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Enough of the politics, I want more fiction at writers festivals

I have a love/hate relationship with politics.

I love that we have a stable form of politics in Australia, even though sometimes it can get a little heated and it certainly isn’t without its problems.

But I hate that it has taken over writers festivals to the degree that it is hard to find a session that isn’t overtly political. These festivals have moved from being celebrations of books to become fixated on politics and ideology.

At risk of sounding like that uniquely Australian politician, Pauline Hanson, I just don’t like it.

I’m not saying that literature doesn’t play an important role in providing commentary on the political and social landscape of our times; I understand and acknowledge its vital importance.

I know that for centuries, writers have reflected on the change they see in front of them, and either simply shone a light on it, or helped readers made sense of it.

And I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any political discourse as part of writers festivals, just that the balance seems to be falling heavily on the side of overt political discourse, rather than celebrating the love of literature.

Rather than that subtle and complex discussion of the social world we live in that literature provides so well, these events seem to be beating a drum about the state of politics and their disdain for those on the other side of the political divide (mainly the right).

In stark contrast to this heavy-handedness, I recently read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and I loved the allusions to New York society and its ills.

Through the story and it complex characters, Wharton exposed the difficult situation women found themselves in if they found themselves without the support of their families, of the extreme wealth and power of certain members of society, and of the way people felt imprisoned by the strict social mores of that society.

It looked turned a critical eye on the different treatment received by men and women if they behaved in a way that was not considered appropriate.

And while all of this might seem political, I never felt I was being lectured to think in a certain way. No such luck when a writers festival is designed with political issues front and centre.

Similarly, when I recently attended a talk by Ann Cleaves, I loved how she talked in depth about her motivations, her characters and her world. There was some politics, but also a lot of other influences, from the natural world to her love of a great whodunnit.

The beautiful thing about fiction is that it can open the mind of the reader without the use of a metaphorical wrench that other commentators tend to favour.

I wish that writers festivals took the same approach, drawing on characters, the inspiration, the work habits of writers. These are the things I want to know, and the reasons why I attend writers festivals.

Their books might tell the story of their beliefs, and let the authors talk about their histories, their outlooks and their opinions that have shaped their literature, but I don’t think there is a need to shape entire sessions (or entire festivals!) on one point of contention.

Recently, I have been excited about the release of a program, only to have to sift through all of the political topics to find a literary one … AT A WRITERS FESTIVAL.

I want to hear from the authors of fiction which exposes our world, but I want to hear about their books and the world of booklovers. I’d love to listen to Heather Rose, Sofie Laguna, and Melissa Lucashenko, talk on their books and their writing experiences.

They would talk about their place in a political world, and how it inspired their writing, without needing to shape the conversation around one topic or issue.

It appears I’m not the only person who is avoiding the political element of writers festivals; last year a UK journalist at The Guardian wrote about the reluctance of some readers who identify with a certain political ideology to attend festivals due to the events’ overwhelming political affiliation with the left.

She observes: “The audience absolutely hate being politically misidentified, and they spend those first 10 minutes desperately signalling, with spontaneous clapping and foot-stamping, to indicate that nobody hates the government more than they.”

If you have ever listened at question time, you’ll know what she means.

While I consider myself to sit on the centre left of politics, I have been equally irritated by this tendency of both audiences and organisers. It is only exacerbated when the topic of each talk is overtly political.

In the next couple of months, I’m looking forward to visiting a writers festival and I have purposely selected one of few sessions that is not overtly political.

Afterall, I’m there for the love of books, and I’d prefer to leave the divisive political discourse for another time and place – God knows there is enough of it elsewhere.


This Post Has One Comment
  1. Thank you for your article. I am an overtly political person, yet largely agree with you. The wonders of story and storytelling are underrated, and need to be explored, nurtured and celebrated. Our fabulous work, creativity and imagination create a richness unequalled.
    Non-fiction is still a great drawcard, I acknowledge that. And fiction is more demanding in that the reader is compelled to read the entire story, whereas with non-fiction, it is easier to dip in and out.
    For that reason alone, fiction writer must hone their craft, in writing, but also in recitals and presentations. We have the gift. Let’s show it off.

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