What do you do if you're the organiser person of a nascent writers
festival -- trying to convince the literary vanguard of one of the nation's leading
newspapers to attend the three-day event you've planned? You might think
that sending a few press releases and a festival program littered with
names like John Birmingham (He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, Tasmanian
Babes Fiasco), Sophie Cunningham (Allen & Unwin), Mark Davis (Gangland),
Nick Earls (Zig Zag Street, Bachelor Kisses) and Catherine Lumby (Bad
Girls), would elicit a spark of interest. Perhaps you would expect a
panel that brought together Helen Darville (The Hand that Signed the
Paper), Shane Paxton (labelled as a dole bludger by A Current Affair),
Melita Berndt (publisher of an 'objectionable publication', "The Art of
Shoplifting" in Rabelais) and Matthew Thompson ('leader of the mythical
Young People against Heavy Metal T-Shirts') to discuss media uses and
abuses would have the editors of literary pages around the country
converging on your doorstep? It seems a likely scenario, but it's one that
didn't happen. What did happen, however, from the 25th to 27th September,
was the first National Young Writers Festival, and for those who did join
the locals in Newcastle it proved to be an inspiring experience.
The idea of gathering together the emerging young writers of Australia
under the banner of a National Young Writers Festival first occurred to
festival organiser Marcus Westbury when he was the on-line coordinator
of LOUD, Australia's first media festival of youth culture and the arts,
held during the month of January this year. As Westbury received
submissions from around the country, and began meeting writers and
artists, he was struck by the abundance of talent he was encountering. He
found pockets of writers unaware that their interests and ideas were
reflecting and resonating with those of young writers in other places.
With a sum of money that cannot be described as a budget (the New South
Wales premier, Bob Carr, admitted in a press release that he was
embarrassed his government hadn't provided more funding), Westbury resolved
to organise the festival to launch a young writers' electronic network to
introduce young writers to each other and to get them talking.
The success of the festival can be attributed not only to the
accomplishment of Westbury's goal to initiate communication between
isolated artists, but also to the intelligence and the enthusiasm of the
festival participants and their audiences. Held in conjunction with the
Newcastle Fringe Festival, more widely recognised writers shared the
podium with the less well known producers of independently published
zines, e-zines and comics. Distinctions between legitimate and
illegitimate cultural expressions were constantly challenged throughout
the festival by a program that placed Sharon Longridge (a producer of
Triple J's Morning Show and Mix Up) on a seat next to Marisa O'Keeffe
(editor and publisher of My Life as a Mega-Rich Bombshell; co-editor of
Losergurrl) to discuss 'Is Youth Media Sick?'; Kathy Bail (HQ, DIY
Feminism) was placed in a similar position beside Kylie Higgins (the editor and
publisher of the Gusset zine) to discuss women making media, on a panel
entitled 'Girls, Gurls, Grrls'. Can you imagine any of the established
writers' festivals starting an evening with readings by Linda Jaivin and
Dean Kiley, and ending with an open mike for budding poets? Meanwhile,
the writer of this review found herself contemplating 'Australia Post?'
with Bernard Cohen (Tourism, The Blind Man's Hat, Snowdome)
Wark (The Virtual Republic), trying to figure out what the largest explosion of
written culture since the printing press meant, and wondering whether
anybody cared anyway.
