Comment, Mary Varnham

Restrained discourse in a windowless room: Writers and Readers Week 1998

The literary stars have come out. The firmament crackles with dramatic disclosure. Questioners leap to their feet, arguing electrifyingly for wild and esoteric points of view. There are young and old in the audience, a human miscellany, from the teenage girl in front of me with green dreadlocks and an anxious flurry of butterflies tabooed around her neck, to the besuited 50-something businessman next to me, clutching his briefcase like a shield against this unfamiliar and therefore unnerving rabble.

Every now and then there is a moment of absolute calm, as though there are too many words in the ether and time must be allowed for them to float to earth. During one of those moments I wake from my reverie and realise that Our Man from New Zealand Post is still droning on. Well no, not droning exactly. Rather, buzzing. He’s like a worker bee desperate to be accepted into the hive. Quotes from Great Writers emerge from his lips in an incantation of desire.

In a strange kind of way, this man, delivering his compulsory homily as sponsors feel they must, and delivering it well beyond the point where anybody is any longer interested, sets the tone for this year’s Writers and Readers Week. Is it me? Have I been to too many festivals and am I now impossibly jaded? Or is what I suspect true: that Writers and Readers Week has become a victim of its own success, so wedded to its formula that it doesn’t dare change, take risks, break out of its suffocating mould?

At session after session following this inauspicious opening – so heavy on speeches and pomposity that the international writers present, indeed writing itself, seemed in danger of eclipse – we were confronted with the same set-up. First, there was the chairperson. He or she would be well-spoken, middle-aged, someone who could be relied upon to conduct the proceedings with confidence and intelligence. I know many of these people and respect them tremendously. Many are noted writers and academics. But I longed for the wild card, the unexpected and, most of all, the unsafe. The closest we came was Margaret Mahy who, at the session with Louis de Bernières in the Michael Fowler Centre, appeared to forget momentarily where she was and why. As her introduction meandered up hill and down dale, some in the audience became restless. I half expected a cry of “Oy, shut up, love. We came to hear Louis, not you.”

But WRW attenders are much too restrained for this. Well-read, and usually well-heeled, they are encouraged to have an unnatural reverence for The Writer. This distance between “them” and “us” is heightened by the physical set-up of the sessions, with the writer or writers firmly separated from the audience. In the old venue, the Frank Renouf Foyer, the writers used to sit at a long table on a platform, like prefects in a boarding-school dining-room, while the audience tapered away off to the sides. Despite its failings, however, that place had the virtue of large windows and natural light. When the mind wandered, it was possible, from certain parts of the seating, to stare across the road into apartment windows. I once spent a most enjoyable session watching a semi-naked man try on a number of clothes and smoke in a louche, Humphrey Bogart sort of way.

This year’s venue, the Touring Gallery at Te Papa, allowed of no such diversions. It was entirely windowless. Vast banks of seating rolled downwards, and the writers were stranded out in front like performers in a studio theatre. I later saw Ralf Ralf, the brilliant satire on politicians, in the same space and was struck by the analogy. In Ralf Ralf, the politicians go through the ritualised motions of their profession: anger, conciliation, pride, ersatz humility. For the more experienced circuit-travellers at WRW, something of the same pertained. They were performers, there to put on a show. Julian Barnes with his Noah’s Ark, Louis de Bernières with his Captain Corelli, Pico Iyer with the entire world: they had done it perhaps a hundred times before, the gestures, the jokes, the intonations.

“It was a pleasure to watch them”, a critic might have said. But I began to feel less and less sure. The formula seemed sterile, unspontaneous and dull. Reading is an intimate act. Writer and reader are, for the time being, fused into joint consciousness. This is its unique delight. But here the opposite happened. There was no opportunity for contact, interaction, mutuality. Instead of exciting discourse and serendipitous revelation, we were getting a lecture.

The nagging thought kept creeping into my mind: Why were we there? Why were they? In the case of the writers, the answer was straightforward. Most overseas authors were there because they had a successful book or books which had reached audience saturation everywhere else.

Australia and New Zealand were less trammelled territories, where it was still possible to gain more readers.

