An absorbing festival full of stimulating and intense discussion.
Superheroes Panel, Speculative Fiction Festival 2017. L-R: Margo Lanagan, Robert Hood, Maria Lewis. Photographer: Cat Sparks
The biennial Speculative Fiction Festival is an extraordinary festival organised by the New South Wales Writers Centre, the peak organisation for writers in New South Wales. Held in the historic building of the NSW Writers’ Centre surrounded by beautiful grounds and complete with evening drinks on the verandah, this event is less like the stampedes, crowds and commercial trafficking of books that we have come to expect with the larger writing festivals, and more like a select party with special friends.
The festival feels like a Sydney secret and provides a rare opportunity for a small but remarkably diverse group in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity to come together and discuss fiction that sits outside the field of so-called ‘literary’ fiction. Interestingly, during the panel discussing short stories, when the audience was asked the question how many people actually wrote short stories themselves, a good three quarters of the people in the room put up their hands. It would appear that the audience for the Speculative Fiction Festival is largely writers and it is probably this aspect of the festival that gives it its own very distinct flavour and feel.
This festival does however provoke some questions about other writing festivals in Australia which often seem to ignore Speculative Fiction.
Speculative Fiction is the umbrella term now widely used to cover contemporary Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror writing. Some of the very finest and most successful international writers work within this field – think George RR Martin, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman for example. Australia has a very fine contingent of authors working in this area including (in no particular order) Kate Forsyth, Isobelle Carmody, Alison Croggon, Pamela Freeman, Lian Hearn, Margot Lanagan, Peter Carey, Sean Williams, Cat Sparks, Kaaron Warren, Sean Williams, Garth Nix, Justine Larbalestier and Angela Slatter to name just a few.
Although many people defend the category of Speculative Fiction as existing purely as a way for booksellers to market books, the end result of employing this terminology means that the categorisation can itself lead to the books’ exclusion from writing festivals. The cause for this exclusion has been widely debated and has even been described as the perennial ‘literary vs genre’ controversy. David Mitchell, the English novelist, has been quoted as saying those who dismiss fantasty and science fiction are committing ‘a bizarre act of self mutilation’, leading to a ‘nonsensical viewpoint’ that means some readers dismiss anything with a genre label, and leads to ‘ghettoisation’ in bookshops.
And not just in bookshops. It seems curiously timid and outmoded to exclude this form of writing from Writers' Festivals, especially as other genres, for example crime fiction and chick lit, are regularly included.
Indeed it could be argued that this area of writing is vital, and is in some ways more equipped to deal with some of the most pressing and urgent issues of our times than other forms of writing. Junot Diaz in his podcast for The Boston Review on Dystopic Fiction makes this point clearly.
The Speculative Fiction Festival in NSW, by its very existence, can be seen as highlighting the absence of the field in the programming of major writers festivals, for example the Sydney Writers Festival 2017.
It would be interesting to see the New South Wales Writers’ Centre and the Festival Director Cat Sparks invited to curate a fully funded, expanded program of speculative fiction either within the Sydney Writers’ Festival itself, or as a parallel event to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This could cater for the huge numbers of readers who enjoy this area of writing and could act as a perfect complement to the existing Speculative Fiction Festival with its writer focus.
Speculative Fiction Festival 2017
The NSW Writers’ Centre, Lilyfield, Sydney
Saturday 22 July 2017
Festival Director: Cat Sparks
Speakers: Alan Baxter, John Birmingham, James Bradley, Cathy Craigie, Clare Corbett, Julie Koh, Krissy Kneen, Thoraiya Dyer, Daniel Findlay, Alison Green, Lex Hirst, Robert Hood, Margo Lanagan, Maria Lewis, Rose Michael, Joel Naoum, Garth Nix, Jane Rawson, Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario, Angela Slatter, Cat Sparks, Marlee Jane Ward, Kaaron Warren, Sean Williams.
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level