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The cost of consumerism
May 8 2000

ONCE were writers. Sensitive isolates, beavering away in solitude, egos boosted only by peers and publishers. There was the rare step into limited limelight when a book was launched or a prize awarded, certainly, but anonymity was the norm. Then came the writers festival. Now authors are a commodity, personalities clamoured after as the main event.

In Australia, a virtual festival circuit has been established: all the capital cities are in on the act. Then there are the subsidiary metropolitan events like the NSW Writers Centre Spring Festival or Melbourne's suburban Queenscliff and Hawthorn festivals, or regional happenings like the Gold Coast's Somerset Celebration of Literature or the Byron Bay and Mildura writers festivals. Still more are allied with other arts like the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. And more still in small town community events run by enthusiasts.

In the major cities, literary festivals have become big business, with big dollar award ceremonies and ardent competition for name authors (preferably international), audience numbers and media exposure. Social analyst McKenzie Wark recently lamented this Big Day Out-isation of literature. "What calls for celebration," he hurrumphed in The Australian, "is not writers but writing, not literary celebrities but language, not the consumption of books but the transformation of meaning. Writers festivals ... are a way of accommodating the reading classes to consumerism, celebrity, commodity - all the things that the bookishly inclined feign to despise."

His view has adherents. Some industry professionals fear this festival of festivals is distorting perceptions of literary worth. Charisma, they argue, is supplanting excellence, while too much critical, creative and promotional resources are being diverted into an ephemeral showtime. Others argue that the rise and rise of writers as public personalities is the best chance of literature surviving the electronic and internet challenge, that the razzmatazz has half-life benefits in focusing attention upon the work.

Certainly the public has embraced festivals with fervour, suggesting that interaction beyond the covers is a powerful lure. Michael Heyward, Text Media publisher, noted earlier this year that ``a culture packed with literary festivals represents an intelligent culture''. Adelaide Writers Week chair Michael Meehan is another who sees the proliferation of festivals as a positive. "The study of literature has been on the shrink for quite some time now in the universities," he says, "and public 'edu-tainment' of this kind will increasingly fill the gaps that have been left."

Nevertheless, the festival explosion has become so intense that publishers are becoming chary about the bottom line. Most festivals have limited budgets and free-entry to events policies, relying on publishers to subsidise guest line-ups through air fare and accommodation assistance. Susan Robbins, publicity manager at Pan Macmillan, believes there is now "room for rationalisation, particularly of regional and metropolitan festivals." From a publisher's viewpoint, she says, "the writers really don't have time for festivals - the very few who are full-time practitioners cannot afford the distraction from writing, those who work and write cannot afford the time."

And while there's a benefit from appearing before 200 people in a capital city, "the smaller festivals are a substantial drain on resources, creative and financial, for very limited tangible results."

Penguin marketing director Gabrielle Coyne has similar reservations. Writers festivals, she says, "provide a terrific forum to do publishing events for a wider market, and the punters seem to like them, which is positive. But as a publisher who has to kick in for author appearances at them, I don't get to see that money back."

That may surprise those who complain that the festivals have been hijacked as publishing house-driven marketing exercises. The publishers say they support them from good will and to establish a writer's profile: returns from festival book sales are negligible (even top sellers move only low hundreds of copies), while the costs associated with nurse-maiding authors are high. But the publishing perception is that the long-term benefits - word-of-mouth enthusiasm and media exposure - are high, even if this cannot be empirically measured.

Then there are the writers, many reluctant performers at best. Some are affronted by the "sing for supper" ethos, some are too socially inept to impress, some - like dual Booker Prizewinner JM Coetzee - refuse to play on anything other than their own terms. And some flourish although, as Robbins straight-shoots, "the proportion of writers who love performing is small, the proportion of those who love it and are good at it even smaller. Panel appearances can be a nightmare, especially if an author is an expert on Freud and is expected to discuss the literary significance of gardening. These are people who spend most of the year in isolation over hot keyboards ..."

Perhaps, although several days of unmitigated adulation does something to the writerly ego; some authors may have to be dragged blinking into the spotlight, others bask in it. And the chance to network with peers, mingle with admirers and strut their hour upon the stage is a powerful stimulant.

For the aficionado, then, festival choice has never been so broad. The Big Dance is the biannual Adelaide Writers Week. It's in tents and intensely focused, attracts a plethora of publishers and more top flight authors than the rest. Because overseas agents and editors have begun to attend, there's some serious rights-trading done there (not a feature elsewhere). And despite its relaxed reputation, there's also serious partying (it's a rare writers week that doesn't have at least one scandal involving celebrity drunkenness and/or sexual indiscretion).

