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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Melbourne Writers' Festival 2008

Good news. Melbourne has been declared a UNESCO "City of Literature." Nice to hear, if we can live up to it.

I have been going to the annual Writers' Festival for many years. This year, it has been moved from the cramped but cheerful Malthouse complex, where you could see people sitting around having food and drink and gloating over purchases while waiting for their next session, to the fancier but windswept Federation Square, where there's none of the ambience of the old place. If you have one session at the ACMI cinemas and another at BMW Edge, you have to cross the Square. There are eating places, but near the theatres there's nothing but people waiting politely in a queue for their session, sometimes down the stairs if it's a popular event.

Still, as a friend of mine on the committee says, you have to make space to extend the Festival. And perhaps by next year there will be some ambience.

But the last several years, there has been less and less that I want to see. When I started going, you could hear writers for children and teens speaking on weekends and in the evening. Now, it seems to be assumed that if you're not taking a school group to the Youth Days, you don't want to hear children's/YA writers. And even if you are taking kids, the session will be very different from the ones that used to be held for the benefit of adults who love this stuff.

Genre fiction, too. There used to be SF writers and crime writers. There haven't been any SF/F writers I can recall since China Mieville. I did once send a letter suggesting a panel of small press SF publishers(which is now the main way of publishing the genre in Australia, apart from the horrible fantasy sagas) but they didn't bother to reply. There is still the odd crime writer, mostly during the week, when I have to be at work, but not many.

You take what you can get and I have managed to find a few that were of mild interest, though I am seriously considering not going next year if there's no more of the kind of stuff I want to hear.

Last week I went to hear a panel by three journalists who have written books - quite interesting, but nothing in the way of books that I need on my shelves. The library will supply my needs in this area. The panel on Georgette Heyer was fun, mainly because I know nothing about her, only about some of her books. My friend Anne Devrell, who does know about Heyer, said she suspected the book involved was a PhD thesis - she was right, as it turned out.

Because there is very little on subjects that already interest me, I opt for things that sound like fun. I made the mistake of attending a panel called "Writing Love" under the impression it would be about romance writing. Big mistake. Three deadly serious writers and the resident philosopher from a university Economics Department (?)sat and discussed Life, the Universe and Everything and what is love anyway? A wasted $15 - I was very glad I had paid early bird rates!

The next panel was much better. The guest was Andrew Davies, who wrote those delightful Jane Austen adaptations for the BBC - a charming, funny man who had some fascinating things to say about why he had added scenes that were never in the novels. I decided to buy a ticket for his afternoon session on "What Women Want" (and was not disappointed - a hilarious panel by himself and two other writers made us all laugh). I got hold of a DVD copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I'd been meaning to buy anyway and had him sign the cover.

I had a choice of one more panel - should I go hear John Marsden, the only YA writer I knew of who was on during the weekend, but on a panel with others, and be tempted to buy Hamlet The Novel, or the panel on book reviewing? Oddly enough, I chose the book reviewing panel and am very glad I did. It was great fun. I am a reviewer myself, of course, and wanted to see what people who get paid for reviewing had to say. Two of them were fairly earnest and explained what they did and how they really hated writing bad reviews, honest (I believed them) but the third made us all laugh. First she asked if there were any writers, editors or publishers in the audience. I admitted to being a writer but added that I was also a reviewer, so it was okay. Then she tipped out the contents of her tote bag, which included some of the stuff she'd been sent to review - one utterly awful book, some proof copies which you had to be careful about reviewing because they were uncorrected and even one set of page proofs! She talked about some of her horror experiences and there were some doozies.

I was relieved; the last time I went to a panel on book reviewing, the whole panel ganged up on Bryce Courtenay, who was there on the panel with them, and it was in the newspapers next day, which probably sold more copies of Courtenay's books anyway, so ganging up on him was stupid and useless if they wanted the opposite. This panel was much gentler.

On my way out, I ran into a lady who had been given a ticket to the wrong panel and was too tired to be bothered telling her story yet again. We went out for coffee and she told me some shocking stuff about information she had gained during a radio interview she did and how hard it was to get anyone else to run the story.

Strange end to the day. One more panel tomorrow, with Mark Billingham on it. I would have liked to hear him speak on his own, but it was on during the day on a weekday. I want to hear about his work, because I know him best as one of the two dumb guards in Maid Marion and Her Merry Men and here he is as an international bestselling crime writer.

I am willing to attend panels with writers I don't know if the subject interests me, but I can only hope next year's mix will be better, with less of the arty-farty and more of the genre stuff.