Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part three: future cities, beautiful rhythms and a literal ending

‘I just blogged’ I said to my friends when I ran into them, flustered, between sessions. Chris Flynn looked at me and said ‘that sounds dirty’, like ‘I just did a blog’, ‘I just dropped one’ and other variations. And now, the word blog is RUINED for me.

But I was enlightened by two things: Chris and Eirian’s song ‘Old People’ (there certainly were a lot of them around – and good on them, for looking at books and seeing authors and stuff), and Josephine’s present for me from Berlin – a gorgeous vintage scarf.


196-cover-col-150pxSo, I went to Visions of the City to stare at China Mieville’s guns again, and of course to hear his thoughts. And this time, he had me at ‘hyperreal’. I’m liking him more and more. He and Jack Dann, Margo Lanagan, and chair Rjurik Davidson fielded questions (which must get a wee bit tired for genre authors) on the genre/lit divide etc. The concern is not really a division, but the shape of that division (as Mieville put it ‘horizontal’ categorisation is fine but not ‘vertical’). Overland 196 was being launched during the session also, as Lanagan and Dann have pieces in it’s ‘Melbourne Futures’ supplement. The lovely Susan from City of Melbourne officially launched the issue, but spawned giggles with her references to George Odwell and Aldous Hudley.

Mieville had me going with the way he was interested not just in the setting of the city, but on ‘literary refractions’ of cities – ‘hyperrealised’ cities. Fantastic fiction can do visions of the city better than realist fiction, he said, thus even non-genre writers are writing visions of the city (and we have seen these future cities in popular cinema of late, also).

Lanagan suggested that some people distinctly narrow the categories they read just because there is too much to read these days! An interesting idea. But I like to read a bit of everything (then again, I am perpetually overwhelmed).

The prominence of dystopian over utopian fictions was looked at. Dann said negativity gives the writer the ability to question ‘what’s going on’. Lanagan said utopias are a ‘simple’ construct – ‘the idea of endless progress that we had has come to bite us on the bum’. Also, she said writers are depressives (jokingly?), and well, it’s speculated that ‘depressives see the world more clearly’. I think there’s some truth in that, as a depressive does not apply a gloss or sheen to reality. But Mieville took it further, intellect that he is, and said writers of dystopian fiction are also self conscious of the aesthetic potential of the dystopic world.

The question of process posed by the audience in this one was fascinating – after hearing Anne Michaels and Kate Grenville talk about questions and trust and following intuitive paths, Mieville said he is a ‘meticulous’ planner! He begins with the setting, creates exhaustive outlines of plot and character, before beginning. Lanagan was the opposite, starting with charcater, having a bare ‘scaffolding’, but following different paths.

I’d like to talk about audience for this session – definitely a younger crowd than other sessions. What is it about youth and genre fiction? What is it about older generations shying away from it? Has it got something to do with the ‘general commodification of despair’ in society in more recent years, and a reading audience that have been engaged with this? Is there a pessimism in youth, or a willingness to imagine alternative futures? Just throwing these out there…

Best session quote: ‘The millennium was a bit of a damp squib’ – China Mieville.

Side note: Did you know Jack Dann wrote a book called The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean? I read it a few years ago and never realised, when I heard more about Dann lately, that it was the same writer. I remember really enjoying that book. Must seek it out again sometime.


ego_and_soul_lrI went to Our Restless Life to see John Carroll, as I’ve read a fair few of his articles. Brigid Delaney was the other panellist, and it was chaired by Kalinda Ashton. Delaney really spoke after my own heart about restlessness and not wanting to ‘miss out’ on things. She spoke about the ‘illusion that there’s so much choice out there’ . Why is it an illusion? Because we are only on this earth for a small amount of time and can’t physically ‘choose’ everything. The central question of her book is ‘is it better to live broader or deeper, and can you do both?’

John Carroll, in his velvety suit complete with professor-patches, started with a caution – ‘things usually change much less than you think’. Who we are hasn’t essentially changed, he believes, due to modern technology and consumerism etc. He believes the big shift came with the death of religion and community as we shifted ‘to a world where individuals have to make their own meaning’. At the end of the day, our own conscience is our judge. We seek a ‘beautiful rhythm’ in life (an Ancient Greek concept) – moments of transcendence and brilliance, something above and beyond the ordinary. When we fail, we become prone to restlessness – and the world caters for this restless lifestyle. After an audience question, Carroll came to the conclusion that the popularity of the show Masterchef was a perfect example of this seeking of ‘beautiful rhythms’ – something so ordinary as cooking, elevated to an art form, one that some can become the ‘master’ of, and then teach their ‘wisdom’ to others.

I was glad I went to this session because it challenged my thoughts on consumerist society (and I bought Carroll’s book after). I asked Carroll whether he thought the satisfaction of these transcendent moments was more fleeting in a consumerist society – what I was trying to ask was whether consumerist society capitalised on the search and then created a general anxiety for more transcendent moments. Carroll thought the ‘fleetingness’ of these moments was not something new (true that), and he even proposed that we are lucky because (without religious doctrine etc.) we are free to acknowledge the fleetingness… He also said that this Greek concept, the ‘beautiful rhythms’ was rooted in balance. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that balance is a capital I issue for me.

So, to balance out this serious blog post (after all, it is Sunday), here is a ‘literal video version’ of Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’. Hilarity+

4 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part three: future cities, beautiful rhythms and a literal ending

  1. Man, you could almost hear the simultaneous eyerolling from onstage and off when all that utopia/dystopia cultural studies nonsense was brought up again and again. You could really tell that most of the people asking questions had never read any Mieville or Lanagan – or possibly any weird fiction that wasn’t safely stamped with Atwood.

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