Travelling circuits: on ‘emerging’ writers & festivals

I’m in the Hobart Bookshop browsing the Fiction ‘S’es, which is about as far from the action as you can be unless you’re looking for poetry or the toilet or both. I have this corner of the shop to myself, though I’m aware of the steady stream of bodies flowing in from the sunny square and down the narrow aisles. The majority of the faces are unfamiliar, which is strange – because even after ten years in Hobart, I live in an almost permanent state of deja vu whenever I leave the house.

I return to the spines and try to ignore the rising chatter: Saramago, Sebald, Self, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Stoker. I tease out an illustrated Dracula and I’m looking at a top-hatted Jonathan Harker climbing into a black carriage when friend and fellow writer, Sam K, a Hobartian, engages me in conversation. We talk of our love of Stoker’s book, of epistolary novels in general, and, ultimately, the event taking shape around us: The Emerging Writers’ Festival’s ‘Meet the Magazines’, at which we will be introduced to the editors of some of the country’s leading lit mags. Another familiar face joins us, then another and another. We’re watching the newcomers gather towards the front of the shop, near the art books and the new releases table. Smiles and squeals sail around and over them — bodies crane in to hear. Great chuckles and hellos and remember last night, last week, last event, last year! The atmosphere is a reunion of sorts, like bumping into an old friend in a foreign city, which, I guess, for the Melburnians and Sydney-siders, it is.

A junket. A travelling show. A roadshow, which is what the EWF has dubbed its sojourn to Hobart. The Hobart Roadshow.

The crowd is really swelling now, extending up the aisles, away from the counter and the EWF banner that has been erected in the Tasmanian lit section. Someone’s pouring wine. Someone else is holding open a book on Damien Hirst to an image of a Vaselined cucumber between a pair of tits. Someone else still makes a crack about cucumber sandwiches. I overhear the joke not because I’ve moved but because the gathering is bloated and loud and now includes us. I overhear it and wish I’d made it. It has several people I don’t know in stitches.

Another friend, the writer and poet Ben Walter, grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around to face front. He’s smiling as though he knows something I don’t (which is often the case – he seems to know everything I don’t). With his other hand he reaches into the middle of a clutch of people and plucks from it, as though he’s a bobbing apple, the director of the EWF, Sam Twyford-Moore. I’d met Sam the day before at the festival’s opening event at MONA, but there was little time to chat. I’d left before the final session. I’d found an excuse and headed back into town: these things make me anxious. I’m fretful again now, but there’s no easy path to the door.

Sam’s also smiling, like he knows something I don’t.

Ben reintroduces us. Adam, Sam. Sam, Adam. Sam K is still with us and the greetings continue: Sam, Sam. Sam, Sam. Not fully satisfied that he’s done his duty of bridging Bass Strait, Ben prompts conversation by reminding Sam – or, rather, reminding me – of a blog post I’d written a few months before in which I’d voiced a few opinions on the concept of ‘emerging’ writers and of literary festivals in general. No small talk. No chitchat. Just straight to it.

There’s an awkward pause. Sam is aware of what I’d written, it seems; he and Ben share a complicit grin that does little to alleviate our self-consciousness. Still, I don’t feel ambushed; that would actually make the situation less confronting. Knowing Ben as I do, I know there’s no malice in it, just an effort to stimulate dialogue. Sam isn’t affronted by my ideas, or at least seems not to be. (I probably would have been.) He does suggest that I was a little harsh, and that it was perhaps not the best form to criticise a festival I hadn’t attended. ‘From down here,’ I think, but I don’t want to open that can of worms. Besides, here it is, the EWF, so I can’t level a charge at the festival of refusing to dis-locate Australian writing. They’ve made the effort to come here.

Now I can criticise the festival, and I haven’t had to go anywhere. The mountain has come to me.

To be honest, I do feel a pang of foolishness when Sam brings up my detached observations. Probably, it was foolish and uninformed to be so critical from so far. Now’s my opportunity to redeem myself, to include myself. Or dig myself deeper.

My main problem, I say, trying to redirect things, is that festivals in general – not just this one – promote values handed ‘down’ to us from mainstream publishing, by which ‘emerging’ is equivalent to ‘failed’ or ‘not yet successful’, and by which ‘failure’ is something to be avoided at all costs. It is up to the writers, these festivals seem to be saying, to live up to and write to our ideals. Then you may take the stage. (Ironically, by this reckoning, in an international context, Australian publishing itself might be said to be still ‘emerging’.) In this sense, ‘writer’, means playing by our rules and fulfilling our criteria. The rest is silence. To be included, one must come to the party – which means there’s a whole host of other qualities that go into ‘becoming’ or ‘emerging’ as a writer (and, at the end of the day, these values are commercial).

If I stop short of suggesting that the festival has brought Melbourne to Hobart rather than opened Melbourne up to Hobart, it’s because I’ve warmed to Sam. And, to be honest, I feel good about speaking to someone making inroads into a community – I hesitate to say industry – that, in many ways, I admire and desire to belong to. He makes me feel part of the conversation, if only briefly. But I can’t think of anything else as an example, not this second, and so there’s a pause. Sam shuffles a little uncomfortably, glances over his shoulder, but he’s clearly interested in my perspective, regardless of whether it carries any merit.

I guess what I’m trying to say, I cough out in a manner that’s far less direct than this account suggests – picture two oil-slicked seabirds – is that we need different ways of conceiving of what it means to be a writer.

