It’s been the most fantastic festival – thanks to the energy and imagination of new director Jemma Birrell and her right-hand woman Renee Senogles. And of course to all their staff, the 250 volunteers, the brilliant, entertaining and thoughtful writers, and their wonderful audiences. According to Birrell, there were over 80,000 attendances this year – despite the weather. It rained and rained. But people queued outside in the downpour, waiting to see their favourite writers. And then on Friday the skies cleared and Sydney was at its blue winter best.
The four sessions I was involved in were so inspiring.
1 The Uncommon Reader – ‘What makes a good reader? How does one develop and sustain a critical instinct?’ Thanks to chair Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s original and sensitive approach to this session, and to the weighty insights of uber critics James Wood and Geordie Williamson, for me this was the most lively and thought provoking panel on literature I’ve been part of since I first started talking about books in 2005, when Classics was published.
Tegan started the session by asking us what sort of readers we were as children, which was a perfect way into the conversation. Geordie spoke about growing up in the Australian bush, seeking refuge from the blinding heat in the cool darkness of the house with books. James said he wasn’t a great reader as a child, being too restless and active, and that music had been his first great love. The conversation ranged from the books we loved as young readers to how we came to develop our critical faculties, from what books we returned to, to what books written in the last 10 years we thought might still be being read in 100 years time.
The session is podcast here.
2 Molly Ringwald: When It Happens to You – Talking to Molly Ringwald about her first novel (in short stories) When It Happens to You and about writing in general was absolutely fascinating. Knowing the sorts of films Molly chose to be in and her productive relationship with the brilliant writer-director John Hughes, it shouldn’t surprise me that she is so thoughtful, so highly intelligent and such a passionate reader, such a lover of words and writing. But it’s not often you come across someone with such an extraordinary range of talents, all worn so lightly, so modestly.
When I asked Molly how she managed to fit everything in – her education at a French high school in Los Angeles as well as a successful career as an actress which began when she was just 3 years old, and as a singer from the age of 6 – she said, it’s amazing what you can do if you don’t go to nightclubs. Indeed. She used to read avidly while on set. She said she can’t be without a book. My kind of girl.
I suspect this session will also be podcast at some stage. In the meantime, I was intrigued to hear that Molly has always dated writers – her husband Panio Gianopoulos is a writer (they met through words), her former husband was a writer (and French; Molly’s also a Francophile, doubly my kinda girl), as was her boyfriend before that – and that one day her shrink said to her: ‘Stop dating writers, just be one.’ And so she did. And is.
I loved Molly’s novel When It Happens to You. For so many reasons. For her spare evocative prose, for her astute observations of inner and outer worlds. Here’s one of my favourite passages. It comes after a wife asks her husband: ‘Why do you love me?’
‘A tired, almost serene look came over him. “If you had asked me that a year ago, I would have fallen over myself trying to answer you. But no matter how much I went on about your beauty or your intellect or your kindness or the times we had together, our shared lives as parents, the truth is … that’s just part of it. That’s just the outside. The inside is the thing that I don’t know.” He smiled, exhaling deeply. “And it’s why I can’t stop loving you. There’s something about you, and about me, that comes together in a way that doesn’t come together when I’m with anyone else.”‘
3 Sylvia Nasar: Is The West Over and What Would Keynes Say? – after a few last minute changes to the format of this session (which made me thank every god I hadn’t partied with my publisher until 5am as I’d usually do … what goes on behind the scenes at writers’ festivals) this was a lively discussion by Sylvia Nasar of her magisterial history of economics told through the lives of its greatest practitioners, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.
For me, Grand Pursuit is the best introduction to economics I know. Especially because it’s often forgotten – or not known – just how historically contingent economics is. It’s not a science. It’s a social science which has developed in response to a changing world, born in Great Britain during the early days of the industrial revolution and continuing to evolve today. The way Nasar tells its history makes this abundantly clear – and vividly alive.
Nasar started our discussion by reading the following lines from the Preface:
‘The idea that humanity could turn tables on economic necessity – mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances – is so new that Jane Austen never entertained it. …
‘The notion that man was a creature of his circumstance, and that those circumstances were not predetermined, immutable, or utterly impervious to human intervention is one of the most radical discoveries of all time. It called into question the existential truth that humanity was subject to the dictates of God and nature. It implied that, given new tools, humanity was ready to take charge of its own destiny. It called for cheer and activity rather than pessimism and resignation. Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn’t do. After 1870, it was mostly about what you could do.’
4 Research and Writing – my last session was organised by the Nib Waverley Library Award, which recognises excellence in research. I was speaking about the research I did for Double Entry. Fiona Harari spoke about researching her book A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld and Teresa Brennan, and Robin de Crespigny about her research for The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’. Again, the session was fascinating, largely thanks to the wonderful chair, Suzanne Leal.
In response to one of Suzanne’s questions I mentioned the fact that accountants invented writing (Double Entry is pretty much a history of accounting). Which made me think afterwards about the close connection between storytelling and accounting: ‘account’ relates not only to counting but also to storytelling. It encompasses both ‘a statement of moneys, goods, or services received and expended …’ and also ‘a narration, a report, a description’.
Our urge to account – to measure and record our wealth and our exchanges with others – is one of the oldest human impulses, older than writing itself. Accountants not only invented writing around 3300 BC, but they were also its exclusive users until around 2000 BC when it began to be used in funerary rituals to commemorate the dead. Only later was writing taken up by a wide range of wordmongers, including storytellers. Homer being – perhaps – one of the first storytellers to have written down some of his words.
So how I love the theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: ‘Have we got a story for you’. I see it as a secret tribute to accountants, the very first writers, the original makers of accounts, tellers of tales.
PS The only problem with being involved in so many events at the festival (including various parties) was that there were so many sessions I wanted to go to but couldn’t. Most notably, I wanted to go to Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s two sessions: What Money Can’t Buy and The Public Philosopher: Social Justice in the Age of Markets.
I’ve not yet read his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – but I can’t wait to. And I’ll be blogging about it here. In it Sandel asks ‘Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale?’ I think this is one of the most important questions of our time.