In the wake of Mark Davis's book Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New
Generationalism it is impossible to be unaware of the way young people are
represented, but are rarely able to participate, except in prescribed
ways, in the corporate media in Australia. A significant feature of the
festival was that it sought to engage in a critical way with the various
constructions of youth that have circulated as truth. On the panel 'The
Construction of Youth', Matthew Thompson considered a variety of youths
ranging from the unemployed, lay-about criminal to the naive and easily
influenced consumer of violent media and intellectual ideas, and finally, to
the entrepreneurial bright-young-thing providing hope for the future of
'today's youth'. A high point of the festival occurred with the appearance
of the more infamous examples of youth in recent Australian media history,
on the well-attended panel, 'Media: Uses and Abuses'. It was
illuminating to gain an unmediated impression of a group of people who
have been so publicly vilified. "Spectacularly uneventful" (Marcus Westbury
in the Sydney Morning Herald) was
one description of the (re)appearance of Helen Darville, Shane Paxton,
Melita Berndt and Matthew Thompson. Another summation could comment on
the hitherto unexplored intelligence of the panellists, and point to
their savvy ability to critique the ways in which they were framed by
particular media outlets. Yet another assessment could relate the sense of
empowerment conveyed by the panellists as they explained the ways they had
been able to (re)appropriate the media to redress wilful
misrepresentations of themselves and youth in general.
The overriding strength of the National Young Writers Festival resided in
the way the festival's organisers were able to showcase the many ways that
young people, far from being apathetic and misguided, are simply engaging
in unprecedented levels of cultural analysis and production. While there
were panels with representatives from funding bodies, literary agents and
publishing houses available to offer advice to emerging writers, they
found themselves confronted by the uncommon levels of audience
participation that permeated most of the festival, fielding demands to
know why funding bodies and publishing houses made particular decisions.
What were their guiding principles, if any? Audiences were more
interested in posing questions on the political economy of publishing than
they were in attempting to secure a three-book contract. To some extent
the irreverence for the arbiters of 'legitimate' cultural productions can
be comprehended by considering that for many of the contemporary cultural
producers at the festival, such institutions are increasingly irrelevant.
The panels 'Doin' it Yourself', 'VideoZines', 'The Zine Interview' and
'Zine Distribution' showed how writers and artists are taking advantage of
the accessibility to new technologies by adopting a DIY ethos to
self-publish and distribute their own street press, zines and comics. The
sessions on 'Queer DIY Media', and the making of the collaborative zine
Osmosis #2 over the course of the festival, illustrated how young writers
and artists are creating forums where they are able to set their own
agendas that are not mediated by commercial imperatives or the static
notion that age or any other arbitrary category is indicative of ability.
'Catastrophic Information' and 'Zines, Culture and Subversion' examined
the ways in which young writers and artists are engaging in incisive
social commentary, and questioning the alleged coherence of prevailing
While the National Young Writers' Festival was not devoid of the hiccups
that plague all festivals, the sense that this festival was more
significant than most, for the future of Australian writing, was palpable.
The intensity of attending back-to-back sessions that simply couldn't be
missed did indeed require the kind of stamina you're more likely to
associate with a dance party than a writers' festival (Marcus Westbury).
However, rather than dismissing the irreverent quality of the
Newcastle-hosted festival, as the Sydney Morning Herald did in their
framing of Westbury's review, as "well, a bit of a party", it should be
acknowledged that the energy of the festival drew its fervour from the
connections that were made, and the recognition of the potential of future
artistic collaborations and expressions. One suspects, in spite of their
conspicuous lack of interest in the festival beforehand, that as the
post-festival buzz filtered around the country, even the Sydney Morning
Herald came to know this -- especially if their belated phone call to
Marcus Westbury after the festival is any indication .
First National Young Writers Festival, Newcastle, Australia, 25 to 27 September 1998.
Principal organiser: Marcus Westbury.
Citation reference for this article
Kirsty Leishman. "Not Just a Party: The First National Young Writers Festival." M/C Reviews 23 Oct. 1998.
[your date of access] <http://www.uq.edu.au/mc/reviews/words/writers.html>.
Kirsty Leishman, "Not Just a Party: The First National Young Writers Festival," M/C Reviews 23 Oct. 1998,
<http://www.uq.edu.au/mc/reviews/words/writers.html> ([your date of access]).
Kirsty Leishman. (199x) Not just a party: the first national young writers festival. M/C Reviews 23 Oct. 1998.
<http://www.uq.edu.au/mc/reviews/words/writers.html> ([your date of access]).