There are 300 events scheduled for the festival and three or four of them are running at any given time. Like a man who has lost his glasses, there are many things I can’t see. Sadly, on the second day I miss out on “The Perils of Populism”, “Women Writers in the City”, “Climate Change Activism”, “The Vandemonian War” and “Feminist Lit”—and that’s just before lunchtime. Instead, I opt for a panel discussion, “Death in the Digital Age”. It is held in a different room, a small, stuffy cinema about fifty metres from the main hall. Approximately a quarter of the audience is made up of young men who, to put it politely, look as if they are interested in digital things, and the rest of those assembled are so old that, to put it impolitely, they might have pressing concerns about death.
After another welcome to country, the MC and the panellists speculate on a variety of topics (What happens to our Twitter when we die? Wasn’t that episode of Black Mirror good?). I’m not sure how much of it the seniors are actually following. An elderly woman nearby keeps nodding her head and humming in agreement at statements which really don’t warrant that response—“Facebook was originally intended as social media” (“Hmm!”) “You’ve all seen roadside memorials” (“Hmmm!”). The highpoint of the discussion comes when the MC uses the term “online detritus” to describe old Facebook accounts and e-mails. I have never heard this expression before, and am quite impressed. The feeling is fleeting. As the festival goes on I hear three different speakers use detritus as a metaphor in three different speeches, and realise that detritus is just an unusually popular thing to say in Melbourne’s literary circles.
This is a small sample of James McCann’s report
from the Melbourne Writers Festival.
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It is by no means their worst tic. That, by the way, is the expression, “We need to think about these issues as a society.” That sentence, or some close variant (in escalating clumsiness “Society needs to think about these issues”, “These are issues which our society needs to think about”, and “We, as a society, have to come together around these issues and really think about them”) is uttered countless times at the festival. The sentiment is totalitarian (“society needs to think about it!”), but also populist (“the entirety of society should be consulted”) and, more than anything, an admission of mediocrity (“Me? Oh, I don’t have anything to say on the issue myself. I’ll leave that to society”). It is also, as is the case at the “Death in the Digital Age” panel, seldom actually true. Do we really, as a society, need to think about what happens to somebody’s Facebook account when they die? Isn’t that something we could figure out on our own?
The festival has booked MCs for all the events. Ostensibly they’re there to introduce the writers and run question-and-answer sessions, but more often than not they take it on themselves to crowbar progressive ideology into otherwise apolitical topics.
At “The Genius of Birds”, science writer Jennifer Ackerman is scheduled to discuss “the sophisticated science behind birds’ brains and behaviours”, but not before an MC gives an acknowledgment of country—which, by this point, I have to assume has been mandated—and then starts to pontificate about the Kulin nation, who “would have been very aware of the birds in this area” before Europeans came and “paved over the ground”, which resulted in the loss of “understanding”. Ackerman’s lecture itself is very enjoyable; she talks about different birds, their startling intelligence, enormous memories, and surprising ability to solve puzzles. At one point, a sparrow flies into the room, and there is much amusement. In closing, the MC says that Ackerman has today demonstrated that “human beings are not separate to nature … we are a part of it”. She has, of course, done nothing of the kind. She has demonstrated that one species of bird is capable of using a twig to find food, not annihilated human exceptionalism….