'What Even Is A Writers Festival?', by Ellena Savage


Every time I speak in public is like the first time I got stoned. Time freezes, my heart-rate elevates and saliva glands fault, I start believing that my parents made a serious mistake when they created me, and literally everyone in the room (or carpark. Whatever.) is staring at me because they think I’m a dickhead. But I keep saying yes when anyone asks me to read or talk on some thing, and not because I’m a masochist. I surprisingly don’t actually enjoy nervous diarrhoea. It’s because writers these days are not supposed to be weirdos like Emily Dickinson, or even craven trashbags like Arthur Rimbaud, but Mark Twain-level orators and public intellectuals. And immersion therapy is supposed to work.

I’ve been at what seems like a million writers festivals this year but it’s only really four: Emerging Writers Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, National Young Writers Festival, and Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. I did a couple of things at the EWF, and made a magazine at MWF, but other than that, I’ve just been at these things for the lols. And lols were definitely had, if you deign to believe me. Maybe sometimes they were about things like the Berlin Writers Festival director mistaking my friend and me for actual artists at the festival and then politely excusing himself when it became clear that we were just schmucks, but that’s fine. A lol is a lol is a lol.

One of the highlights of the festival circuit for me was hearing Lionel Shriver speak at the UWRF Women of Letters event. She talked about her former life as an unknown novelist, writing out of some kind of Emily  Dickinson-style attic, compared with her life on the road now as a best-selling author of a gazillion novels. The demands of success made her long for the life she had before We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) was published. Ubud was Shriver’s ninth literary festivals this year, and she was candid about her ambivalence about the commitments (including festivals) that come with literary success. Such demands mean Shriver barely has time to write any more. Some audience members I spoke with afterward had registered Shriver’s misgivings as the misplaced woe of an incredibly privileged person, but I that’s not how I saw it. The privilege of success, for artists, should ultimately translate into finally possessing the time and other resources to freely work, and work on projects they truly care about. But instead, for authors, at least, success means the opposite. In her New Republic essay on the topic, How to Succeed as an Author: Give Up on Writing, Shriver names festivals, and the many other auxiliary commitments writers are required to take one, “competition for the solitary, reflective life that rightly constitutes the real thing.” So why do writers agree to be flown around the world in exchange for that all-too-precious commodity: time? Saying yes to everything, Shriver writes, is “the natural consequence of a profound insecurity that, during a dozen long years when I lived a hair’s breadth from having no publisher at all, worked its way into my very bones.” Insecurity about finances, name recognition, book sales. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t be thinking about all this if Shriver hadn’t rocked up in Ubud for the festival, after a “17-hour plane trip and a discombobulating seven-hour time difference” for Shriver.

So what value is there in writers festivals if they draws writers away from the thing they live for most, the thing that makes them interesting to hear from in the first place? Is there fault in promoting the writer as a public intellectual, when it is in fact the written word where the writer truly comes to together?

Regardless of whether there should be more or less importance attributed to successful writers, they are all, to some extent, public intellectuals. Where obviously historians and politicians who wind up at writers festivals serve authoritative roles in public discourse, fiction authors and poets also ingest and interpret the ideas in our worlds. Mikhail Bakhtin’s phrase comes to mind, the idea that the novel is “the encyclopedia of the life of the era”; it is the catalogue of our times. And when I finish a really good novel, I often feel as though its author knows everything. Just. Everything. But how do we get from loving books that know everything, to obsessing over what the writer-as-celebrity might have to say for themselves in the flesh? The text is a public event, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that public-ness should extend to authors giving keynote addresses or panels on the nature of truth in journalism. And what happened to the near-universal assumption held by now that the author’s intentions in their work don’t actually directly influence or legitimise any reading of a text. The author is dead, remember?


J.M. Coetzee is one author who is famously reluctant to discuss his own work publically; reasons include the idea that the “greatest works offer the toughest resistance, and that that within a work which absolutely resists analysis, constitutes its kernel.” That doesn’t mean he is not critically engaged with literature—he is—or engaged at the public level in contemporary issues—he is, particularly in the field of animal protection. But there is an extent to which an author can legitimately interpret their own work; and Coetzee’s right: if you could explain in full what an artwork is about, what it means, the artistic product need not exist at all. Good work is grounded in the ineffable.

Besides, it’s good for readers and scholars for the author to be dead, because it gives us the freedom to engage with, and justify, our readings of texts that mean so much to us. The text is primary. But the context, the author, has never really gone away. We still read literary biographies, diaries, letters, and notebooks. I read every author interview I can find online when I am enjoying a novel. And there are all those articles that circulate around social media about the habits of creative types – which document the two impossible creative types: those who wake at 4am and write all day on a diet of pure oats, and those who drink a bottle of whiskey by midday and then sun themselves yet their novels somehow exist. Having a scholarly licence to apply innumerable reading methodologies to texts is awesome (thanks, Barthes), but we are still obsessed with the minds and hands that create.

As a pleb, I quite like enjoy seeing authors whose work I love talk about themselves and their work. But mainly only those who have a strong stage presence, who are really good at speaking, maybe what Melbourne Writers Festival director Lisa Dempster names in her defence of literary festivals on the Wheeler Centre dailies, “that live connection [that] creates magic moments for all involved”. And at the festivals I attended this year, I saw a lot of those moments. Lorelei Vashti quoting a lot of Dorothy Parker in her powerpoint presentation on dresses and memory at NYWF, Anna Krien performing her intellectual wizardry on the ethics of journalism at NYWF, Junot Diaz being ridiculously charming and articulate in all his events at MWF, and Lydia Cacho calmly explaining the Mexican government’s plots to rape, torture, and assassinate her for her incriminating journalism at UWRF.

In another life, any of these authors could have been a performer: a lecturer, politician, actor. They are performers. Such talented individuals may give off the impression that writers are actually really good at performing. But there remains a stodgy majority of authors who cannot command an audience and who probably suffer from crippling social phobias. They often act like assholes on panels, because they really shouldn’t be there. Think: the bookshop scene from Margo at the Wedding (2007). If you haven’t seen it, it is every writer’s nightmare. An interviewer-character asks the writer-character Margo about one of her loathsome characters, stating, “I’m interested in the fact the father may be a portrait of you.” Margo responds with a bumbling and pointless tale about a delivery man, and then excuses herself, locks herself in the bathroom, and waits for the guests to leave.

But fear and cynicism do not reign supreme in the literary world. Many writers and readers adore writers festivals. “Literary festivals, for us readers, are our Super Bowls,” said Junot Díaz, or his publicist, on twitter. Bill Clinton once called the Hay Literary Festival “the Woodstock of the Mind,” lol. For producers and readers of texts, literary festivals are the confirmation we need that our most private obsessions are valid; they mean something to others, and to humanity more generally. Writers occupy the liminal space between art and scholarship, so whether or not they are able to give the definitive interpretation of their work is maybe beside the point. Writers festivals are confirmation that while we are constantly reminded that books are failing at existing, that they are sacred; that art and ideas are sacred. They are also good places to meet sexy dorks, if you’re into that sort of thing.



Ellena Savage regularly writes and edits for magazines like this one, SPOOK magazine, and Eureka Street. She has intimacy issues.


This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.