Another day, another nose at the Australian newspaper stuck up the arse of Queensland’s new autocrat, Campbell Newman. Those boys are really enjoying Newman’s slaying of the literary dragon, in his cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.
This time (in yesterday’s Weekend Australian) it’s Ross Fitzgerald sinking the boot, lambasting writing festivals — or at least a selection of them — for not paying attention to the nation’s up-and-comers; for not selling enough books; for making those garretted writers get out and talk about their work to the faintly curious, non-buying masses.
There are good points he makes about how writers are perceived to have to operate to make a buck. Some enjoy meeting readers, some do not; some like rubbing shoulders with their peers, others do not. Are festivals a cost-effective way to invest in a country’s literary industry? But he’s taken the Newman approach to a problem: if it’s not working, or perceived to be working, don’t fix it; axe it. That’ll learn’em!
If the Australian‘s editor, Chris Mitchell, is right, none of it matters anyway for the young, emerging writers: if they’re ‘good’ enough, those young guns will find their market. Ta-dah!
Fitzgerald wails about a ‘sloppy’ schedule at the Sydney Writers Festival that means he can’t see two people he’d like to — unfortunate, but, you know, diddums. I think he’s right, though, to question the audience the marquee festivals target — he could’ve also mentioned the prices most marquee festivals charge for admission that must impact on the money people are willing to spend on books, for instance, and indeed how many panels and events they can attend.
He questions the validity of foreign writers on the program, but that’s more problematic. Should no one here be interested in how others perceive the world — one of the reasons people read, one would think; those who don’t read selectively to have their world view reinforced, at least. Bob Katter’s book should sell well up Queensland way, for both reasons.
Fitzerald decries the Sydney festival giving Katter and Kevin Rudd a platform — we’ve heard enough from them surely, he suggests. Thing is, maybe we haven’t. Maybe the people who buy their books are looking for something behind the media veneer and pointed headlines. Maybe these pollies have just the same right for consideration to have their written opinions heard and discussed as any other scribe. Maybe.
Fitzgerald doesn’t talk about the Emerging Writers Festival, or the National Young Writers Festival. Genre events don’t get a look in. As Fitzgerald notes, being on a festival program is one of few ways a writer might hope to attract some mainstream media attention, but even then, good luck with that: unless you are someone like Katter, or Rudd, or maybe an award winner, say, a Vogel award winner.
Fitzgerald doesn’t note that the marquee festivals spread their net widely, relying on the headliners to draw an audience that, one hopes, will stay for a taste of the up-and-comers also on the program — a program that, again, hopefully, will work to provide them with that hard-to-get exposure. Exposure by osmosis, not just in front of an audience but in the green room, too.
A recent lit fest I attended was Adelaide Writers Week: I came away with a bag of books and knowledge of two Aussie debut novelists I’d never heard of before; one has just been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. A connection has been made. The festival panels were free; grazing was encouraged. Schmoozing was enabled. The signing queues were long. One book I wanted to get had sold out.
Fitzgerald and others decry the rewards given to established writers who, apparently, don’t deserve them, having already made their mark and achieved, presumably, some kind of self-sufficiency, and call for greater focus on the emerging writers — hear hear! — but yet fail to acknowledge that Newman’s applauded stroke has taken out two valuable, career-starting awards for emerging Queensland writers. And surely a university professor like Fitzgerald would have some opinion on Newman scratching the nation’s only prize for science writing. Nah.
Few have talked about the way in which Newman raced to kill off the awards, leaving Queensland the only state without such a program. A unilateral decision that left his Arts minster blowing in the wind like a dag on a sheep’s arse, her standing in tatters before she’d even been sworn in.
Unhappy with last year’s awards decisions, looking to save a buck, Newman’s answer was to scratch the whole thing. Not cut back on the cash, or maybe roll some awards together, which given the economic times most folks would’ve understood. Just kill’em off, taking with them the emerging writers manuscript prize and the David Unaipon award: two rare opportunities for starting writers (not necessarily young ones, mind!) to get a leg up.
How important is an award, really? Well, yesterday at the Williamstown Literary Festival, a panelist speaking to a packed room on ‘the path to publication’ told how she had been shortlisted — shortlisted, not won — for the Vogel award. The award is, ironically, supported by the Australian: yes, the paper celebrates the death of two such awards while sponsoring another, age-restricted one — the word you’re looking for is hypocrisy. Anyway, this writer was shortlisted for the Vogel and it was, combined with her CV of short stories and articles, sufficient springboard to establish a fledgling career in the literary industry.
Anyhow, the Queensland Literary Awards, set up by the writing community to replace the government’s, has extended its submission deadline until May 20. University of Queensland Press has continued its support of the emerging writers and Unaipon prize. A leg up for those with the ‘right’ stuff.
Ah, how joyful to have a platform on which to sing out how unfair the world is to you. Fancy any festival not meeting an individuals every need. What is the world coming to?
A shame, as you said, that whinges like this distract from the very real questions that all festival organisers should ask themselves every year – who is this for? What is it trying to achieve? What is the best way to work to both those questions?
Will keep it all in mind for OUR upcoming festival in Canberra 😉
It is interesting that audience is often forgotten — I’ve read criticism that some of the trad publishers’ woes have come about because they thought book sellers were their primary market, not readers … For that matter, I think spec fic can reach further by exploring wider relationships. Supanova is a real eye-opener to inclusive, cross-platform marketing.
Supanova does show that we can do stuff across the range and not just focus on literature at spec fic cons. I know that was part of what Trevor was trying to do with Conflux 3 and as much as it had its problems, there was some cool stuff tried there with things such as the Magic the Gathering tournament. There’s a wider range of audience out there than we sometimes hit.
That thought about the trads and booksellers versus readers is really interesting. It certainly seems that the ventures that are showing some great signs of success at the moment eg Angry Robot are doing so via building a community of readers rather than worrying about currying favour with the booksellers. Still, you do need the booksellers to support you too 🙂