The staying power of fiction

By Rhonda Dredge

Many events had already sold out for this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival within two weeks of them going on sale.

The rush to be literary has increased unabated since the first festival was staged more than 30 years ago in the Malthouse.

This year’s festival starts on August 25 and focuses on activism, politics and debate. Booksellers say that fiction plays a lesser role, perhaps because it does not lend itself to neat categories.

More than 200 thinkers, writers and artists will present on a range of themes, including those particularly relevant to the CBD – homelessness, the working week and art.

One of the treats the festival regularly offers is the chance to listen to the ideas of international historians who have the skills to put current debates into perspective.

Rutger Bregman, a 28-year-old journalist and historian from Holland, will give a free lecture on the Utopian dream of a universal basic income and a 15 hour week.

The first part of the dream is closer to realisation, according to statistics released in Dr Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists. The average homeless person in 2017 earns as much as a worker did in the 1950s and just 10 per cent of the world’s population now lives below the poverty line.

The book, which looks at the predictions of economist John Maynard Keynes, has sparked debate in Europe, particularly amongst those working longer hours than ever.

This year’s Stella prize-winner, Tasmanian author Heather Rose will talk about her novel The Museum of Modern Love, which tracks the influence of performance artist Marina Abramovic on the fictional characters who visit her.

Fiction works at a different level to debate in that it presents a thesis that a reader accepts on a provisional basis during the time it takes to complete the work.

Those who have sat in the empty chair opposite Abramovic during one of her performances will have a more intimate view of the healing capacity of the presence of an artist. She sits motionless at a table and stares into the eyes of her guest until he or she moves.

Rose explores the importance of art in terms of inspiration but also uses Abramovic’s approach as a metaphor for the fictional process in which a reader gets close up and personal with others without taking any emotional risks.

This aspect of reading can be overlooked by committees in the rush to cover a broad range of issues.

A session called The Dark Side of Womanhood with American writer Joyce Carol Oates promises to be challenging. Oates has written more than 40 novels over a life-time career.  Abramovic sat silently in the Musuem of Modern Art in New York for 75 days.

Melbourne Writers Festival, Federation Square, August 25 - September 3.

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