Agree or disagree: maybe that’s not the question?

Books are one very big reason we can feel hopeful that so much of the everyday nastiness we have instant access to can be counter-acted by decency, thoughtfulness, fairness and wit.

It’s why Writers Festivals are so popular – not mega-popular stadium extravaganzas fueled by celebrity, but crowded, energetic and increasingly in-demand nevertheless.

We do want to hear our own thoughts – whether inklings, half-formed ideas or fully-fledged passions expressed with clarity and style. So we flock to hear writers talk. The nodding head is seen more often at a writers festival than on car dashboards.

People do say, why isn’t there more debate at festivals? Why aren’t there more ding-dong battles over ideas and ideologies? 

Two reasons: firstly, because it’s really difficult, and expensive, to create a good debate. Witness Q&A, which is a terrific television event created by the ABC, but which many people think is reductive and simplistic. The nasty name-calling interchange is what gets noticed, fueling people’s idea that it’s impossible to find common ground between opposing views.

It’s probably not surprising that very successful brand advertising is where the common ground is being glossily, elegantly, engagingly created. Obviously, it’s not possible to “trust” a beer ad like this one: Heineken but it’s very hard not to admire it. And apparently we can now expect more of this, because, of course, it gets zillion-fold free exposure when media picks it up, and it’s distributed free by people like me.

That’s what a post-Google world is like, and some of it is pretty good. When it carries messages that seem hopeful and decent, who’s to argue? Except of course they’re selling beer, and it also is clear these people, real as they are, are aware they’re being filmed, and they’ve been chosen because they work well on camera, etc etc.

It’s also very controlled, as an experiment, because its outcome is already approved, by the extraordinary process that must have gone in to the making of this mini-film-ad.

And that is the difference with talk events such as writers festivals. They are real, a little bit unpredictable, and not always successful – but the bits that go wrong are interesting too. Indeed, I think we need to allow for that failure, and to welcome it. We need to cope with the discussion that goes off the rails, or is a bit meandering in parts, or that doesn’t get going. Otherwise, we expect all life, all talk, all interactions to be lit perfectly, filmed with high-quality digital equipment, and edited to take out the messy bits.

And that would be very odd.


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