Like most of us, The Catcher in the Rye’s young protagonist, Holden Caulfield, could only dream of calling his favourite authors to wax lyrical on their innermost thoughts and reflections. For the past three years, as director of local literary and cultural institution The Wheeler Centre, Michael Williams has had the pleasure of doing just that. A former 3RRR broadcaster and journalist, Williams has been at the centre since its inception in February 2010, in which time the space has become an indispensable part of our cultural landscape – not quite an educational organisation, meeting hall or theatre, but somewhere in between.
“It’s about giving a physical space to public conversation, in order to bring people together to have the discussions they want to be having around ideas, imaginative feats and whatever else is capturing the city’s collective psyche,” says Williams. “There are a lot of virtual spaces where people discuss these things, but I don’t think they point towards a diminished need for tangible spaces, but rather, an appetite for them.”
The first instalment of this year’s freshly pressed program reveals a diverse rollcall of great thinkers, including South African Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, American science specialist Jared Diamond, controversial novelist A.M. Homes, Swedish musician Jens Lekman and former Vogue editor Kirstie Clements among many others. Whilst perfecting a careful balancing act between fiction and non fiction, local and international guests, discussions and lectures, and “frivolous and accessible” content versus “serious and difficult” makes for an eclectic mix, Williams aims to achieve three consistent elements across the Wheeler Centre’s offerings: “Smart people, talking in an entertaining way, about something they’re passionate about. If you get those three things, it’s going to be good.”
Although the term “smart people” in the context of a literary institution is likely to conjure up visions of aging academics outfitted in tweed suits, discussing Proust in hushed tones amidst towering bookshelves, Williams insists this is not the case, at least at The Wheeler Centre.
“We do knowledge a disservice if we start to think about it in terms of a hierarchy of what is valuable smartness and what isn’t. I don’t want people to say that person looks like a real Wheeler Centre person and that person doesn’t, because we’re not about pitching everything to an inner city, bookish crowd. We have half a dozen events each week and we just can’t sustain that with only one group, nor do we want to.”
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of publishing, reading and thought more generally, with popular hyperbole centring around the devaluation of quality editorial content through widespread availability of information online and supposedly shortened attention spans that result from the constant stimulation of the digital age. Despite all this, the city’s appetite for what The Wheeler Centre is providing is seemingly endless, suggesting that the need for intellectual stimulation and challenge transcends the current climate.
“Despite parallel turbulences playing out in the publishing and traditional media spheres, none of it stems from a diminishment of people’s desire to be introduced to new texts, artwork or ideas. People still want that just as much as before, they are just getting it in different ways,” says Williams.
The trick that Williams and his team at The Wheeler Centre seem to have mastered is to embrace, rather than resist, such changes and find new, playful ways to engage with audiences.
What, then, can we expect from 2013 at the centre?
A continued conversation with audiences through the expansion and reinterpretation of old favourites like the upcoming Where The Wild Things Are-themed gala event and the Children’s Book Festival held in late March (with a crowd of over 15,000 expected, it’s the closest thing to a rock star event at the centre), as well as new initiatives in unlikely offsite venues, or as Williams puts it, in all the “cracks of the city”. Oh, and due to popular demand, the return of literary speed dating, in which potential suitors are judged on the merit of a chosen book.
“We had a themed week of love and lust about two years ago and since then, it is a rare week that we don’t get a call asking to have it again. It turns out we are just pimps,” laughs Williams.
“It makes sense really. When I go around to someone’s house, I go straight to the bookshelf – you find out everything you need to know there”.
What, then, dare I ask, is on Michael Williams’ bookshelf?
“Like The Wheeler Centre, I like to hide behind eclecticism. It’s more like, oh that and that, how unlikely,” he answers, revealing that he has something to offer everyone – just like the engaging cultural hub he leads.
The Wheeler Centre
176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne