Sunday, September 01, 2013

Melbourne Writers Festival: Enquire Within (Sunday Week 1)

Over the last week I managed to write up my Melbourne Writers Festival wrap up posts for Friday and Saturday but my Sunday experiences were a step too far (not least because straight after MWF I went to the Pink concert so didn't get home until 1 am), so I am determined to post them today! I will still be behind though because I was off at the festival again today attending my last two sessions for this year which I will post about at some point in the next week or so.

Margo Lanagan
My first session was Writing Baroque with Margo Lanagan and Alice Melike Ulgezer, author of The Memory of Salt. I will start this post with a confession that I mainly chose this session just so I could hear Margo Lanagan speak! Too bad if that sounds a bit too's the way it is! I came away contemplating reading the other author's book too, so maybe I can be fangirly to her next year!

The moderator for the session started by saying that the idea for the session actually came from a publisher and a newspaper article which suggested that Australians are liking amore restrained style of writing. At one point an example of this was given relating to Christos Tsiolkas. Both authors agreed that Dead Europe was very baroque in style but the much more restrained style that he showed in The Slap was the book that really sold well. Whilst gothic style writing is still allowed, baroque is a little less accepted. He then asked the authors to define baroque when it related to writing.

Alice described it as a lived experience, an interior rhythm translated onto the page, as extravagance and mysticism, as where she comes from translated on the page.. As well as being a novelist, Alice is a musician and so she finds her writing influenced by music - different rhythm patterns, textures and tones.

Margo started by saying that baroque is in the eye of the beholder but she did also suggest that the baroque style is a starting point for those that write fantasy. By way of definition she said that the baroque draws attention to itself and digresses into strangeness. That idea of digressing into strangeness is a good definition of Margo's own writing at times. She acknowledged that she uses this more over the top style in specific ways in her writing, often slowing the reader down so that they have to work to appreciate certain parts of the story. It can be used in service of the story or it can be a bit of ego on the part of the author.

The moderator then asked Alice to talk about the writing of her book which was described as a heady mixture of fact and fantasy. When she wrote the book, the author wrote with a great sense of urgency and how she had to write it, so the baroque nature of it was just intuitive. She did talk about going into a bit of a trance state whilst writing, listening to the same music over and over at certain parts of the book.

After being asked why she is published as YA here (because that is where her first books were classified), Margo Lanagan talked about her writing. She talked about when she is applying a particular style to a section she has to decide which part of the scene she wants to allow to flower and what she wants to flow. She has to remember when to calibrate and when to allow the scene to flow. Really she is experimenting with ways of getting through a scene because she wants people to experience the exact flow of emotion as she intended.

Alice Melike Ulgezer
The discussion then moved onto sentence structure with the moderator reading some examples of first sentences of novels - nearly all of which were very short, choppy sentences and then contrasting it with a much more lush sentence. Both authors preferred the latter form, but Margo countered with the example of someone like Cormac McCarthy who might start with the short, choppy, spare sentences but who knows when to let the prose bloom into very ornate phraseology and then pare right back again.

Other topics that were touched on were good examples of baroque writers, the influence of religion on the kinds of rhythms that you see in the more ornate forms of writing, about the growing influence of multi culturalism and how that will influence the style of Australian writing going forward, particularly as people bring their cultural influences with them in the same way that Alice has bought her dual Australian/Turkish influences into her story. While still talking about influence and where ideas come from, the moderator talked about one of my favourite Margo Lanagan short stories, Singing my Sister Down. Just listening to the discussion of where the ideas came from and how the idea of mysticism, ritual and religion influenced the story line. Religion also provided the inspiration for Night of the Firstlings, which is basically a retelling of the biblical story of the flight from Egypt, but it was also inspired by a song by Paul Kelly.

