Craft of art, future thoughts: notes from Writers and Readers Week

ARTS, Books

Punters at Writers and Readers Week want to get at the minds of writers. Be exposed to new perspectives, concepts, trends. We want to see whether writers look and act like normal people.

Audrey Niffenegger satisfied on all counts. Wispy red hair a-flutter, she spoke confidently and passionately about her modus operandi and the future of books. These are exciting times. The success of first novel The Time Traveller’s Wife has allowed Niffenegger to push 14-year lovechild project The Three Incentuous Sisters (a hand-pressed, hand-bound graphic novel) through to commercial publication. The downside? “People keep talking about that first novel.” She has studiously avoided the movie.

Surprisingly, Niffenegger is visual artist first and writer second. She raves on Chris Marker’s “brilliant” Mobius strip short La Jetée and cites artists Henry Darger and Charlotte Salomon as influences. Looking ahead, Niffenegger sees the rise of a backlash against art school, a rise of “crazy, obscure people who just like to draw”. E-book readers could provide the base for a new art form once basic typography and page design standards get sorted and artists get the chance to play around. “New technology starts off by pretending to be the old,” she says, “but then we [artists] will make new things for it, like we always do.”

Self-confessed writer of whale pornography Philip Hoare writhed at the thought of being able to incorporate film clips into an e-version of his Leviathan or, The Whale. His session with fellow Brit boy-gent Geoff Dyer on creative non-fiction was a perfect double act, the two authors almost completely ignoring mediator Harry Ricketts.

Like Niffenegger, Hoare lets content direct the final form of his books. He describes his search for structure as something akin to painting a Pollock, throwing down everything he has gathered and editing until the shape of the book emerges “as a ghostly vision”. Dyer takes a similarly subversive approach. Critics be damned, he insists that it is actually more difficult (and effective) to structure a book without pre-determined scaffolding.

Hoare and Dyer reject the notion of non-fiction as content first, style second. They aspire to write non-fiction works of art, aimed at amateurs and fans rather than the academic/specialist crowd. Objectivity is deliberately abandoned. ‘The greater the peculiarities of your world,” announces Dyer, “the greater your chances of touching on a general resonance.” The worlds inhabited by this maverick pair are peculiar indeed: Dyer reads an acid-filled extract from his travelogue Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It; Hoare recounts a close brush with crab meat poisoning while interviewing an elderly Katherine Hepburn, “the light streaming through her hair”.

Unlike Simon Schama and Richard Dawkins, controversial ethical philosopher and political activist Peter Singer was not given the chance to command a Town Hall audience. His joint session with financial journalist Rod Oram erred on the side of diplomacy, despite Sean Plunket’s best efforts to draw out a rant from either party. More fun was solo session ‘Radical Chic’. Singer gave curt and humorous responses to audience questions, and expanded on the central thesis of his latest book: that everyone in the developed world is morally obliged to give a percentage of income to charity.

I was prepared to cheer for novelist turned journalist Chloe Hooper, (who cancelled last minute); what I got was literary agent turned novelist Derek Johns. Author of the violently autobiographical Billy Palmer saga, Johns has also worked as a bookseller, publisher and Random House editor. He was at his best when describing the history of British publishing and dropping apt quotes from famous writers.

Johns’s solo act was prelude to group discussion ‘The Future of 21st Century Publishing’, where he joined industry vets Sam Elworthy, Michael Heyward, and Laurie Chittenden. The panel glanced over mediator Noel Murphy’s mentions of e-books and Japanese mobile phone novels. Instead, the discussion ran as a fairly straight examination of the state of publishing today.

Sam Elworthy, director of Auckland University Press, is positive. Many New Zealand subjects have not yet been written about, he says, ensuring a rich material base for future sales in domestic and international markets.

Australian independent publisher Michael Heyward agrees on the international appeal of Antipodean themes but cautions that future success hinges on the closure of New Zealand’s vulnerable publishing rights market. Unless legislation is changed, he argues, local publishing success stories will continue to crash as soon as overseas rights are sold and cheap parallel editions flood back into the country.

HarperCollins editor Laurie Chittenden generated a flurry of note taking with her tips on how to get noticed by literary talent scouts. Writers selling their souls in the newsroom, take heart, as Chittenden occasionally approaches journalists to commission work if she likes what she reads.

All up, the panel agreed on a continued demand for specialist literary agents, publishers and editors. Chittenden put it most succinctly. “People that write”, she said, “generally want to be left to write”—except, of course, for the occasional showing at Writers and Readers Week.

New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week ran from March 9-14 at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington.