Sydney Opera House Talks

March 10, 2008 at 3:46 am (Uncategorized)

Despite apparent contractions and what feels like a constant stream of grim forecasts in the Australian publishing industry, the full-house evidence of yesterday’s conversation with Ian McEwan at the Sydney Opera House suggests that there’s plenty of hunger for authors and their books left in this town. True, McEwan is British and an international literary star, hardly representative of the Australian scene. Australian readers have never had a problem devouring the offerings of international authors; it’s our own we don’t seem terribly inclined to support. Of course there are notable exceptions across all genres, yes, but the fact remains that if (New York-based) Peter Carey’s latest offering, His Illegal Self, had been written by a first-time, unknown Australian novelist, it would have had a devil of a time getting into print, and, even assuming that hurdle was overcome, it would most likely have sunk without a trace.

Obscurity is not something worrying McEwan’s brow. Actually, he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, and good luck to him, I say. He’s a great writer and an amusing speaker, as well as a huge critical and commercial success. It’s a very heartening thing to see. He has made it as only very few authors do, and I think it’s grand. I liked him very much yesterday. I went with my friend Sheena, who observed at the end that McEwan was a bit of a showman. This polish didn’t bother me; on the contrary, I was pleased he made such an effort to be entertaining. It was far and away time better spent than listening to a belligerent Carey read the opening of Theft at a literary dinner I attended a couple of years ago. It’s a danger, trotting out the author. Of course the work stands whether you’re a prick in person or not, but once you’ve alienated your readers in a hyper-competitive marketplace, I can only imagine that winning them back is a pretty tall order. Allow me to offer myself as exhibit A. I’m not planning to buy His Illegal Self not because of the lukewarm reviews it’s receiving but because I didn’t like Carey’s attitude in person. Take that, Mr Disdain (I doubt he’ll notice, but it’s my minor act of rebellion. In my heart I am saying “Up yours” and letting my book buying dollars do the talking). Besides, I thought Illywhacker was unreadable. It put me off reading another Carey for years and years (see Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees), and that dinner was a bit of a second chance. Except I didn’t much love Theft either.

But back to McEwan. I’ve read four of his books thus far and fully intend reading them all. I’m not sure if that sentiment would have changed had I turned up at the Opera House and discovered he was a boorish prat, but it certainly makes it a more pleasurable commitment knowing that he wasn’t. He was funny and erudite and thoughtful and sincere. I laughed heartily as he countered readings from his novels with critical fan letters, and when he read an extract from his incredibly moving 9/11 essay, I nearly cried. Afterwards, during the conversation with writer and broadcaster Ramona Koval, his articulate and wide-ranging responses weren’t only interesting, they were endearing. I liked him. I liked his books already, but liking him certainly doesn’t hurt. No wonder publishers are so keen to get their best talent on the festival circuit, and by “talent” I mean colourful identities rather than best writers. If like McEwan you’re good company as well as a good writer, then these appearances can only enhance your sales.

There are more of these Sunday afternoon talks coming up at the Opera House. You can check the program and book here.

As an aside, the Fiona Hall exhibition has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I wandered around after seeing Sheena off home after the McEwan event, and this Sydney-born, Adelaide artist’s retrospective is well worth a look.

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