The Perth Writers Festival is done for another year and now it’s time to think back over my experience of the past few days and share some thoughts.
This was my first time at the Perth Writers Festival and, having grown up in the eastern states of Australia, my second time in Perth. Along the way from Perth CBD to the University of Western Australia, where the Perth Writers Festival was hosted, is public parkland called King’s Park followed by dry bushland atop a steep hill which descends to almost create a cliff-face fronting the Swan River. Last time I was in Perth, about 7 years ago, a bushfire was ablaze on that hill. This time I got the opportunity to walk through that bushland, which still heavily bore the marks of fire but also had a lot of green growth around the charred trees.
Each morning of the festival, I walked from the city to the university, sharing the esplanade along Mount Bay Road, between the hill and the river, with hundreds of cyclists, quite a few runners and several seabirds that aired their wings in the morning sun each day.
I attended three paid sessions at the festival, and around 10-12 free sessions. Something a number of people noted to me was their appreciation that each timeslot throughout the day had three free sessions to choose from as well as the two paid options (for the adult sessions, and there was also a children’s program running with several options per timeslot), while workshops were in addition to these. This allowed people to participate for the whole festival whether or not they wanted to spend a lot on discussions and workshops.
Book art placed around the university drew some comments but the ones I heard were mostly mildly disapproving and, although the books used were second-hand, people began rescuing them here and there. The outdoor book sculptures/arrangements had collapsed by the last morning and by the end of the day had largely disappeared, book by book, to new homes.
Beyond the organised sessions, I also met a range of readers, authors, aspiring authors, etc and discussed books, writing, etc.
The three paid sessions I attended are as follows:
Science is the New Art, with Annie Proulx and Tim Flannery (one hour discussion)
The first (three part) question asked was: “What is Science? What is art? And how do they inform one another?” Neither Tim Flannery nor Annie Proulx answered that question in the hour of discussion which followed. The only attempt they made in the general direction of addressing that question was to say that ‘there is science in art and art in science’. They did provide some anecdotes about their experiences in natural landscapes and the animals there, which I found the most interesting parts but were incidental to whether ‘science is the new art’.
The focus of the Q and A at the end of the session was more on ‘the science’ of climate change (conclusions from reports by the UN Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC)) and ways to use art to convince people of ‘the science’.
Since I was a boy in Primary School, reading about Archimedes, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Euclid, Pythagoras, Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, and so on, I have had a strong interest in science. I have also developed a strong interest in art, particularly storytelling arts such as literature, movies and theatre. I enjoy learning about cognition, neuroscience, physiology of perception, behaviour of humans and other animals, and so on, and relating it to areas like literature, movies, and theatre. However, I found this discussion light-weight in the areas of science and art (science is more than an affection for landscapes and animals).
Tim Flannery advocated ‘changing from old, reductive science’ (which he explained to be a scientist limiting their work to a narrow topic) and ‘adopting new, holistic science’ (which he explained to be the use of theoretical models to explain at a planetary level). This kind of sentiment has been popular since James Lovelock articulated it decades ago but ignores that many scientists for many hundreds of years have treated their work as a task of partially understanding and describing the universe (not just the planet) to useful degrees of accuracy. Such scientists avoid speculating to fill in what they don’t know to make ‘a complete model’ to adopt but freely speculate to form hypotheses (untested ideas) which can then be tested.
Humans simply don’t have enough knowledge of sufficient accuracy to produce a complete holistic understanding and description of the planet. Any attempt to do so would be a selective, partial understanding (or misunderstanding) and description. While someone who goes beyond what they have observed and speculates to create ‘a bigger explanation’ may create a fictional story and ‘move from science to art’, such a story is no longer science.
‘Science as an art’ (as described in the discussion) is speculation; forming hypotheses. This is nothing new. Testing these hypotheses would be science. I would have preferred a discussion more closely addressing the initial question: “What is science? What is art? And how do they inform one another?”.
Dexter is Delicious, with Jeff Lindsay (one hour discussion)
Jeff Lindsay discussed his Dexter novels, the TV show based on the novels, the balance between sinister and comedic aspects of his writing, his lifestyle as a novelist and creator of a TV show through his novels, read from the manuscript of his upcoming novel with the working title Double Dexter, etc.
Writing Nasty Villains, with Leah Giarratano (three hour fiction writing workshop)
Leah Giarratano discussed her crime novels, her background as a clinical psychologist/psychiatrist, the nature of certain types of psychological disorders with an emphasis on antisocial personality disorders and the smaller sub-set of psychopaths, the childhood development of people who go on to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders, ways of understanding people/characters with such personality disorders (of empathising, but not necessarily sympathising, with them), etc.
Coming soon: Article on Jeff Lindsay’s discussion, chat with Jeff Lindsay in Melbourne, article on Leah Giarratano’s workshop, and interview with Leah Giarratano.
The Australian Literature Review