Dear Melbourne Writers Festival,
You’re pretty damn cool, MWF, and I’m grateful that I live in Melbourne so that my bookish hobbies can come to life each year. You’re interactive, you have a wide range of panels, workshops and programs. Most importantly, you make me feel like less of a freak for sniffing fresh notebooks and secretly buying new books from Readings on my uni breaks…
But I was a little disappointed in some things this year. Maybe it was because I could only attend three events. Maybe it was because I had no one to share the excitement with whilst I waited for Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) to tell us her favourite books. Or maybe it was just the fact that I felt about thirty years older than I actually am.
Why do you think you attract so many elderly people, MWF? Is it that they’re always trawling the papers for things to see and do in the city? Do they love free things as much as students do? (Is it possible for anyone to love free things as much as students do?)
When I went to a book launch of the political memoir called ‘Surviving the Peace’, I was pretty impressed with the free champagne and pizza. Oh yeah, this will be full of uni students, I thought. A political memoir, free food and free champagne at Fed Square. Prime location for going out afterwards. I sipped my champagne and glanced around the room. It’s fair to say the average age of the audience was sixty. Oh, I thought, I must be the lamest twenty year old in Melbourne.
But the book launch wasn’t lame, it was incredibly interesting, even though I disagreed with the author quite a lot on some issues (Olivera Simic was born to Serbian Orthodox parents, but identified herself as a Bosnian woman, or a Yugoslav, and Yugoslavia no longer exists.) I fundamentally disagreed with her on issues of identity, but it’s always interesting for me to listen to people speak about the break-up of Yugoslavia, an extremely complicated war with a history that speaks close to home. And I wouldn’t have been me if I didn’t buy her book.
‘Why I Read’ was great. The panellists were Jason Steger and Maria Popova. Fuzzy, who used to host Video Hits, was supposed to be there but she couldn’t make it. Dammit, Fuzzy. You were the youngest on the panel, you were supposed to represent Gen-Y! But I enjoyed myself, MWF. I was so snug and warm in the ACMI Cinema that I felt like I was in a large living room with a bunch of bookish people. Oooh, I should really join a book club. The audience was really diverse, so that was great to see. I saw uni students taking notes, couples, grandmas and grandpas and quite a few lonesome individuals like myself, who struggle to find anyone to attend MWF events with them. But I liked that this event drew a diverse crowd and I loved that every seat was taken. The panel, (as advertised), had its generation bases covered. A Gen-Y, Gen-X and a Baby Boomer.
MWF, you need to keep creating events that represent and therefore attract both young and old audiences. It’s the best way to deliver and facilitate rich discussion, as well as create a stronger sense of community for readers and writers.
We all learned that Jason Steger is obsessed with Anna Karenina, and that Maria Popova is a walking encyclopaedia for quotations to do with literature, psychology and non-fiction. But more importantly, they both showed a great knowledge of literature. Their deep interest in reading also did well to foster a similar sense of curiosity in the hushed audience, who still laughed at all the right moments, including the panellists’ hatred of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I’m pretty sure everyone walked out of there with something new to read. I myself found Alice in Wonderland really cool all of a sudden, because someone as savvy as Maria Popova is in love with it to this day. I must admit, I never finished reading it. But I will now.
Next year, I want you to attract a younger audience, MWF. I know you can do it. You were so successful with Tavi Gevinson in 2013. And your Schools’ program is fantastic. Keep up your affiliation with Dumbo Feather magazine. Their ‘Caravan Conversations’ with a mystery author and five audience members per session was an excellent idea. Keep going, MWF, make Melbourne the happy little Vegemite it is to be one of UNESCO’s cities of literature. Make people like me feel like less of a freak for sniffing books and stroking new stationery.