Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 2

All book links are to Readings Bookstore, supporter of Indigenous Literacy Day and official MWF bookstore.
Thursday August 28
Let me begin by explaining how your humble narrator’s face became projected on a wall.
As you may well know, my favourite book of 2007 is The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon. I finally got to meet Matt in the flesh after a great session on the historical novel (or ‘novel of now’ – see below). I asked Mr Condon if he was sticking around for any of the Festival Club activities, and he enquired as to what went on in said club. I told him about the entertaining LoveTV and how much I had enjoyed Jackie French baring her soul.
Later that evening I enquired as to who was the unlucky sod that was to enter the tent, only to find that it was none other than my beloved author, Matt Condon. Excited to see another side of the master wordsmith, I settled in for a drink with Amy Barker and Ryan Paine, the former who is also a fan. I was busily engaged in conversation when I noticed Matt walk in and look around the club with a kind of disdained curiosity, his eye travelling the dismal crowd of literary ruffians and a crazy old couple in matching stripy beanies flying on tangents from poet Tracie Morris’ themes. I made a mental note to go and say hello, as he seemed like he was on his own, and I hadn’t yet had the chance to D&M with him further over The Trout Opera, after our interview via email about a year ago.
Pictured: Matthew Condon
About half an hour later, as Ryan and I were suffering the beanie-lady’s mumblings on Ned Kelly mythologies and uncoverings, a certain Mr Condon slipped past me, head down in propulsion, a beady-eyed trout who seemed to find no flies to hook him, only sinkers.
So whose unfortunate friendliness with MC Michael Nolan forced her into the position of replacement for such an interesting being as Mr Condon? Your humble narrator, of course. The LiteraryMinded face generously sharing her first sexual experience, failed loves, and festival crush to a tiny crowd of drunk literati and crazy old folks. It wasn’t so bad, but you owe me, Matt. A dedication in your next masterpiece, perhaps?
Earlier in the day Hannah Tinti, Emily Perkins and John Clanchy shared their short fiction methods and inspirations in a panel ‘Chekhov’s Children’, chaired by Louise Swinn. Tinti read a section of ‘Home Sweet Home’ from her collection Animal Crackers– in a domestic setting, a woman reawakens to her James Dean obsession, before a moment of complete, shocking disturbance. Perkins read from ‘Early Morning Gutter Relationship’, and Clanchy, from a story in his collection Her Father’s Daughter. The topic was raised about the difficulty to get short fiction published unless it might disguise itself as a novel, for example with an overlying thread or theme. Clanchy said though, that there seems to never have been a time when more short fiction was being written. It was also mentioned as being unfortunate that literary competitions often exclude the longer short story.
Pictured: Anton Chekhov
Tinti runs a literary magazine One Story, which has 4000 subscribers in the US. It comes out every three weeks and features just a stand-alone piece of short fiction (like Vignette Press’ Mini-Shots). She says the important thing is that a vast amount of the subscribers are not writers but just people who genuinely enjoy reading the form. Influences cited included Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Jo Anderson, Kevin Linsfield, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munro, and Chekhov. Clanchy said ‘if you’re going to write, you can’t avoid him’. And he mentioned that the ‘key’ to Chekhov’s success at storytelling was the balance, or tension, between compassion and dispassion, empathy and distance, from the characters. To achieve the micro world and perfect emotional arc of a short story Clanchy also gave this advice – ‘persist, read like a writer, and go back to the masters’. Tinti added that one should ‘take risks’.
I almost bumped into Kevin Rabelais on the way to the ‘Historical Novels’ panel and got so lost in his smile I practically floated up the stairs. I came in a little late in the middle of Matthew Condon reading from that book I can’t go on about enough, The Trout Opera. Sometimes it’s dangerous to hear your favourite writers read, or to meet them, as it may taint your experience of the work, but this doesn’t happen too often. In this case, and many others, it only added a dimension. The other panelists were Fiona Capp (Musk & Byrne), and Simon Cleary (The Comfort of Figs).
Capp spoke about setting something in the past as a way of dealing with issues and themes that may be too difficult to tackle in a contemporary setting, on a personal level. The jump into history allows distance. She explores outlaw mythologies in female form through the novel – and the concept of women as moral outlaws, as opposed to physical ones. Cleary talked very enthusiastically about the research process – delving into lives, rounding out characters with history and interview, and hanging out with fig trees to get the ‘mood’ right of the present-day character. Condon says his novel has historical elements quite ‘by accident’ and it is a ‘novel of now’, which I couldn’t agree with more. It’s purpose, he says, is to ‘elucidate life and a community’s or a character’s feelings’. They all agreed that there is a point when too much research might swamp the imaginative life, and that there are always gaps in history that will have to be leapt into with imagination. Condon quoted one of my all time favourite films Wonderboys, when Hannah Green says to Professor Tripp (about his enormous manuscript) – ‘I don’t think you’ve mady any choices’, as he’s left in unnecessary and incredibly detailed research.
Above: Professor Tripp, Right: Philip Gourevitch
