Several weeks ago I attended two very different writers' festivals. The first was the 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival. The second was the 68th World Science Fiction Convention. I had a fantastic time at both of them: catching up with friends, seeing interesting writers, and learning a few more things about writing and the publishing industry. Yet, though both events featured writers and readers, they had different emphases, and this wasn't because one dealt with mainstream fiction (however that is defined) and one with a particular genre fiction.
I’ve been attending the MWF for over twenty years, and have only missed it once or twice. The first time I went, when it was held at the Kino Cinema, I didn’t know a soul and every time I finished a session I sat on my own, had a coffee and wrote up my notes. Over the years I met more people in the Melbourne literary community and the festival became a chance to see some of them, meet new local and international writers, and discuss the general state of the industry. The heyday of the festival, for me at least, was during its tenure at the Malthouse Theatre complex. Full theatres. Everybody crowded around the bar. Every opportunity to talk to writers I admired or had been impressed by at a session. A community buzzing with creativity and deals and wit and gossip. Yet this high-energy atmosphere slowly changed. As the years rolled on, the festival became more for readers and publishers than for writers. The famous guests were surrounded by their minders, from before they atttended their panels/readings to after they signed books bought by their readers from the well-stocked saleroom. The beginning and developing writers in the audience, who wanted to learn more about the ‘craft or sullen art’ of writing, as Dylan Thomas put it, were being swamped by those readers who were more interested in the juicy lives of the writing celebrities or the upcoming exploits of their characters than in writing habits and influences and the mechanisms of the publishing industry. The tone had changed, had become more commercial. The divide between writer and reader had widened, with the writers becoming like the gods on Olympus and the readers their worshippers. And I have a feeling that the current venue, Federation Square, isn’t helping the matter. Events are held in widely separated rooms and buildings and there’s generally little chance to develop a sense of intimacy, and certainly very little chance to be standing at a bar and finding someone like Isabel Allende or Paul Muldoon ordering a drink next to you.
The recent Worldcon was the fourth Australia has hosted, all of them in Melbourne. I missed the first one, Aussiecon, in 1975, which had as its GOH (Guest of Honour) Ursula Le Guin, but have been to the other three: Aussiecon Two (1985, Gene Wolfe), Aussiecon Three (1999, Gregory Benford) and Aussiecon Four (2010, Kim Stanley Robinson). The divide mentioned above does not seem to exist in the speculative fiction community. The Worldcon is a great big party, where everyone is your friend, or soon will be. Writers who have finished a panel discussion are likely to appear in the audience for the next session. There are no publisher minders. Fans can be also writers, either amateur, semi-professional or professional, and writers were, and often still are, fans. There is a warmth, a camaraderie, at a five-day science fiction convention I haven’t experienced at the MWF, except when I join a group of my friends in a corner for an afternoon of coffee, drink and discussion. The speculative fiction community, possibly because for many years it has been battling for acceptance within the wider literary community, is one big family (though with all the feuds and affairs and alliances that implies) and conventions are like a family reunion. Even though I have drifted in and out of the SF world over the years, I always feel welcomed when I attend a convention, a prodigal son returned, I suppose. The Melbourne Writers’ Festival doesn’t give me the same sense of community. At times it feels more like a business meeting than a place where people are thrilled by the ideas and the discussions and the chance of not only meeting some of their heroes, but also having a long discussion with them, over a drink or during a room party, about their books, the books of their own favourite authors, the canals in Venice or the landscape in Norstrilia .
I suppose one reason for the difference between these two events is the type of organiser involved. SF conventions are organised by fans for fans and for their favourite, yet down to earth, writer heroes. Festivals like the MWF often feel as if they’re organised by publishers to put their wares on show and move as many units as possible. Though I can attend both types and learn much from them, for both my teaching and my writing, I prefer the type where I’m not treated as a customer, but as a participant in an evolving community of imaginative, like-minded souls.
Enjoy your writing.