Writers tell us again and again that what happens to us doesn’t matter as much as the stories that affect us. John Berger famously said, “If every event which occurred could be given a name, there would be no need for stories.” Fittingly, this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival program tempts us with this suggestive tag line: “Have we got a story for you.”

They’re not joking. This year’s seemingly endless itinerary of events is enough to provoke a mild anxiety attack. As such, we hope our non-exhaustive list of top picks will help:


• Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses his renowned six-book autobiographical series Min Kamp, which is heralded as a masterpiece wherever it appears. A frank, unapologetic account of his life, which exposes the private lives of his family, it caused massive controversy following publication.

• Top 10 New York Times bestseller Claire Messud reflects on the importance of what she calls “imaginary homelands”. Her latest work, The Woman Upstairs, has been published to wide acclaim and is “the confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by desire for a world beyond her own”.

• Known by some as India’s greatest living writer, Anita Desai discusses the motivation behind her prodigious new volume, which takes the form of a trio of linked novellas called The Artist of Disappearance. With irony and tender sympathy, it focuses on the corrupt relationship between art, celebrity and capitalism in contemporary society.

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• The Festival offers a great opportunity to get up close and personal with a man who presumably instills fear into the hearts of authors everywhere. James Wood is staff writer at The New Yorker, a Harvard visiting lecturer and is in Sydney to discuss the role of the literary critic. Wood will speak about his latest collection of essays, The Fun Stuff, flaunting his encyclopedic knowledge of the literary canon in an analysis spanning Cormac McCarthy, Mikhail Lermontov, George Orwell and Keith Moon and the lost joys of drumming.

• Author of books with intense arithmetical titles like The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene will teach you how to rid yourself of creative blocks and succeed in your own unique achievements in spite of societal pressures to conform.

• After presenting The F-Word at the Opera House last year, contemporary feminist Naomi Wolf is back on our shores with a new book about vaginas. She joins three other remarkable women on a panel on sex and representation, in a discussion with MCA senior curator Rachel Kent. She also talks “all things sex” with a panel of experts on the subject, including Faramerz Dabhoiwala (The Origins of Sex), Benjamin Law (Gaysia), Frank Bongiorno (The Sex Lives of Australians) and ABC Radio National's Natasha Mitchell.

Live storytelling

• In Stories Then and Now, six storytellers present a diverse, candid and heartfelt perspective on the contemporary Asian-Australian experience.
• Co-curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, in People of Letters, five couples write a letter to their other half.
• Finally, in London’s 5x15, five speakers talk for 15 minutes about their passion or obsession.

Last but not least, hear from:

• Social psychologist Aleks Krotoski, who has spent a decade looking at how much humanity has been affected by an increasingly dependent relationship with the internet.
• Sheila Heti, author of ‘conversational philosophy’, who has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker and n+1, will present a unique work which moves from novel to life by blending personal conversations with fiction in a work about friendship, love and sex.

Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from May 20 to 26. For full program and to purchase tickets, visit: swf.org.au