The changing landscape of Australian writers festivals

What is a writers festival if not a celebration, an interrogation, an exploration of writing? Cicero’s rhetorical triad contained three components: docere, delectare, movere; or teach, entertain, move. These are traditionally considered the three goals of writing, but the instructional and rational have, throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century, been increasingly foregrounded and taken seriously; the entertaining and physically affective devalued. This trend is closely related to the cultural hierarchy between literary and popular writing; what literary scholar Karin Littau, in Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies Bibliomania refers to as the “mentalist bias which not only draws stringent lines of demarcation between high and popular literature. But seeks to exclude that which addresses itself to our bodies, in this case, the inner workings of the heart”. In terms like “penny dreadful” and “cheap thrills”, affordability and accessibility combine with the affective qualities of popular genre writing to become doubly pejorative references to such writing’s worthlessness.

This preference for the intellectual and the serious over the physically affective, moving, and entertaining, exerted by the entrenched powers-that-be, if not by the general public, reflects a systemic preference for a supposedly masculine rationality, as well as for highbrow, difficult, and expensive books. Subconscious ideologies that reflect socially-constructed class and gender biases become entangled with questions of cultural taste. Julieanne Lamond similarly observes an essentialism to the Australian literary field where deep-rooted ideas around gender, importance and literary value underpin institutions of consecration and recognition and, therefore, reinforce the preference a particular kind of writing.

When we ask, then, “What is a writers festival?”, or “What, and who, is a writers festival for?”—questions that, during festival season, periodically reverberate throughout journalistic and social media—we invoke a long and loaded discussion about the purpose and the value of writing itself.

One prevailing justification for writers festivals is that they operate as public fora for the discussion of serious and important ideas. They are rationalised through their ability to “speak truth to power”, and criticised for censorship or bias according to the same value system of truth and openness. Most of these readings of writers festival as public discussants connect them to an idealistic Habermasian public sphere, a space of rationality and polite conversation, the goals of which are, in Graeme Turner’s words, as a “social experience … [to] regulate, administer, mediate or ultimately resolve the division between public and private discourse”. While writers festivals do directly enter into this in-between space as mediators, the “private” and the “public” are complicated by both the inscrutability of the complex literary field and the public-facing nature of contemporary “private” citizens’ debate, much of which takes place on social media.

Casting is neither desirable—it plays into cultural prejudices around intellectualisation, and privileges certain modes of discourse—nor an accurate representation of how these festivals function. As we’ve written elsewhere, writers festivals are better understood as “space[s] in which creators, contributors, intermediaries, and consumers come together to enact their engagement with literature, and ... in which these individuals accrue and mobilise symbolic and economic capital”. The broadening of literary festival programmes, the on-site festival bookshop and the competition for prestigious international keynotes—the struggle between the commercial and the literary identity of the event—are not symptoms of the decay of literature as an art form. They are small-scale expressions of the literary ecosystem at work.

Ideas around power, literary worth, seriousness and rigour have long been perceived to exist within a polarised structure. Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the field of cultural production describes a space where the avant-garde and prestigious producers occupy one end of the field; the commercial, popular and affective, the other. The politics of taste, together with the gendered and classist assumptions that surround high and low cultural designations, follow a similar pattern. The binary nature of this structure has been the subject of extensive criticism, particularly when Bourdieu’s framework is applied to contemporary Anglophone literary fields. Beth Driscoll, in The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century observes that the Australian literary field has a more complex structure where economic, cultural and symbolic capital work in concert to establish reputation and, ultimately, power in the field.

Writers festivals simultaneously challenge the structure of the field of cultural production that Bourdieu articulated and allow us to watch interactions between all the players in the field: authors, readers, writers, booksellers, publishers, agents, publicists, literary critics, academics, and cultural commentators. And just like the literary field writ large, writers festivals are spaces where the struggle for power—the power to define what is culturally valuable—plays out again and again.

Conceived in this manner, writers festivals operate in several ways in relation to the broader literary field. They take configuring stances, through their programming, that directly engage with the different debates taking place in this broader ecosystem. By operating as small-scale expressions, and by doing so in a very public and media-facing way, they also represent literary communities to themselves, as well as to an interested public. Through this, the tensions of the field, like those between commercial and aesthetic concerns and the power structures and struggles that frequently underlie such tensions, are made visible.

Understanding festivals as field-revealing in this manner emphasises how important it is to take seriously and analyse carefully the conversations that emerge from writers festivals. Controversy-driven media commentary is not only a mechanism of publicity, but is also key to these processes of revelation and communication.

We sit, once again, on the cusp of Australia’s festival season—the first major event of which for 2019 is the Adelaide Writers’ Week in March. And interrogating commentary on Australian writers festivals in 2018, primarily published in The Age, The Australian and The Guardian, communicates a level of disquiet that reveals the advent of a shift in the profile of power in the Australian literary field.

Writers festivals and the contemporary Australian literary field

The overwhelming majority of the commentary surrounding two writers festivals, the Brisbane Writers Festival and the Melbourne Writers Festival, published in Australia’s most prominent newspapers, was written by, and cites heavily, individuals who hold significant power in the field. Prize-winning authors, publishing industry giants, veteran journalists, literary editors. Their respective contributions to this debate, even when supportive, convey a discomfort with the shifting balance of power that is evident in the programming decisions at the Brisbane and Melbourne writers festivals.

Following the news that Germaine Greer and Bob Carr would not be included in the 2018 Brisbane Writers Festival programme, Richard Flanagan declared in The Guardian that “the courage to listen to different ideas is vanishing”. Citing the exclusion of Greer and Carr, along with Lionel Shriver’s 2016 opening night address and the subsequent conversations around cultural appropriation that it inspired, Flanagan contended that writers festivals are no longer a space for challenging ideas, and rather are events that “run with dogma, with orthodoxy, with the mob”.

