Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 3, 2011

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #3

Little People: A NovelAnother lovely day at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival today!

I started off with Jane Sullivan in conversation with Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize winning Bel Canto, and the session was excellent.  Jane Sullivan is a good interviewer and she maintained a skilful balance between the books, the life and the influences.  With nice touches of humour, she encouraged Patchett to tell amusing anecdotes which made this a most entertaining session.  (Sullivan is an author too: see my review of Little People: A Novel.)

Bel CantoState of WonderCritics say that State of Wonder (on my TBR) is better than Bel Canto.  Patchett says that her books are not autobiographical but that she (like all authors) tells the same story in the sense that all stories are written from the heart – and what interests Patchett is the idea of a group of strangers thrown together in some sort of crisis and they form a ‘family’.  Although with her self-deprecating humour she acknowledged that the books she reads would be dismissed by most people as boring, she credits Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with the genesis of this idea – and surprisingly also that hilarious movie The Poseidon Adventure. 

So State of Wonder brings together a bunch of people on a journey up the Amazon and it’s a journey of mind and soul as well.  Patchett told some droll  stories about her research, including meeting an anaconda in a boat and her experience of the onslaught of insects being like raw popcorn thrown with force from an arms’ length away.  (She’s not doing Amazonian tourism any favours, she said!)

Like any really good storyteller she aims to make her stories ‘move along’ but offers a deeper meaning as well.  She credits her journalistic background with being unsentimental about her writing: her maxim is ‘do what’s best for your writing, not what’s good for you’.  Writing is ‘about the book, not about getting published’  – it’s like learning the cello: one’s aim should be about the desire to learn and to make something beautiful.   Writing is work,  it’s not about some mystical muse or magic or voices in the writer’s ear, and writers who wait for that will never finish their work.

Sound advice for wannabe writers, and probably for many other fields of endeavour as well.  I’m looking forward to reading her book.

My next session was ‘Essaying Opinions’ with Robert Manne, Richard Flanagan, and Marieke Hardy, capably chaired by Alison Croggon.

Making Trouble: Essays Against the New Australian ComplacencyWhat is an essay?  A prolific author of essays and one of Australia’s best known public intellectuals, Professor Manne said that it was basically the opinion or argument of one person and that there are two broad forms: the essay based on personal experience, generalised to make sense of the human condition; and the essay which narrows a topic to interest the general public. Its audience is the imagined educated public that is interested in intellectual affairs.  His latest essay is about his alarm about the failure of the Obama administration (for which he doesn’t blame Obama but rather the corruption of money especially in terms of inaction over climate change).  His general theme is a concern that democracy has been crippled and he is worried about Australian complacency.

You'll be Sorry When I'm DeadMarieke Hardy’s very first comment showed that she clearly felt diminished by the august company on this panel.  ‘Anything I say will seem shallow after that’ she laughed when asked to follow Manne, and it was true.  Her domain is the personal and in her book, You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead, she said, she aims to make her essays balance truth and humour.  But on this panel she seemed to be out of her depth.  (As most of us would be; these guys were intellectual heavyweights).  While obviously there is a place for a personal kind of essay of the type Hardy writes, and although Croggon tried valiantly to include Hardy in the conversation, it was the intellectually rigorous discussion about the place of politics in the public space which emerged as the key theme in this very interesting session.

The Sound of One Hand ClappingGould's Book of FishDeath of a River GuideWanting The Unknown Terrorist

Richard Flanagan is the internationally acclaimed author of some of Australia’s best-loved and most intellectually impressive novels: Death of a River Guide,  Gould’s Book of Fish and WantingI have reviewed Death of a River Guide and Wanting on this blog, but I read The Sound of One Hand Clapping, and my favourite, Gould’s Book of Fish, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, before I started this blog. (Flanagan is also the author of a political thriller  called The Unknown Terrorist but I found that one polemical and unconvincing).

And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?Flanagan says that ‘politics is the enemy of love’ but Manne (who’s a professor of politics after all) respectfully disagreed.  That’s what made this session such a pleasure: watching two very intelligent men engage in mutually respectful disagreement was an object lesson in how degraded political debate has become in our country.  Flanagan insists that he writes essays because the truth matters and that over time the truth will triumph over propaganda.  But Manne reminded Flanagan that his essay about the Gunn’s pulp mill (which you can read in his collection of writings in And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?) had been taken up and made influential in the political sphere.  Manne values politics because he thinks it’s crucial to act collectively in societies, and that’s politics.  Manne has just written a very interesting piece for Quarterly Essay called Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation and he hopes (perhaps naïvely?) that journalists who work there will assert their right to work in an institution with integrity.  But Flanagan thinks we pay too much attention to politics and not enough to everyday acts of kindness.  Perhaps people who like sport will understand why I enjoyed this session so much: it was like intellectual ping-pong between two equally skilful players!

At lunchtime I met up again with Marg from The Intrepid Reader and enjoyed a most engaging discussion about the role of the literary blogger.  We talked about the ethics of reviewing a book that’s been provided by the publisher, and how if a blogger is to become trusted, it’s important to differentiate between the book that’s fundamentally unworthy, a book that’s just not right for you, and a book that’s not right for you at this time.

My last session was the launch of Hope, by Stan Van Hooft (who was good company at our table last week at Movida.)  Van Hooft is a professor of philosophy but as Judith Brett said in her introduction, there’s a 2nd generation in the ‘public philosophy movement’ which takes philosophy into pubs as a way of discussing different ways of living and it makes the general reader do some ‘hard thinking’. ‘Hopeexplores hope in everyday life as a virtue, not a trait, and it asserts certain important characteristics which distinguish it from wishful thinking.

Hope implies judgement, and hoping for something ‘good’.  It is directed towards an uncertain future which you can’t control, but it leads to appropriate action.  It’s rational, and realistic, and the paradox is that while one acts to achieve what’s hoped for, there is also an element of casting oneself in the path of fate i.e. what one can’t control.  (I hope I’ve paraphrased this correctly.)

HopeHope has its risks.  In politics it involves trust in charismatic leaders (like Obama) but at the same time, Van Hooft said that the great tyrants of Europe couldn’t have done what they did if others had not had hope in them.  (You can read some of this in Van Hooft’s own words at The Guardian.)  It was certainly food for thought, and although I bought the book for The Spouse, I started reading it on the way home.

My last day at the festival is tomorrow! Probably just as well considering how much I spent between sessions at the second-hand booksellers’ stalls!

PS Don’t forget to visit Marg at The Intrepid Reader for a different slant on the Ann Patchett session (where we sat together) and reports on the Slow Travel and Arnold Zable sessions.


  1. Great rundown on what sounds like some inspiring sessions. Love your coverage of the essays discussion. And on “hope”. I read a couple of days ago a post by a young man (family friend) with terminal cancer on his “hope” and I was wondering how to think about hope in such a circumstance. “Where there’s life there’s hope” seems insulting. Hope does have that odd mix of aspiration and fate, of something possibly achievable but also out of one’s hands doesn’t it?


    • Sue – It’s something we all have to deal with eventually but I think that it really does challenge all our ideas about life, mortality and hope when a friend is terminally ill. Maybe there is no rational way to think about it then; maybe we’re cut out to deal with it as best we can at an emotional level?


      • It certainly does challenge one’s view of life and mortality. I’ve had two peers die in the last two years, and now this young man who’s only 26 and trying so hard to get something out of whatever he has and hoping against hope he can turn it around. I think you’re right in that none of this can be dealt with rationally.


        • My heart is with you, Sue…sometimes there is no consolation but the care and affection of friends and family.


  2. Thanks for the links, and the lunch time company!


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