Monday, 1 March 2010

Thomas Keneally says we are a mad, mad lot

and I might, for once, agree with him. As a person Tom irritates me. I met him the first time he came to a Writers' Week back in the middle of last century. He claims he was a newly minted, lacking in confidence author back then. He might have been newly minted but he did not lack self-confidence. According to Tom, Tom had written a good book and he was going to go on writing books. The self-confidence was no act.
Tom had no trouble engaging Patrick White in conversation. He argued loudly with Colin Thiele over some minor matter. Patrick White and Colin Thiele are dead but Tom seems set to go on forever at Writers' Weeks.
Writers' Weeks have changed. I have not had the time to attend more than a session or two for the past few festivals. This time I wonder if I will get there at all. I also wonder if it will matter.
Writers' Weeks used to be for writers. Now they are for readers. Many people will say that is a good thing. They will say that the two big tents on the parade grounds by the Torrens River are the way to go. The writers get up and talk. The audience asks questions. The writer endeavours to answer. Some people - the pushy sort - manage to nobble the writer afterwards. They can tell the wonderful how much they like - or hate - their work. There is another big tent a bit further away where there are piles of Festival author books for sale and the author will dutifully sit and sign their way into RSI - not a recognised work related injury.
All this is fine in a way. Readers do get to meet writers at a superficial level. The writers however get to meet only briefly - if at all. They are hurled into a maelstrom of school visits and other required activities. They are here to work for their publishers - who will, of course, say they are working for the authors. Writers' Week is good for publishers.
There is however something missing from the modern Writers' Week. As a young kitten, a very young kitten, I had the opportunity to meet some outstanding writers. This was because Writers' Week was not the commercial event it is now. It gave established writers a chance to meet and talk about issues of concern - much the same issues that are still of concern today - and it gave serious would be writers the chance to meet and talk with established writers in a relaxed environment. I had a poem accepted for publication while I was sitting on the steps of the old State Library Lecture Theatre talking to Les Murray. I did not submit it. Someone else had given it to him because they had liked it. "Can I have this by the way?" "Yes, if you want it." I doubt that would happen now.
The old was not, of course, that good either. It tended to be rather exclusive. You were lucky to be invited...only now do I really how lucky I was. I fervently wish other events had not intervened and that I had written more then. I wanted to but I did not...and no, sometimes however hard you try, things do not work out the way you wish.
I think we need a balance. We need the established authors to be able to talk more with those who are still trying to break into print. We need established authors to be more than vending machines for the publishers.
Writers' Weeks should be about writing. There can be no readers without writing.

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