Last Sunday I spent a blissful, child-free day at the Brisbane Writers Festival, which celebrated its 50th year in 2012. The BWF used to be an absolutely non-negotiable appointment on my annual events calendar. From my first one in 1996, whilst a keen literature and cultural studies student, I ate up festivals year after year, gorging myself on panels and returning laden with all the (signed) books I could afford. The late ‘90s were a pretty important time on the Brisbane literary scene. I’ve written about the period elsewhere (like here) and its significance was verified in the first panel I attended, in which previous Chairs and participants reminisced about high points of the 50 year history. Panellist John Birmingham live blogged the session here, so I’ll leave it to you if you want to read up.
The fact that one of the authors I’d seen read new work during my first few festivals was now live blogging a panel on ‘the golden days’ was but one of the signs that times have changed for the BWF and its audience. I’ve been absent from the scene for a few years thanks to overseas travel and family responsibilities, so the whole notion of ‘then’ vs ‘now’ was ever-present as I made my way around this year’s offerings.
The THEN of my story is more like 15 than 50 years old. I can only be enthralled by the stories others tell of the first heady days of mobilising a vibrant but scattered literary community in ultra conservative 1960s Queensland. And I feel detached from the politics of the 1970s and 80s, which I blithely ignored from my vantage point under a very large, very badly permed fringe. But by the 90s, I was ready. Armed with a healthy head of postcolonial, postmodern, feminist (or was it postfeminist?) theoretical anecdotes and a desire to seek the meaning of life in nihilistic grunge writing (curious, that) I joined a small army of literary groupies making a base camp at the State Library for one week a year. THEN I was a literature student, so what I lacked in money I made up for in inflated notions of my own importance. I attended every panel I could manage and hovered anxiously around The Talent to get books signed, or engage in a little small talk; as much a favour to the writers as it was to me, I thought. I suppose there is some truth in that – writers must, after all, have readers – but I think I could have been more elegant with my networking. Later in my career I was a BWF panellist myself, although no one wanted my autograph.
NOW, I don’t have time to attend the festival every day. Nor do I have the money. THEN, almost every panel at the BWF was free. They charged only for the odd evening soirée, which would feature twice as many writers as any other session, a few out-of-the-ordinary acts (musicians, poets) and usually a lot of booze. THEN I would gladly pay a $10 door charge for the opportunity to feel part of it all – for ad hoc conversations with industry big shots and watching my literary heroes work the room in their civvies. My groupie gang would dine out for some time on stories of who we had detained long enough to assault with our latest thesis topic, or which character in whose book was actually a very close friend (of a friend). We’d go over the questions we wish we’d asked, and the witty replies we wished we’d thought to say. NOW I’m in bed by soirée time, and NOW it costs $25 per panel (give or take) to attend the festival. I can only wonder how today’s fervent students manage to get there at all, let alone take up residence on the south bank.
Not that I intend to gripe about having to pay for tickets. It was clear during that same Sunday morning panel, that, unbeknownst to many, the festival was at major risk of not existing at all by millennium’s end. The days of the freebie were fun, but unsustainable; charging for tickets also brings Brisbane in line with what other states have been doing all along. But it does change things. For me, paying for tickets means I will take fewer risks. I will attend panels which include authors in whom I’m already interested – those I know will give me a positive return on my investment. THEN I would have sauntered into any old session, just because I had an hour to fill, and discover new names to add to my list of ‘must reads’. But there was a bustling crowd of happy faces coming and going from each session, so the current format is clearly successful in its own way. Plus there were still a few free sessions on offer – and I found these to be at least as good (even better?) than the ticketed one I attended.
So I still ate well at BWF 50, even if I wasn’t quite the glutton I used to be. As an entrée, the Tribute panel whet my appetite, as 50 years of Festival were summarised by writers, politicians and bureaucrats who held it dear. I cleansed my palate with a lively session on ‘Bookselling’s Bright Future’, which was genuinely uplifting since it wasn’t plagued by hackneyed e-book vs book smell debates, but rather offered the innovative outlooks of those at the frontline who are embracing – and in some cases creating – industry changes. In this panel I also discovered the delightful Eowyn Ivey. Can’t wait to read her book. For dessert, I reclined in the atmospheric Red Box room at SLQ (from which the Brisbane river has never looked lovelier) and escaped into the topic of ‘Women and their Lovers’ where Deborah Robertson and Susan Johnson (whose wonderful book I’ve reviewed here) shared their secrets. Not bad at all for a free meal. I was completely sated.
It was only the main course that left me with a little heartburn. For $25 I saw Denise Scott, Marieke Hardy and Mark Watson interviewed by performance poet Ghostboy. This session wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. Good news: three writers whose work I admire had new books to plug and I was eager to let them. Bad news: because those three are best known for comedic writing, a quirky interviewer was added to the mix in order to bring the zany. It didn’t work. Ghostboy’s questions were punctured with moments of lucidity (clearly he is well read and knew a good amount about his guests) but when the zany kicked in, speakers – who only had 12 minutes of allotted time to begin with – were rarely able to finish a sentence. If this had been some kind of comedy gala or if it had been, dare I say it, free, I’d have been quite happy to let Ghostboy do what he was hired to do (be quirky). But as this was a Writers Festival panel, and each of these authors works in that shadowy territory of the tragi-comic (and I’d paid for it) I just wanted to hear them talk.
I also noted the shocked expressions of several senior visitors who had clearly come to see the-lady-off-Winners-and-Losers and were treated to Ms Hardy reading an orgy scene. Furthermore, one of Marieke Hardy’s closest friends had passed away just that week. Her clear discomfort was incongruous with the jaunty musical accompaniment. Similarly, Denise Scott’s new book is about the further adventures of her attendance to her mother in her last days of life battling ovarian cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, but the crowd was encouraged to bay for her Satchmo impersonation. Watson at times looked genuinely concerned for the mental and emotional wellbeing of all present. Although he did make some of the most sound points about Germaine Greer’s controversial BWF opening speech that I’d heard all weekend (in short, she’s a stirrer, don’t take her too seriously).
The BWF continues to be an important component of Brisbane’s cultural identity and I was left inspired and invigorated (and further impoverished by book purchases). It’s nice being an observer, still with a keen interest in reading and writing, but without the need to ingratiate myself with anyone in particular. I have no career to speak of right now anyway, so I was able to converse, rather than network. And if I had a burning question I’d forgotten to ask a panellist I didn’t sit around regretting – I just tweeted them later. That’s the sort of thing you can do NOW.