Binge drinking and the Sydney Writers’ Festival – the hidden link revealed

Perhaps it is because I don’t get out much, or perhaps I am just reckless, but by the time I returned home on Sunday after four glorious days brain-binging at the writer’s festival, all I could do was fling a signed copy of Josh Neufeld’s A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge at my beloved before passing out on the couch. Yes I was drunk, but alcohol wasn’t the cause of my euphoric addlement (definitely not a word, but what can I say? I was at the writers’ festival). It was ideas, dear Overlanders. Ideas, I say!

For those of you unable to make the perilous journey beyond Central station to Circular Quay via rail-bus, it is my solemn duty and privilege to report the wonderful and terrifying things I have witnessed. Let’s begin with the ominously titled ‘Can Literature Survive the Digital Age?’, a panel discussion between Meanjin editor, Sophie Cunningham; Granta editor, John Freeman; and author, Cate Kennedy. The verdict? Going from what Cate Kennedy had to say, the question should be: ‘Can writers survive the digital age despite all the tw**ting distractions?’

Kennedy’s reasoning is this: the time taken up flitting about the netesphere has to come from somewhere; it’s not as if an extra couple of hours have been added to the day to allow for the 35 trillion emails that get sent, not to mention the endless clicking on the ‘like’ button of one’s facebook page. Time is being taken from something else, something fairly important to the practice of writing – thinking. Kennedy argues that those valuable moments – sometimes hours – of pondering that take place between when a writer places his/her derrière on the seat and when he/she actually starts to write, have been replaced. Instead of pondering, its a quick check of the emails, a quick status update on fb and a squiz at what Alain De Botton is tweeting about, by which time the writer has lost all inspiration and indeed perhaps the will to live. According to Kennedy, ‘The thing that writers need is time away from input and stimulus’.

Conversely, John Freeman and Sophie Cunningham (who admitted to having software installed that enforces time spent offline) argued that digital media is enriching the literary experience, and this was certainly demonstrated at a previous session held earlier. ‘Writing Beyond the Book’ saw Christy Dena, Joanna Featherstone (of The Red Room Company), Helen Cole and James Stuart discussing ‘opportunities for literary expression beyond the standard codex format’. It is undeniable that digital media has created a whole new way of not only publishing, but also cataloguing and archiving. Joanna Featherstone spoke of the many low-fi poetry projects (poems attached to the feet of pigeons, for example) able to be opened up to a wider audience because of our friend Ms Internet. The transient has been made accessible and somewhat more permanent, unless you happen to be a poetry-hating super hacker, I suppose. The panellists also discussed works such as Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts, which was an online project before it became a published novel.

Cyber-birthing was also the delivery method of choice for Josh Neufeld’s non-fiction comic A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge. Neufeld was part of the panel for ‘Disaster Tales’, where he spoke about finding powerful narratives among the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. A.D is available online and is an example of literature that is not only surviving the digital age but thriving on it. Reading it online is great, but the book itself is a beautiful object that readers will want to hold in their hands; no amount of digital wizardry will change the fact that humans are sensual, tactile creatures who like owning stuff.

Finally, in his closing address Peter Carey joined the debate, saying that our society has ‘forgotten how to stand still’ and is ‘intolerant of any news which is not entertaining’ – a symptom, no doubt, of our technological era of instant gratification. He cited Dan Brown being a bestseller as an example of this. Yet, to me this is a little like saying no-one will buy Penfolds Grange Hermitage because everyone will be drunk on alchopops.

Literature will survive the digital age, as long as its authors have the self-control, or perhaps the software, to combat the distractions.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Cate Kennedy’s thoughts on creativity and the internet appear in full in the lead essay for Overland 199, which just came back from the printer today.

  2. Hey Claire, thanks for the highlights. I’ve been wanting to read After the deluge for ages – had no idea it was available online.

    On Peter Carey: who cares if someone chooses to read Dan Brown? There’s always been pulp and genre fiction; as we’ve all heard, a number of classics started as such. And few people throughout history have had the luxury to stand still (though I imagine it’s easier when you live in a penthouse overlooking the plebs).

    1. I can highly recommend investing in a copy of ‘After the deluge’, it’s a truly beautiful object. And yes, you are right about Peter Carey, the word elitist does spring to mind.

  3. Great food for thought Claire, I must admit to a few to many e-mail and facebook checks while I’m using the scarce time I have to write. Just finished having the NT Writers’ festival up here, not quite the same conversations took place here, but was great.

  4. Wish I’d gone to Kennedy’s session instead of ‘Intellectual Property’. Pesce whinged about the fate of a book he had published in the late 90s after he had clearly committed the sin of not reading or negotiating the freaking contract; Davis, traumatised by working at Amazon, gave us a fine stage performance and not much else. It’s not often I’d applaud anything Louise Adler has to say, but I sure did after her response to the other two panelists.

    IP and copyright are incredibly important to writers and publishers as we stumble through the new digital ways of doing things. The session might have given aggrieved writers a moment of right-on-brother; my time would have been better spent reading Scholarly Kitchen or Pigs,Gourds and Wikis. I naively expected SWF to do better in terms of the quality of the info its guests might be spruiking.

    Rather off-topic, but has anyone popped over to to play yet?

  5. Claire, If I’d known you were there we could have exchanged Overland notes at the bar. I went to the Carey closing address and wrote the following observation. Sorry to mention the war but….

    Peter Carey’s central point is that without a lively literary culture, one which engages citizens in reading not only for pleasure but also as a means to improving knowledge and the ability to think, democracy is lessened as a force for genuine, informed participation and, therefore, more susceptible to demagoguery.

    What he did not say was that prior to the 2003 invasion by the Coalition of the Willing, to which Australia was party, the citizens of Iraq had one of the world’s highest rates of literacy. Many readers of Carey’s books, I suspect, were convinced by the arguments put forward in favour of the invasion by the Bush-Blair-Howard triumvirate, arguments which were ultimately proven to be entirely spurious but that even at the time were regarded by many respected analysts as being dubious and motivated more by the opportunity for strategic gains than for the welfare of the Iraqi people. One wonders how the Iraqis feel about their literacy rates today.

    The sentiment of Carey’s address undoubtedly has merit but it seems rather short sighted to ignore the fact that well educated, highly literate people of the kind present in his audience can still be duped by smoke and mirrors into willfully and violently destroying another nation.

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