The nature of the beast: the politics of writers festivals

As Millicent Weber pointed out a little while back in Overland, ‘literary festivals are complex beasts’. Particularly in recent years, they appear to have become more politicised, more contested spaces – exemplary of the tension that results when a ‘cultural project’, with presumed egalitarian aims, has a light shone on it by the market model it operates on, which doesn’t favour all people equally.

I don’t and haven’t worked for a writers festival, so I can’t speak to the costs involved in organising one, but I imagine they’re pretty huge. As a result, despite limited government, university and philanthropic investment, tickets aren’t particularly cheap. Obviously, this determines the audience: people who can afford tickets and the time to attend the festival at their leisure aren’t a particularly accurate sample of a diverse society. They – ‘typically wealthy, white and well-educated’ – form a significant portion of the ‘well-meaning but often ignorant’ attendees Weber identifies as drawing the ire of commentators, and the majority of the more controversial figures programmed into festivals (of late, Michael Cathcart, Lionel Shriver, Germaine Greer).

They should know better, the sentiment rings out. The effect this has is to politicise writers festivals: as ‘cultural projects’, they should by default be progressively partisan and brook no compromise for conservative perspectives. Weber identifies the real problem here: ‘Literary festivals, as projects that are both derived from and working to amplify a system with clear commercial and populist imperatives, are necessarily implicated in the power structures of contemporary society’. Clear commercial and populist imperatives. Festivals are hamstrung by insufficient funding; whatever the motivations of the programmers, and the sentiments shared by the bulk of contributing artists and irate commentators, their primary concern is funding their own continuation. Booking conservative authors with mainstream appeal, or capitalising on provocative, controversial sessions, are inevitable in this context.

Further, the backbone of writers festivals is comprised of touring authors. Weber gave the example of the panel about sex work at the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival, which featured anti-sex work and pro-life author Melinda Tankard-Reist, and lacked representation from any actual sex workers. The controversy and protest that ensued took for granted the idea of the politicised festival – delegitimising the base fact that Tankard-Reist was promoting a book she had co-edited. I certainly don’t advocate denying the rights of sex workers to be represented and heard, but it’s important to identify the structural forces that result in such a panel occurring, in the same way it’s important to do so with ignorance, racism and social conservatism more generally. This obviously isn’t a justification for these forces, but the importance lies in understanding structure, in order to direct political attention. In truth, writers festivals don’t lend themselves to politicisation well.

Within festivals themselves, much of the programming encourages discussions that are constructive and progressive. I’ve seen some excellent panels and addresses on poor policy and governance, on Indigenous storytelling, on destructive media culture, on the relative lack of representation and diversity in the publishing industry. When critiques of power structures spill over into more mainstream channels, they overwhelmingly – in Australia at least – revolve around the latter. Undeniably, these are important areas of discussion: identifying the sources and manifestations of structural discrimination is essential for raising its public profile to the point that broad change might be possible. But it’s a sleight of entrenched neoliberal thinking to assume that the discussion – creating fertile ground for the idea of change – is as good as action.

Perhaps it is, in a very small and incremental way. However, the timbre of commentary this overspill generates – feeding a consumer appetite for cultural and political opinion and commentary – often undermines this potential, turning the writers festival into a spectacle staged ‘to garner and focus cultural clout within itself’, as author Amrita Shah wrote earlier this year. What follows is an assumed gravitas, a perceived weight of significance and achievement greater than what is actually occurring.

What the general public sees, then, in the rare Lionel Shriver-esque moments where festival discussion attains a broad audience – where political visibility is ‘notably cross-media’, as Weber says – is something inherently self-limiting. Given that an alarming amount of online political ‘debate’ takes place between interested parties and their trolling opposites, and that these discussions centre around the widely foreign concept of a ‘writers festival’, it’s unlikely that much of it resonates with the majority of the general public – even the typically wealthy, white and well-educated.

All this is abstract analysis, of course. Writers festivals are essentially interest groups, and while some programmed or participant-driven intention may exist to critique the power structures festivals are complicit in, and to encourage political movement, their capacity to do so effectively (and to a wide audience) is minor. Neoliberalism dictates who can afford to be interested, and partisan outcry about writers festivals along identity and representation lines has marginal returns in such a context. This isn’t to cast festivals as unworthy endeavours, but to recognise them for what they are – which isn’t the same as social justice activism. Nor is it to suggest that structural inequality shouldn’t be identified and challenged; rather, that the politicisation of everything, however valid the message might be, often serves to reinforce the spectacle, encouraging a tendency towards non-differentiation – to summon the spirit of sociologist Jean Baudrillard – that strips nuance and undermines the wicked complexity of social issues.

Baudrillard, ever the maudlin cynic, thought the division between the spectacle and the real had all but dissolved. In the context of contemporary online and digitalised political debate, there’s an increasing body of evidence to support this. (Trump – need I say more?) But as events play out in the world, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. And this is where some of the very real capacity for social change that writers festivals possess manifests – in place. (How many of them aren’t named after their location?) Festival sites do foster an admirable sense of community among those who undertake the solitary work of writing and reading. Events in suburbs and regions have the potential to draw in people who feel isolated or are unengaged with the social and political issues festivals cover, and the issues that spill over; to take a recent example, the Brisbane Writers Festival’s ‘In Your Suburb’ program held free events in fifteen community libraries outside the inner city. Schools programs have the very real potential to foster a passion for reading and learning. The majority of festivals run them, but Byron Writers Festival’s StoryBoard bus comes to mind: it tours authors to schools in the regions surrounding the festival centre, often to low socio-economic areas.

Of course, to suggest public discussion focus on these aspects of writers festivals would be somewhat moot: they aren’t adequate fodder for a media storm. Such a focus could only come at the cost of the spectacle, which would ultimately be a cost to the festival. But that’s the point. If public good is the aim, then attention and resources would be better directed to the local efforts of festivals. More regional programming, and better promotion of these events, for instance; or subsidised tickets and pointed invitations for underrepresented people in the local community. This isn’t a parochial call against glamour, against globalisation. But to talk about the politics of writers festivals is to talk about the limits of the model, and to understand the place-based potential that, in many ways, is what defines them.


 Image: Create NSW

Jerath Head

Jerath Head is assistant editor at Griffith Review, and was co-editor of Griffith Review 56: Millennials Strike Back. He’s also a research assistant and content contributor for Griffith University’s Policy Innovation Hub. His writing has been published in New Philosopher and Kill Your Darlings, and numerous arts and culture publications in Australia and Ireland.

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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