This op-ed communicates more than a desire to return to a time where ideas were “challenging”. There is a fear that permeates Flanagan’s writing. He describes the Australian writers festival as, “a foreign country occupied by a strange regime, hostile to what writing stands for”, and contends that festivals have “in recent years become less and less about books and more and more about using their considerable institutional power to enforce the new orthodoxies”. Flanagan appears to yearn for a time where festivals celebrated “writing that mattered”, the epistemological values of Franz Kafka and Miguel de Cervantes, and a particular profile of “serious” writer: white, male, middle-class. Speaking with Gay Alcorn in The Guardian, Louise Adler—who recently stepped down as publisher at Melbourne University Press over a change in the publisher’s direction—noted that “The common thread from publishers seems to be that this is not a writers’ festival”. The equivalence that prominent figures in the Australian literary landscape drew between these writers festivals and a turning away from “writing that matters” speaks to a desire to rearticulate literary worth, suggesting that the structure of power that defined Australia’s literary field throughout the twentieth century is shifting.

Referring to the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival programme, Tim Winton spoke of the notion that writers festivals are “being dumbed down”, and have become a “form of public entertainment”. This brings into sharp relief the kinds of values that Winton, among others, look for in Australian literary culture. For Winton, a real author will teach, but they will not entertain or move. And it is not just the critics of the festival programmes that echo Flanagan’s, Adler’s and Winton’s angst. Writing in The Age, Jason Steger expressed his support for the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival programme, reassuring festival goers that Bob Carr, Barry Jones, Tim Winton and JM Coetzee were all appearing throughout the 10-day programme.

In The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu describes the ways that powerful agents in a field maintain their power: “Those in dominant positions operate essentially defensive strategies, designed to perpetuate the status quo by maintaining themselves and the principles upon which their dominance is based”. Viewed through this lens, the elevated media attention paid to writers festival programming decisions can be seen as a defensive strategy. Winton’s desire to define what an “author” is is particularly interesting in this light. As the structure of the field and therefore the writers festival begins to shift, those who have traditionally occupied dominant positions perform defensive strategies in an effort to retain power. These defensive strategies can be seen in the ad hominem attacks on the Brisbane and Melbourne writers festival programmes, attacks that speak to a deep resistance to change.


Shifting power structures in Australian literature

Reading the Brisbane and Melbourne writers festivals as small-scale expressions of the broader Australian literary field, it is easy to see why authors and publishers who have long occupied the dominant positions in the field may be feeling anxious. Excluding Germaine Greer from the programme does not represent a decline in rigorous debate: the endless hand-wringing comes from a group of writers and thinkers who, for the first time, have been told “no”. Writers who are, all of a sudden, required to make way for a new generation of programmers, authors, writers, performers and thinkers.

The 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival programme reflected this shift. Artistic Director Marieke Hardy and Program Manager Gene Smith put together a diverse and inclusive programme; diverse in authors, writers, genres, and form. 27% of the programmed speakers were white men; 35% white women; 12% men of colour; 24% women of colour; 7% of the programmed speakers were First Nations authors; and 2% non-binary or genderqueer. Importantly, the authors of colour who were invited to speak at the festival were not just invited to speak about their “otherness”. Our research—particularly Alexandra Dane’s Gender and the Accumulation of Prestige in Australian Book Publishing—shows that, historically, women have been programmed to speak at writers festivals about being women, and First Nations authors to speak only about being a First Nations author.

Writer Michelle Law published two tweets on 30 August that speak to the heart of the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival programme, the shifting structure of the literary field, and the associated anxieties by the likes of Flanagan, Winton and Adler:

This furore over @MelbWritersFest signals the status quo shifting, new and underrepresented voices breaking through, and numerous forms of writing being respected and shared. That’s very exciting.

 This @MelbWritersFest is also the first writers festival where I haven’t been on a panel about “diversity” and could just talk about my writing, my collaborative work and the writers I love – all the good stuff and not just how I present. That’s thanks to @mariekehardy.

The Melbourne Writers Festival audience appeared to welcome this shift. The festival reported that more tickets were sold, more quickly, than ever before. And sales data from the on-site Readings bookstore shows that the highest selling authors were Ta Nehisi Coates, Michelle De Kretser, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Behrouz Boochani and Clementine Ford.

Finally, the programme of events dispelled the notion that Hardy and her team of programmers avoided a rigorous engagement with challenging ideas. Ta Nehisi Coates spoke of race in the US; the relationship between women’s bodies, feminism and literature was explored in the nude; Michael Mohammed Ahmad spoke about the experience of Lebanese-Australian students; First Nations women Nayuka Gorri and Nakkia Lui discussed television and comedy; and Nic Holas discussed HIV and the depoliticising of our sex lives.   

Programmes like this one take an all-encompassing definition of writer. They engage with reason and thought but also validate and promote the passion and feeling of writing and reading, highlighting and valuing aspects of literary culture that are often downplayed or overlooked. 2018 saw lots of important challenges to political and social structures that inform the assumed cultural superiority of intellectualism. Thus these festivals’ culturally broad-minded programming is intrinsically linked with their diversity. And the success of both is telling.

Richard Flanagan’s concern about the evaporation of rigorous debate, and the retreat from “challenging ideas”; Tim Winton’s fear that festival-goers will actually be entertained; and Louise Adler’s anxiety over whether or not the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival is actually a writers festival, could be seen as the death rattle of the status quo that has underpinned the Australian literary field, and the programming of Australian writers festivals, for the last 30 years. We may be witnessing a changing of the guard.