The Sydney Writers’ Festival is over for another year, and unfortunately my own attendance was poor. I’m not going to lie: it was the weather. I have a very low threshold for inclemency. I had planned going in to festival events both Saturday and Sunday to meet up with different friends, but when I awoke Saturday morning, the conditions were just so bleak and miserable I begged off. Tramping across Sydney on public transport in driving rain is not fun. It’s a damp, mouldy, limp-haired ordeal. And as far as choosing your company goes, I’m about as good saturated as I am sleepless: best avoided. So instead I spent Saturday curled up in the sunroom with an April issue of The New Yorker; the latest scathing short-story edit from my friend T – he really doesn’t spare a girl’s feelings, which is why I love that he’s started reading my work; and a printout of an edit The New Yorker ran in December 2007 of one of Raymond Carver’s classic short stories, ‘Beginners,’ as decimated by his editor Gordon Lish (who’s also an editor/chum of Don DeLillo’s. A piece of trivia: in DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names, the character of Tap, the young son and delightfully experimental wordsmith of protagonist James Axton and his estranged wife Kathryn, is apparently based on Lish’s son, Atticus, whom DeLillo acknowledges in the opening pages).
At the time, The New Yorker ran the Lish-massacred draft alongside the final version. In a weird coincidence, I had printed out the latter less than two months later – in February 2008 – when I read the story at The New Yorker online. I was so impressed I wanted a hard copy to study, so I printed it, but I entirely missed the version containing all of Lish’s editorial suggestions. My printout of ‘Beginners’ resides permanently on my desk as a reminder of how it should be done, and now Lish’s version will sit alongside it as a salutary lesson about what may be required to get there. Even if you’re Raymond Carver – and yes, that consolation is exquisite. T told me there’s a whole book of Lish’s editing work on Carver’s stories available, entitled, appropriately enough for my purposes and tellingly enough for theirs, Beginners. Talk about a textbook worth having. It’s staggering comparing the two and considering the impact of Lish’s preternaturally alert editorial eye on even just one of Carver’s most famous works – I’m confident an entire collection would be student gold.
So. No festival, but lots of writing and thinking about writing. Sunday I was committed to the SWF afternoon tea – I’d paid my $45, and my writer frind L and I were going. We met thanks to the SWF, after all, so it was good to support the festival by attending something together. L had also raved about the afternoon tea – she went two years ago, the same year we met at the workshop, and said it was so lovely we simply must go. Sold.
In the event, this time – my first – was deeply unimpressive. It was held upstairs in the Heritage Pier, which is a brilliant exhibition space for, say, the Biennale, but less effective for an afternoon tea on a cold day of torrential rain. It’s a cavernous space, arctic and uncomfortable. I’d had rather Victorian fantasies of tiered plates of sandwich fingers and petit four, cups of tea in fine bone china and a cosy fireside reading. A grand old hotel high tea along the same lines L remembers so fondly from 2008, in other words, and not the slapdash demountable disaster we walked into on Sunday.
It was as though they weren’t expecting us.
That’s really the best and only way to describe the scene that greeted the 100-150 mostly female keeners who had braved the elements to be there. First, we queued by the entrance. On crossing the threshold, we were each handed a paper plate. Trays of unpromising-looking food were thrust under our noses by the guard of honour standing just inside the curtains. Uncertain of what lay ahead, L and I inspected these trays and doubtfully made a halfhearted selection. Then we all rushed the tables in a most undignified manner, vying for decent proximity to the stage. Coats strewn, bags protectively guarding seats, we joined our next queue, the one for tea and coffee. Now, why – why, why, why – each table of four was not pre-set with four cups and saucers, and why the entirely inept if sweetly clueless catering staff didn’t proceed to simply come around with pots of tea and coffee to each one, is utterly beyond me. It’s hospitality 1.01. And it’s beyond me from a business perspective as much as from a customer service point of view, because this stupid and entirely avoidable conga line of parched patrons only made their jobs harder – it was infuriatingly inefficient and unprofessional. Oh, and time-consuming. Oh, and unacceptably miscalculated: thank god we got there early enough to nab those boon items: paper plates and an actual crockery cup; those poor souls behind us in the line scored small cardboard boxes and paper cups. Horrible! The final insult? A tea bag, an inch of hot water and a man at the end with a 2L carton slopping milk to the top, so what was in the cup became not so much a cup of tea as another cold, wet, grey unidentifiable thing to be endured much like the largely inedible food.