There are so many more things I could blog about from the session but I thought I would finish with these last couple of points. One of the questions asked was who are the readers of baroque. Is it YA readers predominantly? The comment was made that they are more accepting of excesses and that their inhibitions don't get in the way in the same way as they some times do for adult readers. Both authors were also asked what they were working on next. Alice is working on a novel with a similar feel to her debut novel and Margo is working on a historical novel, where she is struggling with the voice and with not giving into the fantasy style of writing.

Overall, this was an enjoyable session to attend.

Sarah Wendell
After lunch and a long chat with friends, it was time to head to the Modern Love session which featured Sarah Wendell from the popular Smart Bitches blog and Marjorie Liu. In a way, it didn't really matter who the authors were because if there is going to be a romance session that the Melbourne Writers Festival then I am going to be there to support it, because there are so few of them. Having said that, it's hard to imagine a session that was more fun that this one was - we laughed the whole way through - and it was great to have such engaging and fun speakers.

I think the moderator for this session possibly had the easiest job of any moderator in any session of the festival. Basically, she introduced Sarah and Marjorie and then let them talk! She did ask a couple of questions, but really I think she was sitting back and enjoying the ride as much as the audience did. The conversation was meandering and wide ranging going from euphemisms and bad sex to erotica, the sexualisation of young girls to feminism and romance, were ducks and so much more. Let's see if I can make sense of my notes and get some kind of summary here.

When a session starts with euphemisms and talking about how easy it is to write bad sex scenes, it gives some kind of clue as to how relaxed and free flowing the session is going to be. In talking about bad scenes, Marjorie Liu admitted that she has moved away from writing as many sex scenes because it is so difficult to write really good ones consistently. Later in the session , Lisa Kleypas was named as one author who does seem to be able to write consistently good ones. Regardless of whether a romance has sex in it or not, what it must have is sexual tension.

What the success of books like 50 Shades has done is opened more readers up to the fact that there is so much other good erotica romance out there. After all, the erotic romance genre has been around for more than 15 years, with many of the digital first publishers having large erotic romance sections because for many readers this was the only place to get what they wanted to read. Speaking of what readers want to read, Sarah Wendell says that she wants to have a were drop bear book written! After all, if there can be were ducks and creatures with two penises why couldn't there be a drop bear shape shifter (if you aren't aware of what a drop bear is, check out this post).

The conversation moved onto why women in particular love romance. Firstly, it is partially a question of agency - it is usually read by women, written by women, and produced by women. Another reason is that romance is one of the few places where womens sexuality is portrayed positively, and can display the kind of nurturing that people want but don't always have in real life. For example, in a romance a woman's satisfaction is always imperative and you know that by the end of a romance a hero will always truly see the heroine and make her feel valued and that she is being treated with tenderness. That doesn't mean to say that the reader can't tell the difference between the fantasy and real life (as examples, romance heroes always tend to have extraordinary stamina and never have morning breath) but it can be a roadmap to show a woman what she might value in a partner. It also enables the sexually curious to explore their interests without a physical risk and without any danger of shaming. This idea of shaming is also relevant because there is so much sexualisation of females, even of young girls, and women learn early to use sex as a currency. This idea of a positive sexual portrayal can counteract some of these more negative messages. Later in the session, a question led to a discussion comparing porn to romance. this idea of the positive portrayal of a womans sexuality was one of the key differences because porn is nearly always male gaze and so often women have little to no agency. Even in erotic romance, the relationship aspect should still be primary focus and still has that female gaze perspective.

One area where there is still some work to be done is around the language that is used, particularly around sexual organs. Whereas there are numerous words that can be used around the male sex organ, there are only a couple for the female equivalent and most of them bring a degree of emotional baggage with them. One example given was the c word, which is actually one that I find a bit offensive at the best of times myself. Of course, you can avoid this by using euphemisms but then you get in dangerous territory and find terms like his sword and her sheath which can be a bit cliched. Another cliche that can be a bit dangerous is one that predominantly found in romantic suspense and that is when the couple are being chased and yet they still find time to get turned on, and get on with the deed, all the while apparently wearing an invisibility cloak which all romance couples have because unless it is integral to the plot no one ever gets caught having sex even when they do it in the strangest and most public of places!

