“Experimentation – with its boundless opportunities for imagination and conversation – is what Jane Howard hopes to encourage in her first Digital Writers’ Festival program.”
“I don’t think I would be a writer if it wasn’t for the internet. It’s as simple as that.” In 2009, Jane Howard ‘logged on’ to the writing life. “I started a blog because I could, because it was free. You didn’t need permission, you could just put it out there.” From that humble blog – reviews of Adelaide Fringe Festival shows – grew Howard’s extraordinary, varied career. This week, Howard was announced as the new director of the Digital Writers’ Festival (DWF). Over the last seven years, Howard has written for The Guardian, ABC Arts Online, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin and more. Her first published piece explored the Adelaide dance scene and hit the streets in the July 2011 edition of The Adelaide Review. Though most well known for her theatre criticism, Howard has a bold experimental streak, testing the limits of digital writing as a craft and as a tool for interaction. This experimentation – with its boundless opportunities for imagination and conversation – is what Howard hopes to encourage in her first Digital Writers’ Festival program. “The event will be held in a digital space, but I also want to look at writers that are using technology in really interesting and innovative ways,” says Howard. “We want to consider the possibilities that the internet brings to the current generation of writers – no matter what age they are. We want the writers that are engaging with the internet for their art, as well as simply using it as a transmission service or network.”
What is the Digital Writers’ Festival?
DWF is an offshoot of the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF). Its inaugural director was another Adelaide writer: Connor Thomas O’Brien. The defining difference between DWF and ‘traditional’ writers’ festivals is that it exists entirely online. Many of the sessions are held over Google Hangouts, which are recorded and archived – you can still easily access the past few festivals and relive the discussions. “A lot of writers are very solitary people, and that’s something that writers festivals are really great for: getting writers out of their bedrooms and meeting people,” says Howard. She laughs, adding: “Digital Writers Festival does that while you’re maybe still in your bedroom.” More than 8000 viewers tuned in to last year’s Digital Writers’ Festival. A fifth of this audience was from regional Australia. More than a quarter was based overseas.
Most DWF sessions are streamed live to an audience around the country and world
Digital Writers Are Regional Writers
Accessing and promoting ‘quiet’ voices is integral to DWF. This goes equally for audience the festival wishes to attract as it does the writers it wishes to book. “A really key part of all the programming will be making sure that there are artists who are women and queer and gender diverse, from various cultural and racial backgrounds,” says Howard. “We really want to make every facet of the festival as open to as many different writers as possible, which means we’re opening up to more audience members as well.” With their budget not swallowed by flights and accommodation, DWF can book more international and regional writers, and can invite presenters who would otherwise be unable to travel. Earlier this year, Laura Kroetsch, director of Adelaide Writers’ Week, lamented the tyranny of distance, telling The Adelaide Review: “There are always writers you wish for. But most writers have jobs. Or they’re teaching, or have small children. And the distance! It’s just far. We just about killed Ron Rash. He really struggled with that trip.”
One way the 2015 DWF circumvented the tyranny of distance was with its 20 Minute Cities sessions
The Digital Downside?
The Digital Writers’ Festival celebrates the good parts of the digital lifestyle, but can’t escape the dark side. “The disadvantage, really, is money,” says Howard. “It’s a really tough environment. Lots of places don’t pay their writers – some for nefarious reasons, and some because it’s also being edited by people who aren’t being paid. That means we lose writers just because they can’t work sustainably. It’s a really tough time economically, even though it’s a really incredible and inspiring time artistically.” Though finances look grim, Howard reiterates the oft-stated defence of what some consider a frivolous aspect of Australian life: “The arts employ more people than mining.” Unfortunately, with arts funding being stripped back every year – leaving key South Australian companies vulnerable – tight purses are a reality. “You know, unless the Greens form government [she laughs], there’s not this ideal world where the arts are suddenly in this amazing, supportive environment. It’s always going to be a fight for arts funding in Australia. That’s unfortunately part of the culture – art isn’t as respected as it should be. “As tough as it’s been to live in a society where arts funding has been cut, we’re also living in a time when the Coalition went through an election without an arts policy. That was really tough for people in the arts world to see: that such a huge part of the Australian economy and cultural identity, something that does so well for Australia overseas, was just ignored at a policy level. “One of the beautiful things that has happened has been the collective fight – all these people coming together to argue the importance of funding and policy. But that’s also a really exhausting fight. Because of funding cuts, people can’t get paid to do work, and then their time is taken up by fighting this battle, trying to say that they’re worth something – and then not even being responded to. That’s a really exhausting process. It weighs on artists, and will impact the amount of art and work that can be made in Australia.” The conversations and community links fostered nationwide between arts groups will be key to a thriving future for Australian arts. Through the Digital Writers’ Festival, Howard hopes to keep those conversations going – all without anyone needing to leave their bedrooms. “Relationships that we have online are just as potent and just as real and just as honest as the ones we have in person. That’s what I hope the DWF will be able to offer other young writers, new writers: this idea that there’s a community out there that will be your cheerleader, and that knows what the hard things are but also knows how to celebrate the amazing things. It’s a really important thing to remember: the internet isn’t this weird, scary place any more.” Digital Writers’ Festival will take place in November 2016. An open call-out for artists is currently underway for the 2016 festival. Submissions will be taken until July 20.