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Image: ‘Pat M2007’, Flickr (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

It may not be insanity, but there’s no doubt the definition of frustration is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few weeks, as I read about our need for ‘a new literacy for the digital age,’ from Maryanne Wolf’s Guardian piece on skim-reading. In almost the same breath came another article about the New York Public Library’s new ‘Insta Novels’ on Instagram. 

Clearly, literary institutions are doing some soul-searching – testing and interrogating ideas around interacting with the written word. So it’s not surprising that the same introspection and innovation is happening in our writer’s festivals as well. 

But it’s not the literati spluttering over which member of the old guard with dangerous ideas gets invited or not that I’m interested in. In the same week that Melbourne Writers Festival kicked off under the leadership of new Artistic Director Marieke Hardy, we heard that NAPLAN results showed Australian students falling behind in writing; a few weeks before, research out of the US highlighted that teens are texting and using social media instead of reading books. And all of this crystallised what I saw as a blind spot of an otherwise joyous and understandably evolving writer’s festival; a failure to provide similarly innovative and eclectic programming for those who will soon become the next generation of festival attendees – teens. 

Unlike other interstate festivals such as Brisbane and Sydney, and indeed past years at MWF, there was no dedicated ‘YA Day’ at Melbourne this year. The festival’s Schools Program is a different beast of capped-price and necessary curriculum-focused programming – but in the general program, particularly on weekends, there were only a handful of events featuring any young adult authors at all. The most popular and forward-thinking of these was undoubtedly award-winning British YA author Juno Dawson – but otherwise, the lack of similar revolution and risk-taking in free or affordable teen-programming is a particularly frustrating move by MWF, that backtracks on a lot of goodwill that previous years had fostered with the next generation of festival attendees.

 The lack of risk-taking in free or affordable teen programming is a particularly frustrating move by MWF, that backtracks on a lot of goodwill that previous years had fostered.

In 2013, when MWF featured the (then) 17-year-old Tavi Gevinson as keynote, it felt like a turning point for young voices at the festival. Gevinson – an American writer and editor of Rookie Mag – was an eclectic presenter whose first address, ‘Tavi’s World’ touched on her erudite love of feminism and ‘fangirling’, and was presented to a sold-out Athenaeum Theatre. Being in the room, alongside the majority female teen audience, it felt as though a whole new generation were being welcomed into Australia’s literary festival culture for the first time. 

Indeed, last year saw Angie Thomas, the American author of global YA sensation The Hate U Give, brought over as the festival’s first-ever young adult fiction author keynote speaker. Thomas’ keynote address ‘YA & Activism’ was a moving ode to her own ambition to ‘be the spark’ in the brains of teenagers who will change the world. Delivered at one of the most incendiary times in her nation’s politics, following the election of Donald Trump, Thomas covered everything from the fight of the Black Panthers, to writing for the next generation of teen voters, to the state of politics the world over (‘More people just feel the way now, that I did as a young black woman growing up.’) It remains the best keynote I’ve ever heard at MWF, and I encourage you to listen to it. 

So it’s disappointing that young adults and YA literature have taken somewhat of a back seat at this year’s festival. I’ve written in the past about Hardy’s professed dismissiveness towards YA, as expressed on ABC’s The Book Club. But teens – maybe more than ever – need to be included in our cultural programming in thoughtful, and challenging ways. Because, yes – as the data suggests – teens are no longer engaging with books the way they used to, but the one irrefutable fact is that they are integral to continuing the culture of writer’s festivals in this country, no matter what. And maybe the way to hook them is to listen when they tell us the types of stories they want to engage with – especially if those types of stories are also perennially overlooked. 

In Dymocks’ ‘Top 51 Kids’ books’ list, the majority of YA titles were also fantasy, or romance, or both. Last year, YA author Sarah J Maas’ fantasy romance book A Court of Wings and Ruin was Dymocks bookstore’s fastest selling book of the year. This year, American contemporary romance author Jenny Han’s 2014 novel To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has become the most in-demand YA book that is impossible to buy in Australia, since the Netflix adaptation dropped in August. This is but a snapshot, but a compelling one, that highlights how much sway genre (or ‘commercial’) fiction holds over readers, and teens in particular.

The biggest mistake anyone, let alone a writer’s festival director, could make would be in thinking that these genres are niche, or so far outside the realm of discussion

That MWF hardly programmed any genre fiction at all, let alone much for teens to attend this year is hardly surprising – this is a frustratingly overlooked area of publishing at most Australian writer’s festivals. In fact, it is so overlooked that for some time now, fan-run, volunteer, and grassroots festivals have been created to a fill the void not being catered to by the big, ‘official’ festivals.

Speculate is a literary festival launched this year celebrating fantasy and science fiction, created by team behind the Morning Bell podcast. There’s also the fan-run Continuum spec-fic and pop-culture convention in Melbourne, the  biennial GenreCon in Brisbane, and the Australian Romance Readers Association have been throwing their own reader-run biennial conventions since 2009. The biggest mistake anyone, let alone a writer’s festival director, could make would be in thinking that these genres are niche, or so far outside the realm of discussion at a writer’s festival. 

Romance, for example, is the ultimate matriarchy of women writing about women for women, and the conversations going on in romance right now – on consent, diversity and toxic masculinity in the Trump era – are conversations that will have ramifications on all sections of literature and society. You’d have been hard-pressed to attend a single MWF event this year that didn’t mention the #MeToo movement in some way, especially with Ronan Farrow, the ‘Man who helped #MeToo’, headlining – but as a similar flashpoint for critical discussions, particularly amongst non-male attendees, the romance genre was sorely overlooked. 

It’s especially frustrating when Australia has so many successful romance writers. – while the Canberra Writers Festival was rightly challenged on its lack of female representation and decision to include Barnaby Joyce as a headliner, there was little fuss about the overlooking of Canberra-based romance author Sally Thorne, whose runaway-success of a romance debut The Hating Game already has The Simpsons Producer David Mirkin attached to direct the big-screen adaptation. It’s interesting to note who gets lauded with the title of ‘publishing sensation’ and who doesn’t. 

So perhaps doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is not just a recipe for frustration, but boredom. She may be many things, but Marieke Hardy is never boring – and as shown by the impassioned writing both for and against, neither was her debut Melbourne Writers Festival. 

Writer’s festival attendees do not walk fully formed into literary discussion as soon as they hit a certain age of appreciation for Radio National.

But writer’s festival attendees do not walk fully formed into their first event of literary discussion as soon as they hit a certain age of appreciation for Books & Arts on Radio National. They have to be welcomed, enticed and encouraged to participate in the culture and celebration of storytelling from a young age. And it’s not enough to assume that they’ll get there by way of Schools Programming, because you need only have a cursory look around the Fed Square Atrium during the height of mid-week programming, to see the straw hats and sharp blazers that suggest more private than public schools can afford or justify attending. 

Writer’s festivals, whether the ‘literati’ like it or not, are sooner or later going to be wholly dependent on today’s teenagers becoming tomorrow’s festival attendees. And if you don’t want to further a class divide that’s already ruining this country, those festivals are going to have to get thoughtful around innovative, free, and affordable programming that actively appeals to teens of all backgrounds and interests.

And it seems such a logical leap to first try by following and amplifying those books and genres they’re already reading, and loving – those that encourage a love of books and writing – if we also have any hope of a next generation of readers and storytellers alike coming out and contributing to the festivals of the future.   

Update, 12/9/18: Text changed to clarify distinction between general/weekend program and Schools Program.