Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2018

2018 Melbourne Jewish Book Week Sunday 6/5/18

I’ve had a lovely day at the Melbourne Jewish Book Week at the St Kilda Town Hall.  I went to three events…

First up was ‘The Language of Politics’ with Julie Szego chairing a panel composed of Andrea Goldsmith, Tony Kevin and Jonathan Pearlman.  I have had the privilege of reading books by all three of these speakers and it was excellent to hear them in person.

Julie Szego got the ball rolling by asking Andrea Goldsmith about the role of fiction in the surreal present – a world of fake news and alternative facts and the ideal of a liberal democracy under siege.  Andrea reminded us that fake news is not new – it has a long history that goes back to Byzantium and the ‘paragraph men of London’ who sold gossip overheard in coffee shops to scandal rags not unlike the now defunct Melbourne Truth. The difference now is the speed of dissemination and that fact-checking is obsolete.

Fiction, however, can get away with making things up, in order to tell the truth.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales exposed the hypocrisies of the clergy while Dante’s Divine Comedy is a political tract. Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm, Darkness at Noon all exposed totalitarianism so that readers could understand through the characters what such regimes were like.  Fiction succeeds for three reasons:

  • narrative: there is a natural affinity for story in humans;
  • the intimacy of reading: we are drawn into another place, with unparalleled access to it; and
  • point-of-view: when we read a character’s point-of-view, we are entering into their world from their perspective.

Goldsmith says that fiction relies on invention but that the ideas are not made up.  All her novels have true ideas in a complex created world, and fiction (such as her novel The Memory Trap) gives her the power and the canvas to explore how people behave badly when they believe that they have permission to do so.  Fiction, she says, can give us an insight into what Trump supporters think and believe, and she concluded by saying that there’s a novel waiting to be written about an accidental leader…

Tony Kevin is a critic of the way the West talks about Putin.  He says that closed media worlds mean that we read only what we want to read, and that such self-validating news sources means that we see and hear only what we want to.  Words and images have been weaponised in the West, he says, and he showed us images of various interviewers with Putin, who ranged from the overtly aggressive to the almost bromance-like interview by Oliver Stone, whose idea that there was potential for good relations with Russia was ridiculed and mocked all over the US media.  He showed us a list of titles about Russia, all of which included pejorative terms which all reinforce each other.  And as you know if you read my review of Tony’s book Return to Moscow, this hostility makes it difficult to have good relationships with Russia, which is a dangerous situation to perpetuate.

Jonathan Pearlman edits the new Australian Foreign Affairs Journal and he thinks that fake news is a serious problem in the US, and it’s starting to be in Indonesia and Malaysia.  He says there are two kinds of fake news:

  1. Genuine fake news, which is deliberately fabricated and is a breach of the trust we ought to have in our news sources.  He gave the example of reports of mass panic when Orson Welles read The War of the Worlds on radio… there never was such panic at all.  Apparently newspapers ran that story to make people distrust what was then the new media of radio, and it took decades for the real story and its motivation to be revealed.  These days, however, it’s much easier to fake news because of tools like photoshop and because it’s so easy to disseminate through social media, a new phenomenon because it can reach mass audiences.  And it’s getting worse because now there is technology to create fake videos in which politicians can edit their own histories…
  2. The culture of fake news has generated a deep distrust of media, which means anyone can dismiss news they don’t like and go searching for alternatives.  Whereas before people consumed more or less the same sources (daily newspapers, hourly radio bulletins, the nightly TV news) now people choose their own news feeds which reinforce their own perspectives – and the outlets for these are now all equal.  Stuff from the political extremists looks as authoritative as reports from legitimate news sources.

ABC news feed May 6 2018 5.40pm.  Is a royal kiss really news?

Genuine verifiable news is now under threat from technology and from shrinking budgets [LH: and the strange new agendas at the ABC which are squeezing out news of real significance].  Somehow we must find a way of protecting responsible news: there’s no such thing as the ultimate truth but there’s a degree and intent to present a picture of reality that is true, not guided by politics.

My next session was called ‘Red Diaper Babies’ and it featured Sara Dowse, Mark Aarons and Harry Blutstein revisiting the Cold War era with chair Judith Buckrich (who wrote that lovely history of Acland Street that I reviewed a little while ago.) Harry Blutstein set us straight about the 1956 Melbourne Olympics known as ‘the Friendly Games’ – they weren’t!  The KGB were here to prevent any defections (so ironically they had the same intention as ASIO who thought that mass defections from the USSR would ruin the future of the games) and there are all sorts of dubious anecdotes about the KBG which Blutstein covers in his book Cold War Games.  (You can hear an interview about the book here).

Sara Dowse told us about the way her parents were treated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.  Her mother was a communist, but her father wasn’t, though he lost his job as a radio scriptwriter and her mother’s career in film was ruined so that in the end all she could get were roles in Z-grade horror movies.  Dowse says that the Cold War was an awful time in the US: there were drills at school in case of nuclear attack, and the climate of fear was widespread.  Her family was short of money because her parents couldn’t work, and they blamed each other for it.  When her father borrowed money from relations he couldn’t pay it back which caused more marital discord.  Her little brother started wetting the bed which caused more trauma because of her mother’s reaction to the daily wet sheets.  Dowse admits that she married a Australian rugby player on a scholarship to UCLA so that she could escape it all, but she’s proud of her mother for being a rebel.  She wasn’t a communist for long, but she was a staunch unionist, and it was through her that Dowse learned about her rebellious great aunt  who became the subject of her latest novel, As the Lonely Fly (on my TBR).

