The Tasmanian Richard Flanagan is a highly regarded writer. In 2014, he took out the Man Booker, arguably the anglosphere’s most exalted literary prize. He’s collected plenty of other gongs for pretty fiction and so we must be confident that the bloke knows his way around a keyboard. That he has a clear memory of the national cultural past, though, now seems in doubt.  We’ll get to that.

First, The Australian joyously reported the decision of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival to “disinvite” participants Bob Carr and Germaine Greer. This must have been as cultural Cialis to our friends who love little more than to decry the intellectual stasis and censorship of the “Left”. It was only irritating to me, because the report contained no reason for the expulsion of Bob Carr. Greer, we know, is regularly “no platformed” and perhaps this Milo-style anti-marketing works quite well for her. But, Carr? I’ve flicked through his new book and found no offence equal to eviction — if you’ve heard he’s got all Malthusian on the matter of population control, he hasn’t. We can only suppose it’s his tolerance of China or intolerance of Israel that has ticked off some sponsor. Goodness, I’d love to know.

What I’d love more, though, is a good response from a true “Left”, rather than the fake one The Australian regularly creates. And which the “Left” manages to simulate quite well. Anyhow, Flanagan gave it a go, and could, unfortunately, come up with nothing more than Free Speech Is Essential and We Are Frightened of New Ideas.

So, Flanagan wrote a bit in The Graun about the dumbing down etc. of Australian writers events. Per Flanagan, these once celebrated difference, challenged authority and sharpened Kafka’s axe. The latter a tool with which I, not a reader of novels, would have remained unfamiliar were it not for Google. Apparently, it inflicts the pain by which one recognises literary greatness.

I have certainly experienced the agony of boredom at our nation’s finest writers’ festivals, but never the wounds of knowledge Flanagan says were once regularly sustained. Perhaps I went to the wrong sessions, or perhaps Flanagan, a person around my age, was not so liquored up as me in the ’90s, the decade in which our festivals of foreseeable ideas became established. Or, perhaps literature’s great prizes afflict their recipient’s memory. Wouldn’t know. Never won one and never shall, but many of those gifted souls who have tend to come over all Things Were Better In My Day.

I lived through the decade in which Flanagan’s gifts were first recognised by cultural organisations and even appeared at some events. As I recall, these were largely peopled by authors, like myself, of marketable ephemera, virtual reality enthusiasts and novelists who had written in some detail about their heroin-induced constipation. There were, of course, always unambiguously Literary people, such as Flanagan would become. But I genuinely can’t remember any sort of Contest of Ideas.

Still, Flanagan reckons he can and so writes of an Australian intellectual past that I perceive as fiction. Maybe he’s right and maybe I was drunk and am wrong to remember that time as one in which the shitty thinking of the Third Way was intellectually dominant. Whatever the case, Flanagan does not make a good case for the future of “debate” in elevating organised debate itself to such prominence.

In debating about the conventions of formal debate, Flanagan invokes the authority he claims must be felled with Kafka’s axe. I mean to say. From a form of middle-brow entertainment that came of age in this nation precisely in the moment that John Howard began his “culture wars”, what does he expect? Any real discomfort at our “ideas” festivals these past thirty years was permitted only by accident or the stubbornness of the very few directors genuinely committed to those persons unlikely to identify as members of a “bohemian” group.

Very few of our literary festivals or “intellectual” events have a function that is not illusory. Save for those, such as the National Young Writers’ Festival, which do not simply presume literacy of participants but aim to promote it, they serve to remind the knowledge worker and snob that they’re special. They do not seek new ideas but merely reconstitute them to appear as such. I would not say that there is anything particularly novel about the “Antidote” festival at the Sydney Opera House, save for its open arrogance that we have diagnosed all the problems in the world and can just fix them if we all get together in some sort of hackathon event facilitated by the innovative Todd Sampson.

Flanagan’s article brings to mind many thousands of articles I have read in recent years which all hold that if only such-and-such a person had a voice on TV/on the front pages of newspapers/in parliament, things would be better. This pure idealism of his is as intrinsically resistant to the “free speech” as he believes the Brisbane Writer’s Festival to be.

Flanagan expresses surprise in his article that “debate” should be subject to material conditions. “Does this mean money chooses which writers you hear — and don’t hear — at the BWF?” Dude.

Flanagan believes that the idea was, at one point, pure. The idea is always produced and reproduced by persons, and it doesn’t come first unless you’re an ancient Greek.

Or, perhaps, a person who believes in the ability of “debate” to transform the world. Money will do a quicker, more destructive job every time.

Peter Fray

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