The trend away from literature at festivals

After the recent releases of the programs for the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ and Canberra Writers’ Festivals respectively, I tweeted out these stats:

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That raised a few questions over what this means, whether such matters, and what, exactly, my point might be.

There are a couple of things. For one, as someone who’s interested in literature and writers, I look forward to the release of these programs to see if there’s anyone worth heading along to hear. I was disappointed with the line-ups of both events, largely because of the low representation of any authors I might be interested in – though many others, it’s worth noting, have praised the programs. Worth noting, too: MWF director Marieke Hardy, now in her second year, lead a significant increase in revenue for the event in 2018.

As a literary fan, I dislike the trend away from fiction authors, given there are seemingly fewer and fewer opportunities to hear them speak, but I do also get the financial perspective, the business side of such planning.

But the other issue I have is more pressing – with fewer outlets for fiction writers to generate exposure for their work, I feel like we’re losing a significant opportunity, which could have a much larger cultural impact over time, as our next generation of authors miss out on connection with writers and work that may help them find their own voice.

Of course, literary ‘voice’ is a bit of a fluffy concept – finding your voice is never really a clearly defined process. But I’ll give you an example within this context – as much as I was good at English and literature when I was in school, I was never taken by the assigned books on the curriculum, and I never really found stories and/or authors that I truly connected with till after I started reading for pleasure more consistently, after I’d left the school system.

Through the authors I found – many via events, festivals, bookshops – I was able to discover writing styles that I connected with, that I wanted to write like myself, which then inspired me to try my hand at creating my own works.

A significant part of this comes down to basic exposure – and as noted, there are many authors I’ve come across because they’ve been speaking at events, broadening my literary input and helping me find more of what I like. It’s important to also note that I didn’t go to see every one of these authors speak, but simply having them featured on the bill, seeing them interviewed as part of the lead-up – all of the periphery exposure that comes in addition to being part of a writing festival, particularly one of the majors, helps to connect more people to more authors, and as more and more bookshops close down, and the opportunities for such reduce, authors, arguably more than ever, need that extra push wherever possible.

Excluding fiction authors from a writers festival is a major blow – and again, I do understand the commercial obligations, and the festivals that do receive government funding, and, you would assume, have more of an obligation to promote the arts do feature more fiction writers.

But it feels like a lost opportunity. In some cases, some of the festival events feature whole sessions where none of the speakers or hosts are primarily known for their writing – which, to me, misses the entire point of a writers festival (call it a ‘festival of ideas’ or something if you’re no longer going to focus on actual writing).

Festival directors need to make money. But then again, authors do too. The less opportunity for exposure, the less they’re able to do so, which is another component to the whole chain in lessening cultural impact. In essence, as the balance of power in the Australian book marketplace shifts towards commercial content – and away from literary expression – we also run increased risk of failing to help our next generation of authors find their voice.

Who’s the next Christos Tsiolkas? The Next Richard Flanagan? Right now, I’d say we don’t clearly have another shining literary light coming through – and the way we’re going, maybe we won’t see such anymore at all, and definitely not at the same rate we have in the past.

It’s only one indicator, and there are other signs of positive activity within the fiction space overall. But it’s a concern that writers festivals are increasingly moving away from actual writers, and therefore, the sharing of discussion and exposure around the same.

One comment

  1. E S Black

    I agree, and I was utterly disappointed by the CWF line up this year. If I wanted to hear the thoughts of journalists and politicians, I’d turn on the news. I went to a number of events last year, and really enjoyed those that I chose to attend, but I’m going to skip it this year.

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