Local writers, meanwhile, were there because they had been asked. This is not as fey as it sounds. An appearance on the WRW platform is an acknowledgement that, at least in the opinion of the people who make the selection, a writer is on his or her way up there with the international stars, or may even have already arrived. Publishers tend to be riled by the closed-door selection process, into which they have little input, but it is unimaginable that they would advise a writer not to accept. As one said to me, “It’s good for their ego.”

Yet many writers are clearly not experienced entertainers, nor do I imagine all of them want to be. For every Barnes or Iyer who relishes the spotlight, there are as many others who give the distinct impression they would rather be tied to a train track. In 1996 the “let-me-out-of-here” award would have gone to the English novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, whose monosyllabic response to most questions seemed to reveal either extreme reserve, extreme ennui, or a combination of the two.

This year it was impossible not to feel sorry for Canadian Anne Michaels. Michaels, author of the intensely poetic novel Fugitive Pieces, seemed literally tortured by the audience’s desire to know her better. At times, talking about her book, she appeared on the verge of tears. At other times, she seemed physically to curl up in self-defence.

This makes the question of why we, the audience, were there especially apposite. When I asked a friend who attended most of this year’s sessions, she confided that she had several times asked herself the same thing, finally writing in her diary, “Avoiding husband, work, children, garden, life.” Writers and Readers Week, she said, was like a sea voyage where responsibilities receded and everything ordinary and humdrum went on hold.

To go to a movie or watch a video or play sport in daytime appears frivolous, but literary voyeurism of the kind practised at WRW is deemed a legitimate, even commendable activity. Like people who watch the Oprah Winfrey show hoping for insights into how to run their lives, the WRW audience hungers for the sudden clue, the flash, the secret. “Ah,” they can sigh, “so that is how it is done. Now I too can write a novel, a poem, a biography.”

Writers and Readers Week trades on that hope, but the promise is wearing thin. I was struck by the number of people who, while acknowledging the organisers’ skill in attracting big names like Arundhati Roy and de Bernières, confessed this year to a kind of free-floating dissatisfaction. WRW will always get large audiences, and no doubt the organisers will count this as an indication of success. But a shot in the arm, and perhaps a change of personnel, is long overdue.

Some of the questions that need to be asked:

  • Should the Week be appealing only to book readers or, like other Festival events, be luring the general public into new experiences?
  • Is its primary aim, as it often appears, to sell books? Or is it to create a lively and mutually beneficial interface between writers and readers, actual and potential?
  • How can it expand beyond its present largely white, middle-aged, middle-class female audience to induce more young people, tangata whenua (and no, just putting events in Te Marae won’t achieve that) and people from different cultures and backgrounds?
  • How can it gain new life, excitement, edge?

Some of the answers must lie in a much greater variety of venues and formats. Events could be tailored to suit the personal skills and preferences of individual writers – full-on performance for some, quiet informal readings for others.

Greater use could be made of actors. One of the most memorable experiences this year was Tina Regtien’s moving reading of a story by Yuko Tsushima. This had about it the rare sense of mutuality, of a gift being given to the writer in return for her gift to us. Let’s have more of that, not just for non-English-speaking writers but for others as well.

Panels could be dispensed with – at best they are frustrating, at worst embarrassing-in favour of conversations in the round, with the audience as full participants.

Let’s see events in cafés, community hails, schools, parks and other public spaces. What about free readings in Civic Square or Chaffers Park, perhaps with music, or a background of drums?

More evening sessions would enrich the audience mix by bringing in students and people who work in nine-to-five jobs (still the majority of the population).

Eschew pre-bookings in favour of season passes, with an affordable rate for students, and door sales. At too many sessions this year, people were turned away when there were empty seats.

Provide opportunities for informal contact. Instead of whisking authors off to sign books after sessions, leave time for people to meet and talk with them.

Finally, include more non-fiction authors. While Writers and Readers Week traditionally focuses on fiction and poetry, around 80% of books sold in this country (and worldwide) are non-fiction. In Britain, The Little Book of Calm, a guide to relaxing and enjoying life, has sold half a million copies to date, four times as many as The God of Small Things.

Mary Varnham is a writer, oral historian and columnist in Wellington’s Evening Post.

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