Mainly because of grandparenting commitments, I booked for just one event at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival – a conversation with the great African-American poet Claudia Rankine last night. Then that event was cancelled.
When this morning’s grandparenting commitments vanished, I decided to at least drop in on the Festival before reporting for afternoon duty.
The sun shone warm and bright on the Carriageworks. The mostly unmasked, mostly of retirement age punters queued cheerfully, milled around the piles of books, ate, drank, chatted and read. The mood was bookishly cheerful.
I asked a couple of people wearing the Festival’s Change My Mind t-shirt if they knew why Claudia Rankine’s event was cancelled, but no one had an answer, so I haven’t got any inside information. I do know that no one would blame Ms Rankine for deciding so soon after the racist killings in Buffalo that she had better things to do with her time than talk to a mainly white crowd several thousand miles from her home base.
I bought a copy of her new book, Just Us: An American Conversation, and look forward to reading it.
I also went looking for this year’s Book of the Year of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System, a graphic novel/comic by Safdar Ahmed. Alas, the book’s publisher has been caught off guard by its success, and no copies are available for sale at the Festival. I can wait.
I bought a ‘rush’ ticket to a midday session. The woman sitting beside me had just been to Fiona Murphy, My Life as a Walking Stick, which she said was a passionate talk by a physiotherapist, with a big emphasis on falling. My new friend said that the audience, who were almost all over 60, loved it. If you have a fall and don’t get up within 60 minutes your chance of survival is roughly 50 percent. Sadly the lights dimmed before she could spell out just what that means. I just had time to thank her – ‘You may have just saved my life’ – before the session began.
It was A Critical Eye, a panel/conversation involving three people, each of whom wears many literary hats including the literary critic hat: Declan Fry, Delia Falconer and Eda Gunaydin (links are to the Festival notes on the participants).
I went into the session with a vague hope that the conversation would help me think more clearly about what it is that I do on this blog. I don’t think of myself as a critic so much as a reader with a keyboard and time to use it, but there is definitely an overlap with what reviewers and critics do.
The conversation started out with the notion of longevity. Delia Falconer first starting writing criticism in 1992 when it was paid decently and was a way of earning an income while doing other writing (she has written novels, non-fiction (including Sydney, which my Book Group read and loved), history, and biography. Ena Gunadyin was born that year. They talked about the way festivals such as this one currently tend to feature debut writers, even fetishise newness, which can lead to a degree of anxiety, of ‘churn and burn’ in those new writers as well as a possible neglect of the elders of the writing community (that’s my term, not theirs).
The conversation was pretty free-range – all three had incisive things to say about reviews/criticism. I took scrappy notes, so please don’t blame the three presenters if I write something crass or stupid here.
Are there conventions to which a review or piece of criticism must adhere? Well, yes and no. Declan said that a piece of criticism was a response to a creative work, and can take any form. Ena kind of disagreed, invoking Marx’s dictum that the aim was not just to discuss the world but to change it. Delia spoke of the way criticism has changed over the decades: once, a critic’s job was to discuss how well a piece of writing succeeded in achieving its aims, and to map its cultural context; and while that may still be true, there has been a cultural shift so that many excellent reviews these days are more akin to personal essays than to objective analyses. At one time a review went out into the void. Now, with the internet and especially social media, it can become part of an immediate conversation. (I remember my surprise the first time the author of a book I’d blogged about turned up in my comments section!)
My vague hope wasn’t completely dashed. There seemed to be general agreement that it was a cop-out for a critic to say he or she couldn’t talk meaningfully about, say, a book by a First Nations poet because he/she, the critic, was a white settler. I think it was Declan, who describes himself as a proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. People who are invested in a work will write differently from people who aren’t, but there’s no reason a settler can’t be invested in a First Nations work: the ‘meta-critical’ task is to articulate the nature of that investment.
There was more. If this turns out to be my only session of the Festival I won’t feel too bad about it.