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Writer's festivals

Reading is essentially solitary. Writing is essentially solitary. Though we connect with others far away through our reading and writing we tend not to meet them face to face. We are always one step away. Is this the reason why writers' festivals are so popular? They invite us to close that gap and meet in person.

Tom Keneally in his library, 2008, image by Peter Solness. Courtesy of the City of Sydney.

Writers' festivals are very popular in Australia. In 1962 there was only one but by 2012 there were over 30 and they have steadily increased in size and scope. Sydney Writers' Festival is the third largest of its kind in the world. In 2007, it attracted audiences of more than 85,000 in over 330 events that took place all over the CBD, in Sydney's west and in a number of regional centres.

They are an amazing field of innovation, exploring new ways to connect with participants. New writers' festivals are constantly popping and each offers something a little different: a focus on Emerging Writers, an ethnic focus such as in the Antipodes Festival, a regional perspective.

As Jonathan Holloway, Artistic Director of the Perth International Arts Festival, said:

The increase in blogging and social media has also made writers festivals all the more important. At a time when it is possible for almost anyone in the Western world to be published and read on a daily basis, never before has it been so important to gather together to hear prose and poetry read aloud alongside radical and world-illuminating ideas

Serving different interests

Author David Malouf reading at the Sydney Writers Festival at CMSA Arts. Courtesy of University of New South Wales

One reason for the increasing numbers of successful literary festivals is that they serve the interests of many different people in one event. Readers can meet the authors they admire and discover new books and ideas. Writers can connect with colleagues, sell books, meet some of their readers and disseminate their ideas to a wider audience. For the media, literary festivals are a great source of content, extending the reach of the events much wider, for example through the ABC and Slow TV. Cities large and small benefit from the influx of visitors, the visibility and the sense of liveliness and community created. For publishers and booksellers, festivals bring promotional opportunities and books sales.

Past and future festivals

Peter Carey in Adelaide for Writers Week, 3 March 2008. Courtesy of ABC.

The first Australian literary festival was Adelaide Writers' Week, which originated in 1960 as part of the new Adelaide Arts Festival. It followed the model of the Cheltenham Literature Festival and itself became a model for festivals around the world. Gradually the other Australian states have developed their own writers' festivals, and many new regional literary festivals are appearing.

What unimaginable new shape will writers' festivals take as the present era of radical digital-induced change in publishing plays out? The changes that are in motion may be bigger than Gutenberg's, and we don't know where they're going, but writers' festivals offer a lively and personal front row seat.

What makes for a great experience at the festival?

Byron Bay Writers Festival Director Jill Eddington 2006. Courtesy of BBWF.

The way the event is curated sets up conditions for the quality of debate, the chance to talk about ideas and issues that really matter. Good preparation and a high level of skill in the presenters and interviewers make an enormous difference to the experience.

But the coffee, wine and food matter a lot too, and the degree to which children and families are embraced by the event. The landscape and ambience count, as the Byron Bay and Noosa festivals know. While writers have contact with their readers through festivals, they also have contact with and recognition from each other. A festival may offer the chance to meet with colleagues from the ends of the earth.

It all depends on what you are looking for, and there is plenty of choice.

Adelaide Writers' Festival at Pioneer Women's Memorial Gardens. Courtesy of AWF.

Adelaide Writers' Week

When: March
Where: Pioneer Women's Memorial Gardens, Adelaide

Adelaide Writers' Week is the oldest literary festival in Australia. It has been inspiring readers and creating a place where writers can connect with the community for more than 50 years. It is set in beautiful parkland, its events are free, and it runs parallel with the Adelaide Arts Festival.

It is an entirely curated event which starts with a plan and invites authors according to that plan. The 2012 festival focused on China, Africa, religious tolerance, children's literature, speculative fiction, history, comics, gaming and literature in translation.

Peter Goldsworthy at the Adelaide Writers' Week, 2013. Courtesy of AWW.

Adelaide Writers' Week includes some of contemporary literatures most compelling voices, many of whom have never before visited Australia, and a good mix of established and emerging voices. Guests in 2012 included Meagan Abbott, Kate De Goldi, Javier Cercas, Ursula Dubosarsky, Martin Edmond, Kate Grenville, Sonya Hartnett, Gail Jones, David Marr, Frank Moorhouse, Jo Nesbø, Garth Nix, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Brenda Walker.

