Monday, May 18, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE WRITERS’ FESTIVAL” by Stephanie Johnson (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37:99)

Two years ago I reviewed on this blog Stephanie Johnson’s The Writing Class [look it up on the index at right – or look up “Stephanie Johnson” for all of her novels which I’ve reviewed on this blog]. That was her novel about students being guided through a Creative Writing course by the likeable old leftie tutor Merle Carbury. I noted then that Stephanie Johnson, being a teacher of creative writing as well as a novelist, had every right to tackle such a topic. But I also noted that, if you were so inclined, you could see the novel as a very good argument against creative writing courses, given that many plot-points and comments were so unflattering on the subject.
I would be very ungenerous if I said that The Writers’ Festival is a very good argument against readers’ and writers’ festivals. Stephanie Johnson has had a hand in setting up and organizing Auckland’s Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, and this novel is as much an informed insider’s view as the earlier one was. It is very jolly, enjoyable and readable, but there is much here to make you very sceptical of the whole concept of literary festivals. I doubt, however, if Stephanie Johnson really means to knock them – only to make some organizing committees squirm a little.
The Writers’ Festival is not exactly a “sequel” to The Writing Class. You need not have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one. But there is some carry-over of characters.
Merle Carbury and her even more nostalgic and left-wing sometime husband Brendan return for duty, as does Gareth Heap, the writing tutor who, in the earlier novel, had an affair with one of his students, the mercurial and rather sex-obsessed Jacinta. She left her affluent husband for Gareth. In The Writers’ Festival they have split up, Jacinta is still unpublished and still trolling for varied sexual experience, while Gareth has the task of being one of the judges for a prestigious literary prize to be presented at the festival. If The Writing Class had a chronological structure leading up to students having their creative writing manuscripts assessed, The Writers’ Festival has a chronological structure, counting from January to June, leading up to the staging of the festival.
Writing in the third-person, but taking the opportunity to jump into each of her characters’ minds, Johnson skips from character to character. They include the gay, Indian novelist Adarsh Z. Kar, who is the hot favourite to win the literary prize Gareth is judging. The problem is that Gareth used to be Adarsh’s tutor, so there’s the question of a conflict of interest when a literary man sits in judgment on somebody he knows personally. There appears to be a mild element of ridicule in the way Johnson presents Adarsh. Is she, I wondered, taking the borax not only out of the fashion for novels which mix mythology with sex, but also out of the adulation given to ethnic writers who may not be as ethnic as they seem? Adarsh’s guilty secret is not that he is gay, but that he is culturally less Indian and more of a New Zealander than he lets on.
In reading a novel like this, where characters give their frank thoughts on various matters, it is easy to fall into the obvious trap of identifying the author with some of her characters. At the very least, it would seem, Johnson comes closest in sympathy to the festival’s Artistic Director Rae McKay and to the writing tutor Merle Carbury.
Rae has an artistic conscience, which sometimes puts her at odds with the more aggressive, pragmatic and business-minded Irishwoman Orla, who is the book festival’s commercial director. The various differences of opinion between the two are major movers of the plot. One difference is introduced early. A dissident Chinese writer, Liu Wah, has been invited to speak at the festival. Fully aware that Chinese students are a major income-earner for the university which is one of the festival’s sponsors, a Chinese diplomat threatens “downstream flow-on effects for the university” if Liu Wah is invited. So we are plunged into issues of political censorship and how festivals can be compromised by their sponsors. Rae agonises over this. Orla thinks only of the dollars.
            When Rae, who had some experience in New York, considers how she has acquired her position as festival director, she thinks of two things:
The first is that, despite predictions of the death of the book for about thirty years – almost her entire lifetime so far – the world is aglitter with book festivals. People queue to hear writers speak, to buy the written word, to luxuriate in fine minds…. The second… is antipodean cultural cringe, still alive and kicking nearly two hundred years into the postcolonial period, which makes her the girl for the job, no matter how many others applied with CVs loaded with local experience…” (p.23)
Elsewhere, she considers the problems a festival director has to deal with:
sponsorship and venue-share for the city-wide event, naming rights for a series of ongoing lectures throughout the calendar year, change of personnel at Marketing and Communications, conformation of guests and lifting of media embargo dates, …Artistic Director’s report” (p.81)
I’m sure Rae is not a self-portrait, but I’m equally sure these problems are ones the author knows intimately.
Quite in contrast is Merle, in whom Rae sometimes confides. Merle is not au fait with the new commercialisation of literature that writers’ festivals entail. Being the rumpled old leftie she is, she sometimes daydreams of a New Zealand that no longer exists:
Matariki. Maori New Year at a park with a memorial to a long-gone socialist prime minister piercing the sky behind them, the sky full of kites. That particular prime minister one of the prime creators of the myth that surrounded this country – egalitarianism, a concern for the common man and woman, the primacy of decent housing for everyone, the forty-hour week…” (p.130)
In similar vein, when her Brendan thinks of inaccurate old Pakeha pronunciations of Maori place names, he thinks it is :
The accent of mum knitting by the fire, it’s Weetbix, Dominion Breweries beer, scones and sheep dip, it’s a trusting egalitarianism that few believe in anymore. It’s watching the rugby with your mates, it’s fish and chips on the beach, barbecues on the back deck and meeting pretty girls with chainsaw voices at the pub….” (p.177)
And even Rae knows that New Zealand has changed when she reflects on the trouble she has stirred up by inviting the dissident Chinese author to the festival:
She can scarcely recall now what motivated her. An adolescent desire to challenge authority perhaps, a desire she hadn’t even had when she was an adolescent. By the time she’d gone to university in the late nineties, aspirational greed had displaced the long-reigning pinko sentiments evident in student politics since the sixties. Rae was just one of their number, voting for the conservatives.” (p.245)
There are other sighs of nostalgia in this novel, as when Gareth Heap, having decided to take a break and stop reading for a few days, because he is so sick of words on both screen and page, reflects:
He will not castigate himself with the thought that brilliant men in previous centuries never got tired of the printed word, but read their eyes out over candlelight, wrote weighty novels and sermons and entire newspapers and multiple-volume histories and thousands of letters…” (p.152)
I stress that The Writers’ Festival is largely what the author calls it in an end-note, an “entirely imaginary literary knees-up”, and therefore a romp in a farcical vein. Serious issues do turn up (such as those sponsorship and censorship matters – and the problems of trying to hide behind a pseudonym in an age where the internet means quick exposure). There is much farce and much bonking (occasionally a little too soap-opera-ish for my taste), and some stand-alone comic scenes, such as one character’s failed attempts to get back to nature, and an awful motivational workshop, of which Rae thinks:
In America these workshops are part of the culture, they fit with the self-examining, self-aggrandising ethos. Theatre meets therapy, she’d heard an older New York colleague describe it as. Grotowsky’s exercises for actors co-opted to the corporate world, where the fiction exists that everyone is capable of such stripping away of instincts for privacy and basic human dignity. All for a happy workplace. A productive business. A team in tune.” (p.196)
But under the fun, I hear a distinctly melancholy undertone. In this novel, characters under pressure sometimes behave badly, especially because they are in competition. More to the point, we are so often reminded how much a monetarist free-market philosophy has taken over even many of New Zealand’s literati, and how more solid community values have been discarded.
Perhaps this just says that good comedy requires a serious base if it is to appeal to grown-ups.

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