Schmoozing with a Smart Bitch and a vulgar amount of name-dropping

Up until last week, I had not attended a high tea since 2000. 12 years ago I had the good fortune to attend a high tea in the Queen’s Ballroom whilst journeying through the Whitsunday Islands along the North East coast of Australia on a leg of the millenium world cruise of the QE2, as one does. There were marvellous sandwiches, petit fours and loose leaf tea served in fine bone china teacups. It was all very very proper. A string quartet played while well-dressed couples danced to music from the early twentieth century when I was asked if I would like to dance and I found myself doing the cha-cha with a gentleman host beside the Queen’s bust.

This is a travelling highlight for me and I had not felt the need to go to another high tea as it would be a hard act to follow. But last week I finally attended one as Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches Trashy Books was attending along with a number of romance readers, writers and bloggers. It was a loud and raucous afternoon spent with some fabulous women and a lot of fun was had by all. Sarah Wendell was in Sydney as an international guest for the inaugural Genre Convention and I was fortunate enough to be asked to be on a panel discussion with Sarah. The panel was called Not Just a Narrator where, along with Sarah, speculative fiction author Kirstyn McDermott and Harlequin Escape managing editor Kate Cuthbert, we spoke about the many people who promote books and reading, on and offline, from authors, bloggers and librarians *cough* yours truly *cough*. I spoke about the collaborative work NSW librarians and the NSW Readers’ Advisory group are doing to promote readership in developing their monthly themes, facilitating a monthly twitterchat group and blogs Love2Read2012 for the National Year of Reading and next year’s readwatchplay. As the sole librarian speaking at the convention, and only my second non-library talk, I was eager to see how libraries fit into the broader reader, author and book industry discourse. In my opinion, the library aspect was well received and it intersected well with the blogger and author experiences being relayed by the rest of the panel. I think that we need more librarians being part of readers conventions, literary festivals and book fairs as there is a natural overlap for these industries.

The convention itself was fantastic. With a swathe of amazing Australian authors discussing their readership and their craft, the atmosphere was exciting. I heard several of the speakers discussing that we are in an era of writing abundance and it was evident with the number of aspiring, emergent and established authors present and the fabulous editors and publishers that enable their work to be distributed broadly. There were so many fabulous people I spoke with such as Anna Campbell, Shannon Curtis, Christina Brooke, Kat @bookthingo, Rosie @fangbooks, @Rudi_Bee, Kate Eltham, Peter Ball, Denise Rosetti, Bronwyn Parry, Nicky Strickland, Kylie Mason, Haylee and Lilia from Harlequin, Caitlyn Nicholas and many more (and my apologies if I didn’t mention you).

However, I cannot be blasé about Sarah Wendell. Sure, I’d be much cooler if I didn’t gush all over her on my blog. But I have never been a cool kid and I think Sarah was lovely and funny and so generous with her time despite her concerns for her family and friends in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Back in 2008, I gave a Romance 101 presentation at the NSW Readers’ Advisory annual seminar where I introduced the Smart Bitches blog (and a number of other romance literature resources) to over 140 librarians. So to find myself four years later, onstage speaking with Sarah has been a career highlight.

There was no Queen’s ballroom or Queen’s bust, there weren’t any views of the South Pacific or tropical islands and there were no gentlemen hosts or string quartets. But we did have Tim Tams and lamingtons, and there was snark and there was awesomesauce. And it ranks up there with my high seas high tea cha-cha.

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Reflections on Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012

Over a week ago I attended a handful of sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The last time I had attended the festival was in 2009, as I was overseas in 2010 and moving out of my house in 2011. The Sydney Writers’ Festival is always an exploration of ideas and unknown writers for me. The festival rarely represents my personal reading interests but on a professional level, as a readers’ advisory librarian, every session is important, every session has relevance. Writing festivals reflect a segment of the reading publics’ interest and in the months that follow there will be a raised awareness of the authors that were in attendance and with it a higher demand for their books both in bookshops and libraries. With that in mind, it was lovely to bump into several librarian friends and colleagues over the 3 days I attended and I would love to think that there were many more librarians in attendance.

Audience

I find the writers’ festival appeals to a conservative audience. That is, tertiary educated and women. Please don’t misunderstand me here, I feel this is a wonderful group – I AM this group! It is imperative that this audience base is retained but I would like to have seen a little more experimentation with the events so as to appeal to, not only a broader readership, but a broader cross section of the greater Sydney community. Surely risk taking with writer events is not only the charge of emerging writer’s festivals and fringe festivals. The organisers might point to the hiphop poets but hiphop has been around for many decades so I don’t count that as experimental. Perhaps I would have noticed a broader audience if I had attended some of the Western Sydney events but I was only able to attend the city events this time.

