At the heart of writers festivals…

I saw a comment on Facebook recently that made me think. A writer was bemoaning the lack, in this year’s Perth Literature and Ideas Festival program, of sessions bringing authors together to discuss particular topics, in favour of sessions where authors were just discussing their books. I have, of course, no problem with this writer expressing their opinion; it just prompted some thought about what writers festivals mean to me.

I’ve certainly enjoyed many of the issues-based panels I’ve attended over many years of festival-going, but I have to confess that those I’m most drawn to are one-on-one author interviews, or panels of two or three authors, usually loosely connected, talking about their books. Issues and ideas, as well as aspects of writing and publishing, fall very naturally into sessions like these, and it’s not often that I come away without feeling I’ve learned something.

I was dismayed a few years ago when I scoured the program of a highly regarded writers festival and struggled to find a single session in which an author talked about a book. I know that festival directors have a formidable task in trying to satisfy competing interests, wanting to honour their traditional audiences, needing to grow their audience base and especially to attract younger members. But the core elements of a writers festival are surely books and authors, and I applaud the directors who put these elements front and centre while finding interesting ways to present them.

Since Covid rushed in and took over our lives, hats off to every festival director in the country for navigating their way around restrictions and uncertainty and new technologies to keep their festivals alive. And congratulations in particular to Sisonke Msimang, director of this weekend’s Perth festival.

Due to other commitments, I’ll only be attending two live sessions, as well as two ‘watch-at-homes’, and look forward to the opportunity to listen to Susan Midalia, Josephine Taylor, Lucy Peach, Bron Bateman, Julia Gillard, Britt Bennett, Donna Mazza and Laura Jean McKay. If you‘re going, I wish you a happy and fulfilling weekend. If you haven’t booked anything yet, there may still be a few tickets left. And for anyone distant from Perth, there are some great ‘watch-at home’ sessions. You can check the program here.


Filed under Events

10 responses to “At the heart of writers festivals…

  1. A thoughtful offering, Amanda. I largely agree. The abilities and enthusiasm of a good host is integral, isn’t it, to bringing a breadth and relatability to the discussion, whether or not the audience has read the book beforehand. On one or two occasions I have been an observer or participant of a session where I’ve questioned how familiar the host is with the book. Perhaps that demand of time steers an issue- rather than book-based session. Best wishes for a fantastic event this weekend.

    • I agree, Robyn. A good chair/interviewer, who is really familiar with the book, is essential, and can make a difference to how the session goes. I saw a good one today: Emily Paull managed a panel of four writers very well—no easy task!

  2. Well said, Amanda! While I recognise, as you do, that festival directors must cater not only for those of us with a writerly focus but also people who get excited by general “issues”, I find fewer and fewer sessions engage my interest, because they drift into broadly topical subjects rather than providing authorial insights into the process of literary composition. I’m with Colum McCann when he says, “Ideas on their own may be fine, and they may make good politics, but they will not necessarily make good literature.” So let’s hear more from writers on their books!

  3. Oh me too, Amanda, more and more I am finding that issues dominate, and they’re *yawn* the same old issues that have been dealt with extensively anyway.
    I wonder if…
    My first experience as a panel chair came from a library which had hired an enthusiastic young person to run it. She was not local, and had struggled a bit to find a theme and books to go with it, but it went well enough despite having four authors which I think is too many. (It gives each one about 10 minutes each by the time the intro and questions are taken into account.) The following year she selected a theme and asked me to choose the authors (within budget of course) and the year after that I chose the theme and the authors.
    Which led me to the conclusion that she didn’t actually read much OzLit herself…
    If you don’t read much yourself, it’s a lot easier to choose issues and the same old faces that have already had heaps of publicity, than it is to introduce the audience to some new ones. What I think works well is a maximum of three, one of whom is the famous one to be the drawcard.
    But the best sessions I’ve done (if I do say so myself) were one-on-one conversations with Lily Yulianti Farid and Roger McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival, and with Shokoofeh Azar at the Williamstown Festival. These were not sellout sessions, but they had a respectable attendance and they gave the authors the opportunity to talk in depth about their books.
    I would very cheerfully part with my money to hear Ian Reid talk about writing at the PWF, not to mention hearing from you, Amanda! As it is I have bought three Watch At Home sessions, and I hope they are going to be about the books. It’s a shame there aren’t more available this way.

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful response, Lisa. Oh, I would love to watch you conduct an interview! You’re so right, as others commenting here have been: it’s close familiarity with a work, on the part of the chair/interviewer, that gives an author the opportunity to reflect and speak with depth, and which turns a session into something enlightening and interesting and sometimes surprising for the audience! Let’s hope there will be many more of these in festivals around the country.

  4. TBH I think that some chairs are chosen because the organisers want to give young authors some work because writing is so badly paid these days. And that’s a good thing, I think, but it means we have to cut them some slack. From what I’ve seen they’re (mostly) professional and read the books that are under discussion, but even when they have PhDs from a writing course somewhere, they can’t possibly have the depth and breadth of reading that a lifetime of reading brings.

    • I doubt there’s anyone else I know who has your credentials in that regard, Lisa!
      On the whole, I like the idea of bringing in new/young people as chairs to widen the pool, because there’s the potential for new perspectives and a different range of reading positions and experiences. But I’m less enamoured of the trend towards bringing in ‘celebrity’ chairs, unless they are also very well read and have something of value to offer.
      What I most love to encounter as a writer being interviewed or as part of a panel is a chair who has thoroughly engaged with the work and what I’ve tried to do—it’s a joy to be part of a session like that.

      • *blush*
        One unexpected benefit of the pandemic is that festival all over the country have realised that they can host an author from almost anywhere in the world. What used to happen was that an author who’d done the Sydney Festival would then make a tour of it, going to every other festival there was and author talks besides. We don’t have to have that now, we can have a much greater variety without festival duplicating each other!

      • Oh yes, it’s wonderful to be able to ‘attend’ various festivals from over here. I hope this new feature will be a keeper!

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