. There is a small yard, so we can finally get a dog. This is the happiest thought. There’s no proper bathroom, but a lime-coloured curtain pulls around some tiles. The toilet is next to our bed. There are other people in the house so I know this will pose a problem. I’m a light sleeper after all.

Excavations under the YHA. Time travel.

On Thursday and Friday night I stay at the YHA. I barely sleep. My roommates are from Boston. I feel happy that they have such nice weather. There is so much noise in the hostel. I wash my own dishes in the morning and try not to think of the luxury of the hotel. As my family friend said, ‘you are young.’ I have a lot of YHAs to go.

My family friends take me to Doyle’s. I’ve just read a passage in a Jessica Anderson book about lobsters screaming. Nonetheless, I get the ‘ship to shore’, the steak cooked medium. I need the iron. There is a view. Martinis and the past, the future. But ‘the now’ is much more present on the table. The taste of the food, the warmth of stories shared.

I drag them to The Clock afterwards, and I stay on until 12:25. This artwork compels me for so many reasons, and thinking about it and figuring out those reasons feels like a worthwhile use of time. I love films, and the guessing game makes you stay on, like staying up watching Rage. Time as a construct. Time as inevitable. Time as shared (but experienced differently for each of us). Moments of time as intertextual (we recall memories, and cultural memories, constantly, relating them to the now). Time as stretching out or closing in. Time full of people. Wanting to ‘pass time’ or hold onto it. ‘Our inner lives don’t work according to the clock or the calendar’, Winterson says. Remembering. Forgetting.

Waiting.

Close to midnight.

Waiting in that hotel room for Thursday, when I can get all my work done. Swinging between excitement and dread. Knowing it will all go well, because I am prepared, but also not knowing. Winterson talks that night about the fact that there is no certainty, and so, we build ourselves. Art helps us be ready. Good art supports us, but does not supplant us.

‘When we don’t have time, that’s the most tragic thing of all, because time is all we have,’ she says.

What is a worthwhile pursuit, then? Art, definitely, but talking and writing about art? It’s still a form of connection, a meeting of bananas. I go and see a panel on ‘friends reviewing friends’. Gideon Haigh says that when he reads the review pages he wants to get an overall sense of the culture and where it is going. The general reader might partly want this, but they also just want to know if there are any books out that they might enjoy. That might engage with their inner selves. That might ‘prepare’ them. Kerryn Goldsworthy says even the shorter reviews can do this. There’s an art to them. I think Haigh’s opinion is important, and perhaps it’s about balance. But the kind of criticism he’s talking about, I believe, is very difficult to do without giving away the ending of a book. At least, that’s what I’ve found, in my limited experience. In-depth criticism is stimulating (and necessary) but I do think the literary editors know that the main audience for their pages is a general one who wants to know whether or not a book is for them.

When in Sydney.

That said, his point that reviews could also be better written, more engaging in themselves, is a very good one. Any reviewer should aim to write a review that is stimulating and clear, maybe even clever. The panel also made a good point about editors often giving a review to the first person who offers, instead of thinking about who the best person will be for the job. It may be true sometimes, and for some literary editors. But they are also extremely busy people (with budgets and pages being cut and a gazillion books piling up).

The main points of the panel, though, were that, yes, friends shouldn’t review friends (and it’s up to the reviewer to be ethical about this, as the ed. may not be able to keep track), and enemies also should not review enemies. Though it’s not always so black and white, is it? When Goldsworthy edited ABR she did keep a long list (covered in white-out) of literary trysts, friendships, fallings-out and so on. ‘It seemed important, and seemed to be my job.’

Jeanette Winterson says, if you’re troubled, recite poetry to yourself in the mirror.

Tick. Tock.

