Confessions of a Festival Lackey

on Thursday, June 5, 2014
Three days on and I'm finally emerging from the wonderful afterglow of the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival. Over a year in the planning, the two days and one night turned out to be everything we'd hoped for and, to lean on a crappy cliche, more. Eighty writers from Melbourne, interstate and overseas, sixty volunteers and over two thousand tickets sold to sessions. Holy gefilte fish... Having been to a fair few literary festivals in my time, mostly as an avid lit lover/sycophant but more recently as a participant, I have to say this ranks up there with the best. I know, humility isn't my strong point. I could babble on about this for days but I've managed to whittle it down to a few highlights:

Favourite Sessions In Which I Did Not Participate
I went to plenty of really great sessions but three really stood out. Rachael Kohn's live video discussion with living legend Irvin Yalom was a scintillating exchange of ideas between two people of towering intellect, passion and talent. It really kicked the first day off with a bang. Peter and Renata Singer's session on the moral lessons a reader can learn from great literature was also a true delight to behold. Both Peter and Renata are amazing thinkers and I greatly appreciated the depth and substance of their perspectives on a whole range of books I already loved but hadn't quite thought of in moral/ethical terms before. Finally, Dara Horn in conversation with Tali Lavi was not only great fun but also gave the audience fantastic insight to the work (and workings) of one of American literature's young guns. Extra credit to Dara who took a punt on coming out to an inaugural festival that might just as well have tanked but, thanks in part to her, did exactly the opposite.

Session I Wished I'd Seen But Got Waylaid As A Panellist In The Other Room
By all accounts the session on Landscapes: The Sense of Place in Literature was unbelievable. No surprises there; the panel consisted of Linda Jaivin, Dara Horn and Maria Tumarkin and was chaired by Tali Lavi. I also would have loved to have seen the session on Trauma with personal fave Arnold Zable, who has worked with refugee communities and bushfire survivors, and Zeruya Shalev who survived a suicide bombing.

Personal Highlight #1
Who doesn't love crapping on about their favourite books? Heck, I've made an entire blog of it. So my session on Forgotten Gems with Arnold Zable and Renata Singer, chaired by former Jewish Museum director Helen Light was a real thrill. Arnold did Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, Renata did Clarice Lispector's Near To The Wild Heart and I (surprise surprise) did Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks. The audience really got into it too, with everyone jumping up to share their favourite 'forgotten' books. Great fun all round.

Personal Highlight #2
The Festival Hub. Whoever came up with the idea of combining the signing area, book store, coffee shop and general mingling space into one large marquee was a genius. There was a constant buzz as authors, volunteers, punters, booksellers and random strangers who happened to be passing by mingled and soaked up the incredible atmosphere.

Also, being behind the scenes, I got a lot of interesting insights into what it means to organise and participate in one of these beasts. Here, then, is a bit of advice for participants or, as I like to think of them:

Five Commandments For Writers At Festivals
1. Thou Shalt Not Be An Egotistical Douchebag. The best part of MJWF was how wonderfully collegial most of the writers were. They hung out, watched one another's sessions, were happy to talk with eager attendees; basically, did everything to give the fest a great vibe. Of course there were a couple who - despite their relative insignificance when held next to some of the other participants - thought themselves above it all. Reverse kudos to one spectacular douche who ruined his session with boring hagiographical arse-licking then had the audacity to castigate the organisers for failing to give him the respect he (and his subject) deserved. Add to that his disgusting rant against one of his fellow panellists who he (wrongly) accused of undermining him before the session. Bad form from a thoroughly average human.
2. Thou Shalt Remember It's A Festival, Not An Academic Conference. Ok, we get it. You're smart. You know a lot about the subject. But this is a fun gathering of like minded book lovers, not some stuffy university snorefest. By all means engage in a deep, intelligent, robust discussion with your fellow panellists, but don't open with a twenty minute exegesis of the minutiae of your area of interest. Wrong place, wrong time.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be An Overt Advertising Robot. You wrote a book? It's just come out? You want to promote it? No shit! That's why you were invited. And yes, a writers' festival is the perfect vehicle in which to do so. But judging by book sales at the event (and there were A LOT of them), the best kind of promotion was simply participating in an engaging way in whatever panel you happen to be on. People will want to read your book if they like you. Unless you are actually launching said book, there's no need to shove it down their throats.
4. Honour Thy Reader. Writing is a lonely, soul destroying pursuit. We don't get the chance to meet other people, let alone those who actually give half a shit about what we do. Therefore, when the opportunity arises, grab it with both hands, dance with it, hump it like an over-excited puppy, do whatever to seize the moment. Readers love chatting with you. They want to meet you. They want to know that you're a human too. They want to bounce their ideas off you, no matter how batshit crazy some of those ideas might be. This is the opposite of Commandment 1. Act accordingly.
5. Thou Shalt Turn Up. The one big disappointment of the festival was the no show of Israeli superstar (and personal favourite of mine) David Grossman. Apparently there was some miscommunication about the day - he thought it was to be Monday night when it was quite clearly scheduled for Sunday. Not throwing blame anywhere, but if you are a participant, make sure you know exactly when your session is booked and do everything humanly possible to be there. Luckily Sally Warhaft, who was supposed to conduct the interview, instead ran an impromptu session on politics and the media which was very well received by the disappointed crowd. Still, my point stands. Know your time. Be there. Of course, if you are likely to break Commandment 1 (and this most certainly doesn't apply to David Grossman who made an honest mistake and felt terrible about the whole debacle), feel free to ignore this one. You are not wanted. Douchebag.

Don't want to end on a sour note, so here are a couple of my favourite pics.

Irvin Yalom in Conversation with Rachael Kohn

The Festival Hub in Full Swing

Post-Session Selfie With Arnold Zable

Yukkin' It Up With Dara Horn

Neurotica Session with Nathan Serry, Kerri Sackville, Eli Glasman and Raphael Brous

It's Funny 'Cos It's Us with former Supreme Court Justice Howard Nathan, Dave Bloutsein and John Safran.

In-Panel Selfie seemed only fitting for a session called Voices From The Cloud: Internet Writing with Lee Kofman and Michael Gawenda

A carefully chosen excerpt from the festival banner...


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