Sally Warhoft (The Monthly), Michael Burleigh (Standpoint), Julianne Schulz (Griffith Review) and Philip Gourevitch (The Paris Review) spoke on the continuing existence of the high-end literary journal in the age of the internet. It was great to have the contrasts between national and international (UK & US/Europe), and also between government/University funded and independent journals. The Monthly, which is independent, has had a doubling of readership in the last twelve months. If anyone has read The Monthly you would agree that the strength of its content deserves this (the essays are some of the best I’ve read), but it could also be the incorporation of their great online project SlowTV, which strangely wasn’t mentioned. I decided by the end of the session, too, that I should get myself a subscription to The Paris Review as its commitment to fiction and interviews on the writing process sounded wonderful. Gourevitch filled the ‘very large’ shoes of George Plimpton, who edited the journal for over 50 years, but my friend, Amy Jackson, assures me he’s doing a great job. Nobel laureates are showcased beside emerging, edgy writers in a way that encourages the young, but also ‘for the nobel laureate not to feel like a museum piece’, Gourevitch said. The difference between the US and Australia, the conclusion came, was that circulation of mags like The Paris Review and The New Yorker are not only up, but up with a young readership. This is where I think some Australian magazines like ABR are failing. The writing is wonderful, but the website is terrible, and there aren’t enough young writers in the pages. Some Australian publications are elitist and stale, and should take advice from quality, commercially successful puiblications like The Monthly. I think Sophie Cunningham’s overhaul of Meanjin is a wonderful example of what can be done – now it’s also a matter of sticking to the commitment to having more online content and looking at bringing awareness to younger audiences and potential subscribers.
Friday August 29
Early morning I arrived for the Remix My Lit masterclass, where Amy Barker and Elliot Bledsoe explained the Creative Commons laws which make pieces voluntarily available for redistribution, mixing, and adapting. They went through some fantastic examples of how it has been done before, from the William S Burrough’s ‘cut-ups’ to some of David Bowie’s song lyrics (brilliance), Jeff Noon’s metamophiction, and of course in other mediums like song and film. It was really just an introduction to the project (for which the deadline for an anthology has been lengthened, see the website), and then we literally did some old-school cut-and-paste with Emily Maguire’s story, ‘Cherished’.
‘Snap, Crackle, and Porn’ was the name of an interesting panel with Professor Catherine Lumby (The Porn Report), Emily Maguire (Princesses & Pornstars), and Gaylene Perry. The contrasts on this panel were very strong, but not conflictual – the angles taken provided interest. Lumby and Maguire provided evidence for hostile terminology used against women and people of colour in porn, and as a proliferation of wider cultural norms (misogynistic and racist elements). I’ll do a review of Maguire’s book when I get to it (it’s added to the dauntingly massive pile). Perry brought it down to a more personal level, as she is writing a novel from the point of view of a woman who discovers her husband has become addicted to porn. She read a part of the novel, where the woman is experiencing the first denials of deception. She said that the purpose was to explore porn as a socially accepted normality, that made some women feel coerced to accept it or a partner’s use of it, in case they might be considered sexually abnormal. I found that this was an interesting take on it, and the first time I’d seen a panel of this sort where they had someone who wasn’t looking at it from a social, cultural, statistical or political level, but the way it (porn itself and also notions of secretiveness and guilt) might affect an individual.
Margaret Simons, John Quiggin and Antony Loewenstein celebrated new media in ‘Where Are the Gatekeepers’. Loewenstein took this on from the point of view of his travels in The Blogging Revolution that the internet brings power to the voices of ordinary folk and dissidents in repressive regimes. I’ll be posting my review of this wonderful book and interview with Loewenstein soon. Simons, who writes for Crikey and authored The Content Makers was also adamant that the internet revolution was inevitable and that print news was going to have to adapt. She thought that social networking was essential as the democratic element in this new culture – ‘social networking is very serious indeed’. All three, I will point out, did not see the print publicaton as having to fade out – but that it must adapt to exist. Loewenstein said on this point that he was amazed at the way the mainstream media still only offered one viewpoint (eg. of the invaders of Iraq, without talking to an Iraqi for a balanced viewpoint). John Quiggin, a daily blogger, says the misuse of the gatekeeper function in print is being challenged by bloggers, who most of the time aren’t answering the interests of a corporation and can even rip the mainstream ‘news’ apart. Another strong argument of theirs was that while there may be a proliferation of ‘crap’ online, it is an elitist argument that ‘youth’ are being dumbed-down by this culture. Because everyday life has ‘crap’ and it’s just that it is visible and in-your-face online. Those that have grown up in this environement, they argue, are easily able to filter out the crap and bookmark what they enjoy, helped often by social-networking friends with similar interests, or via blogrolls. Simons also raised the point that the word ‘blog’ was becoming inadequate for the sheer amount of different material it was covering. For example, I have started to call mine a ‘litblog’ when I talk to people, because there is a subculture of literary-themed blogs, and it differs from the personal or political (while still having elements of both). So I thought that was a very valid point she made. The problem to face for news and political reportage, is how journalism (paid, researched) journalism expects to survive, but all panelists were positive that people have always been hungry for news, and a model will be found.
(pictured – The Gatekeeper…)