The 2012 Writers' Week connected with its audience in new ways. It featured educational programs on a Schools Day, issues-focused lunchtime and evening sessions, family friendly sessions and a kid's activity area. ABC Radio launched a digital radio station dedicated to broadcasting Adelaide Writers' Week live to a national audience.

Brisbane Writers Festival, 2011. Courtesy of BWF.

Brisbane Writers Festival

When: September
Where: South Bank cultural precinct and other venues

For five days Brisbane Writers Festival takes over the South Bank cultural precinct beside the Brisbane River including the spectacularly re-developed State Library of Queensland, the new Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery, Maiwar Green, as well and the newly refurbished Brisbane City Hall.

Famed for its energy and 'casual intellect', it brings together readers, writers, innovators and provocateurs. The 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival gathered international greats including Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Korea's living treasure Kyung-sook Shin, Anita Shreve, and Australians Kate Grenville and Gail Jones.

For the first time in 2012, Brisbane Writers Festival presented Word Play, a diverse and academically-engaging program for students in grades 4–12 featuring writer talks, panels, interactive sessions and workshops. In collaboration with the State Library of Queensland and the Department of Education and Training's Learning Place, the Festival hosts an Online Literature Festival, connecting writers with students and educators in regional and remote classrooms across Queensland.

Since the advent of Warana Writers Weekend in 1962, there have now been 50 years of annual writers' festivals in Brisbane.

Byron Bay Writers' Festival marquees. Courtesy of BBWF.

Byron Bay Writers' Festival

When: August
Where: North Beach

This is an intimate festival in a very beautiful location. August in Byron Bay has crisp, sunny days and the hub of the festival is in a spacious grassy zone not overrun with crowds as might be the case in other writers' festivals.

Nevertheless, since its beginnings in 1997 the Byron Bay Writers' Festival has grown to fill four huge marquees and venues around town. The guest list now numbers more than 100. Significant and respected contemporary Australian writers participate through lectures, lunches, panels, conversations, launches and readings.

Inside the Byron Bay Writers' Festival marquees. Courtesy of BBWF.

The focus of the program is Australian writing, with recognition of Australia's geographical location through the inclusion of Indonesian and Asian authors. The Byron Bay Writers' Festival enjoys a close relationship with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and believes that through words and ideas, bridges are formed that cross cultures and schisms. The festival is primarily a forum for intelligent discussion and guests are invited to address the issues that matter to them as writers and which necessarily concern us all. It is a celebration of the vitality of thought and creativity with a nice emphasis on fun.

The Byron Bay Writers' Festival is organised by the staff and Committee of the Northern Rivers Writers Centre, a member-based organisation receiving core funding from Arts NSW.

Kate Grenville, left, in conversation with Anne Michaels, chaired by Peter Clarke at the Melbourne Writers Festival, 2009.

Melbourne Writers Festival

When: August–September for 11 days
Where: Federation Square and venues in the city and regional Victoria

Melbourne Writers Festival is large, international, and wide-ranging in form and content. Its events include discussions, debates, readings, film screenings, interviews, literary banquets, performances, workshops and book launches; and its guests are novelists, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, journalists, songwriters, bloggers, politicians, artists, pop culture icons, crime writers and cultural theorists. The festival does not have a single theme each year, however in 2012 'philosophy, love, war, science, the environment and unforgettable stories' were 'calling cards' of the festival.

In 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth, British actor, writer and director, Simon Callow gave the Opening Keynote Address, delivered in both Melbourne and Ballarat. Callow explored Dickens' life and times with readings from his novels.

John Safran, Wheeler Centre talk, 2013. Courtesy of Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

Melbourne's literary festival also has a schools' program, workshop and master class program, business lunches, and a series of 10 high profile non-fiction lectures. A regional tour visits Wangaratta, Kyneton, Echuca and Mildura with a series of workshops and talks for young people and schools.

