This project took place in 2002. Since 2002, MWF’s programming has broadened and is arguably less subject to the conservatism and elitism that are among the targets of this parody. Nonetheless, the parody program still gets a laugh. So it’s up to you, the ongoing audience here at this webpage, to assess the relevance of this parody – not only as it relates to MWF, but to the broader impact of literary festivals.
A diary of the project: 2002-2004
Thursday 1 August 2002
I’ve written the parody program and have started leaking news about the project. I’ve emailed various people to ask for help in photocopying and distributing the program and have gotten some responses already. I also passed on the parody program to some people who run a radio show about spoken word (on the radio station 3RRR). They read parts of the program on air.
I am remaining semi-anonymous. By that, I mean that I asked the radio show presenters to not mention my name on air. And the parody program does not have my name on it. But the reality is that I don’t mind if it becomes apparent after a while that I’m behind this project. After all, I’m writing about the project on this website anyway. But I think it would be more fun for people to discover who is behind the project themselves rather than via me advertising it.
Saturday 24 August 2002
After photocopying a ream of fake programs, I basically spent the whole day distributing them at the festival. This was the fun part. I inserted them in books at the festival bookstore, inside real MWF programs, throughout the cafe area, in toilet cubicles, and even on the main festival info stand. To the festival’s credit, they actually did not rip up the parody programs or bar me from the festival or anything like that. In fact, I even saw some festival staff neatly arranging the fake programs on their main info stand. A couple of other people joined me in distributing the programs that day.
Reactions to the program ranged from ignoring it, to laughing at it, to sighing in disgust. I found it fascinating to watch the reactions of people who picked up the program.
The falllout, however, happened later that day. The festival staff traced the prank back to me due to someone innocently showing a festival staff member Chimp Frenzy #1, the zine anthology I’d produced through my arts project business Beaker. My ‘Beaker’ logo was on the zine and the email address on the parody program was “firstname.lastname@example.org”… bingo.
The tricky part with the fallout is the fact that I’m the Chair of the Victorian Writers’ Centre (VWC). VWC has a partnership with MWF, and the MWF director spoke to the VWC director about the prank. The VWC director then spoke to me about it. This whole fake program project definitely wasn’t connected with VWC, but I was in a bind nonetheless. It was almost the end of the day by this stage anyway, so I didn’t distribute any more fake programs. I left the festival feeling worried but also – I must admit – thinking that the prank had still been funny.
Sunday 25 August 2002
After getting advice from a friend, I decided that it would be best if the prank could continue for today but not the next weekend (the festival goes over two weekends). A couple of other people were going to the festival that day to distribute fake programs but I decided it was best if I stayed away from the festival.
From all reports, the fake program distribution that occurred without me went really well. Someone told me they even saw a fake program stuck up on the window of the festival bookshop – now that’s a prominent position.
Monday 26 August 2002
Today I emailed everyone who was involved in distributing the fake program and said it was best to not continue the prank for the festival’s second weekend. One person emailed me to say they still thought the prank was really funny.
Monday 9 September 2002
The festival is over now, although I’m still occasionally hearing stories from people about the prank. A friend told me that someone actually came up to her during the festival and asked where they could find a copy of the parody program.
Recently, another person told me that he read the parody program at the festival and he loved it. He said it was “a great irritant”. And it’s interesting because I guess I had pegged this person as being the kind of guy who’d really like MWF and perhaps disagree with the parody project. That’ll teach me to make assumptions.
Tuesday 22 October 2002
Briefly mentioned this project when I was speaking on a panel at an arts conference today. Didn’t go into detail – only mentioned what the project involved (a few sentences). But some people in the audience actually cheered. I guess it felt good.
Thursday 24 April 2003
Got an interesting email today:
Anything lined up pranks wise for upcoming Sydney Writer’s Festival? Despite your involvement in SWF, I encourage japes.
A willing volunteer. (anon. please)
It’s an interesting situation I’m in, really. There’s the MWF parody and the fact that I’ve also got a gig in the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I concede that it’s tricky territory. (BTW, I have no time to organise any SWF pranks. But I admit that the notion of both performing in a festival and doing a prank re: that festival does appeal.)
Monday 20 October 2003
An Adelaide uni student is writing a book about creative dissent as part of his degree and he emailed me to ask if he could reprint the parody program in his book. It sounded interesting, so I said yes.