Tracie Morris performed more of her conceptual sound-poems, which are interesting and intellectual, and get under your skin in a way, but I have to say I was more entertained by some of the word-based ones the night previous. Sound poetry, though, is something everyone should experience at some stage.
One of the highlights of the whole festival for me so far was Static – a performance by Sean M Whelan, Nathan Curnow, Alicia Sometimes and musician Quinn Stacpoole. It was part play, part poetry. The three spoken performances ranged from a teen character voice, to abstractions, to absurdities. The Twilight Theme song played over transitions, inviting recollections of strangeness, as did viewpoints in the works on God, the Universe and extraterrestrials. Curnow’s piece was highly absorbing, and quite heartbreaking – he is just as strong an actor as a wordsmith. His persona puts his hand up in Church and questions ‘Why doesn’t the Bible say more about aliens?’ Alicia Sometimes had a few lines that summed up universes within them, and gave me that writerly jealousy of her incredible talent. Whelan’s piece had a lion with the face of Harvey Keitel coming to eat his heart. It was hilarious and moving all at once, and Kafkaesque in its animalism, empathy, humour, and absurd inevitability.
Left: Alicia Sometimes, Above: Harvey Keitel not as a lion.
Still to come – Saturday and Sunday – John Marsden on his Hamlet, Live Remixing report, more Matt Condon, live readings of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, and ‘From Friedan to Feministas’.

9 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 2

  1. Thanks so much for the ace review of ‘Static’!You know what’s funny? The picture you chose of Harvey Keitel is the very same picture I used for the mask in the show!

  2. Angela, Here I am, thinking I’d gotten away with doing the first RUNNER of my literary career, only to find my shameful act acurately described in your MWF dispatches. I feel shamed and exposed. Your description of the “sinkers” was painfully precise. I saw that little children’s tent and thought 1. I may not fit inside and 2. Children’s tents should only be for children. So thank you for covering for me. You will be rightfully acknowledged in the next volume. I am, as always, forever in your debt. You will now be known to me as Angela Meyer Who Took a Shot for the Coward Matt Condon.

  3. Sean – I thought it looked familiar… :-)Matt – I will embrace my new title ‘Angela Meyer Who Took a Shot for the Coward Matt Condon’. I hope you put your new feelings of shame and exposure to good use in your next novel. 😉

  4. Thanks Genevieve, luckily the room wasn’t packed! And it seems there were no bloggers there to reveal to the world what I actually said – yay!:-)

  5. Except for this one, of course! “…The LiteraryMinded face generously sharing her first sexual experience, failed loves, and festival crush…!!” he SO owes you that dedication.I’m still going to read Trout Opera though: now you have so generously commended it, it’s moved right up the reading list.Did you know Antony Lowenstein has given you a nod too – check it out,voila.

  6. Yes I have much to thank Antony Loewenstein for – his recommendation has led to exciting prospects – which will be revealed very soon…’The Trout Opera’ is brilliant, you won’t regret it. He owes me for getting lots of people reading it too :-DNo, he doesn’t owe me anything – just more yummy prose (well… maybe that dedication).

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