Every year the Melbourne Writers Festival breaks its own previous box office records. In 2012 it expected to engage with over 350 international and local writers at over 300 events, attracting more than 50,000 attendees. It has an increasingly young demographic: 24–35 years is now the predominant age group. Up to a third of events are free.

Perth Writers Festival

When: February–March
Where: University of Western Australia

This festival is an integral part of the Perth International Arts Festival and is held in the beautiful grounds of the University of Western Australia. Much of the program is free.

We reach across the written word – in books or newspapers, magazines, eReaders or iPads – to explore ideas, to start arguments, to rail against injustice, to expose each other, to console each other and to discover our common ground. We read because we are interested in ideas.
Danielle Benda, Program Manager of Perth Writers Festival 2012

Perth Writers Festival directors Katherine Dorrington and Jonathan Holloway, image by Scott Weir, 2013. Courtesy of PWF.

Whether they focus on poetry or lean towards journalism or political debate, all writers festivals are in a sense festivals of ideas, but with the Perth Writers Festival this is very conscious. 'Beautiful writing, lively debate and big ideas' is how it characterises itself. There are many issues-based sessions at this festival, such 'Politics and the Press: An Unholy Alliance' with Annabel Crabb, George Megalogenis, The Hon Andrew Robb AO, MP and Tony Buti; and 'Eco-Feminism: Then and Now' with Germaine Greer.

Workshops on the 2012 festival included 'Noongar Language' with Denise Smith-Ali and Noel Nannup, 'Poetry Secrets' with David Brooks, and 'Writing Memoir' with Alice Pung.

Sydney Writers' Festival at Walsh Bay. Courtesy of the University of Sydney.

Sydney Writers' Festival

When: May, one week
Where: Walsh Bay hub and venues across the CBD and western suburbs

Sydney Writers' Festival is Australia's largest annual celebration of literature and ideas and it is truly enormous – the third largest event of its kind in the world. Each year, it hosts nearly 300 local and international writers in some 300 events. A 100,000 plus crowd attends. Its programming is driven by ideas and issues. It seeks out the most highly regarded authors of fiction and nonfiction, including some of the world's leading public intellectuals, scientists and journalists.

Helen Garner in conversation with Caroline Baum, 2008. Courtesy of SWF.

Many events take place at Pier 4/5 and Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. Other city venues include Sydney Town Hall, City Recital Hall, Sydney Opera House and The Mint. In 2011, the regional and suburban programs included events in Parramatta, Ashfield, Auburn, Blacktown, Bankstown, Hornsby, Penrith, the Blue Mountains and Wollongong.

Highlights from the 2012 festival included 'Why Be Married When You Could Be Happy' with Jeanette Winterson; Edmund de Waal, leading ceramicist, on his memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes; and 'The Troubles with Ireland' in which Roddy Doyle and Sebastian Barry talked to Tom Keneally on Ireland's present financial troubles.

More than half of the events are free.

Author Anita Heiss launches poet Lionel Fogarty's book in 2010. Lionel was a guest of Wordstorm, Alice Springs 2013. Courtesy of Anita Heiss.

Word Storm

When: May/June, alternate 'even' years
Where: Darwin

On the years in between ('odd' years), Eye of the Storm is held in April in a regional centre of the Northern Territory

Since 1998, the Territory's WordStorm has been unique in Australia for its profiling of Indigenous Australian and South East Asian voices. It's a festival that talks to, and about, the region it inhabits. Well away from the big, East coast literary festivals in the capital cities, it has an intimacy and special cultural mix that writers and readers can't stop talking about. Located in the mythic heartland of the continent, the source of so much storytelling, this is a festival that touches and moves people.

WordStorm gathers together top professionals from around the world to support and stimulate the Territory writing scene through its workshop program. This extends to the school system so that children from transition to year 12 can also benefit from the influx of literary talent that is WordStorm.

Readings from the Katherine regional writers group, Eye of Storm Festival, Katherine NT, 2007. Courtesy of Eye of Storm.

An important component of the 2012 festival in Darwin was the Indigenous Editing Forum, which addressed key issues in publishing Indigenous writers and finding knowledgeable and aware editors who can help bring manuscripts from draft through to publication.

