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Brisbane Writers Festival

September 15, 2011

The highlight of the Brisbane Writers Festival was being swept into a near-death experience with an anaconda on the Amazon by Ann Patchett, when she read from her novel State of Wonder. At the same session I enjoyed Jonathan Franzen reading beautifully from Freedom, but it confirmed my reservations about the novel (link here) – dull characters going on and on. When a questioner remarked on the terrible mistakes made by the characters in Freedom, Franzen said that writers should not be ‘moral scolds’ who think they have the answers. Literature may examine mistakes, but it’s not about solving any problems – and it is okay with not solving them.

The most thought provoking session was Such is Life, with three contributors to the Griffith Review’s latest issue, which is devoted to life writing. The deeply reflective Kate Holden spoke of the progressive removal of the memoirist from the person who had the experience, the many different versions of ‘me’. The equally thoughtful Maria Tumarkin observed that we are different people in different languages. We feel emotions differently, and experiences do not translate from one language to another – it’s like trying to carry water in one’s hands. AJ Brown spoke of his attempts to keep the writer out of his biography of Michael Kirby, and revealed a surprising fact about his subject (for more, see AJ’s essay in Griffith Review).

All three agreed that fictional techniques are necessary in life writing. ‘Good biography has to be a novel to some extent,’ said AJ Brown.

In the obligatory session about the digital world, Bill Powers, the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, said that we are squandering the benefits of the new technology, but will eventually learn to get the most out of it through balancing digital connection with periods offline, such as internet Sabbaths. When we return to the screen, we bring more to it, and become more effective digital people.

This prompted self-confessed geek Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government and the just released Machine Man, to ask Bill, ‘What’s wrong with being online all the time?’

‘The online connection is limited,’ said Bill. ‘It lacks the eye contact, facial expressions, the non-verbal parts or full human connection.’

‘But without faces it’s a pure meeting of minds,’ replied Max.

The Brisbane Writers Festival was a delightful, and fully human, meeting of minds.

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