Cheeseburger Gothic

Festivus interruptus

Posted April 24, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

I was a bit surprised to see a report from the Sydney Writers Festival the other day. I didnt even know it was on. It's one of the older, more serious festivals and I don't get invited nearly as much since I started writin' the splodey.

It's cool. I'm not bitter.

Still, that report did jog my memory about a piece I wrote for someone, somewhere, possibly The Spectator, about bad behaviour at literary festivals. I dont think it's ever been available online so for all those people who wondered what they're missing out on if, like me, they didn't score an invite to this year's SWF, enjoy:

I’ve never understood writers who complain about the festival circuit. Fuck me, what’s not to love? You get flown in like James Bond, put up in some plush hotel, fed like a fucking potentate, and over the course of a week you might have to do about fourteen minutes ‘work’, which mostly involves gobbing on about the fascinating fellow who is you to a room full of adoring groupies. Other than that, it’s all hookers and blow.

Plenty of blow, if you’re the visiting international super author who swept through Sydney a couple of years ago like a tornado through a trailer park. Plenty of blowjobs if you’re the handsome, visiting, young literary lion who cut a swathe through the ranks of doe-eyed publishing grrrls at festival after festival, leaving it to his grizzled old agent to explain that the knee trembler out the back of the wharf restaurant was just ‘festival sex’ and, really, the duly ravished editor, publicist or marketing maven shouldn’t plan on a Mills and Boon ending.

In fact, the standard of behaviour amongst overseas authors is so uniformly and despicably lower than the local scribblers, that you could only put it down to being a long way from home and surrounded by strangers, none of whom you plan on ever seeing again.

While there have been a few embarrassing incidents of Australian writers getting caught out in the wrong room, or the hotel foyer wearing only a short white bathrobe and an unsightly bulge, for world class roistering and rogering you almost always have to turn to the international talent; the hugely successful overseas crime writer who, having wowed the audience though a two hour session, then wowed one of the lovely young ladies selling his tomes at the festival bookshop, through a six hour sesh back at the hotel; the cheeky Kiwi author whose surprisingly successful pick up routine involved wandering into the ladies toilet as if lost, and chatting up whoever he found, trapped in there; the French philosopher who managed to paw, grope and fondle every single woman who crossed his path during his brief, action packed visit. And, having learned the ways of the foreign johnnies, the ex-pat Australian scribe who methodically propositioned a vast number of women over the course of a night, all to no avail. His essayed his final attempt to get laid in a taxi going home with three distinguished lady publishers. After being turned down by two he turned to the last one and said 'Surely you'll fuck me?'

Surely, she didn’t.

Not that it’s always the writers who are on the tool. A dashing young British agent – no not Bond, the literary sort of agent – ran his pork sword through a brace of local industry loverlies a couple of years back. While some of the loverlies themselves fell into a screeching cat fight over who was going to bag a visiting super poet, which ended only when the limerick legend tossed them all out of his hotel room at omigod-thirty in the morning.

There must be something about poets. Another one, a local lad this time, once took all of twenty minutes after his arrival at the festival to find himself in a shower with a sixteen year old admirer.

It’s not all about the sex though. There’s also the drunkenness. I chose my agent Annette Hughes, many years ago because she’d passed out and fallen under the tables at the casino, a vantage point from which I was certain she would understand things from my perspective. In fact, I’m somewhat proud of the fact that of all the drunken, rambling, pointless and offensive performances I’ve seen on stage at writer’s festivals, nobody can top mine and Hughesy’s after a whole day of throwing back the complimentary fizzy drink before staggering out in front of a couple of hundred strangers to disgrace ourselves on a panel with the late great Grant McLennan and actor-turned-writer William McInnes. Neither of the Macs had ever been to a festival before, and were completely blindsided by our foul mouthed, drunken hysterics, but neither of them were as unbalanced as the chair of the session, poor Andrew Stafford, who looked like all he wanted in the world was for the earth to open up and swallow him.

Preparations for the panel 'Whither the Novel' were proceeding in the green room.

Anyone who spends any time at a festival will eventually see, or trip over, some God of Letters, crawling around on the floor, covered in their own vomit, and possibly taking up skirt photos with their mobile phone cam. A Brisneyland-based author recalls stumbling across one legless Brit Lit genius, being unexpectedly and unwantedly pashed by another, before getting ‘belly-butted’ outside the dunny by a Nobel prize-winning Irish poet and novelist, all in short order.

While it’s all good fun for we 'umble scribblers, the burden of these piss poor shenanigans has to fall somewhere, and for the most part it’s the heads of our publicists and agents; again, another reason I chose the hard-bitten, two-fisted take-no-prisoners Hughesy as my personal consigliore. Ever ready with a fresh drink or a strong arm, she’s steered many a gullible newbie through the shoals of their first festival. She once had to frog march a tired and emotional author away from a group of internationals, whom he’d decided to lay into with grog-addled gusto. By the time the world famous, prize winning Indian writer had been told that he was a slimebag and a talentless lowlife, Hughesy came over all Maori bouncer and took it upon herself to muscle the provocateur off the premises.

