It can be broadly argued there are two types of fictional stories: the ones with the main aim of offering readers escapism, and the ones that set out to make a statement about or observation of contemporary human society.
In the latter, there are authors who present their analysis through characters. Authors like Wayne Macauley, who did just that in his 2014 book Demons, which highlighted the difficulty of escaping from an unhappy urban lifestyle while trapped in an endless cycle of dissatisfactory middle-class aspirations.
Then there are authors like Julie Koh, who this month in Portable Curiosities (University of Queensland Press), satirises the world instead.
While Koh’s stories—a young girl who sees ghosts from her third eye, located where her belly button should be; a one-dimensional yellow man who steps out of a cinema screen, hoping to lead a three-dimensional life but everyone around him is fixated only on the colour of his skin; a journalist goes on assignment to report the latest food trend, which turns ice-cream eating into an extreme sport—can be quite dark and fantastical, the critiques are very real of the world today.
Rampant consumerism, casual misogyny, racism and the insidious fear of those who are different, are real issues faced by many people on a daily basis. And we grapple to find the meaning and reason for such actions. What drives humanity to treat each other carelessly and callously? What do the voices in our heads tell us and how do they shape our behaviour?
Psychologist Charles Fernyhough explores these questions in his book The Voices Within (Allen & Unwin). How do words and thoughts weave together in our consciousness? According to Fernyhough, this inner speech is possibly what helps us to regulate our own behaviour and motivate ourselves for action—malevolent or otherwise.
But perhaps there is a simpler answer. Ever since our first parents chose to disobey God (see Genesis 3), suffering, heartache and pain have become part and parcel of life, while the voice of the Holy Spirit, who acts as our conscience and moves us to be more like God (Ezekiel 36:27), diminishes.
Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016
The Sydney Writers’ Festival is an annual literary program that was first launched in January 1997. Now held in May, the festival comprises more than 300 events, attracting around 100,000 people every year.
The focus of the festival may be on fine writing and storytelling, but its themes and programming are “driven by the ideas and issues that animate all types of literature,” giving us insight into the issues and concerns that matter most to society.
This year, the theme of Sydney Writers’ Festival was Bibliotherapy, ”an ancient practice that encourages reading for therapeutic effect. It acknowledges literature’s restorative effects in terms of mental health, improved relationships and the ability to empathise.”
In line with the theme, at the festival gala, some of the world’s most celebrated writers including Jeanette Winterson, Andrew Denton, Kate Tempest, Vivian Gornick, Herman Koch and Marlon James, shared with audiences the books that saved them and defined them.
At a time of growing uncertainty from all facets of life: the rise in power of the Islamic State group; a global economy that is faltering; and closer to home, where rates of suicide are at their highest in years; experts warning that Australia is losing the war against alcohol and obesity, and the rise in domestic abuse cases and the breakdown of family structures; it is hardly surprising people are looking for healing and salvation by whatever means available.
And while Christians may have found the book—and the Person—who will save them, is it an indictment on the religion, the people or the evangelistic methods that about 100,000 festival-goers are still searching?
Some of the writers who spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Gala: