It’s theatre, really, David Larsen

I’ve lost track of how often my ass has fallen asleep from boredom at literary festivals. I’ve lost track of how often I was supremely disappointed by a writer’s public persona. I used to be as earnest and serious and literary as anyone at these things. But it gets so damn boring!

That’s Sherman Alexi, responding to one of the more off-beat questions from the floor at the Auckland Writers Festival’s Witsunday event in May: “Are you sure you didn’t turn up at the wrong festival by mistake? Because there’s this stand-up comedy festival happening just up the road.”

The question, tongue-in-cheek though it clearly was, is almost as interesting as Alexi’s answer. Alexi had just concluded an uproarious 45-minute stand-up routine. The stage at the Aotea Centre was sporting two large, comfortable armchairs, and in the immediately preceding four hours, three writers and three session chairs had sat in them and chatted. The conversations had spanned the range from unfocused to breath-takingly intelligent, but they were all conducted in the same basic form, and while they were taking place, it was easy to think of the Aotea stage as simply a scaled-up version of your own living-room. Then Alexi walked onto it and – while his session chair, Oscar Kightly, looked on bemusedly from the safety of his armchair – gave us a polished tragicomic rant about his childhood on a northwest Native American reservation, his grandfather’s death on Okinawa, the idiot moral pretensions of vegans, and Oprah. (He was particularly good on Oprah.) Suddenly we were in a theatre, and the stage was a stage.

It always had been, of course. But since literary festival events tend to take place at the quieter end of the theatrical spectrum, it’s easy to forget that they’re theatrical at all. The audience member who asked Alexi if he’d come to the wrong place was essentially saying that we don’t go to literary festivals expecting to encounter performance art. Alexi’s answer makes the point that, for good or bad, literary festivals are always performance art.

I’ve been to two literary festivals this year: the five-day, five-star extravaganza that was the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington, and the single-day Witsunday event in Auckland. I was lucky enough to get to all but three of the 29 New Zealand Post sessions at the Embassy. Witsunday consisted of nine sessions over a 12-hour day; I went to them all. I emerged from both experiences a whimpering wreck, a statement which I make no attempt to disguise as anything other than a boast, because in both cases I also emerged on a high from which it took me weeks to come down. These festivals are priceless. We’re exceptionally lucky, as a country with the population of a largish European city, to have them.

It’s hard not to groan when someone makes the “country the size of an overseas city” remark, because it’s such a chestnut, and it has a way of cropping up in arguments about what we can’t have, or shouldn’t expect to have, or should be happy to pay more for. It’s interesting to ask yourself, though, just exactly what kind of intellectual and cultural life a country of four million people can reasonably expect. One local writer I spoke to – well, ranted at – in Wellington told me very bluntly that New Zealand intellectuals need to stop whining about the country’s anti-intellectual culture and apply their mighty minds to the concept of economies of scale: small population groups simply don’t throw up enough intellectually curious people to form the kind of critical mass you get in major world centres.

The context for this remark was my complaint that some of the most stimulating and enjoyable festival sessions were the most poorly attended: the panel on graphic novels and comix journalism with Dylan Horrocks, Tim Bollinger and Joe Sacco, in particular, and the session with Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan. By contrast, every single session featuring Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk sold out, and there was so much demand for extra tickets that an extra session had to be laid on at the last moment. This sold out as well. Fisk has an electric stage presence, and, despite his habit of conveying the gravity of any given world event by stressing its effect on his own life, his decades of truth-telling under exceptionally difficult circumstances have more than earned him his considerable mana.

And yet. If you read Fisk’s reporting, and clearly most of the members of his many audiences had, his sessions had very little to tell you. The chief exception was the panel discussion on the treatment of war in fiction and journalism, where it was notable that Keith Ovenden, the session chair, was being very careful to rein Fisk in at intervals so that Narrudin Farah, Joe Sacco and Aleksander Hemon could make their balancing contributions. The four-way conversation was a triumph for the festival and for Ovenden, who managed to stave off any number of potential monologues and a fair number of potential squabbles, and led his quartet of strong personalities in some fascinating directions. Fisk on his own was far more prone to spend the bulk of his time recounting the recent history of the Middle East and expounding on the related political questions: which are important and interesting, but also, to anyone going through this decade with their eyes open, highly familiar.

Fisk is a journalistic rock star, and I was as curious as anyone to see him on stage. But there was a striking and potentially depressing contrast between his sessions, where vast crowds gathered to hear a recitation of facts they already knew and opinions they appeared already to share, and the smallest sessions, where fabulously interesting writers and artists discussed intriguing questions for the benefit of audiences that never quite dropped below three figures. It was after one of these tiny sessions that I attempted to deliver my rant on the general theme of philistine audiences, the failure of Kiwi swine even to show up so that pearls could be thrown before them etc and was told to calm down and do the maths: graphic novels and picture books were always going to attract a vanishingly small subset of the total festival audience, and, in any case, New Zealand audiences for arts events will always be smaller than the ones for discussions of politics and public policy, world without end.

There’s an argument worth having here – I persist in thinking that there’s an attainable version of New Zealand where purely cultural events draw a wider audience than they do at present – but the general point is probably right. Certainly the same basic disparity cropped up at Witsunday. Sherman Alexi’s funny, stimulating session was one of the day’s three highlights, but he was playing to a largely empty house. The big draw of the day was Alain De Botton, for whose discussion of architecture a second level of the Aotea Centre’s main auditorium had to be opened up. The contrast had sharper teeth than the one in Wellington, because where Fisk was concise, passionate and immensely well informed, De Botton was vapid, and was clearly trying to fit a 60-minute prepared lecture into his 45-minute speaking time by the charmless expedient of talking ultra-fast. But while the gulf between a Fisk and a De Botton yawns wide, they both come in under the heading of non-fiction, and it’s the non-fiction writers who seem consistently to be the biggest attractions at literary festivals: the journalists, the historians, the economists, the scientists. (Michael Cunningham remarked in passing at one session that there’s no such thing as absolute non-fiction, to which I can only reply, “maths textbooks”.)

“Literary festival” is, in fact, a question-begging term. Aside from its usefulness as a means of claiming the cultural high ground, the word “literary” mostly highlights awareness of and attention to questions of language, of style. John Banville – whose session at Witsunday was a joy and a delight, and should have been filmed so that Alain De Botton could be shown what a public intellectual really looks like – put it neatly when he said: “My books are works of art because the story is incidental to the way I tell it. Whether they’re successful works of art is a separate question.”

In this sense someone like Ronald Wright, who could certainly be called a literary author if what you meant by the phrase was “someone who writes really well”, is not a literary figure: he isn’t primarily interested in creating works of art, and the popularity of his sessions in Wellington seemed mostly to do with his status as a prophet of environmental doom. (World without end? Not according to Wright.) His solo session suffered from the same problem as Fisk’s, in that he said very little he hadn’t already said in books most of his audience could safely be presumed to have read. But the decision to put him in a joint session with the scientist Armand Leroi was inspired, and led to a lively dialogue on public policy and the role of science in society. This was the point where I recalled that the thing I was attending was called the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, a title with a much wider ambit than “literary festival”: a celebration of the written word, in all its best permutations. That means throwing minds like Wright’s and Leroi’s against each other just as much as it means giving space to Michael Cunningham or Michelle De Kretser.

De Kretser, who appeared in Wellington, belongs to the smallish minority of the writers I saw at either festival who set out openly to perform for the audience – to give a very witty and impressive lecture on the complex cultural implications of colonialism, in her case. Before doing so she mentioned that she hadn’t known the done thing at New Zealand festivals was to give a reading and then converse with the session chair, and so she hadn’t come prepared. De Kretser was also one of the many writers at both festivals of whom I had been entirely ignorant, and with whose books I over-burdened my credit card by rushing out and buying them at the first opportunity. As a result, I’m now in a position to report that this pre-lecture remark was typical of her, both for its elaborate courtesy and for its double-edged nature – because clearly, giving a reading and chatting on stage require less preparation than giving a lecture. What she was really saying was that the New Zealand way of doing things (which, it seems worth noting, she had been told about well in advance) struck her as a little odd.

And certainly the “reading, chair asks questions, audience asks questions” format predominating at both festivals is an entirely arbitrary one. But it can work so well. The lesson to take from Alexi’s comment about boring, overly earnest literary events isn’t that a good festival session needs to be overtly theatrical. It’s that the people on stage need to work together to make the writer’s public persona as accessible as possible to the audience. Helen Garner and John Newton allowed their conversation to be so loose and easy it felt like a chat between friends, with the audience promoted to “friend” status for the duration; it couldn’t have worked better. John Banville and Iain Sharp did something very similar, extemporising as acute and entertaining a discussion of language, writing as process, and literature as I’ve ever heard. The great thrill of these festivals was seeing a diverse range of approaches bear fruit, from the informal to the formal to the theatrical to the barking mad (that would be Alexi), so that ideas and resonances shot from one session to another. The second best compliment I can pay the organisers of both festivals is that I feel a better reader for having attended them. The best is that I had a fabulous time.


David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.


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