He seems genuinely taken by this idea. Hhe’s agreeing and asking me for suggestions, but someone has taken hold of the back of his shirt, and they drag him off to begin proceedings.

Do I have any suggestions? No, not right now. But as I write I think I should have myself suggest an Emerging Readers’ Festival, where readers are exposed to different types of writing and even different ways of enjoying ‘difficult’ writing – where readers are exposed to ‘writers’, not experimental or emerging or marginal or regional writers. Simply writers. Influence demand instead of supply. Plaques in galleries explain art – why not a similar model for writing? Is there any way of influencing an economic principle without playing economics? Is there a way to have a literary festival unaffected by the conservatism of the marketplace, by ideas of centre and margin, of generic predictability, of stars and hopefuls, of trends, even of panel and audience?

How about, I imagine myself saying, instead of writers discussing their own work, they discuss and engage with the work of another ‘emerging’ type? How about a revolving (or evolving) panel where the audience becomes the panel and the panellists become the audience? Or even, I want to suggest, an arrangement with the editors in the room to commission content from the ‘unknown’ writers they’re here to meet, or to have those ‘unknowns’ guest edit a section of an upcoming issue? I know editors are just as afraid of us as we are of them, but there’s an obvious power relationship involved that makes things much easier for one side than the other. At the end of the day we’re talking about voices, and writers’ festivals are excellent platforms for being heard, for changing the way we think about writing and writers, for discovering new voices as opposed to recognising familiar ones.

Cliques and networks have their place: they give ideas traction and then momentum. But they are also notorious for being closed circuits where ideas and voices go round and round, catching us in a perpetual state of haven’t I seen this before? Festivals like the EWF have the potential to unlock and broaden the scope of literature in Australia and beyond. Getting out of Melbourne was and is an inspired move – one is often forced to play by the rules in the city. Leaving the city in the city is tougher but more fruitful, for everyone, blending the here and there into something more ephemeral and less monotone.

I try to thank Sam for the chat, for bringing the conversation to town, for making me feel heard, but he disappears into the crowd, whose Melburnians whoop and whistle when their editors emerge on stage, while Hobartians applaud politely.

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.

Adam Ouston is a writer, academic and musician working in Hobart. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in IslandVoiceworksIslet Online and The Review of Australian Fiction. He has recently completed a PhD on mortality and identity in the travel writings of Robert Dessaix. He is the vocalist for the band All Fires and tries to maintain a blog at Adam Ouston.

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  1. Why not complete the circuit and have Disappearing Writers Festivals too? It’d be easy to cater for and real sparks would fly, should any writers actually turn up. Never mind, invite your friends too and have a bloody great time instead.

  2. I think you’re bang on – talk about the writing, discuss and read, as opposed to mingle with the industry. And cliques especially; all the usual suspects discussing the same state of the industry.

    What is ’emerging’ but an industry friendly term (on the old-model-industry’s terms), for beginning-publishing writers to connect with industry types and reps, and for them to scope out talent? I applaud the intent of the festival, but don’t think it serves literature per se. I only care about the quality of the writing, not the endless talking around the work and authors.
    cheers, rino

    • Thanks Rino. I think one of the biggest issues with this kind of verticality is, and I’m starting to see it more and more, a uniformity of voice both online and in print. A lot of writers are starting to sound the same, same tone, same cities etc etc. Even in many cases using the same metaphors. Festivals like the EWF can disrupt this and, best case scenario, make things better for all by creating new demands for different voices.

  3. Vetical integration – agreed. What better indication that publishing builds on economic beliefs – and the books are same-y (see: memoirs). Damn, there’s so much more to say on this – and I don’t want to sound like a snarky, po-faced sort…

  4. I don’t think the EWF has ever been primarily about ‘industry’. To me, it’s about coming together to discuss when can be such a solitary and isolating vocation, particularly for writers in the early stages of their career or working in unorthodox forms. In 2008, I sent a call-out to various writers festivals, telling them who I was, that I was a little-known spoken word poet who had barely published anything, attaching some work, and asking if I could be involved in their events in some way. EWF replied immediately, contacting me to organise a meeting, telling me that the EWF was specifically for writers like me – who are looking to find some way of connecting to a writing community, to come together and discuss the practise of writing, and the challenges of being an early career writer. I met with the director later that week. That year, I appeared on a panel about political writing and performed in the opening night events. For a writer with only a few publications under her belt, working in an incredibly undervalued form, writing intensely political work, and not at that stage very interested in even publishing my work on paper, it was both a life-changing and career-changing experience. Later that year, the EWF managed to get me a 15 minute slot at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I realise this isn’t the case for everybody, but just wanted to give another perspective. I participated in the next few festivals, again representing the ‘uneconomical’ and marginalised area of spoken word, and five years later, I did find a publisher for my fiction at this very same festival…but that’s a fairytale for another time. It’s really been something to see the festival grow and develop and I’m looking forward to what the 2014 program will bring.

  5. Excellent performance at the Dan O’Connell last saturday too Maxine … but, as a poet, you are always going to have to ask yourself if the nuances of the black arm band narratives are any closer to the truth than the other ones… because poets are committed to difficult truths. Where are the Pintibi Tula poets? speaking without conflict? without the war cries without even, welcome to countries.Viva la difference.

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