Ironically, she herself was later ejected for delivering a fearsome rant against street performers from a wobbling table top in the hotel foyer. A bit harsh really, given that the security goons hadn’t done anything about the senior editor who decided it was just too hot for humans, staggered to her feet, and lay down, fully clothed, in the decorative pond in the foyer.

Less forceful agents and publicist however, have long memories and lots of scar tissue. There is always one monster among the visiting literati, one writer so irredeemably vile that nobody wants to wrangle them. And for some reason they often seem to be crazy American crime writing ladies. One such best selling creature, put out that nobody would carry her bags for her, spent her entire visit complaining about the wretched food, and pissy coffee and the horror of being dragged to this shit hole at the end of the world. She even alienated her fellow best selling Americans, with whom she had to share a platform, asking, in front of them, ‘What I am doing on stage with these fucking nobodies?’

Another author of massively popular pot boilers used to insist that a peeled Mars Bar be readied for him in the Green Room, before he went on stage, while a morbidly obese female novelist, now dead, simply couldn’t leave her room until some long suffering publicist had given her swollen, blue veined feet a good rub down. One poor publicist was forced to follow yet another Indian writer with a bottle of wine, ever ready to top him up should his glass drop too low. A colleague was forced by an American ‘cult’ author, to act as her valet, packing her stinky underclothes into a suitcase while the literary genius stoked the fires of her personality cult on breakfast radio. And a hugely credentialed writer once insisted a festival director bring him some bed pillows from the directors own home, because, having sampled the entire ‘pillow menu’ at the hotel, he couldn’t find anything remotely appropriate upon which to wrest his noble noggin. Perhaps he should have done as a colleague did, and stripped naked in the foyer until his demands we met.

None of this should put you attending of course, unless you fancy a career at the bottom of the food chain in the publishing industry. For you, as for us, the drunken, drug addled dilettantes, the Festival is all about the good times. And the foot rubs.

34 Responses to ‘Festivus interruptus’

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013

"Potentate?" I haven't heard that word used in over 30 years, especially by a young person such as yourself.

I've attended only one literary festival - held in Edinburgh - where I met a rather well-known British author who offered to perform a sex act upon me in exchange for 20 Pounds Sterling, or its equivalent in "American cash money." I found the experience, at the time, unsettling, but now realize, after reading your post, that I shouldn't have been surprised.

sibeen reckons...

Posted April 24, 2013

I refuse to judge you, Paul; you're a lawyer, and probably needed the money.

Matthew K asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013

Ooh I really want to know who now.

Ever thought of going into the blackmail business PNB?

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mumbles...

Posted April 25, 2013

Sibeen: She offered to pay me. She certainly didn't need the money. I have long suspected that the entire encounter was merely smoke from another fire. Just because you're rich and famous doesn't mean you're happy, and doesn't mean you aren't psychotically obsessed with that guy who rejected you in that bar in Islington before you were rich and famous.

Matthew: I never kiss and tell - unless I've kissed Scarlett Johansson; if and when that happens I intend on telling everybody.

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DrYobbo would have you know...

Posted April 24, 2013

Get nominated for 'words and writing' blog thing, post something to do with words and writing, ??? , profit. I see what you did there

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John has opinions thus...

Posted April 24, 2013

God, and to think I thought the antics of the engineering students at Uni were bad...

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Quokka asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013
Indeed.
When does this competition end?
We can only contain ourselves for so long before we get back to the serious business of throwing cat turds at slouch bikers.

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tqft asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013

Your twitter stream will be fun today JB. Hope you didn't plan on getting any work done.

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Johnny B Gone mutters...

Posted April 24, 2013

‘What I am doing on stage with these fucking nobodies?’

I'm already thinking about the times and places I can drop this little doozy.

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Peter Bradley mumbles...

Posted April 24, 2013

I don't think literary festivals have a mortgage on bad behavior.

I have been going to scientific conferences for roughly 30 years and the behavior described fits with a majority of visiting "scientific luminaries". I remember on particular New York based guru who ran up a $10,000 phone bill at the hotel he was being hosted at and thought nothing of it.

Did Lord Acton have the right idea all those years ago? "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

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Quokka has opinions thus...

Posted April 24, 2013

PB: a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University coined the term 'acquired situational narcissism' for the self-importance that arises from being a celebrity. It does go a long way to explaining WTF goes on in hollywood.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted April 25, 2013

I'm not sure how "acquired situational narcissism' could prompt someone into confusing an overweight, short, bald, middle-aged attorney with a prostitute. Davos Seaworth, perhaps, but not a prostitute. I suspect being drunk had more to do with it. And, for the record, I have encountered some rather famous Hollywood folk and none of them have ever offered to pay me in exchange for sex. Hell, they don't want to pay me for legitimate work. Take my word for it: the more famous a person is, the more likely it is that they don't want to pay for legal work.

