Melbourne Writers Festival

I’ve downloaded your book, but I haven’t read it yet.

Fran Kelly, interviewing Michelle de Kretser, RN Breakfast

The Melbourne Writers Festival is on again, and so all talk has turned once again to of course the Melbourne Writers Festival. Could we eventually have the whole festival discuss nothing but the festival? What greater tribute to the great Gerald Murnane could there be than the festival spiraling into itself, mise en abyme, like two TV cameras pointed at one another until nothing remains?

Mind you, we’re almost there already. We had a first go round with this when Marieke Hardy’s program was announced, with its now notorious pet funerals, literary tattoos and primal screaming for houseplants sort of thing. Now it’s actually started, we’re going ’round again, with various literary-world figures denouncing it as “whatever it is it’s not a writers’ festival”.

By literary figures I mean of course publishers who are furious that the festival, their premier bulk marketing opportunity, has been taken away from them. The publishers may moan, but they softened up the writers festival — which buds off the original post-war Edinburgh arts festival, designed to restore cultural seriousness to a ravaged Europe — to such a degree that it was only a matter of time before someone came along and turned it into a fey version of Coachella.

The critics of the current MWF can’t deny that the program is a jump in racial/LGBTQIA+/disability diversity, following a festival that was whiter than a Dulux swatch for art gallery decoration, years beyond it being embarrassingly shameful.

Nevertheless, it points to the absurdity of writers’ festivals, at least in the middle of a place branded as a city of literature, for the one thing its defenders appear to be saying is “look, at least it’s funnn for a change”. True, the publishers’ festival model had become boring as in recent years, but surely, if you need pet funerals and massage circles to make it fun, what were you looking for in a writers festival in the first place?

If the well-curated discussion of ideas and books, readings and debates isn’t fun in itself, then what did you really like about writers’ festivals in the first place?

[Australian literary festivals and the optics of outrage]

The answer is elite self-affirmation taken to a new level. The diversity is one of identity, not of ideas. Marieke Hardy has said that she thinks the world needs more hugs than arguments, and that she would not program someone like Germaine Greer. This seems to be the exact opposite of what a public festival centred around texts should be. The idea of wounded selfhood in need of reparation runs through the festival, at least a certain amount of it apparently due to the fact that Hardy’s dog died.

The festival is thus an expression of that easiest of cures for wounded selfhood, a sheen of narcissism. The collective version of such in this case. If there’s something a little nauseating about Magda Szubanski’s living funeral or Clementine Ford DJing in a onesie, it’s due to the well-founded suspicion that the role of festival attendees is to be an admiring audience for this self-celebration.

The exclusion of real debate — such as a figure like Greer might provide — is absolutely necessary to this. Queer is the presiding spirit of the fest, and in its usual current paradoxical fashion: a dominating ideology perpetually presenting itself as an insurgent one, and relying for any intensity it might have on the latter illusion.

Any questioning of it would limit the festival’s purpose of class affirmation. The desperate desire to do anything but talk about books is an admission that cultural production is now largely about class reproduction of a new elite, and that the material itself is more pretext than, erm, text.

This reflects a movement in the wider culture. Literary fiction sales are down precipitately across the anglosphere, by as much as 30-40% over the past five-eight years. Having survived the rise of ebooks, publishers and booksellers are now looking nervously at the beginnings of what McLuhan predicted as a “post-Gutenbergian” culture — one no longer dominated by linear text within a spined codex, or “book” to you.

The dirty secret of an increasing number of readers is that for all their love of reading, they can’t wait until it’s late enough to be able to grab the remote and dive into Netflix, the state-of-the-art immersive narrative delivery system once provided by fat novels, long poems and some dude with a harp singing of ancient wars. No one really wants to admit how irrelevant literary culture is becoming to the wider culture itself, and yet how much it is being used by the knowledge-class elites who run sections of the state, to enforce its own values, through ever-expanding centres, grants, prizes. Not read, but at least downloaded, as we wander, butts tingling from getting a tattoo of the Edinburgh tattoo, between the wellness tent and the pet cemetery.

What is the purpose of writers festivals? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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