Marjorie Liu
Speaking of cliches, the conversation turned to the idea of romances being formulaic, and during the question and answer period the topic came up about some of the more dreadful covers which for the purposes of ever ending this post I am going to join together. There is no denying that romance does have a structure but it is not that different from other genre fiction in this regard. For example, a mystery is not a good mystery unless the crime is actually solved by the end of the story. If a book is marketed as a particularly thing, then the reader has expectations of what it is that they are going to read. This is where the covers come into play as a reader wants to be able to tell by looking at the cover what it is that they expect to read. The cover cliches are often continued because of this. The buyers from the big companies exert a lot of influence in this area as they need to make sure that whatever they put on their shelves will sell. If you see a woman in a long period costume dress on a cover you aren't going to be expecting to get a paranormal or urban fantasy in the book.

One of the interesting points that came up with the idea that because of technological advances, each successive generation seems to have more leisure time to fill than their forebears and therefore the way that they can interact with entertainment is changing which we can see by the way so much entertainment invites us to interact either by tweeting at them or participate on boards as examples. The rise of fan fiction is another example of this where people engage with particular characters and then build on them.

A question was asked from the audience about romance and feminism and how that compares to the real world and in the course of the answer part of the discussion focused on the fact that romance must be inherently feminist because of the way it is all about the female and about giving her agency, even within the more patriarchal societal rules that are in place (for example in historical romance). This also lead to some discussion about the fact that there is something wrong when there is this idea that there can only be one kind of feminism and that type must ape masculine traits like not wanting to talk about feelings and relationships. There is nothing wrong with stories that promote a female agenda. Often they are self actualising and can give a sense of empowerment.

Through the course of this post I haven't really touched on who said what but one of the questions was specifically directed at Marjorie Liu asking her about her work both as a romance author and as a writer for Marvel comics, writing superhero comics and how this transition had shaped her work on comics. She talked about changing from a predominantly female environment to a much more masculine one and she is the only female person of colour writing comics at the moment. There have been some difficulties, as some readers won't read her books on principle but overall she didn't seem too fussed about that. She does still predominantly write about the relationships between the characters and so her romance background has helped her with this aspect.

The final question was about future trends in romance publishing, which both panellists said was a difficult thing to answer. For example, no one could have foreseen the success of 50 Shades but it was uber successful and is generating any number of similar styled books. It was more a question of right book in the right place at the right time. Also, trends are cyclical. A while ago there was very little contemporary romance doing very well and now it is everywhere and there might be less paranormal, but no particular subgenre ever goes away fully.

Sarah thinks that people are curious about other places so she is looking for romances set in other countries like the rural romances that are doing so well here.  Self publishing will also help as even readers with the most unusual wants in a book will be able to find what they are looking for.

Phew! I need a lay down with a good, steamy romance after all that!

It was a fantastic session that hopefully you can see covered a lot of ground and serious subjects whilst still be a lot of fun! I look forward to next years romance panels at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Currently Reading

The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal, Tremble by Tobsha Learner, Deranged Marriage by Sushi Das and listening to On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.

Up Next

The Last Mistress by Andrea Zuvich


  1. WOW!!! What a day. What a festival. Love the drop bear reference too.

    1. A drop bear romance would be .... interesting! lol

  2. That sound fascinating - the cover question (about clich├ęs) is very interesting: the 'look' of romance books is one of their least attractive features for me, esp. the ones with buffed waxed blokes; they generally make me giggle. ;-)

    1. Sure, there are some shockers but it does make it easy to know what you are going to get on the pages! And if you read electronically it doesn't matter anywhere near as much!

  3. That romance conversation sounds so fabulous. Do you think it was well-attended enough that romance will feature again next year?

    1. Kat, they ended up moving it to a bigger venue so I think that is a good sign!



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