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Critics, upstarts and PowerPoint devils: Notes from the Melbourne Writers Festival — part one

Writers festivals are my favourite time to be in any city. The streets are buzzing and there’s an excitement about discussions of writing, politics and ideas. I’ve been lucky enough to be travelling a little this year for writerly events. I’ve been to the Sydney Writers Festival, Varuna, and next month I’ll be in Newcastle for the National Young Writers’ Festival. But this week, it was nice to have the comforting familiarity of a festival set in my own city. To navigate by tram instead of cab, the splintered glass of Federation Square as the backdrop to it all. 

‘Enquire Within’ is the theme of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Images unfurl like plumes of smoke within the mind of the figure in the logo, and it’s certainly evocative of the experience – my mind was indeed a pleasantly tangled web of thoughts following this first MWF weekend.

Day One

The first event for me this festival was my own In Conversation with Zoë Foster. This was the first time I have chaired an event at MWF so I was a giddy mix of nervous excitement before it began. Zoë was funny and vivacious and spoke honestly about giving relationship advice, working at Cosmopolitan (including how to write a cover letter if you want to work there – hint: character acting is involved), and writing in the chick-lit genre again with her new novel, The Younger Man.

After a quick coffee it was time for the New News Conference session Everyone’s a Critic with Sasha Frere-Jones (Music, The New Yorker), Alison Croggon (Theatre, Theatre Notes), Stephen Downes (Food, Herald Sun), Claire Davie (Food, Melbourne Gastronome), Ed Charles (Food, Tomato) and Tom Neal Tacker (Travel, freelance).

The session broadly sought to answer the question as to whether the opinions of people on aggregate review sites such as Urbanspoon, Pitchfork etc. are more valuable and sought-after in the current age than those of professional critics.

Frere-Jones and Croggon argued that they don’t seek to simply endorse or reject. As SFJ noted, ‘I’m generally trying to explain a work of art. What a work is doing.’ Though he believes in ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ he said that his reviews are not a guide to the marketplace, whether or not to buy a particular album. ‘If you’re using scores or stars you can be aggregated. What I do isn’t related to a score.’

Tom Neal Tacker put the reason criticism is still necessary and useful beautifully: ‘Everyone can be a critic, but not everyone’s a writer.’

Though the session was worthwhile, I did think it was odd that on a panel of six guests, half were food critics. I would’ve been interested to hear the perspectives of writers working in other fields, for example, literary and film criticism too.

Next was another New News session: New Media’s Upstarts with Jonathan Green, Michael Gawenda, Mel Campbell, Luke Stegemann, Lauren Martin and Chris Were.

Particularly interesting was Mel Campbell’s experience with her website The Enthusiast. She explained her frustrations with the idea that if you simply post enough content, and if the content is good enough, then you will be rewarded. It doesn’t always work out that way. Campbell advised anyone looking to begin a website to focus on the business side as much as the editorial.

Gawenda and Were both advocated for new platforms for technology. Gawenda argued that the trolling seen on websites such as The Drum could be lessened by engaging more genuinely with the audience: ‘People wouldn’t be as angry as they are if new media was really interested in a conversation rather than pretending to be.’ Were’s startup site Newsflock seeks to create a democratic news platform, which appears to be in the vein of Reddit, where ‘the best voices are heard, not the loudest.’

Following this was the Microfictions session. This was utterly beautiful and the highlight of the day for me – I’ll write a separate post on this session.

The final event of the day was the Evening with the New Yorker keynote, with editorial director Henry Finder, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, staff writer David Grann, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones and cartoonist Roz Chast.

This was a highly anticipated session but I don’t think it quite lived up to expectations. As it stood, it felt pre-rehearsed, with Finder throwing each guest a question that allowed them to recount an amusing New Yorker anecdote. The dialogue was stilted and it would perhaps have benefited from a smaller, more intimate venue and certainly far more off-the-cuff discussion between the panellists.

Having said that, each guest was fascinating, and when they launched into their respective stories all were highly entertaining. Grann’s tale of his journey to search for giant squid with a bankrupted New Zealand man while a tornado loomed was brilliantly tragic and funny. Grann is one of the most engaging storytellers I have ever heard, I could listen to him for hours. Schjeldahl’s tale of how he heard Andy Warhol’s shooting was bizzarre and enthralling too.

Though it was, in the end, an entertaing night, it was hampered by an unfortunate start – with a slide show of New Yorker cartoons displayed at the opening, which firstly failed to begin, had problems with the timing of each slide, and many were too small to read.

In the middle of the slideshow, when the audience was grumbling about the pace of the slides and the size of the images, one of the cartoons displayed was of Satan recruiting a devil. The caption read: ‘I need someone well versed in the art of torture – do you know PowerPoint?’

That unintentionally self-referential moment could’ve been a New Yorker cartoon itself.

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