Auckland Writers Festival 2017: Day Two – Boy Are We Excited

by David Larsen / 21 May, 2017
Roxane Gay, Bill Manhire and Chris Kraus.

Roxane Gay, Bill Manhire and Chris Kraus.

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A writers festival is an embarrassing occasion to have to admit this, but there are things I can't capture in words. Those things include a sense of what it was like being at two of the six sessions I went to today (Saturday). George Saunders! He talks too fast. By the time you write down the thing he just said he's four more sentences down the road and you've only heard two of them. I transcribe speech for a small fraction of my living, that being one of the less glamorous bits of being a journalist, and I've never encountered someone who can talk as fast as he can while still making sense.

Day two of my writer's festival began with a panel on journalism, actually. (My festival? One thing Saunders said that I did manage to write down: "If we both walked through Auckland we'd be in two different cities". This is especially true when the bit of Auckland you walk through is our writers festival. I talked to several people today who'd had a fascinating first festival day without seeing a single writer I'd seen.) I got up early to take in the 9am panel titled Truth or Dare, in which Miriyana Alexander, Chris Barton and Richard Pamatatau discussed the fake news crisis. Is it a crisis? Should we worry? What is fake news, actually? Chair Gavin Ellis laid out some definitions: deliberately passing off lies as truth for personal gain, failing to check your facts and publishing an unconfirmed story, "and finally Mr Trump's use of the term, in which fake news is any piece of journalism he dislikes. Also Winston Peters's definition, by the way".

The panel left me moderately homicidal, but they covered some interesting ground. I didn't know, for instance, that the Herald has had to deal with several instances of people setting up fake Herald websites. This came from Alexander, who's the Weekend Herald editor. Pamatatau, who teaches journalism at AUT, mentioned working with some colleagues to create a fake New Zealand composer. "We hired a music scholar to document her work..." It took Wikipedia three days to notice and take down the article. 

On questions of how news organisations work to prevent deliberate hoaxes creeping into their coverage, and on the steps countries are taking in Europe and Scandinavia to make social media sites legally liable if they publish certain types of false stories, the panel was illuminating. Where I began to feel I could usefully have stayed in bed another hour was the exchange over the progressive gutting of New Zealand's journalistic resources by overseas owners. This was begun by Barton, a Metro columnist and experienced freelancer: New Zealand media is becoming more and more under-resourced, he said. This leaves a gap. If you want people trusting you to tell them the truth, pay more journalists to do more actual journalism. This went down about as well as you'd expect with Alexander, who launched into a spirited account of her newspaper's commitment to excellence. Pamatatau agreed with her, Ellis nodded approvingly, and Barton was largely shut out of the rest of the conversation.

I will not rant at length about this, but it is factually accurate that there are fewer people being paid as reporters in this country now than there were a decade ago. Also fewer than five years ago. Also fewer than one year ago. Meanwhile subeditors have been laid off in droves. If you don't think this is relevant to the question of people's ability to distinguish real journalism from fake, you don't appreciate how much subs do -- did -- to prevent errors from slipping into reporting. This loss of institutional knowledge and capacity is being driven by the same thing that's bringing us fake news - digital disruption - and it isn't Alexander's fault that she's in the position of needing to do more with less. Everyone in journalism is. But pretending it isn't an issue worth considering on a panel like this is frankly idiotic, and if it isn't surprising that was Alexander's line, it's outright infuriating that Ellis let her get away with it.

So not the best start to the day. But the next panel was The Art of the Essay, of which I had high hopes, including the hope that I would manage to get into it. This was one of the free events. The festival runs a whole suite of these -- something like 25 over the course of the three main days -- and the only downside to them is that they're wildly popular. No one was actually turned away from this one, I found out later, but a lot of people ended up standing at the back or sides for the whole hour. I got a seat, because a friend saved me a place in the queue. (To the person who ended up standing because I slipped in ahead of them, I offer this useless acknowledgement of guilt). The panel consisted of Ashleigh Young, one of the most exciting and insightful writers this country has; Teju Cole, formidably intelligent polygeneric author who I failed to get to grips with at his session yesterday; and Roxane Gay, who I haven't read, hadn't seen previously, and of whom I only knew that several of my friends saw her yesterday on the Woman and Power panel, and came out telling me to bow down before their female awesomeness, and also that Roxane Gay was amazing.

Simon Wilson was chairing. "Boy are we excited about this!" he said as he strode onto the stage. We were, actually. We were right to be. It was not a smooth or a straightforward session. Three-writer panels are curious beasts; sometimes they spark into three-way discussions and the chair just has to throw a question on the fire every so often to keep the temperature at the right level. Sometimes they end up as three separate interviews being conducted by the chair simultaneously. This was somewhere in between. Wilson was -- he always is -- an activist chair, stepping in to any pauses that stretched more than a second or so and asking some quite probing questions. These were not necessarily writers who wanted to be probed - at one point Cole, in response to Wilson's, "Would you like to comment on the fusion of personal and political in that essay?", came back with, "No", and deftly changed the subject - and there was occasionally a sense of lurching from topic to topic. Only a few spontaneous exchanges developed between the writers. But Wilson's questions were excellent, the answers were fascinating, and I didn't end up feeling that a more restrained chairing style would have returned better results. Quite possibly worse ones. It was an odd mix of personalities, and there was a lot of ground to cover.