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HAVOCK21 would have you know...

Posted April 24, 2013

well, thats a fkn cracking morning laugh if I ever had one, an in the middle of the fkn office no less. Talk about fkn muppets and the arrogant fkn unwashed at times, i've never behaved like that!

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TC ducks in to say...

Posted April 24, 2013

Heh heh heh. Good times.

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Murphy reckons...

Posted April 24, 2013

Totally going in my chaps.

Only

My

Chaps

Paul, I use potentate at least once a week in class. It is easier to deal with than antidisestablishmentarianism.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

JG puts forth...

Posted April 24, 2013

Chaps? Is this a Texan term? Like cowboy chaps?

Matthew K puts forth...

Posted April 24, 2013

Yes we've got lots of chaps here in England. Also geezers, blokes, fellers, lads and mates.

I wonder how many Englishmen have been surprised when visiting the US at the result when asking for a pack of fags?

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted April 25, 2013

Depends on where you ask. If you ask in Billings Montana they will point guns at you and direct you out of town. If you ask in San Fransisco California they will smile warmly direct you to the Castro District - and warn you that the term is highly offensive and that "gay" is more polite.

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Therbs swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 24, 2013

Onya Hughesy! No wonder you went to raise chooks and grow stuff. Last time I went to the SWF I ended up being bored shitless within 20 minutes, went to the Fortune of War for a few sharpies then off to see the then recently released Star Trek, Afterwards caught up with a fave barmaid. Wasn't all that literary but by fuck it was a good afternoon and evening. Don't blame you for not worrying about the SWF. One look at the crowd and speakers tells a tale of extreme ononism.

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Barnesm asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013

Listen you, what happens on a festival stays on festival.

Nothing wrong with ranting at street performers, espcially mime artists. Lord Havelock Vetinari of Terry Pratchett's Discword series had the 'write' idea, has them hanging upside down in his scorpion pit while reading a sign saying "learn the words".

Might I also suggest Mortification:Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame edited by Robin Robertson if you seek more stories, though Iwas suprised to see nothing for Birmo. Like the time insisted on calling a group of ardent feminists "ladies" through out his talk. Most of us waiting in a near by coffee shop were expecting to see him fleeing up the street pursued by militant lesbians with murder in their eyes,.... again.

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pi mumbles...

Posted April 24, 2013

I wanna become a writer.

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BigWillieStyle mutters...

Posted April 24, 2013

I've only been to one WF before, at Byron Bay a couple of years ago - I wanted to hear Bret Easton Ellis, John "Roy Slaven" Doyle and Tony Martin. Gotta say, the crowd, and indeed the writers, didn't strike me as your rampaging blowjob types. I'm sure Tony Martin, for example, would rather spend his down time going through the Bargain Bin outside the local Video Ezy than snorting cocaine off a groupie's tits.

Mind you, after reading this, I'm certainly seeing George RR Martin and Bill Bryson in a new light.

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Dave W puts forth...

Posted April 24, 2013

Goddamn, the best years of my life have been wasted on not behaving badly.

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Shifty Tourist reckons...

Posted April 24, 2013

Completely wasted my life.... should have been a writer... well, I always considered it a fall back profession... you know..... in case the white collar drudgery doesn't pan out.

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Dino not to be confused with would have you know...

Posted April 24, 2013

I coulda given you my gold pass JB.

I think it's here somewhere under the local papers.

I woulda gone but I am reading 'After America'.

It's not the splody it's the dialogue, too much dialogue.

Dialogue is so GaY now.

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w from brisbane mutters...

Posted April 24, 2013

It's just like a footy trip.

Dave W reckons...

Posted April 24, 2013

I think you get a higher class of hookers and blow at a writers' festival.

w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted April 24, 2013

It depends on the footy team.

Barnesm asserts...

Posted April 24, 2013

and the writers festival

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damian mumbles...

Posted April 24, 2013

The thing about poets, is that it's all work for them. There is, after all, the famous and highly regarded bloke who tried to write an ode to his own arsehole, but the shaving mirror kept fogging up.

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Shell reckons...

Posted April 24, 2013

LOL. Insightful, hilarious and relevant. Make it a book. Please! Title: "it's Only Words"

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JG puts forth...

Posted April 24, 2013

Writers are a shifty bunch.

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sibeen mumbles...

Posted April 24, 2013

BTW, JB, love the photos from "Black Books".

What a fucking brilliant show.

Oohh, hold on, are we still allowed to say 'fuck", or have the cleaners been through already. I do hope they've cleaned up Havok's room before the inspectors get here.

JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 26, 2013

I think it's too late for that, sibeen. The 'fuck' word is part of the CBG vernacular. Quakka duck, most unfortunate.

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