9 September 2010 Main Posts MWF – A year for Australian writing SJ Finn MWF session: A year for Australian writing This session had it all, from heckling to backslapping, from scholarly commentary to dogged insistence. It was what you could call a well-rounded experience. Funnily, looking back, the topic, based on the publication of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, may have been buried among everything else. Even the delivery, wiry and technical, a skilful performance of university-polished quality, seemed enshrouded in the controversy of what these works weren’t, rather than what they were. I couldn’t help think that since I’d last attended the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) – a few years back now – these small interactive sessions had come a considerable way. Peter Pierce, the editor of the Cambridge project, spoke about the long time coming for the Australian story on stories. Other nations, the US for example, had puvlished 6 or so volumes about their literature, while this was Australia’s first look-in in the Cambridge series – hence the name of the session. Similarly, the Macquarie PEN Anthology was also a first in many ways: the size, the breadth, the money it cost to produce. Nevertheless, there was the same nagging concern: how do you chose who should be in and who should be out? Good question. The lovely Nicholas Jose (general editor for the PEN edition) keeps a little red book with all the names of authors that missed out on being squeezed in, but I’ll come to that later. The third speaker was the spritely Adam Shoemaker, a lecturer in literature at Monash University. Adam made much of the difficulty of representing a representative voice. Still, there seemed little doubt that his fellow panellists had, in the final texts, created a fair result from a large task. All agreed – the finished jobs were never going to be perfect but that was certainly not a reason to back away from doing them. So, to the argy bargy, the back and forth, the question and answer part of the session. The facilitator, Lynette Russell, very sedately, as you might imagine, kicked it off with a question to each of the panellists, giving them a moment to expand on what they had already covered. From the audience, yours truly asked the first question: Relatively speaking, I ventured, having not long found our voice as Australian writers, what is the importance in a shrinking world, or indeed even the possibility, of maintaining such a voice? All agreed it was a tricky balance to stay in our skin and, at the same time, get out into the world. Peter Pierce sat forward, saying earnestly, ‘For instance, what do you think of Tsiolkas’s book The Slap? All those references to dicks and bodily functions, I don’t like it.’ (The implication being that Tsiolkas was besmirching all Aussie literature from his success in the Man Booker thus far.) Peter Pierce finished his flurry – while I was thinking good on him, at least he’s animated – by asking me what I thought. I answered that I had enjoyed The Slap, to which he said we should go out the back, inviting me to a duel. The next question was from a PhD graduate, recently returned from Ireland, who wanted to know why – in contrast to this session – there’d been so many people at a session she’d just left on politics. ‘It’s an indication,’ she said, ‘of the lack of support for Australian Literature.’ Why, (and I’m paraphrasing now) had it taken so long for the projects we were discussing here to exist, to be supported by governments? ‘Two questions in one’, Adam Shoemaker pointed out. Still, he and Nicholas Jose hobbled together good, solid responses. But the woman persisted: Australian’s just aren’t rallying the powers-that-be to get behind our literature, etc, etc. Possibly being too smart for my pants, I interjected her spiel with something close to, ‘I dunno, maybe that’s the reason there were so many people at that political session you just came from.’ And she and I weren’t even the hecklers. From the back, an insistent and anxious voice – aggressive in tone – rang over the audience’s heads, demanding, given the amount of publications the writer had had, why Such and Such (and I wish I could remember the name of the writer this man had called out) hadn’t been included in the PEN Anthology Nicholas Jose had edited. Out came his little red moleskin book and in went the name, correct spelling made clear from the booming voice at the back of the room. It was a fitting end – for more reasons than its subject indicated – to an extremely interesting session. It truly did strike, if not a chord then certainly something, in many present. SJ Finn SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at sjfinn.com. More by SJ Finn Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 24 February 202317 March 2023 Main Posts Final Results of the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize Editorial Team Overland, the judges and the Malcolm Robertson Foundation are thrilled to announce the final results of the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. 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