The numbers are impressive: 100,000 "bums on seats" at this year's sessions, with one visitor in five lobbing from interstate. The audience is well-heeled, three in four are female, more than half are 45-plus and they are catered for with a specific emphasis on up-market "imaginative literature". That, says Meehan, is so the public gets what it's come for: "The chance to hear actual creative writers speak! Journalists, critics, academics, media stars and politicians all have their place, but I'm not sure that should be at writers' festivals."

A sly dig, but it points to a significant philosophical discrepancy (and, ironically perhaps, echoes Wark's comments): elsewhere, the trend is determinedly "modern" in a search for relevance and larger, younger audiences. The high-church "novelists reading in splendid isolation" model has generally ceded to pacier, interactive panels (often on ad hoc topics) with a multimedia packaging. It is the era of author as entertainer (and why not, given so many celebrities and entertainers have become authors?). The name of the game is performance, which has little to do with literary merit and everything to do with image. And the intimacy festival audiences apparently crave - the want to feel they have "met the medium". That's why the festival word is now as likely to be delivered by musicians and chefs, comedians, fantasists and romance writers, agents, editors, journalists and actors as by novelists and poets.

Within reason. Melbourne remains avowedly high-brow, as befits a core audience of slightly older, better educated, mostly female, "right side" of the trackers. "It is both serious and accessible," qualifies festival director Simon Clews, "where other events tend to be either one or the other." And specific targeting is seducing a wider demographic - Isabel Allende last year lured a huge Latin-American following, Poppy Z. Brite's audience was "almost exclusively under 30, dressed in black and significantly pierced. Melbourne is aimed at the reader - no one takes to the stage here without sufficient preparation," Clews jabs at more ad-lib festival approaches. It seems to be working - 10 years ago you could potter along on a Saturday afternoon and pick up a ticket at the door. Now most sessions are sold out weeks before curtain up. "To use one of those dreadful sporting comparisons," Clews winces, "we have gone from an ordinary Saturday afternoon league match to the Grand Final."

Sydney "deliberately cultivates a more informal environment than Melbourne," counters festival director Meredith Curnow. "Our aim is to reflect writing in all its forms, which is why we include work for stage and screen, poetry, non-fiction and journalism. We're writer-driven ... and we emphasise non-fiction and current affairs more than other festivals." Formerly tied to the larger Sydney Festival, the festival was relaunched as an independent event two years ago (as was Melbourne) and is slowly changing its demographics. The blue-rinse and librarian sets remain, but with event-oriented influxes of the young and the political (for Angela Davies last year, probably William Shawcross this) and the less literary-minded seeking the jocular confidences of populists like the McCourt brothers.

Of the others, the Brisbane Writers Festival mixes commercial and literary writers, performance readings with audience-pleasing hypotheticals and debates. Its audience is 67 per cent female, with almost half under 35, and it is earning a reputation as the friendly festival. The Perth Writers Festival, now an annual event, has shifted from the heritage politeness of Fremantle to the University of Western Australia, expanding its eclectic blend of travel writers, politicians, social commentators, photographers and (some) novelists.

The Somerset Celebration of Literature on the Gold Coast hinterland has a dual audience with some cross-over. It mixes musical flair with interactive children's writing events for students, seminars and panels of adult authors for their parents and friends.

And the coastal friendliness of Byron Bay has become an annual sell-out. Its main point of difference - apart from its sub-tropical attraction in mid-winter,is that the writers - drawn across genres - are all Australian-based and live on site, with the audience coming in to collegial gatherings.

High literature, however, is most noticeably absent from Newcastle's National Young Writers Festival, the new kid on the circuit. That's because writing is treated as a cultural phenomenon rather than an industry, says festival manager Marcus Westbury. And it does appear to have tapped the growth market the more established festivals lust after, even if publishers remain wary of its anarchy. "We break down the distinction between audience and panelists," says Westbury, "and assume everyone has something to contribute. And we incorporate writing for TV, films, comics, radio, the internet, 'zines, self-publishing, performance poetry." The program reflects the audience: "average age around 25, people at the margins of making Australian culture but connected to it".

Byron Bay:
No of festivals

Note: Brisbane Writers festival succeeded the long-running Warana Writers Week. Adelaide's figure above for 1998.

This article was first published in The Australian.

Copyright Murray Waldren 2000

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