I go to a panel on Australian classics. Yes, the Text Classics are wonderful, bringing out-of-print books (‘classics’, Michael Heyward says, is a label used provocatively, the debate is what’s important) to old and new audiences. Other publishers have Australian classics ranges, too, ie. Sydney Uni Press, Fremantle Press, and Allen and Unwin (forthcoming). There seems a bit of a divide between the panel and the audience in this one (except everyone loves Thomas Keneally, all the time, because, how can you not?) when people start to stand up and defend the literature departments of certain universities. They have learnt Aus lit, and even women writers. Admittedly, though, in another time. One audience member seems a bit frustrated by the debate and just wants to walk away with a good list of books to follow up.

Like that other panel, there’s a divide between the literary and critical ‘culture’, and the everyday reader who just wants to be pointed in the right direction, among all the noise.

Another ‘classic’.

At the Picador party I have a conversation with the Pan Macmillan managing director. Of course, he understands this perfectly. Without their Matthew Reillys and Di Morriseys, do you think they could publish many debut authors, or more ‘literary’ works? (Though the definition of ‘literary’ itself befuddles many readers, and writers.) I think if our personal and intellectual preference is for literary fiction, we might still appreciate the role commercial books play in our literary landscape. It’s not just a financial role, many of these books get people reading, and I don’t think I’m being too optimistic when I say that many readers will go on to read other books. I was a bookseller in a regional town for four years, and I know first-hand this is true. Some readers, yes, will only buy the Bryce Courtenay every Christmas (still, supporting that publisher so they can publish other works). But some will come in (or look at blogs, or whatever) and ask: what else is like this? What has this setting? Are there other books with characters like this? Booksellers, reviewers, bloggers—we can point readers toward books that will be a worthwhile, rewarding use of their time.

Because of commercially successful books, someone like the editor I speak to at the Picador party, who loves ‘depressing books’ (oh, me too) has a job. Has a wonderful job and does a wonderful job.

Kate rec(it)ed a poem with ‘it’ in every word.

(On a contradictory note, there are small publishers like Giramondo, who are proudly ‘literary’ and who publish books other publishers may not touch, who don’t operate on this kind of model and are successful—and support their authors—in other ways.)

Over the festival I meet so many new people (many known from years of social media contact).

I also accidentally meet a couple of people, like Elliott Perlman, asking for directions. And I spend a quiet, awkward few minutes alone in the green room with the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, whose life I don’t know enough about to ask any good questions.

Then there is the sun. But everything written about the beauty of sunshine (especially on the water) is a cliché. It is warm. It makes me very happy. I want more of it.

Eating ice cream with a spoon in the sun might be one of the most worthwhile uses of time.

13 thoughts on “Fragments from the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012

  1. Wonderful round-up, thanks – and an interesting one because I’ve just written a blog on what people look for in blog reviews. No-one has really said a work in its own right but expat Aussie Kim (as against Belgian Aussie Kim) pointed me to an article by Updike it which he suggested that. It’s something to think about… This post of yours is a work in its own right, I think, as well as being a report on the festival!

  2. Great post, Angela. I went to Classics and the Friends Reviewing Friends sessions as well and you captured the spirit of them perfectly. I was also curious about Gideon’s belief that we have a ‘review culture’ and not a ‘critical culture’. A challenge for all us blog writers. Glad you enjoyed your time up here. John

    • BTW Did he talk specifically about blogs … I’d love to see more on the role blogs play (or don’t as the case may be) in both the marketing/promotion and the cultural side.

      • Thanks for your comment, John. I’m sorry I missed you!
        Sue–Haigh did talk about blogs. He noted how they have a more personal element and can often be about the reviewer’s ‘feelings’ about a book (rather than being objective/critical). However, he enjoys following certain blogs because you get to know the personality of the blogger, and you might align yourself (or distance yourself) from their opinions accordingly. I think that’s true. One of his favourites is Estelle Tang’s 3000books: http://www.3000books.com.au/

  3. Pingback: The Wrap: Sydney Writers’ Festival | Website of Megan Burke

  4. ‘ello Angie
    this is all a li’l bit gonzo i reckon. you’re obviously having a fantastic time!
    it’s great to read your impressions – a flavour called ‘being there’.

  5. love your take on the SWF – would love to have been there- huge Winterson fan – and One day will get there. In the meantime thanks for your great review of your time – chook

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