Politics, Ideology and the Written Word | A Weekend at Perth Writers Festival

Have you ever just wished you could put a book down for a second and simply just talk with the author? Have you ever wondered what that author was like in reality? Have you ever wondered if there was more to a book than just the text? The Perth Writers Festival was such an opportunity to meet and listen to the wisdom of many national and international authors, who have sold millions upon millions of copies of books. Over the course of a weekend, the festival took place on the wonderful UWA (University of Western Australia) campus, whose facilities were more than apt for the words of many prestigious and well-recognised voices. Over the course of the four days, I felt I had learnt not just about the author’s works, but the world at large and its various issues.

The first seminar I caught was entitled ‘The Land of the Fair Go’, which explored the idea of Australian cultural rationality and its attachment to the almost-pseudo idea of equality. While it’s important to recognise how our Australian identity is tied to ideas of fairly treating its population, the seminar helped pick through the false rhetoric used by politicians and media to obfuscate and conceal serious political issues. The panelists included William Maley and Clementine Ford, who demonstrated through anecdotes and popular opinion how the generally understood narrative surrounding this country’s hot topics might have been misconstrued and overstated. At the beginning of the seminar, Maley made the particular pertinent point that a number of refugees trying to make it to Australia would only fill three-quarters of the MCG. It’s not large numbers, he suggested, but it has become a central issue in the last few federal elections. The panelists offered up some particular poignant points, which were almost aphoristic in their relevancy. “We’ve stopped the refugees drowning, they say. Well no, they’ve just stopped drowning NEAR us,” Ford suggested, to an agreeable audience. “It’s not the 4% who drown that worry politicians – it’s the 96% who live,” Maley interjects. The discussion moved from refugees to the treatment of women and feminism in Australia. The ideas of mateship and digger spirit, things herald in Australia as cultural touchstones, are often still very masculine ideas, as Ford claims. Ford continued by offering up a suggestion on combatting the suppression of the feminist voice as snarky and irrational. ‘Feminism is understanding that women should believe in their own opinion instead of feeling like they are overreacting,’ Ford mused. Overall, the seminar felt like a very realistic and confrontational view of the ideas shared in these two author’s books, a new platform for which to build a new Australian identity.

Clementine Ford

Afterwards, I hit up a seminar on fantasy literature, with three notable fantasy authors in Garth Nix, Jay Kristoff and Ken Liu; giving the audience an interesting take on their inspirations, how the genre has evolved and what to expect in the future of fantasy literature. A highlight for me personally was each author answering, “what advice would you give to someone starting out,” – a cliché question sure, but one that I believed to elicit some interesting answers. One suggestion was to learn when to listen to criticism, and when to ignore it. They also discussed the use of the kindle and the direction of reading habits. On an amusing note, there was some debate on whether the ‘map’, as many fantasy novels are accustomed to include, should have the technology to support it. As it currently stands kindles and eBooks struggle to support more than text – things like graphics and footnotes are often edited out in order to be published on the electronic platform. The way we consume fiction is changing and the technology really needs to support all genres. It was a good takeaway to further take an interest in the genre.

Garth Nix

Moving on to Saturday, I managed to catch an early lecture on the idea of ‘clicktivism’, or rather, the effectiveness of online politics in real world application. This lecture included Clementine Ford again as a panelist, as well as Jeff Sparrow. Ford’s suggestion of “progressive feelings but no one to massage them out” struck me as emblematic for the lectures as a whole; the idea that social media discussion is a good way to generate awareness, yet it often stymies audience influence because it doesn’t encourage action. The panelists, citing the women’s march a few months back, agreed that meeting in collective places was still important, and the central idea that we individually have no influence shouldn’t deter us from feeling like we can effect change more than just our vote. The seminar was rich with interesting anecdotes and examples of how political action in the real world and the online world can be stark in how different they are. Ford cited the White Ribbon Foundation as an example of the growing trend of organisations interested in the promotion of themselves as organisations rather than what they’re trying to stand up for. Considering the population, it is an alarming concept – people who genuinely want to help others in the world being misled into the world of absent charity. Both panelists agreed on the idea that “it takes more than not being bad to actually be good.”

The following lecture was similar in content but with a different angle; entitled #Hashtagheadlines, panelists Lindy West and Mark Di Stefano examined the impact of social media in our access to political ideas and the policies of major political parties. West, a prolific Guardian columnist whose pieces have gotten to the core of today’s many moralistic issues, provided a comprehensive American context to the discussion, while Di Stefano provided a more localised take on the issues at hand. The discussion began on Donald Trump’s hijacking of twitter to establish his rhetoric, with West acknowledging that the instantaneousness of the medium as essential to Trump’s successful political campaign. Di Stefano gave an anecdote about the political spin (in 8 minutes, no less) he received after writing an opinionated piece decrying the government’s refusal to even discuss removing GST on tampons. The idea that both Australian political party leaders spend very little time doing interviews, aiming for 10-30 minute videos at the very most, was also something that struck me. The reiteration of pre-established agendas within the interviews themselves is also cause for concern.

Lindy West, photo credit: Jenny Jimenez

To continue the political theme, on Sunday I managed to see Lee Zachariah, Thomas Frank and Troy Bramston talk about where political sides left and right are headed through the next few years. This seminar I found particularly pertinent to the topic, with its moving discussion offering up dozens upon dozens of nuggets of insights bottled into 2-3 minute musings. The panelists discussed the idea of the disintegration of the middle class in America, how the labour share of profits have hit an all-time low and the rise of populism in both Australia and America. The idea that there is a push back against globilisation was a particularly interesting point, considering the NAFTA agreement and its dissolution of productivity in the USA itself. In both Australia and America, it appears both parties are getting more extreme – more left and more right wing. The most damning idea I got from the lecture was the idea that we collectively as a whole have lost faith in our leaders. What were the pressing electoral issues that the last running candidates in Australia were pushing? The lecture theatre was silent. The leaders of our country are running on fear rather than really pushing for what they believe in.

I followed up this lecture with something a little different; called the ‘Art of Reading’, the theatre brimmed with discussion regarding how best to approach reading a variety of different books. Almost counterintuitive to the idea of the lecture, Damon Young suggested there is no right context to with which to approach in. Heavy discussion ensued on the ideas of matching work to real life experiences and the question of the best time to approach a book in the context of your life. The authors recounted the first time they approached literature to the ideas surrounding book criticism and online reviews. Jane Smiley made an interesting comment regarding the idea that positive reviews often have the same interpretation of the book while negative reviews are widely different, often revealing something of the reviewer themselves. I felt the discussion of this seminar to be particularly enlightening and has changed the way I approach meaning in text.

The Perth Writers Festival was very well executed and set up. In my dazed wonderings along the sun-soaked campus, I was met with many helpful people directing me to the next seminar or building. After each seminar, the authors would head straight to the book signing room, which was an excellent idea for audience members who had a few follow-up questions or who wished for a meet and greet. In the middle of the event was a hotspot for coffee and snacks, with an adjacent book store selling most of the author’s works. My only complaint was the scheduling of the seminars; I could only manage three or four each day as many of the seminars were scheduled at the exact same time. I felt like there were a few I would have liked to go but couldn’t because I was attending another. That being said, I felt the event was very effective in its collation of notable literary figures in national and international circles. I also enjoyed the variety of the seminars. If you wanted to learn how to write well and gain advice from notable authors, that ideal was accessible. If you wanted to understand more about the themes of the novelist’s books, well that was there too. The festival even had several workshops, although I was not able to attend. Overall, the approach was flexible and ultimately a success.