Melbourne and its writers

writer-wretchI only went to make up the numbers. Though a member of Writers Victoria for a few years, I’ve never ventured into an AGM. I only did so this time because of a last-minute email plea for participants to make quorum. I felt obliged.

What I found was a small but passionate group of people practically committed to the life and work of local writers. An idiosyncratic crowd for sure, but inspiring no less. Addicted to this writing business myself, it was reassuring to meet a sample of this previously amorphous community ‘in the flesh’.

There are similar groups to this in every state and territory of Australia, but Victoria’s membership dwarfs them all (AGM attendance aside!). What is it about Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, and the written word? One of its writers Sonya Hartnett describes this city as uniquely and historically ‘bookish’, and another, Sophie Cunningham, ‘a city that lives in its head.’ According to historians, it has ever been so. Even in the early days of the colony, artists, writers and ‘bohemians’ were drawn here in significant numbers. Today, I am told, Melbourne is home to a third of Australia’s writers, a third of the nation’s bookstores, and accounts for over 40 per cent of national book sales.

With great fanfare, Melbourne was officially recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature back in 2008, only the second city to be designated as such after Edinburgh. Today we share the podium with six other cities around the world. In a recent essay in the journal Meanjin, the authors note the qualifications unique to each of these cities, Melbourne’s being tied less to its literary history and more to the bookish interests of its residents. They have us tagged!

I’m not sure any of this means much. As for the cache of ‘urban cool’ this bestows upon us, I suspect it’s more in our imagination than anywhere else. Indeed, the above essay makes the suggestion that the diversity of Melbourne’s current literary interests is as much a result of the city’s ‘less-than-lovely geography’, a factor that keeps us all indoors and reading, than anything more glamorous.

Still, however we got this way, I like it. A bookish city. That’ll do me.

Sonya Hartnett, Life in Ten Houses: A Memoir, Melbourne: Penguin, 2012, 9.

Sophie Cunningham, Melbourne, Sydney: New South, 2011, 7.

Caroline Hamilton & Kirsten Searle, ‘Great Expectations–Making a City of Literature’ in Meanjin (1/2014), 142-151.

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