A few random things people said. Ashleigh Young: "Very rarely does an essay start with any great insight or revelation... they start with bewilderment, and the essay is my attempt at writing myself out of it."

Roxane Gay: "I don't see myself as a truth teller. I see myself as a storyteller. But I'm interested in truth. There are multiple truths. So often I start with -- why? Why are there these different perspectives on this thing? I don't have the answer when I start writing. I'm looking for the answer."

Teju Cole: "When I start the essay, I have the answer. By the time I've finished I've lost the answer".

Wilson asks about last lines: how hard are they to get right? Very hard, Young says. Typically she's writing the essay because her feelings on the subject are "open-ended"; finding a conclusion that doesn't feel falsely conclusive isn't a simple thing. There's a brief discussion of blogs, and a longer conversation about Twitter. (Gay's experiences there have included some horrific confrontations with trolls; we stray off the topic for a while here, but it's too interesting and alarming to mind).

The session was curiously like an essay collection, when I think about it. There are very few limits on what an essay can be; the strength of the form is in the freedom it allows its best practitioners. We went all over the place with these three, with very little sense of where we might be in two minutes' time, ending on a question about divisiveness and linguistic strategy: how, as a craft matter, do you talk to the people you disagree with? Gay and Cole, both of whom have Donald Trump for their president, gave lengthy and complex answers, the final bent of which was away from any notion of relative competing truths. If people are wrong, they're wrong. Your job, if you talk to them, is to let them know that. Cole: "It's important to travel with a number of sharp knives. Sometimes you need to stab".

And so to George Saunders, whom I cannot well describe. Except in broad superlatives: he's dazzling. He talks, as he puts it himself, in a rare sentence I succeeded in getting down on paper, "really quickly; I have this south side Chicago hustler side". I've been aware of Saunders for years as one of the short story writers other short story writers look up to - the god-like Kelly Link, who writes like no one else on the planet, once told me he was one of the writers she most admires. He teaches writing, and he's recently published his first novel, and if I was going to guess his age I'd say 60-odd. He has a particular characteristic common to very good writers who are also very experienced writing teachers, which is that he has very quick, very well considered answers on any craft question you can easily imagine. And also, he talks fast. I really can't emphasise that enough. After five minutes I'd concluded that my options were to listen to him, or to write down every 10th sentence he came out with and hope I could make sense of them later. I listened. But I did write down a few things. Here is one of my favourites:

"The job of the writer is to not suck".

He gave detailed consideration to the practical avoidance of suckage. Boiled down to one word, his advice would be: revise. He came up with a typically sophisticated popular culture metaphor for this: remember the bullet-time scenes in The Matrix? The ones where bullets moved through the air like tiny torpedoes moving through water, with ripples propagating around them? They were achieved through the compositional layering of many, many camera passes over the same image. You need to revise like that: rework your prose over and over, until it revises "into something which is smarter than you are".

He discussed nuns. He was raised Catholic in Chicago, which he asserts to be equivalent to being raised Catholic twice. Nuns loom large in the underlayers of his mind. "I have an inner nun", he said at one point, while discussing the importance of self-criticism, "who likes to point out along the way why the book I'm working on is stupid. And that voice is actually your best friend". (He also fell in love with a nun once. He was 13. She gave him a book, and told him it was a testing sort of book but she believed he was up to it. Her faith in him changed his life.)

Talking about writing students, he said that the core of his job is to get them "to confess to who they are". Young writers arrive at his class under the impression that their innermost selves are what they need to transcend or escape from to do good work. If they can instead look inside themselves and get the things they don't want to acknowledge about themselves feeding their writing, "those qualities can start to talk to each other". At that point they start to become able to do the work that only they can do.

It's very important, he said, not to know exactly where you're going with a story. Having a plan is like taking index cards on a date to remind you what to say.

On the subject of revising, I asked him this question at question time: how do you know when to stop? "I give it to my wife to read and she tells me I've taken the fun out. But yes, as with so many writing questions, the answer is you're right. That is indeed the problem."

You will now have the impression that I've told you quite a lot of things Saunders said. Timed with a stop watch, he would rattle off everything I've written here, plus necessary explanatory context, in possibly three minutes. I can't really tell you what it was like listening to him, because there was just so much to take in. I can't imagine being inside his head. No wonder so many stories overflow the place.

