Thursday, May 30, 2013

Story lust: Sydney Writers Festival 2013

This is a photo of a crowd. But not just any crowd. It's a crowd of readers, packing the main stage at Sydney's Pier 2/3, at the Sydney Writers Festival.

For this panel on Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' (available as a podcast soon), I was joined by Tegan Bennett Daylight,  Amanda Hooton and Susannah Fullerton, who hosted the conversation.

There was a lot of love in that room.

And not only for Jane Austen, even if she is something of a "cult", as William Dean Howells put it. (He was in the cult too, he said.)

The Festival was packed with stories, lovingly recited and heard: reportage, fiction, anecdote, joke, poetry and rap. And not only onstage: at breakfast, in the Sebel, authors bartered in banter, swapping narratives about history, publishers' advances, dementia and Beethoven.

As various philosophers and scientists -- like Paul Ricoeur, David Carr, David Gelernter, Arran Gare -- have argued, stories are basic to human psyche and society. From the longue durée stories of civilisation, to the miniature narratives of argument, the beginning-middle-end structure is fundamental.

The art of the author -- in fiction and non-fiction -- is often taking the inchoate or incomprehensible narratives of life, and transforming them into lucid or vivid stories. Making experience into an experience, as John Dewey puts it -- a kind of distillation.

Signing books with Deborah Levy
One of the festival highlights, for me, was my conversation with Deborah Levy (soon available on Slow TV), whose novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker last year.

Deborah's novel exemplifies this distillation. A short book, it nonetheless contains a fully-realised world: Mediterranean landscape, embodiment, social awkwardness, socioeconomic class, dreams and depression. Or, rather: it uses language meticulously to suggest a world, and its unfolding.

While our conversation just touched on these issues, Deborah used anecdotes -- from Swimming Home and her Black Vodka collection, but also from her life -- deftly to illustrate or inform.

As a philosopher, it's also fascinating to reflect on the overlaps between fiction and non-fiction. I was on a panel with Scarlett Thomas and David Brooks, hosted by ABC's Joe Gelonesi. In 'Philosophy and Writing' (soon to be broadcast on Radio National), we had a good chat about the ways in which novels, short stories and poems can be philosophical. We also discussed the influence of philosophical fiction: how stories can change us. Angela Meyer has a typically crisp write-up here.

Before I take to the stage
for my talk, 23/5
On my first evening in Sydney, I also gave a lecture, 'The Garden: an Adventure in Ideas' (to be podcasted soon, I hope).

Using Cicero as a diving-board, I did a few laps around the pool of Philosophy in the Garden, but did not go particularly deep. (I stretched that metaphor far further than I intended to.)

The audience asked some excellent questions -- and one weird one, which I ought to have answered better -- and bought a good pile of books, which I happily signed.

(L to R) Me, Scott Spark, Dawn Barker
Benjamin Law, Amy Simpson Deeks,
Courtney Collins, Benython Oldfield,
Craig Silvey
The Zeitgeist Agency posse met for drinks at the Sebel. I mixed chattily with stablemates, and champagne with pinot noir. Benjamin Law later reflected on my "animal sexual intimidation". I don't know what he means, but I'm certain he's correct.

All in all, the Festival's tagline -- 'Have We Got a Story for You' -- was spot on. Up at the microphone, crammed in cafes, strolling along the pier eating wedges, were stories. Thousands of them, backwards and forwards, not being trivialised or mocked, but genuinely listened to. That, in itself, is a helluva story to tell.

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