Virtual Conferenceville

In years gone by I’ve been to countless conferences. Haven’t we all? But a big upcoming event organised by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, for which I’m an invited speaker, will be different from those past occasions.

It’s a virtual event, taking place in what you might describe as ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ (Actually that’s a medieval definition of God, but it seems to fit the case!)

Long before anyone could envisage what a virtual conference might be, Australian author Frank Moorhouse depicted a typical talkfest forum of the traditional sort in his amusing book Conferenceville. Back then (1976), it seemed obvious that the raison d’être of any colloquium was face-to-face interaction, even when (like Moorhouse’s narrator) an attendee wasn’t sure whether direct contact would eventuate:

‘I found my way to a seat in the empty auditorium…

I wondered who would sit with me…’

That was conferenceville 45 years ago. Since then our world has changed utterly — especially since the pandemic curtailed our face-to-face interactions.

This HNSA virtual conference is not, of course, the kind of where researchers present formal papers on esoteric topics, nor the kind where people gather earnestly to make Important Policy Decisions. It’s really a literary festival, featuring diverse writers linked by a common interest in stories that imagine the past. And because its program is unimpeded by geographical constraints, this ‘online celebration of one of the world’s most popular genres’ (to quote the HNSA conference website) will include an unusually large number of participants from several countries.

I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel session chaired by HNSA Director Elisabeth Storrs on the subject of “Show and Tell: Weaving a Story around a Treasured Possession.” My novel The Madwoman’s Coat, longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize, lends itself well to discussion of that topic. Details here.

4 thoughts on “Virtual Conferenceville

  1. Hi Ian,

    I don’t have a copy of Conferenceville, but I have (or had) one of the stories from it. It was in Spectrum Three (remember those???), and it was the one where the narrator catches himself “fawning” (his emphasis) on a playback of his interactions with other people at the event. “The facilitator tells us that we’ve just had a VIDEO EXPERIENCE…” God, how times have changed. Rather like watching Coppola’s film The Conversation, all about post-Watergate paranoia over surveillance bugging.

    I have a copy of The Madwoman’s Coat heading this way, but there’s at least another week to go before the poor old postal system catches up…

  2. Congratulations, Ian, on listing.

    Your remarks about the shifting sensorium of the new conference formations were interesting, including in reference to Frank Moorehouse’s always sophisticated musings on anything, including, it seems, conference going in earlier but still recent times. I confess I thought more instantly of David Lodge’s Trading Places and Small World series, and wondered what the new zooming and forms of public but also putatively private or in house presentations may mean, with ever more possibilities of self-composure and interest in presentation. What does this mean for academic or professional performances, in terms of faculty politics, as in Lodge’s farces, and aside from everyone being able to apply for jobs with their trousers off now(as in, under the table. (This was obviously what Malcolm Frazer was doing, in that American hotel – having a meeting.) With mainly heads and upper torsos still the rule in conferences or reports from lockdown or from afar, this could surely change and participants beam themselves in in any way they might imagine, riding bare-backed with Putin, having tea with Boris or being ( turned away now probably, at the border) in France. I do notice the de rigeur presentations under Covid are blossomingly the obligatory shelves of books behind every tv expert and pundit, of any kind, as if this ‘stands in’ for their absent bodies or they are now signifying their pure mind, or at least encoding a claim to expertise for the common people. This seems curiously old fashioned, these constant invocations of the library, just when its obsolete or we are all in Alexandria and most people can hardly read books any more. These bookshelves appearing all over the tv, and I assume on zoom conferences too, can be quite distracting for some of us, who grew up in libraries and thereby are programmed to see them not as decor or as a signal of status, only, like the dog and pregnant wife in The Portrait of Arnolfini’s marriage, but as an obligation to stop playing around and get back to work and thereby some of us will be trying to read the titles on, say, the DW (German English) 4 a.m news (time being out of joint in lockdown for some of us), for even if you, the conference participant, are in the now and with a new immediacy bridging all distance- your viewers may be checking in on you any old time and in the future to come, and even when you are long dead. But re the DW science correspondent and zoomed in expert, Derek (and who would know where he really was?), informing us with ever more torturous anxiety about the front line of Covid research, as I try to do morning stretching and get distracted from my mindfulness – which seems to some of similar to mindlessness if you are meant to empty it – by his bookshelves as a nice escape from the repetitions he is often doing and all covid experts seem obligated to do, when talking now and trying to fit this into the framework of a necessary vaccine advocacy. I find myself wondering if he might seem more certain of his scientific subjects, if he read a lot less literature, including Jonathan Franzen, and certainly, surely, Michel Houlebeqc. How could that help at all, to encourage anyone to a trust in science and pharmaceutical corporations? I think with ever more amazements and possibilities of conferencing, we may rapidly get past this thing of distracting bookshelves, which will become as amusing as the cardboard sets in old Ealing comedies, and participants should soon be able to finger tap themselves into any aesthetic they fancy, with all of the technological acumen (and adolescent imagination ) of Elon Musk, and including an abilty to alter their own appearances and become, well, just anything.
    Your remarks made me think of Bentham’s panopticon and how, now, we may have thoroughly internalised new forms of prison in these illusions of freedom in some whole new psychic way, by letting ‘work’ – the worst of serial killers – inside our houses. The decor can now be anything you may want, in conferencing, but like the logic of old school uniforms, it may seem to erase the matter of class by a whole new uniformity (as in vaccine advocacy) and then compensatory creativity will spring up in resistance. You could live in a hovel and be a hoarder, for example, not you – but some participants in any novel writer’s conference, but compose an entirely impressive work ready and conference potlatch offering (in terms of an obligation to be ‘interesting’ as a writer) as a presentation, with a background straight out of the best of Grand Designs, or Architect’s Digest.
    As always, immensely thoughtful and thought provoking, Ian. Now, where is my book.

  3. I’m delighted, Robyn, that my little blog piece has elicited this witty stream of consciousness from you, full of extravagant lateral associations. Your image of trouserless conferencing would tickle Frank Moorhouse’s fancy. And thanks for the reminder of David Lodge’s satirical comedies of academic life as it used to be.

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