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On writers’ festivals

The beautiful absurdity of writers’ festivals.

Art by Vivienne Guo.

The writer is a creature that comes in many forms.

The intensive writer can often be found hunched over a laptop, a cold mug of tea sitting beside them in a semi-forgotten state. The experiential writer embeds themselves in the action of society, carefully balancing a notepad on their knee and deftly typing notes into their mobile phone – all the while on a moving train. Not to be forgotten, the maniacal writer can most often be seen emerging from a sea of Red Bull cans in a frenzy, inveterately scribbling their ideas on oversized sticky-notes. 

These descriptions are, of course, all exaggerated cliches. Nonetheless, what they share is an awareness of the solitary nature of writing.

In many ways, writing is a sort of delusional narcissism – a process of creating imaginary interlocutors that you wholeheartedly believe care about what you’re doing. Moreover, where talking to oneself in isolation would see some categorised as mad, for the writer, this is just trade. In her appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2021, Rachel Cusk explored this idea in depth, considering that the reason that she chose to write was so that she wouldn’t have to speak, but festivals and the like force her into a world of discomfort and anxiety. As such, it can be established that writing doesn’t set one up to be the most social butterfly, oftentimes, it does the complete converse…

However, writers’ festivals are ultimately about connection – be that between writers and readers, writers and other writers (national and international), or even between other members of the writing world; publishers, publicists and the like. This essence was captured in the 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival theme ‘Within Reach’, which through its focus on local talent, aspired to platform writers in our own communities that are so often overlooked.

But even where the intentions are well-meaning, the reality is not always satisfying. As readers, our relationship with writers is endlessly complex. When I was volunteering at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, a woman approached me in the book signing pavilion, looking for one of the writers whose books she had just purchased to sign the text. After informing her that that writer had finished signing quite some time ago, the patron retorted “well, can I return the book then?” This question left me rattled and pondering whether writers’ festivals miss the point. Is it time to embrace Barthe’s premise that “the author is dead”? Does the text lose value by being so fervently attached to the human form of its writer? 

In his closing address at the 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Malouf regaled: “The writer lets go of the book and sends it out into the world, to find its own company… It is readers now who will keep the book alive.” If this is true, then what is the point of a writers’ festival? Is it not enough to allow the book to speak for itself?