My first festival was the Mahomet-Seymour Fall Festival, all flashing lights, ride tickets, and fried food on sticks. It was an exceptional time – we were allowed, even encouraged, to put our lives at risk on mechanical monstrosities, make eyes in the parking lot, listen to bad country, and shoot poorly maintained pellet machine guns for a dollar a go.
Now that I live in Melbourne, there’s a festival for every week in the year, but festivals in southern Illinois and the Southern Hemisphere have plenty in common– a fixation on food, dangerously tight pants, and the facilitation of conversation and heavy petting.
The Melbourne Writers Festival is a particularly urbane and well-regarded example of the Melbourne festival. Here, trams are a functional substitute for vomit-inducing teacups. Seafood and tapas replace corn dogs. There are absolutely no guns, but stylish things make plenty of eyes at one another from behind thick-rimmed specs and lightly-upturned noses. Multisyllabic words (see!) flit through the air and spill out into blog posts.
It’s all very civilized, and that’s the point. Arts festivals are revivals for the converted – they give us the opportunity to compare levels of learnedness and hobnob with people of shared interest and advanced degrees. To be fair, the MWF incorporates walks, seminars, storytelling evenings, used book fairs, and interactive scribbling into a festival program with uncommon breadth (just ask the well-spoken, and physically-imposing China Miéville). Still, the focus is on donning one’s best tweed and scuffed boots, enjoying a cleverly positioned word and a well-prepared dinner, and stealing an argument for your next book club.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. A writers festival, for all else it does to sell books and encourage hangovers in the publishing industry, provides a rare public setting for a usually private activity. We all come down to the city, order Spanish food we can’t afford or pronounce, talk about books we may not have finished, and are reminded that there are plenty of nerds like us, that reading and writing is alive and well. We’re for it.