At this point I could have gone to see James Shapiro talking about Shakespeare; several people told me subsequently that I should have. I've read him, he knows a lot, I'm a little sceptical of bardology, and I was by this point exceedingly hungry. I sat down with some friends to eat and let my brain decompress slightly, and then checked out one of the 30 minute mini-sessions the festival runs in one of the venue's smaller rooms, under the title Speaker's Corner. Kate De Goldi was speaking on the subject of middle children's fiction, and specifically why there's been so little of it published in New Zealand, and still more specifically why this is a problem and what she intends to do about it. I've heard this speech before, several times; I've known Kate for years. She's an exceptional speaker and it's an interesting subject, and I wanted to see how the Speaker's Corner sessions worked, and also if they drew much of a crowd.

They draw capacity crowds. This one did anyway. The festival volunteers were sternly steering people to specific seats, so they could be sure no gaps were left. Kate explained what middle fiction is, and how it's become hollowed out as a local publishing category as the industry consolidated, and she talked about what this fiction offers children, and how parents tend not to notice it in any detail. (It consists precisely of the books kids read when they're first old enough to read independently). She talked about the Annual she and Susan Paris of the School Journal edited last year for Gecko Press: an anthology of new writing and comics and art. She was as articulate and informed and passionate as always, and the questions afterwards were on point.

Chris Kraus: the I Love Dick session. This was a puzzle for me. I spent a considerable fraction of its length trying to work out whether it was that I was feeling the effects of a couple of late nights and long days, or that I couldn't process the curious combined vocal characteristics of the people on the stage, or whether the session really was rather boring. This sounds like an attempt to slide the knife in without quite conceding I'm doing so. It isn't. I honestly could not work out what I thought of this session. Other people liked it. 

I wrote yesterday about Kevin Rabalais, the American critic and writer who the festival has brought in to chair several sessions. I feel unkind complaining about him further; he's highly educated and highly capable and it isn't his fault his voice makes me imagine that someone's trying to drown me in olive oil. But the problems I had with him as the chair for Teju Cole's session recurred here: he doesn't have the local knowledge to serve as an effective bridge between an international writer and a New Zealand audience. This particular international writer lived in Wellington for seven years as a teenager, and there was a lot Rabalais could have done to bring that time into focus; he barely touched on it. Also, as intelligent as he clearly is, he isn't nimble. The session moved like a barge.

But a lot of my problem, bizarrely, was with the way Rabalais's very smooth, even voice contrasted with Kraus's. She's severely hearing impaired, which effects her pronunciation, and her accent is quite rough-edged. Somehow the combination of these two utterly unalike voices defeated my vocal processing capacity. I just kept on not quite taking in what they were saying to each other. Kraus has worked in film as well as writing several novels, and she advised on the Amazon TV adaptation of I Love Dick (the first American drama ever to have an all-woman writers room, she told us). She's a fascinating person, widely read, and she had some fascinating things to say about her life and work. I kept on not finding myself fascinated.

Finally I headed down to the early evening session with Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird. It was billed as Old Guard, New Guard. "I'll be the life guard", said Andrew Johnston, who was chairing. "What are we guarding?" asked Bird.

This is the other session I'm not sure I can describe. It was a delight. Johnston is not a smooth or polished chair - your get the sense that he would really prefer to go off for a few minutes after each question and think about whether he could have phrased it better -- but he has the deep poetry knowledge this session needed, and he had a sure sense of where the good questions were hiding. (The festival, who would have engaged him for the job months ago, must have been rubbing their hands with glee last Tuesday when it turned out that they'd arranged for the two highest profile poets in the country to be chaired by the winner of this year's Best Poetry award).

The reason I can't easily convey the quality of the session is that it was so ruminative and discursive. Occasionally Manhire and Bird chatted about things they have in common, or ideas for projects they might do; mostly Johnston asked them questions and they each thought out loud. Bird is clever, funny, serious; Manhire is the great imp-wizard of New Zealand writing, quiet, kind, slightly mischievous, worryingly inclined to smile and not tell you why. They're an uneven pair, in that Manhire has vastly more past to talk about, and all of it's so interesting that the session could easily have edged into being MANHIRE! (...and Bird.) Johnston didn't let that happen, but we did get to hear a lot about the early days of the creative writing programme at Victoria University, and about how Manhire developed his teaching ideas, and about the kind of poet he is and what his writing means to him: not actually things I've heard him discuss in public, though I've seen him speak often enough. Bird talked more than he did about the specific character of her work, and also about its reception and what the experience of sudden fame has been like. (Johnston: "It's very rare to hear the words poetry and viral in the same sentence, except I guess if you're talking about some of the less fortunate 19th century poets..."). I am going to attempt a closing simile here: the session was like a walk through deep woods where there are lots of branching paths, with lots of pauses to admire this, study that, and lots of changes of direction, and so much complex life all around that you could get lost in looking at it. I admire both these writers -- all three of them, actually. (I wish Manhire and Bird had been allowed to turn some of the questions back on Johnston.) And now it's after midnight and the last day of the festival has technically begun. More from me tomorrow.

Metro’s David Larsen blogs the Auckland Writers Festival 2017. Don’t miss the third and final instalment on Monday morning.

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