May 23

Why are people in the literary realm so often pretentious knobs?

I spent Thursday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and while I had an interesting day, and would certainly go again, I was struck by the affected showiness that overcomes authors once they are published.

It seems that if you earn your living – and your reputation – by putting words together, you must constantly be on top form word-wise, impressing at every opportunity. Imagine if other professions did this. Athletes would be sprinting everywhere they went, doctors would be constantly asking people if they were feeling all right … you get the picture.

I don’t want to name names – but, as an example, one author when quizzed on the structure of her novel/memoir answered along the lines of, “Well, I write the truth … and truth is beauty … and beauty has a structure”. Right. The rest of the time she crapped on about “silence” and the “space between words”.

The exception to this was Mohammed Hanif – perhaps one of the few authors at the festival capable of self-deprecation – who when asked how he had responded to the news that he had been long-listed for the Booker Prize replied (in a thick Pakistani accent): “Well, I was taking my son to a movie, and I got the phone call to tell me I had been long-listed. [Thoughtful pause] Then I went to the movie.” Sadly, poor Mohammed could barely get a word in edgeways.

It’s not just authors of course, anyone associated with the literary world can be affected. Geordie Williamson, book critic for The Australian (and moderator for two of the sessions I attended) is among the worst offenders. He peppers his speech with ludicrous phrases like “disappear up one’s own fundament” and references to semi-obscure literary establishments such as the Prix Goncourt that mean nothing to the average punter.

Of course I did come away having learnt a thing or two. It was painfully clear from the panel discussion featuring debut authors that having an inside connection to the publishing industry is almost a necessity in getting a book deal. Talk of mountainous slush piles and the disdain with which unsolicited manuscripts are treated, the difficulty in finding an agent, the scores of rejection letters, it’s almost enough to turn off any aspiring writer. The unspoken flipside to this is that talent alone is probably not enough. It’s not only what you know, it’s who you know.

Neverthless, the SWF was extremely well organised, the venues were great, and it was cheap as chips. Many sessions are free (if you’re prepared to queue) and tickets are in the $15 range. I hope to be there next year. 

I will finish by pointing out that the Sydney Writers’ Festival has an apostrophe whereas the Melbourne Writers Festival does not. Discuss.