I tried, and so did L. I hate food wastage, it gives me heartburn and anxiety, so my attempts to ingest the few items on my plate were earnest and, if I do say so myself, valiant in the circumstances. The scraping of jam and fake cream on the dry scone was distressingly mean, but I forced myself to finish at least this, the symbol of a high tea gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Because of the ridiculous beverage queue situation, they actually started the readings while half the room was still standing at the back of the room trying to get refreshment. People paid $45 a head for this privilege, but wait: it gets better. The biggest draw was poet Les Murray; he didn’t show due to illness, and for some reason organisers didn’t have the imagination or reflexes to give another poet his place. This was a sell-out event; imagine what a young poet with a first collection might have made of all these people cheering on a game effort to fill Les Murray’s big boots. It makes me gnash my teeth at the opportunity that went begging. And just like that, a full one third of the promised program was erased. Hmm.
Happily, I thoroughly enjoyed both readings, and I’m sure everyone else did too. I ended up purchasing Brian Castro’s The Bath Fugues because I just loved the section he read out, and really adored him (cheeky, intellectual, but also somehow a really benign, soothing presence), and I also bought Kirsten Tranter’s debut The Legacy, in part because I think it’s crucially important to support newly published authors, but also because the setting and themes of her novel appealed. I’m looking forward to reading them both.
I was much less in love with Geraldine Doogue’s moderation of the event. After Brian’s reading, she launched into a super peculiar “It’s just not us” (as in Australian) argument about the classical, literary and philosophical allusions in his work. We, Doogue said, just don’t really care for that sort of thing in this country. She actually used to word florid to describe it – I can assure you his allusiveness was anything but – and made some comment that sounded very much like she was calling him a big fat show-off for including such references in his novels. I folded my arms tight across my chest and seethed for the remainder of the discussion.
And then: disaster struck.
There was a dreadful lull, no one was asking any questions (perhaps I was not alone in being stunned by Doogue’s speaking for us all in such wildly inaccurate and alienating terms), and just then my arm flew up. Worse, it was seen. Something very strange followed: I was handed a microphone, but found I could barely speak. Indeed, I sounded very much as though I had a serious speech pathology. It didn’t help that I was by now shaking with cold and emotion (some of you may recall this is exactly what happened at the SWF workshop at which I met L), but my voice was so strangled and strange I was practically gagging. My throat has never been so dry, and unexpectedly I found I was also battling… I don’t know what they were… angry tears? Tears of frustration? Panic? Embarrassment? There are so many likely causes of the ducts being so activated at such an inconvenient moment – I suppose it was a colourful combination of factors, not the least being my total and utter horror at having had a rogue limb fly straight up into the air, inviting all this unwelcome and untimely scrutiny. Please, Heritage Pier, please swallow me whole.
Sadly the pier remained unmoved, and I dragged out a rambling, gasping… statement. Yes, it’s true, after all that it wasn’t even a question – I hate people like that at festivals!!! Who cares what I think – I and everyone else in the room was much more interested in what Castro and Tranter thought, so it was just hideous realising I had opened my mouth not to draw them out but to pass an opinion of my own. Make it stop. I won’t relive the experience – shudder – except to say I vaguely recall saying I was ‘still stewing’ about Doogue’s suggestion that ‘it’s just not us,’ and that I thought it a very outmoded attitude. Attendances at writers’ festivals right across the country certainly suggest a much more curious literary appetite, and before I slid under the table on Sunday, I did manage to mention that one of the most popular books of last year was David Malouf’s most excellent Ransom, inspired by the Homeric legend of the Trojan War as depicted in The Iliad. Allusions? Just not us? Now, see here, Cobber, it doesn’t get much more allusive than that, mate.