Maybe, maybe not, Craig Cliff

The Writers’ Festival
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage, $38.00
ISBN 9781775537984

Taken together, Stephanie Johnson’s The Writing Class (2013) and her latest novel, The Writers’ Festival, are a study in ambivalence. Can creative writing be taught? the first asks. Maybe, maybe not. At least, Johnson’s two writing tutors in The Writing Class are in disagreement. Merle Carbury, a 50-something midlist-and-slipping novelist, believes teaching “a student with no instinct for writing is as impossible as teaching a tone-deaf child the violin”. Gareth Heap, on the other hand, has parlayed a prize-winning first novel into a teaching gig and reckons writing, like chemistry or a foreign language, can be taught.

The only student that really comes into focus is Jacinta, whose affair with Gareth hastens the disintegration of her marriage. The remaining nine students remain caricatures, such as Szu Wen, the wife of a wealthy businessman, dead-set on writing a bestseller, or Adarsh, the keen bean who’s always ready to read from his novel in progress, or Tosh Hendrix, the suburban Rasta, writing a novel in rap called White Mother F—er. The Writing Class is ultimately ambivalent as to the work of these students. Merle is quietly taken by Szu Wen’s work and flummoxed by Tosh’s profanity-laden verse. Gareth, on the other hand, tips off his publisher to Tosh’s book which is “original”, “indigenous”, “edgy”, and “intrinsic to our times”. The reader is left to decide for herself if lines like “White Mother F—er, White Mother F—er / Baldhead mon / What’s the f—king matter, your time is over” should be taken seriously.

The question that holds the events of The Writers’ Festival together is whether any of the extra stuff attached to books these days – festivals, book awards, sleeping with arts administrators – is worth it. Shouldn’t the books be enough? Maybe, maybe not.

Again, Johnson uses a pair of opposing characters to explore the tension. Rae McKay, Merle’s cousin, is the Artistic Director of the Oceania Writers’ Festival. She shares responsibilities with Orla O’Connell, the Festival Director. Rae’s soon-to-be-estranged husband can never get his head around the split in roles: “You’re mostly women, aren’t you? Only women would come up with that idea.” Rae is described as an avid reader, while Orla relies on Google to familiarise herself with the writers on Rae’s wishlist. When the university, pressured in turn by the Chinese Embassy, threatens to withdraw sponsorship if Liu Wah, a dissident Chinese writer, appears at the festival, pragmatic Orla is happy to acquiesce. Rae, however, agonises over the decision and tries to get Liu Wah to come through backdoor means. For Rae, the festival isn’t just about big names and ticket sales; it’s about big ideas.

Stephanie Johnson was the co-founder of the Auckland Writers’ Festival and clearly has firsthand experience of these dilemmas and trade-offs. But, just when we’re ready to side with Rae – yes! books really are the most important part of the equation – Liu Wah is detained en route to the festival, Rae falls for Xu Wang, a local journalist, and her angst evaporates. Personal concerns continually wash over the literary in both of Johnson’s writing-themed novels.

Merle, Gareth, Jacinta, Adarsh and Tosh also feature in The Writers’ Festival, but the other seven students from The Writing Class have faded into insignificance in the intervening two years. Gareth has quit the university to write full-time, prompting a restructure of the creative writing faculty, and Merle has been “put out to grass for lack of letters after her name”. When her next novel is turned down by her publisher for economic reasons, she creates the motorbike-riding Aussie pseudonym, Kyla Mahon, to sell a fake memoir. Meanwhile, Jacinta’s novel remains unfinished and unpublished, but Tosh and Adarsh are the hot new things. Tosh and his “rapnovel crew” get to perform his novel at the festival, retitled Mother Fucker, in its entirety. Adarsh’s Gaytimes with Ganesha is selling well around the world and is up for the prestigious Opus Book Award, which is to be awarded at the Oceania this year.

The back cover of The Writers’ Festival proclaims this as a “lively, stand-alone novel”, which is possibly true. But readers of The Writing Class will find it satisfying for the sense of resolution it brings to the first novel’s loose ends and equivocations. Gareth was right about Tosh – and you really weren’t supposed to laugh at his verse. Adarsh was right to be so self-confident – and you really weren’t supposed to cringe when he read the final paragraph of his novel, in which the protagonist falls “into a deep sleep from which he would never wake”.

