Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014: What I learned

A glorious day at the hub of the Sydney Writers' Festival at Walsh Bay.

A glorious day at the hub of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is one of my favourite events of the year. It is a wonderful celebration of books. Who says the book is dead when over 80,000 people flocked to hear writers talk about their work! The program featured 450 writers talking at sixty venues throughout Sydney. I only heard six authors at the Festival but I was happy. Just attending two sessions allowed me to come away with a little more understanding about books.

Adrian McKinty, PM Newton and Malla Nunn are crime writers with a lot to say. They have good rapport with each other making the ‘Keeping it Real: Crime as Social History’ session an enjoyable event. Their discussion touched on the reasons why I like the novels of PM Newton so much. Place is very important in her work. She explores what I call the ‘real Sydney’, the one that is grimy, slightly dysfunctional and people living life hard.

Malla Nunn said that the work of all three authors is a good example of the ‘social novel’ or the ‘social problem novel’. These types of novels explore real social issues in real places. The work of Charles Dickens such as Oliver Twist is a good example of the social novel, as is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Newton pointed out that the modern social novel is most often seen in crime fiction.

DSC00568 BannerAdrian McKinty complained that books that are today regarded as literature are largely about middle class people with middle class problems. Working class people are mostly depicted as victims or criminals. He rued the fact that working class people are not depicted as the complex people that they are. This reminded Newton of Geordie Williamson’s complaint a few years ago about ‘beige novels’.

“Awful” is how McKinty described the movies and television programs about the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s. He said that one crucial element that was missing in them was the “dark sense of humour” that people had at the time. He talked about the use of humour as a defence mechanism. Newton agreed that humour accompanied trauma, recalling the joking by police attending brutal scenes. She commented that the Underbelly television series failed to include the humour of corrupt police. Apparently they were quite funny even though they were doing dreadful things.

It was PM Newton’s appearance at a writers’ festival which led me to pick up her first book Old School. I am hooked and eagerly read her recently released second novel, Beams Falling which I have reviewed here. She said that she can see there being four books in this series. Too many in a series with one character she said leads to the danger that they become formulaic and unbelievable.

I left this session with a desire to read the work of Malla Nunn and Adrian McKinty. Clearly writers’ festivals do encourage some readers to pick up books they would not have otherwise read.

The last thing that I learned was at a session hosted by the History Council of New South Wales. It featured some of the winners at last year’s NSW Premier’s History Awards.

Butler is seated and looking up to Hill. Michael Leunig is sitting next to Janet Butler.

Author of Kitty’s War, Janet Butler, talking to UQP’s Meredene Hill, and look who is sitting next to Butler! And the face of Ian Hoskins, another historian I have written about is on the wall.

Jackie French, the prolific author of children’s fiction and nonfiction as well as adult books was one of the speakers. She is passionate about what she writes, about children and books. She explained that the inspiration for her award-winning book, Pennies for Hitler, came from a fourteen year old who had never read a book until he read another Jackie French book, Hitler’s Daughter. In a letter to French he said, “what I have learned from your book is to be very wary of anyone who tries to make you angry”.

“Do not act in anger”, said French. She observed that many people have copied Hitler’s tactics and tried to whip up anger. “When they are making you angry they are trying to get power over you”, she said. That is something to think about.

Due to limited time I spent just one day at the centre of the Festival in Walsh Bay and attended two events. Standing in a queue for up to an hour is necessary for a lot of the free events, so attending two free events takes four hours out of the day. We often think of books as an indoor activity, but there is very little shelter in the queues of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Much of the Festival is spent outdoors.

Sydney turned on spectacular weather throughout the Festival, probably too spectacular. We have already broken records for the number of warm days in May and are set to break the record for the average maximum in May. This year I turned up in summer clothes. Last year I and others turned up in our bushwalking gear in an effort to stay warm and dry in the queues.

Now its over to you. What do you enjoy about writers’ festivals?

Much has been written about the Sydney Writers’ Festival. You can catch up on more of the news via the ABC and The Guardian websites.

People in queues holding umbrellas outside Festival venue at Walsh Bay.

Dedicated Festival attendees queuing in the rain last year. This was the day I didn’t wear my wet weather gear!

My Reviews of Authors Mentioned in This Post

  • Newton, P M: I discovered P M Newton’s writing a couple of years ago after hearing her talk at another Writers’ Festival. I’ve read and reviewed both her books and can’t wait for her to publish another one:
  • Nunn, Malla: As a result of the Sydney Writers’ Festival session I did what I said I would and read the first in Malla Nunn’s series about Detective Emmanuel Cooper, and it was a good one! Read my review of A Beautiful Place to Die on Good Reads.
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