On another note, the parody program now shows up on page 2 of a Google search on ‘Melbourne Writers’ Festival’. I’m not sure whether to be happy or scared. I think I’m actually more scared than happy. Is it only a matter of time before someone from the festival contacts me about this webpage and gets angry with me?
Recently, a couple of people were talking with me about how a second edition of a MWF parody program could work. We started brain-storming ideas. It all sounded pretty funny and in some ways pretty fun too. The problem is that, at this point, I’m too scared to do it. After what happened last time, I reckon I’d have to resign from the VWC before I did another parody. Interestingly, though, in spite of the fears that my parody might jeopardise the partnership that the VWC has with MWF, that partnership has only gotten stronger. This year, the VWC actually hosted some MWF gigs on its premises and the VWC director spoke at MWF too.
Just then, I started writing a reflection on this project now that it’s been over a year since it happened. But after a sentence or two, I paused and deleted what I’d just written. The fact of the matter is that I’m still a bit scared these days about getting into trouble about this project. I know that this page still gets read by certain people.
P.S. I’m trying to think of a way to end this entry on a happier note. Hmmm, well I did go to a MWF event this year: the launch of Deakin University’s lit journal Verandah. As I’m an ex Professional Writing student at Deakin, I always try to support the journal. As I walked up the stairs to the launch with my girlfriend, we passed by the MWF director. Nothing happened. Afterwards, my girlfriend (who is also a writer), giggled and joked about MWF being the only place where she would be ashamed to be seen with me.
Sunday 2 November 2003
A little while ago I got an invitation from Louise, one of the organisers of this lit event called Sleepers Salon. It basically said:
To cut a long story short we have been thinking about doing a segment at the December Salon where we have two festival coordinators on stage, talking about the festival and what it takes to coordinate it, and basically just comparing them and discussing the ins and outs of writerly festivals. We were thinking it could be a good idea for you to interview (live, onstage) Simon Clews, who is the organiser of the Melbourne Writers Festival. What do you think of this idea? It would be about 20-30 minutes chatting about each other’s stuff, so it’s also kind of a promo opportunity and an excuse to rant and have fun.
I wrote back to say no and to explain why. It turned out that Louise did have a bit of an idea that something had happened between me and MWF but not what exactly. She replied:
We kinda like the idea of having a bit of a controversial feel, but I get your point.
(By the way, Louise also gave me permission to publish this email exchange.)
Friday 9 January 2004
Someone emailed me a few weeks ago to suggest that my MWF prank could be repeated but somehow with him taking the responsibility. He said:
I know it’s over a year old now and I know you’re a bit hesitant to do it again, but maybe [the name of his organisation] could take up the slack. What do you think?
I wrote back and said I didn’t see how it could be done and any prank on the festival would probably lead to suspicions of me anyway. He replied to say that that was a good point. He still wanted to have a think and talk with some people about a possible prank.
I’m not sure if it’s good or bad if I know about another possible prank or not (even if i’m not going to be involved). But it’s nice to know that people appreciated the prank I did do.
Oh yeah. There is one more thing I should mention. A little while back I was asked to be on this committee that meets once a year. I asked who else was on the committee and it turned out that one of the other committee members was the MWF director. I didn’t say anything but I was a bit worried. I still said yes to being on the committee anyway.
When the committee met, I walked into the room and he was already there. I noticed the surprise on his face when I walked in. But it was OK and nothing really happened. Maybe if it had just been him and I in the room it could have been pretty uncomfortable but other people were there and so it ended up being OK.
Power… and intent
This project raised some interesting issues that are worth singling out. One is the matter of how the festival’s power can intimidate people. Various writers I know were scared of the prank and the trouble it might cause. I was warned how “dangerous” the prank was. Someone else warned me that the festival director was as powerful as a publisher. Interestingly, most of these same people who gave me these warnings also mentioned that they didn’t like the festival’s programming style. I am not for one moment criticising these people for their fear. I am mentioning this because I think it’s an insight into the power of MWF.
Another interesting thing is that many of the writers who have voiced their criticisms of the festival to me have also appeared at the festival. Indeed, I’ve appeared at MWF myself, the irony of which I am well aware of. The fact that there are people who privately harbour criticisms of the festival yet have a stake in this festival once again says much about the power of literary festivals as institutions.
In the end, as the scholar Linda Hutcheon once said, parody can have a wide range of intent. One need not despise the target of one’s parody and in fact I remain ambivalent about MWF and literary festivals as a whole.