Death to Writers’ Festivals



I’m trying to cut back on red meat and writers’ festivals. The first is on the advice of my doctor, the second’s a self-made prescription. Both are moves to austerity—one dietary, the other more complicated.

Writers’ festivals are expressions of frothy self-congratulation, and the art world’s most defined expression of its system of patronage and self-absorption. There’s a perfume to them—the scent of self-conscious cleverness produced by an unconscious intoxication with Shelley’s boast that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Heady stuff, but writers are no more or less interesting than other people, in my experience. And less so when we’re talking about “process”.

Admittedly, the interminable bullshit spoken about The Writers’ Process is prompted by the earnest inquiries of giddy idiots in the audience, and the panellists are probably pained to answer them. Which is as it should be: The Writers’ Process is an idiosyncratic and banal thing of little instructional value. If you wanna write, grab a fucking pen and paper. Or a laptop, typewriter or napkin. I don’t care. Just don’t tell me about it.

There’s a meta festival to writers’ festivals. It’s found in the unspoken rules and aloof priorities of the literary bien-pensant. It’s found in the irony of self-professed independent thinkers pontificating predictably. A herd of individuals congratulating each other for their uniqueness.

Are writers a messy part of this world, or do we levitate serenely above it?

I assume—ungenerously—that audience members want one or both of the following: a) entry into a ruefully deified “world”, or b) advice on writing, aesthetic or other.

Unfortunately, attendant writers politely feel compelled to acknowledge the existence—or possibility—of either. If there is a “world” of writers, it’s a back-scratching cabal that’s ultimately anathema to their professed work of bravely interpreting the world. And if there’s any advice to be had, it’s pretty simple: get on with it.

But if nascent writers want more advice, here it is:

*Distinguish between networks of support and networks of sycophancy. And once you have, ask yourself which would you prefer;

*Stop hanging out with people who think Modest Mouse degenerated as a band once they started selling records. Stop hanging out with people who are unthinkingly undemocratic;

*Young writers: stop yarn-bombing things. And stop yarn-bombing your prose with winks, cultivated levity and strategic profanity. A hip house-style has emerged in places, and it stinks. It reeks of the dead hand of conformity, of cleverness, of Collingwood. If you’re happy to retard your own voice, if you’re happy with only 10 people reading your work, then fine;

*Conversely, stop being so diligently fucking artful that all feeling dissolves from your work;

*Self-contentment will kill you—but so will a brittle ego;

*If you’re writing non-fiction, get out of the house. Stop reading Slate and Jezebel. Stop watching Youtube. Journalism is about “hanging out” with others. And not writers. Stop hanging out with other writers. Your authority will come from practice, not parties. Your authority will come from a generous engagement with the world—the actual world, not cocktail circuits.

*Stop complaining about this piece on Twitter;

*Most importantly: do everyone a favour and shutup about writing and write. But don’t speak about mystical trepidation. It’s a gig. It’s something you have to do. And don’t think that reading those Paris Review interviews with writers are gonna help much. I tried that. It was procrastination. You get better by doing. And you’ll get better by placing a premium on the strength of arguments, not their familiarity. You’ll get better by reading, and internalising rhythms.

And know this: I don’t care. Ultimately, no one cares. You do this because you can’t do anything else. And that’s it.

Finally: if you’re not blind, you’ll appreciate this piece is a strawman. Worzel Gummidge meets Clint Eastwood, to mix metaphors. So start plucking out the hair, the eyes, the carrot nose. But while you’re at it, pause on your own conceits. They abound.

9 Responses to Death to Writers’ Festivals

  1. I wouldn’t be so snidely dismissive of writers festivals if I were you, Martin. After all, you may well be relying on them in the coming months and years to make some fast cash, promote your book and build your author profile with the very audience you ‘assume – ungenerously’ – and ridicule here. “Giddy idiots in the audience”? Really? Do you really perceive people in such generalist terms? Are the rest of us so beneath you? The “mystique of the writer” and general interest in the writing process is one of the few things holding our industries together right now. Some of your advice to writers here is great and rather clever. But most of it is uncomfortably and disappointingly patronising. What inspired this tirade? Have you even been a featured author at a writers’ festival before? Did you missed out on an invite to the MWF this year? And I usually love reading your posts and columns, damn it.

    • Marty says:

      I’m really sick of contrary opinions being automatically dismissed as “bitterness”. Have I spoken before? Yes. Was I invited to festivals this year? Yes. In fact, a friend of mine runs one.

      But I’m just perverse enough to bite the hand that feeds me. I’d rather that than insincerely participate in an “industry” that feeds off the dubious “mystique of the writer”. But that’s just me.


      • Stu says:

        Hi, I just came across your musings on writers festivals and I personally couldn’t agree more. I don’t think you were being snide at all, nor do I consider your opinion “uncomfortably and disappointingly patronising”. It’s actually the only genuine criticism of writers festivals I could find online, which I feel confirms some of your points about the sycophantic and self congratulatory aspects of these festivals.

        I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of writers festivals or those awful In Conversations. What do people get from them? A friend of mine bought me a ticket to an event at a festival in Melbourne many years ago, the session was about Gogol, and it was a hideously pompous affair. The hosts seemed very smug and the conversation was ostentatious in the extreme. We walked out after about fifteen minutes. felt like a twit sitting there listening to the inane discussion with a bunch of literature groupies. We ended up at the pub, and I assure you the conversation was better at the pub.

        I’d personally rather spend my time reading a good book. I thought I must be missing the point of writers festivals, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking they are pretty dumb.

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  3. Sunili says:

    Marty have you considered that the target audience of writers fests is actually readers? I love writers fests. Because I love listening to writers whose writing I love reading and whose writing I will love now that I know about them so that I can go read them.

    “Giddy idiots in the audience”? Ummmmm……. for whom exactly do you write, if not for us giddy idiots?

    And to spin your own advice back at you: writers need to go to writers fests because “It’s a gig. It’s something you have to do.”

    • Stu says:

      I don’t think writers actually get all that much out of writers festivals. At a glance it looks like the money goes to the event organisers and I though most creative professionals treated claims that working for peanuts is worth it because of the “exposure” with the disdain such claims deserve. Also, you can be a fan without being gross.

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  5. Luke says:

    What a fucking sad joke of a post. This mong rants about the “industry” that feeds off the dubious “mystique of the writer”, then displays an award from Sydney Writers Centre, a business that makes money teaching cashed up morons ‘how to be a writer’.

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