In 2012 the Northern Territory Writers' Centre and Australian Poetry collaborated to create the inaugural WordStorm and National Poetry Festival. The National Poetry Festival is the only event in the country that brings together poets from all over Australia, as well as international guests.

The 2012 festival began with the Territory's two literary awards and offered discussion panels, live music, a poetry slam and a comedy debate. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of artist Ian Fairweather's epic raft journey from Darwin to Timor, the 'WordStorm poetry raft' was launched as a feature of the Festival Hub.

Other festivals

Emerging Writers' Festival

Richelle Hunt, author Linda Jaivin and Nelly Thomas with Amber Trip in the ABC studio for the Emerging Writers Festival, Melbourne, 2011. Courtesy of ABC.

The Emerging Writers' Festival is an independent arts organisation based in Melbourne's Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. It exists to promote the interests of emerging writers. Each year the Emerging Writers' Festival brings writers, editors, publishers and literary performers together with the reading public.

The Noosa Long Weekend Festival

The Noosa Long Weekend is an arts festival with a strong strand of literature – in a beautiful environment. Noosa's beaches, national parks, village atmosphere and great food are a great backdrop.

A David Williamson play has been the cornerstone of many festivals and since its inception, The Noosa Long Weekend has consistently hosted renowned creators, including writers Tariq Ali, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Tim Winton and Li Cunxin; journalists John Pilger, George Megalogenis and Barrie Cassidy; commentators Campbell McComas, Margaret Pomeranz, David Stratton, Tim Flannery and Alison Broinowsky; and directors Bruce Beresford and Rolf De Heer.

Young writers, Newcastle, 2013. Courtesy of NYWF feed.

National Young Writers' Festival, Newcastle, NSW

The National Young Writers' Festival is part of the This Is Not Art (TINA) festival in Newcastle, a leading contemporary arts festival, held annually in October, since 1998.

NYWF is the country's largest gathering of young and innovative writers working in both new and traditional forms including zines, comics, blogging, screenwriting, poetry, spoken word, hip hop music, journalism, autobiography, comedy, song writing and prose. The festival presents 'writing' in its broadest sense through panels, discussions, workshops, launches, performances, readings, installations, and more.National Young Writers' Festival

Voices on the Coast

Voices on the Coast is a youth literature festival presented by Immanuel Lutheran College and the University of the Sunshine Coast, aimed at school students from year 5 to year 12. Since 1996 Voices on the Coast has been bringing leading Australian and International authors, illustrators, poets and performers to talk and workshop with students and adults.

Writers' festivals – part of a broader intellectual life

Writers' festivals visibly engage the community at quite an extraordinary level with thousands of people queuing for hours to get into free programs at the Sydney Writers Festival and where audience numbers jumped by 10,000 people a year prior to 2007.  Festivals can provide a platform for both emerging and also local writers in combination with the draw cards of celebrity writers.

The opportunities afforded by Sydney Writers' Festival to Australian writers are significant and well worth supporting. Our international reputation is such that inclusion in the program provides a powerful international platform for local writing. Our events are regularly scouted by international publishers and agents. Our website receives millions of hits after the program is released and we attract significant out of state and international attendance.
Dr Wendy Were, Sydney Writers' Festival, Australia Council for the Arts, 2007

At the same time, writers' festivals can enrich and inspire a wide community. A writers' festival is a space where the community can actively participate and discuss ideas with writers as thinkers.  As evidenced by ongoing discussions in the media; the debates and discussions raised during festivals have a life after the festivals have finished. Today, writers' festivals are part of the broader intellectual life of the community.

Useful links

Look, listen and play

Select writers' festivals – general literature

Emerging writers' festivals

Festivals for children's literature

Festivals for young adult fiction

Writers' festival – crime fiction

Writers' festivals – playwriting

Writers' festivals – poetry

Writers' festival – nonfiction

Style note: Re use of apostrophe in 'writers' festival'

Some specific festivals: Sydney, Byron Bay, Adelaide, National Young and Emerging writers' festivals DO have an apostrophe in their official name. On the other hand, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne Writers Festivals DON'T have an apostrophe.

Last updated: 26 October 2015
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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