Literary festivals are the tits on the proverbial bull.
Music festivals have a point. So do fringe festivals. People go to music festivals to watch bands that were cool when they were in school and fringe festivals to feel hip for a few hours. But literary festivals have never quite nailed their raison d'être.
They're variously described as celebrations of writing, marketing platforms for authors, and forums for the exchange of ideas. But no one really needs any of those things. Until, of course, a powerful but ailing lobby dares suggest that some ideas aren't up for discussion.
At this point, it's probably worth backtracking for anyone who hasn't been following the fracas that blew up around Adelaide Writers' Week. Not long before the festival was due to open, two Ukrainian writers withdrew, apparently in response to comments Susan Abulhawa had made on Twitter. There, the Palestinian-American author of Mornings in Jenin had described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a "Nazi-promoting Zionist". A colourful characterisation, sure, but tomayto tomahto, right? Apparently not.
Before you could say criticism-of-Israel-is-not-criticism-of-Jews, South Australia Premier Peter Malinauskas was threatening to axe government funding for the event, The Adelaide Advertiser was calling for the resignation of festival boss Louise Adler, and the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia was urging sponsors to pull their support. If ever there was a time to visit the City of Churches, this was it.
And so on a cool morning that threatened rain I arrived at Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden to find a pitch-perfect caricature of a literary festival. The soothing sounds of Artie Shaw's Summertime wafted over a sea of retirees, and as I walked past the book store and coffee cart, and towards my first session for the day, I became increasingly attuned to the cliché unfolding around me.
The crowd was overwhelmingly septuagenarian, seemingly privileged and - well, charming. The preferred look might be described as trans-seasonal picnic. Sensible shoes, hat, and a waterproof jacket. And then there was me. Book Week Wanker right down to the New Yorker tote. But if I half expected to find a group of Zionists waving placards under the glassy-eyed gaze of a beefed up police presence, I was soon disabused of that mental image.
Taking my seat at the north stage to hear Susan Abulhawa, Micaela Sahhar and Saree Makdisi discuss Literary Worlds, I clocked a camera crew that might not otherwise have been dispatched to cover Writers' Week and a couple of security guards trying their best to look useful. The scene was a picture of super-funded civility, not one that suggested the imminent outbreak of bigotry and hate speech.
Truth Be Told. A fitting theme for any literary festival, but especially relevant for one featuring so many Palestinian voices on the program.
Speaking of truth, here's an incontestable one. Israel has been incredibly successful in peddling its version of truth since 1948 - a land without a people for a people without a land, anyone? - not just because the state has mastered the dark art of propaganda, but because there's typically been very little opposition to the narratives advanced by Israel and its influential lobby in the West.
Let me qualify that: very little public opposition.
Palestinian writers and intellectuals have long offered counter narratives, but they rarely make it into the public conversation. As Abulhawa put it on that overcast morning in Adelaide, "you're not supposed to be allowed to hear us".
She's right. Palestinian narratives are routinely silenced because, among other things, they expose the baselessness of Israel's founding myths and highlight the anachronistic nature of its ongoing expansion throughout the Palestinian territories, which continues apace in flagrant violation of international law. Saree Makdisi, a man whose erudition and serene presence on stage called to mind his late uncle, Edward Said, talked about how Israel knows this and is working feverishly to rewrite the narrative. It's no coincidence, for example, that the notion of Israel as Gay Haven has recently started to take hold in the media.
I commented on this bewildering state of affairs when I bumped into Abulhawa in the hip Italian restaurant at our Adelaide hotel. The novelist said she'd tried to place an op-ed in an Australian outlet that addressed the controversy surrounding her participation, and that a number of others had also tried to place "corrective op-eds" - all to no avail. The best she could manage was a piece in Mondoweiss. C'est la guerre. as they say.
I thought about my brief encounter with Abulhawa on the flight home. I also thought more about the utility of literary festivals. After all, a writer doesn't need a stage so much as she needs a printing press, which I think goes some way to explaining the self-consciousness that surrounds these things and the seemingly ceaseless book chat about them. A few years ago, Guy Rundle wondered in Crikey if we might be approaching the point where the literary festival ends up discussing nothing but itself.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely a need for places where ideas that are routinely and systematically shut out of the public conversation can be freely discussed. Louise Adler succeeded in creating that space at Writers' Week and I felt privileged to witness it. I'm just disappointed I didn't grab a tote bag on the way out.
- T.J. Collins is a writer and critic.