Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Philip Hensher: The deadliest rivalry lurks in literary festivals
Some writers treat them as a brute Darwinian struggle for survival
Monday, 31 August 2009, The Independent

One of the great advantages of books, it seems to me, is that you can send your thoughts and carefully edited personality right across the world without having to do anything very energetic. So the modern literary festival, agreeable as it is, is a curious phenomenon. Your publisher gets an invitation from an unexpected and often quite remote city, which says that you have readers there eager to lay eyes on you and ask you questions. It sounds pretty pleasant, and a few months later, there you are, hurtling towards a few hundred connoisseurs of your work.

I'm sure it's perfectly genuine, but I always feel more than slightly fraudulent at the thought that people are prepared to pay for a plane ticket and a week in a sumptuous hotel in exchange for some on-stage anecdotes and the recitation of several pages of fiction. Anyway, I'd never been to Melbourne, though I know I like Australia, and I'd always heard that the Writers' Festival was of solid worth. Why ever not?
Bemusing to the participating writer, the international literary festival must present a gripping spectacle to the observing anthropologist. Some writers treat it as a brute Darwinian struggle for survival, and to many participants, the festival is an opportunity for status adjustment and display. There are the local heroes with an international fame, returning like rock stars, arms aloft. But there are, too, the local writers whom not even Melbourne is quite sure about. They have a habit of packing their recitations with nine acolytes bearing pre-prepared questions; they audaciously make a point of disagreeing with larger reputations as publicly as possible.

The really grand visitors, such as my great hero Ethan Canin, sail about benevolently, being generous to everybody; you might say that they can afford to, or you might think that being a Good Sort is how you get to the top of the literary tree. Some with a little flush of fame overestimate the general enthusiasm for their advanced, forthright and significantly existential novel, or whatever, and rudely snub anyone they consider beneath them. A first-novelist chum described how one such harridan actually hissed at her across a bar like a snake. I have to admit that the literary-festival atmosphere sometimes grows a little hectic; one day we pleaded jet lag, and got on a tourist coach to see a koala sanctuary, four wallabies in a paddock and the twilight return to shore of 700 fairy penguins.

And the audiences actually turn up, and sometimes have actually read a novel by you! I never get over this embarrassing miracle, however infrequently it occurs. In England, naturally, audiences are very keen to be unimpressed, and your friends and acquaintances are rightly never going to mention anything you ever wrote. So it's easy after the literary festival to come away very starry-eyed and even start thinking of moving to Australia, where everyone gets acclaimed and ferried about all day long. (I guess it would stop pretty quickly if you ever really did move here, though).

Best of all, you actually get invited to go on national television to discuss books for an hour! Imagine! A country where there still remains a television programme for people who like books! It seems a very old-fashioned notion, which the BBC long ago threw off with disdain. All in all, the Melbourne Writers' Festival seems a very kindly idea. I honestly see no reason why the writer's life shouldn't consist entirely of well-dressed and civilized Australians asking polite, informed and highly respectful questions about your books, and proffering, from time to time, useful envelopes containing a few dollars by way of per diems.
Read the full piece at The Independent online.

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