The last speaker was Mark Aarons who was an investigative journalist at the ABC, who in retirement has written the story of his family’s ASIO files.  He was born the year of Menzies’ referendum to ban the Communist Party of Australia, and he says that if 50,000 people had voted differently, he wouldn’t have known his father because his father –  a third generation Communist supporter – was planning to go underground in the Hunter Valley to direct the CPA from there.  This father was devoted to the USSR and its cause and he was a national leader in the movement. Aarons reminded us how disastrous the bloodless purge of the Khrushchev administration turned out to be – not just for the Khrushchev Thaw which aimed to build a communist society ‘with a human face’ but also for the potential relaunch of communism worldwide.  Aarons says that the ASIO files on his family were very detailed – because family and friends were informing on them.  [That would be a hard discovery to make, wouldn’t it?]

I couldn’t stay for all of the third session ‘Through History’s Looking Glass’ because my pesky cough reasserted itself, but I did get to say hello to multi-award-winning Bram Presser (and Alec Patric who was speaking in another session), and it was interesting to hear Bram responding to the chair Marie Matteson’s opening question about the role of documents in The Book of Dirt. For him, it was important that he had the authority of documentary proof if there was any event that seemed unlikely, and he also wanted to include the photos of his family in the book because they convey a particular kind of information.  Bram also said that although he’s not trying to be a gatekeeper, he thinks there is no reason to write about the Holocaust just to repeat what’s already known: now, he thinks, books ought to contribute something new, or not be written at all.

Marija Peričić’s Vogel-prize-winning novel The Lost Pages didn’t carry the same freight, because her characters, Franz Kafka and his literary editor Max Brod were long dead in different circumstances.  They were public figures, and the documents that form the crux of the novel were publicly available.  Without giving away spoilers (which was tricky when I wrote the review), The Lost Pages purports to be more authoritative than it is.  It has fake footnotes, and it has a foreword which purports to be from a scholar and an afterword which is also fictional.

For USA author Rachel Kadish, (whose irresistible book The Weight of Ink I bought at the Readings bookstand, and started reading over lunch) the issue is how people can know your life – do the documents that survive you give a true picture?  Even if you’re not trying to lie, or not trying to conceal your identity for safety reasons, what you reveal is often different depending on who your audience is.  (She wasn’t talking about social media, she was talking about letters, and the days when you could recognise a friend’s handwriting on an enveloped.)  Kadish’s book, which is about the discovery of some 17th century documents in a house in modern London, also explores ideas about who has the right to tell a story, and who should have access to the documents, the local community, the academic community, or (because they’re about a covert Jewish community) even Israel?  Kadish also talked about how historical fiction can avoid the miniaturising that happens with the news: what she means by that is that we find it hard to identify with 10,000 people in a natural disaster, but a novel about one person experiencing that event enables an emotional magnifying glass which makes it possible for us to feel empathy.

A most satisfying day!

You can probably still get tickets for sessions tomorrow! See the program here.


Responses

  1. Thanks Lisa Hill, and it was good to meet you today. An excellent book festival. .

    Warm regards

    Tony Kevin

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Nice to meet you too, Tony, and I really enjoyed your session:)

  2. Superb review. I only stayed for two sessions, but it was a most enjoyable couple of hours listening to my local heroes and a few new (to me) writers.

    • Thanks:)
      I’m very pleased to have discovered Rachel Kadish – her book The Weight of Ink is going to bump others off my bedside table straight away!

  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  4. Great read Lisa, very insightful and interesting – would have loved to have been in the audience but enjoyed the sessions through your lovely summation:) Hope your pesky cough goes soon – especially before your gig at Williamstown!

    • It had better be gone by then!
      (But I’m very sniffly tonight, better have an early night….)

  5. Sorry you have a cough Lisa – hope it doesn’t develop. Sleep and lemon drinks I say!

    Sounds like a fascinating day. Much of what you write about the language of politics was covered in the SWF session yesterday, though it perhaps didn’t delve quite as deeply. I do feel that “fake news” (and agenda-driven news) has been around for a long time. At our session, there was talk about the importance of “media literacy”, and of teaching it at school. Well that’s been around for a long time too – under various names. It’s getting more brazen now I’d say – but perhaps that’s a good thing because you can’t take much of it seriously whereas in the past it was probably easier to believe something that was fake??

    Good point about Holocaust literature. I think for some time now people have been finding different angles (though that word sounds crass) and different ways of thinking about it. On the other hand, given people tend to mainly read new stuff, there are new generations who need to know what we older generations know, so perhaps new tellings of what we know aren’t useless or unnecessary either?

    • I think Bram knew that his was a position that not everyone would endorse. I myself think that it can be very late in one’s life before one is ready to tell painful stories, and I wouldn’t want to stop anyone from doing that, even if there’s no ‘new’ aspect to it. I also think that the memories of those who are very old and have survived are different to those memories that are fresh and raw and written in a different era. But that does not mean a publisher will want to publish it, or readers who’ve ‘read it all before’ will want to read it.
      I found Tony Kevin’s book a valuable addition to my own media literacy. It taught me to look out for signifiers that are trotted out for all stories that are about the demonization of one country or another. Interesting to note the shift with Korea that was once demonised as part of the Axis of Evil and now is not.
      PS I thought I was ‘over’ my virus, but not so. I suspect it was the dry air of the AC that triggered it…

  6. ‘Fiction relies on invention but the ideas are not made up’ is the centre of why I read fiction – I am always looking for writers whose ideas are true, which is why I agonize over the background of the writer compared with the story they are telling. And conversely, it’s why I read SF (and others read satire) because some of the ideas ARE made up, but in a way that highlights the ones that aren’t.

    • I think that those true ideas are what we search for in fiction, and what makes a book unsatisfying is when the ideas are banal.

  7. […] Presser, author of the award-winning The Book of Dirt, said recently at the Melbourne Jewish Book Week that books about the Holocaust ought to contribute something new, or not be written at all.  And I […]


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