Punditry and punchups: Writers and Readers Week at the Wellington Festival, Jane Stafford

Get out your travelling rug and air cushion, fill the thermos, select a light paperback in case things should flag. Sharpen your wit – for question time, and your elbows – for the queues beforehand. It’s Writers and Readers Week again. Seasoned (and season-ticketed) attenders at this biennial occasion will have been in training for weeks by now reading up on the stars, polishing up their familiarity with the good and the great, bandying around the names of obscure third-world authors and eastern European poets as if they are as familiar as Jackie Collins and Catherine Cookson.

We do, after all, take Culture very seriously. It’s not simply a matter of pleasure. And our national natural politeness demands it. Last time a certain Turkish novelist got visibly pissed off when every question addressed to him began with “I haven’t actually read any of your books, but …” We don’t want a repeat of that, do we? No, we don’t.

Although the whole affair is arranged under the auspices of an international festival, the local contribution has always been an important feature and local artists, productions and exhibitions have all benefited from the general enthusiasm that the presence of overseas names generate. Audiences don’t seem to have any prejudice against the local and New Zealand productions are as likely to sell out as any other.

When it comes to Writers and Readers Week, this promiscuous generosity is just as marked, and the audiences that New Zealand writers command are as large as any overseas luminary. Motives in going to the New Zealand sessions are probably a little different from the others. Doris Lessing or Roger McGough appear very much as celebrities, to be frankly gawped at and this is not necessarily to their advantage. (“Doesn’t s/he look older/ fatter/ blousier than you imagined?”) Questions can be a little deferential – in the vein of “Your books changed my life, and what do you think of our lovely country?”

And the superstars have at times not fancied the rough and tumble of the panel and general discussion. Take the 1992 appearance of Alice Walker, for instance. Demand was so great the venue was changed to the Town Hall, and our living legend, Keri Hulme, was dragged away from the whitebait to chair the proceedings. What a waste. Walker flounced in, flanked by attendants, read enough of her book to ensure there was little time for anything else and went, leaving behind an abiding impression of very little except her dress sense (very classy, as I remember, with a lot of designer silk).

New Zealand authors will, of course, exert a different pull. No one is likely to be overcome by Owen Marshall’s clothes, although his session last time was one of the best I went to. Perhaps this was precisely because it lacked the glitz of the exotic occasions. No New Zealand writer would get very far with their public by putting on airs. But it was also because the audience was familiar with his work, and with the literary and social context it grows out of. Writers and Readers Week gives us the exotic and the unfamiliar, and is enormously stimulating in the process. But it also enables us to examine the familiar and the literary construction of the familiar.

So, what does the local component of WRW offer this time? Sadly, not Owen Marshall. But there are individual sessions with short-story writer Fiona Kidman, critic Denis McEldowney, historian Michael King, novelist Marilyn Duckworth, and poet Sam Hunt. New Zealand poetry is the focus in a panel discussion between Robert Sullivan, Andrew Johnston and Bernadette Hall. Michelanne Forster and David Geary discuss contemporary local drama, including, presumably, Geary’s Lovelock’s Dream Run which has its first production as part of the festival. And Margaret Mahy, Barbara Anderson, C K Stead and Kevin Ireland present a tribute to Janet Frame ‑ rather like a birthday party without the birthday girl, but perhaps Frame was too shy to be here in person.

Local and overseas writers combine in most of the panel discussions – a fruitful experience, one hopes, for the participants, and certainly an interesting way to give the audience a fresh perspective on New Zealand writing.

Lloyd Jones joins Jung Chang, David Marr and Ann Thwaite in a discussion of biography. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Alan Riach combine with Fijian writer Sudesh Mishra to discuss writing across cultural boundaries. Keri Hulme gives the writer’s side of the story in a discussion of the publishing world with British poet and editor Anthony Thwaite, Australian literary agent Lyn Tranter, and Peter Strauss from Picador. The relationship between fiction and the factual historical and social background is examined in a panel which combines Maurice Shadbolt with Britain’s Doris Lessing and Nicholas Shakespeare and Arab writer Hana Al-Shaykh. British writer Robert McCrum considers the curse of the promising writer and the second book with Damien Wilkins, Anne Kennedy and Fiona Farrell, all hopefully uncursed and certainly more than promising. And in what sounds like a rather fanciful session, British poet Roger McGough and Canadian poet Denis Lee discuss food in literature with Michael Gifkins and Keri Hulme (whitebait again). A separate programme on indigenous writing and in particular writing in Maori involves Hirini Moko Mead, Charles Royal, Bruce Stewart, Keri Hulme, Robert Sullivan and Patricia Grace.

Much of the success of these sessions depends on the skills of the chairs, ensuring not just that all participants get a fair hearing, but also that some kind of coherence emerges from the discussions. The 1992 WRW produced some examples of chairs who obviously felt they were far more interesting than their panellist and some examples of chairs who clearly were. My favourite session was an hour with a controversial male Maori writer who shall remain nameless, whose chairperson made it quite dear at the outset that she was only there because no one else would agree to do it, that she thoroughly disapproved of said writer, and that she hadn’t read his books anyway. It was a good session.

We cannot, alas, hope for such felicities this time, but I am interested in some of the combinations, especially with the overseas writers. Roger McGough chaired by Bill Manhire, for example, is a promising conjunction. What will Nigel Cox make of Doris Lessing, and vice versa? Is it fair to unleash Margaret Mahy on Nicholas Shakespeare without warning him about the orange wig she often wears? And what a weird decision, making Ian Johnston of Crimewatch chair the session with Elmore Leonard and Sarah Paretsky. Perhaps we could get V I Warshawski to clear up the Terrace murders.

WRW is visual and dramatic as much as literary. Panels can verge on punchups, and with the New Zealand writing community not noted for its compassion and fellow feeling, the lucky audience can often witness as much conflict and feud as measured discussion of the text. I hope we won’t be disappointed in this regard.

One possibly contentious occasion is the launch of the Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories. This has already been the subject of discussion, focussed mainly on the role of the editor, C K Stead, whom some felt had not displayed hitherto a great deal of interest or sympathy in this area. But then, those who refused permission for their stories to be included are unlikely to come to the launch. Two other launches are planned. Patricia Grace’s new collection of stories, The Sky People, and Vivienne Jepson’s novel, The House of Olaf Krull, winner of the 1992 Reed Fiction Award. The winner of the 1994 award will be announced on this occasion.

All this is very exciting if you live in Wellington, and have plenty of free time during the week. Otherwise, you may feel a little left out. But don’t worry. Elizabeth Alley of the Concert Programme will be there, with her trusty minion, who regardless of life and limb, will wield an enormous furry microphone, and bring you, at some time in the winter, edited highlights and background interviews. It’s not as dramatic as being there, especially in terms of the “how old/ fat/ blousy” factor. But she will have edited out the boring bits. Hopefully not the punchups.

Jane Stafford teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.


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