The most satisfying shift from ambiguity to certainty between the two novels relates to geography. The Writing Class describes the setting as “a fast-growing city in the Southern Hemisphere”. While all descriptions align with Auckland, the novel continues to maintain it could be set in New Zealand or Australia. This vagueness is deployed for little apparent gain and brings with it significant clumsiness. The word “indigenous” is used because any reference to Māori culture would be too specific. Children dream of becoming “All Blacks or Wallabies”. As the novel proceeds, the Australian items in every list take on a kind of tokenism: “There are obscure poets from this part of the world … Les Murray, Hone Tuwhare, Ursula Bethell, Kendrick Smithyman, Michele Leggott, Allen Curnow”. The Writers’ Festival maintains this geographic equivocation in its opening chapters. Johnson finally abandons this gambit on page 67 when Adarsh, now living in Delhi, notes most people don’t recognise the New Zealand accent. From then on, there’s no more “indigenous” when “Māori” will do. Auckland is never named, but we get enough local references – Albert Park, Grafton – to once and for all triangulate our location. Ultimately, The Writers’ Festival is more successful than its predecessor because of this greater certainty.

The strongest moments speak to what it means to be alive, and be a writer, in 2015. Adarsh, the Fijian-born Kiwi living in India, both loves Delhi and yearns to leave. He considers the south of France, or back to the South Pacific, “if he could find an island mountainous enough to keep above the rising seas”. He considers writing about “climate change, the acidification of the oceans, the ever-expanding plastic gyres”, but decides no one would want to read it. To spend time inside the heads of Johnson’s writers, to eavesdrop on their bad ideas and feelings of hopelessness, is strangely pleasurable.

After reading boxes of novels as the local judge for the Opus, Gareth decides to go bush and get away from text and technology. But when he reaches a picturesque spot, his first instinct is to take a selfie to commemorate the occasion. Later, his thoughts wandering, he questions the etymology of “harbinger”: “If he had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to sate his curiosity immediately. It felt healthy, disciplined, like refusing a beer or a meat pie.” You don’t need to be a writer to understand the impulses with which Gareth struggles. The instant gratification of Google and the superficiality of selfies are threats to deep thought and reflection. You might add festivals and book prizes to that list, but The Writers’ Festival doesn’t go that far.

There’s another interesting pairing at work in the novel. The Oceania is like the Auckland Writers’ Festival on steroids. Guests include J K Rowling, Richard Ford, Richard Dawkins and a host of fictional writers just as revered. Down the road, the Fringe Festival is running a mini writers’ fest. The Fringe director, Ripeka, applied for Rae McKay’s job, and was the more experienced candidate, but Rae had worked at New York Book Week. In the world of The Writers’ Festival, the Ripekas and Merles of the world can’t compete with their younger, flashier rivals, and must find workarounds.

While we see people coming and going from the big sessions at the Oceania, the novel spends more time inside one of the Fringe’s sessions: that with Margaret Boon, literary psychic. At the bidding of the audience, Ms Boon, who looks like Susan Boyle before they “jushed her”, recites a “new poem” by Neruda. As Salinger, she mentions the existence of an undiscovered manuscript. Shakespeare, Mansfield, Bashō – they all inhabit Ms Boon, but for some reason she can’t reach Hone Tuwhare. What place does such charlatanism have in a literary festival (albeit the Fringe)? And why does it assume such a prominent place in Johnson’s novel? How different is the literary ventriloquism of Margaret Boon to Merle Carbury’s attempt to sell her novel as a memoir by Kyla Mahon? There’s a strong strain of pessimism running through The Writing Class and The Writers’ Festival, but Johnson is careful to have a bob each way. Such is the lot of the modern writer, when the only thing worse than an awkward festival session is not being asked to be on the programme.

Craig Cliff is the author of the novel The Mannequin Makers and the story collection A Man Melting. Reviews of both are available in the online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.

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