In the Shadow of Black Friday: Mark Roberts Previews the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

The Sydney Writers Festival runs from May 16th to 22nd. complete details are available from
SWFLast years Sydney Writers Festival was, for many of us, overshadowed by the major attack launched on contemporary Australian writing, and Australian creativity in general, by the then Federal Arts Minister George Brandis. In an article written in the foyer of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, I wrote “I should be writing about the Sydney Writers’ Festival this morning, about the conversations, speeches and readings, but a media release from the Australia Council arrived suddenly late yesterday which stopped me in my tracks. Anyone with even the slightest connection to the Arts will be aware by now of the extraordinary attack launched on Australia’s Artistic community in the 2015 budget where funding to the Australia Council was slashed and diverted to Minister Brandis’ Slush Fund” (Artists Left Hanging by Australia Council Decision).

Now, a year later, as I sit down to preview the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival, we are faced with the reality of Black Friday when over 60 Arts organisations, find themselves defunded and the entire Arts Community face the fact that the cultural infrastructure that has been built up over the past 50 years is crumbling into dust. (see Alison Crogan’s excellent piece in The Monthly for a detailed analysis

So while this year’s festival is also being run in the shadow of an attack on the relevance of culture and writing to modern Australia it does also provide us with an opportunity to take stock and regroup. On a purely economic level, for example, the Sydney Writers Festival contributes far more to the economy of Sydney and NSW than the cost of any grant or subsidy it may receive. In fact, I suspect, that if an end-to-end cost benefit analysis was to be undertaken on the economic benefits of festivals such as writers and film festivals to the local, state and national economies, you would find that governments would make a much better return on their investment by investing in culture than by subsidising the mining industry through direct subsidies, tax breaks, the funding of major infrastructure like rail, roads and ports and the cost of cleaning up and rehabilitating sites after mining ceases. Of course, as we don’t measure economic benefits end-to-end, the arts industries are often portrayed as a drain on resources rather than a net contributor.

So moving to this year’s festival. Festival Director Jemma Birrell tells us that “Sydney will transform in May with authors and ideas flooding the city. Bringing fresh perspectives from all corners of the world….. enhance our community with their stories, humour, creativity and vision” and it is the big names that dominate the website and mainstream festival publicity. Kate Tempest ( opens this years festival on Tuesday 17th and, if her appearance on the ABC’s Q&A is anything to go by the audience, at the sold out launch is in for a treat.

Other big names at this year’s festival include Jeanette Winterson, Gloria Steinem, Marlon James, Julian Barnes and William Boyd among others. But the real connection with community often takes place takes place outside the centre of Festival activities on Hickson Road. Already a number of important sessions have already taken place. On Monday 16th, for example, Murri Elder Lesley Williams discussed Not Just Black and White at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba and Beth Yahp discussed her memoir Eat First, Talk Later, at Blacktown Library, while on Tuesday Craig Munro discussed his memoir of working in the publishing industry, Under Cover, at the State Library.

Poetry MayComing up Debra Adelaide will discuss her latest book, The Women’s Pages, at the Margaret Martin Library, Randwick, at 6.30pm on Wednesday and the May Bankstown Poetry Slam takes place at the Bankstown Arts Centre, at 7pm. On Thursday Ye Xin will discuss his book Educated Youth at the Chatswood Library on the Concourse at 1pm while Drusilla Modjeska’s session on the sweep of women’s history, love, friendship, home and finding the room to write (Friday 20 May 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Pier 4/5 The Waterfront) promises to be another highlight.

One of the poetry highlights of the festival will take place on Friday at 3pm at the Philharmonia Studio (Pier 4/5) with the launch of the historic Australian issue of Poetry, edited by Robert Adamson and commissioned by Don Share, editor of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation.

The festival continues over the weekend with another highlight being poets Eileen Chong and Mark Tredinnick conducting a poetic walking tour of the Botanic Garden on Saturday and Hanya Yanagihara’s closing address on Sunday night.

So if you are in Sydney the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival might just provide a distraction for the doom and gloom engulfing the arts at the moment – at best it might just provide a catalyst to action!

Complete festival details are available at

 – Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

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