Literature and That
In which the author announces he will no longer appear at writers’ festivals.
Illustration by Tane Williams.
That’s it, no more writers’ festivals, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of other writers and I’ve had enough of the audiences. I’ve had enough of the boring green rooms and I’ve had enough of the boring goodie bags. I’ve had enough of the very worst thing at writers’ festivals — the sound of my own voice.
There it was, in June, chuntering away onstage in the beautiful rooms of King’s College London on The Strand. There it was, in August, one weekend in Melbourne, the next weekend in Christchurch, yapping, yapping, yapping. My life as a dog. Here, boy! Sit. Sit onstage, and yap. I have always been on close terms with self-loathing but it reaches new levels at writers’ festivals. My life as a fat old smirking phony in public.
But it could be worse. I’d rather be invited than not invited. London! I got to go to London. The inaugural Australia-NZ Writers’ Festival issued the invitation, and I applied to Creative New Zealand for $2500 to cover the airfare. They coughed up. I took great delight in passing on the news to my occasional email correspondent Bob Jones, knowing that he thrives on rage. He replied, “For my money Creative New Zealand is a disgrace… You should have paid your own way to appear at a bullshit literary festival. We could halve taxes if we cut the nonsense out of the government spending.” He then arranged to meet for a drink.
Sir Robert was right about the London festival. It was bullshit. It was amateur, it was shambolic, it was intended as an exhibition of Australian and New Zealand writing for the enlightenment and betterment of London’s literary audience, but the only people who came were homesick Australians and New Zealanders. The truth of this was revealed at the debate that closed the festival. A speaker wondered who was English, and asked for a show of hands. There was a show of hand.
I appeared at this debate. I won it. I am a competitive sonofabitch and inspected the other speakers backstage, in the boring green room, before we went on; there was a long-winded and slow-witted historian, a facile novelist, some old lady and a New Zealand stand-up comedian who I’d never heard of and who plainly thought he would be funny so long as he SAID SHIT REALLY LOUDLY.
He was also afflicted with the same disease the others suffered from — nationalism. The moot was, “The cultural cringe is over.” Yes, they all cringed, that’s right, it’s over, finished, done with, isn’t it? No it’s not, I said. The entire festival was a cultural cringe.
But it was also enormous fun, and often fascinating. A tremendously ill Clive James gave his farewell public appearance. John Pilger was there, also Fay Weldon, Tim Winton, Greta Scacchi, Anton Oliver, Margaret Drabble. Julian Assange was supposed to be there but the organisers chickened out. I competed — I mean appeared — on various panels. I sold and signed a few books. After the debate, I went out for a night on the town with New Zealand writers Anthony McCarten and Charlotte Grimshaw, and a motley crew of Strayan dabblers — they were provincial and self-conscious and belligerent, the usual colonial rabble. But we ignored them, and Big Ben struck midnight while we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. I saw a cormorant dive in the black water, shining with moonlight. London! I heart it.
Melbourne! It’s all right. Christchurch? “My stars… Good heavens… Oh no,” I babbled, shaken into formality, as I was taken on a guided tour of the worst the earthquake had to offer. Downtown was dismal and Redcliffs was shocking, with giant red boulders come to rest in long grass, and Bexley — Bexley wasn’t there. Bexley was vaporised. Everywhere, the sharp, chalky smell of dust, hanging over cracked roads and heaped rubble; over a river, the thick, sewery stink of sediment.
The tour was Sunday. Saturday was confined to quarters, working on speeches and questions and such in my room in the brand-new Rydges Hotel, on Latimer Square, clawing open sweet wrappers and instant coffee sachets; I had two events that night, chairing satirist Ben Uffindell from The Civilian, and appearing in a debate. “Very entertaining debate,” wrote Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman. “Meg Wolitzer wins it from Steve Braunias by a small but unarguable margin.” Nonsense. The winner was criminal prosecutor Marcus Elliott — what a brilliant speaker, nimble and persuasive and charming, a model of wit and reason. I was second.
Dunedin novelist Liam McIlvanney was in the audience. He was in town as winner of the 2014 Ngaio Marsh award for best crime writing; I’d last seen him in April, when I chaired his session at the Wellington writers’ festival. Wellington writer Lloyd Jones was at the bar; I’d last seen him in May, on a strange, lively day at Kapiti Island, when we were taken over by boat to talk to an audience of Forest and Birders about literature and that.
You go to literary festivals and you see the same old faces and that’s good, actually. Those faces belong to friends. But the Christchurch event also introduced new writers and special guests, and staged the most inventively and ingeniously programmed festival I’ve ever experienced. It was also the most wildly social. Writers and readers all made their way to the Rydges downstairs bar. A few made it out.
I’m a literary insider, part of the established order. I went to Melbourne as an outsider. It was challenging. Things went well on a panel of travel writers from Australia and the US. Things went badly on a panel of NZ writers. The writers were okay, but the event was sponsored by the NZ High Commission, and one of their diplomats, opera singer Joanna Heslop, insisted on opening and closing the session by SINGING SHIT REALLY LOUDLY. Torture! Torture to sit onstage next to her while she took up 15 minutes of the one-hour event, and hollered Denis Glover’s quiet lines from “Sings Harry”. The audience looked baffled. They hadn’t signed up for this. I took out the paper and did the crossword.
Things went worse when I chaired Emily Richmond, 29, an American who is journeying the world by herself on a small, fragile sailboat, stopping to do things like live in remote mountain villages in Papua New Guinea for nine months. She lives an amazing life. She told amazing stories. But she seemed to hate me on sight, and her scorn and contempt for my questions were truly amazing.
They were simple, pleasant questions. They appeared to strike her as stupid, mystifying, unworthy. It was as though she were in court as a hostile witness. She actually scoffed. Scoffed! An audience of 25 people came along; 25 was also their average age, and they shared Emily’s disdain. I got done in by Gen Y. I didn’t speak their language. I was an old man lost at sea. The last thing I remember was the shock and loathing that filled the room when I quoted someone, probably a troll, responding to an online interview with Emily — he’d written, “This person is completely selfish… She just sails around like a jackass and, given previous attempts at such things, stands a decent chance of failure and a not immaterial chance of failing tragically.”
Well, it made for an entertaining hour. The audience loved it when she talked, and that was the main thing. When it finished, I ran away, and collapsed. No more writers’ festivals. Not this year. But I’ve said yes, please, to appearing in Dunedin in May 2015, and I’m hoping that an American writer who I met in Melbourne will act on his promise to invite me to speak in Singapore. Singapore! I heart literary events wherever they are.