Monday, 4 April 2011

Modern Mystery

There's been lots of publicity recently about the forthcoming Sydney Writers' Festival, (it begins in May). As always, when confronted with information about a writers' festival, I am left baffled. What is the atttraction of these things? They seem to be immensely popular and yet surely, of all the arts, writing is the one that a festival least suits.

After all, writers write books and the contents of the books are supposed to communicate what the writer wants to communicate. What on earth is the point of going and sitting meekly in a lecture hall while a writer blathers about their writing, when the writing itself is right there on the shelf, contained in a handy paper package that can be opened and shut at will? All you have to do is take the thing down and read it, without ever leaving home (even to buy it, if you use Abebooks or Amazon).

If a writer is any good at all at writing, his writing will express whatever it is he wants to express. What is to be gained from going and listening to him? Is he actually a writer or just an idle chatterer, eager for adulation? Has anything ever been said in one of these forums that was more profound than what is contained in the books of the various participants encouraged to expose themselves to the public gaze?

Of course, I'm not against festivals per se - I just think they are not a useful medium for writers. What I would like to see instead are festivals of visual artists, events where the kinds of people who exhibit at the Frieze Art Fair, (for example), are paraded before us and forced to explain themselves. I should add that, if I were running things, I would stipulate that, in their efforts to tell us what they may be attempting to do, the 'artists' would not be allowed to use any vague jargon about postmodernism et cetera, they would not be allowed to say that their work 'privileges' anything, they would not be allowed to talk about their 'practice' and they would never be allowed to mention Walter Benjamin, particularly his essay titled, 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.'

Actually, I think there might be quite a good television series one could fashion from getting 'contemporary art practitioners' to explain their work to the public, while sitting on a ducking stool that threw them into deep water whenever they transgressed by doing any of the above. And, to persuade them to participate, all that would be necessary would be to tie the distribution of arts' grants to their attendance at such events. I think quite a few people might watch such spectacles with some interest. In fact, I think I should go and patent the idea before Peter Bazalgette pinches it, now that his Big Brother franchise has begun staggering towards its final gasp.


  1. Yep! There's a well subscribed literary festival in my town and I always get excited when I see the line up every autumn, but then never go to a single event because, as you say, in the end it's pointless! (unless you are the type of person that gets their kicks seeing writers sitting on a chair at a distance)

  2. But would you enjoy seeing contemporary artists hurled into pools of cold water? 'Damien Hirst, explain to me exactly why all those horrible dot paintings (let alone those execrable figurative daubings you shoved into the Wallace) should be considered as successful works of art? You can't, can you? In you go, splash, hurrah.' I would spend many happy evenings watching that.

  3. I've never been to a Writer's Festival but I have been to readings. E Annie Proulx and Colm Toibin were spellbinding.

    PS: at the moment I'm reading Mortification where writers tell stories of their public shame. Almost all the stories revolve around festivals and readings

  4. I couldn't agree more. Seeing a writer in the flesh adds nothing to our appreciation of their work and also carries the risk of disappointment.

    When I ran a bookshop in London, I was regularly invited to book launches and 'meet the author' gatherings in expensive restaurants. At first I was very excited. I had 'arrived' and thought I was now part of the literary demi-monde.

    But I quickly realised that meeting authors was generally disappointing, however charming they were. They were usually there under sufferance, forced by someone in the sales and marketing department to promote their latest title. Most of us hadn't read the books, so we ended up having half-conversations about the book trade.

    When someone turned out to be 20 years older than their author photo, possessed a strange lisp, monotone voice or seemed incredibly pleased with themselves, I invariably felt disappointed.

    So I agree. It's the written word that counts.

  5. Nurse and Steerforth - I have just remembered that I went to hear Les Murray read out poems from his new (then unpublished - and therefore perhaps I can justify going? [couldn't find them anywhere else])collection and I loved it. And he wasn't disappointing. However, Steerforth's experience sounds pretty close to my idea of what these things are usually like. And I think that to write well you need to be on your own, plunging deep into some part of your brain that is never able to get a look in when you are with other people, so it's counter-productive for writers to go to these things - especially as there is nothing worse for killing any ability to put words down on paper than being conscious that there is an audience somewhere, sneering and jeering or merely looking disappointed that this latest production doesn't quite match up to the one you did that they liked so much before. And as for the literary demi-monde, ugh, what a fetid little room that is, with all the windows firmly closed against fresh air - funny how when one is young it's easy to think that just because something is exclusive it is worthwhile.
    But where are all the TV executives anxious to option my brilliant idea for an arts reality show? Ducking Marvellous, it could be called, and, as I said, all arts grants would be tied to candidates explaining themselves on it.

  6. I went to see Clive James once and enjoyed it but that's because he's got a lot of stand up comedian in him. He didn't read his essays, but told a few anecdotes in a very laid back, engaging way, and read a poem about his youth.

    I do agree that writers should be at home writing, but "being a writer" at festivals can bring in more than writing books. That goes especially for poets.

    Another morning comes: I see,
    Dwindling below me on the plane,
    The roofs of one more audience
    I shall not see again.

    God bless the lot of them, although
    I don't remember which was which:
    God bless the U.S.A., so large,
    So friendly, and so rich.

    English writers used to try and make a killing in the USA in front of book clubs and universities. Now like a lot of American things it's spread everywhere.

  7. Thanks for that, Rosie: I have to admit I would have gone to see Auden do absolutely anything, (my admiration for him is boundless), so perhaps the truth is that I'm just not interested in the current mob of festival circuit clowns.

  8. It's all the crap about "practice", "privileging", Levy-Strauss, photographs having "narrative" and paintings being "beyond colour" that turn me off most analysis of works by their authors, whatever the medium. If the medium is not carrying the message, I'm not going to give the author a massage (of the ego)!