The other thing I felt was the distinct difference between attending a readers’ convention and a writers’ festival. Here, I am comparing SWF to the Australian Romance Readers’ Convention. The differences may be more due to the volume of the individual events where there are about 200 people at ARRC compared to the thousands that attend SWF. However, I don’t really think this is the difference. At the SWF the writer is coveted. Most don’t walk and talk amongst the other attendees whereas the readers’ convention is about connecting reader to writer both at scheduled events and at social events where you get to meet each other. Perhaps it is Writers’ Festivals focus on the writer experience whereas readers’ conventions focus on developing the readers as fans. I think that this is a grey area which I am interested in exploring futher.

National Year of Reading

I found it very peculiar that in the National Year of Reading there was no mention or presence of the National Year of Reading campaign. I am happy to stand corrected on this point but from my own observations (and I cannot be omnipresent so I can only comment on the sessions I attended and the tweet stream I read) this didn’t cross the radar of the organisers nor the presenters of the sessions I attended. Richard Glover’s blurb makes mention of NYR, as do the CBCA events as they are NYR partners. I’m not completely naïve and I realise that it is a complex case of sponsorship, advertising, grants approval etc but to have a zero connect is like having a forestry convention during the National Year of the Tree with no crossover. SWF is on the National Year of Reading’s events calendar but I’d love to hear from others on this. Maybe I missed something. Is this unique to the Sydney Writer’s Festival or has the National Year of Reading been missing from all the other Writers’ Festivals around Australia.

Kids at the Festival

I think that kids programs at the festival is one area that is excellent. Every year seems to have the same consistent good programming. There is a broad representation of literary authors and mass market authors. I love this. It shows that you can have the benchmark literary authors alongside benchmark mass market and genre authors. Ranging from picture book authors to young adult authors reflecting the different age groups. Hopefully, the adult programming will start to shift and be more like the kids programming.

I took my son to hear Jeff Kinney speak. I was fortunate enough to have won tickets from @BookdOut on Twitter (thank you! once again).

Jeff Kinney is fab! Jeff Kinney writes books that appeal to children because he “gets” kids. He remembers details from being a kid. I found it quite interesting that he said that he kept being told that he “appeals to reluctant readers” and that he didn’t know what a reluctant reader was until it was explained to him that it was boys. Yet boys are not reluctant to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because the writing appeals. My funny son, did say that Jeff Kinney was up there as a favourite but not his absolute favourite (this from a boy who sleeps with Diary of a Wimpy Kid books framing his bed).

What I did find peculiar in the kids program was the omission of Eoin Colfer from a standalone presentation or talk. Eoin Colfer has a huge readership in Australia. Many adults, along with kids, love his Artemis Fowl books as well as his Worst Boy books yet the only way you could get to hear him speak is if your school chose to take you to a Schools Day event that he presented to. I was very disappointed by this.

Beating the genre drum – Writers don’t get it but the critics did

There were several thought provoking comments during different sessions which were made during the writers’ festival that I will outline. The panels that I’m talking about had a varying degree of my presence from reading a tweetstream, to sitting outside a theatre and listening to a panel to actually attending two sessions.

I was following the tweetstream from Kathy Lette & Toni Jordan’s Girl Trouble session seemed to be more anti-chick lit than for chick lit. Lette showed her lack of understanding of the genre with comments about clitlit and Mills and Boon. There is a Storify of the tweets and the ensuing wider audience comments about these comments. I love that a tweeted comment could get so many people not in attendance discussing the talk. Such is the power of social media. I also understand that comments can be taken out of context and that this is the negative side of social media. I spoke with some friends who had attended this session and said that she was very funny and the comments were just flippant. But isn’t that always the case when someone is being derogatory about something that they feel is inferior to them? The flip comment is not necessarily the ignored comment. Perhaps authors should allow their work to stand on their own merits rather than trying to elevate their work through the discrediting of authors and publishers whose work I doubt they have read.

This was not a comment isolated to that session. As you do at the SWF, there are times you walk around and listen to panels being piped out into the forecourt. One session I listened to the closing 20 minutes of was Old Scrags and Other Sheilas.I have no idea which of the speakers was saying the following but when their book was described as “chick lit” the author – very respectfully and in no way flippant or denigrating – stated that her book was not chicklit which was a subgenre of romance as chick lit had plot points and specific requirements for the order of events that need to happen. She emphasised that her book was not chicklit because she played with these ideas and changed them around. She then proceeded to discuss how she loves the conventions of crime fiction and how different authors played with these conventions.

I respect that an author may not identify their work as a certain “type” and have no issue with the author rejecting the “Chicklit” label but to describe romance/chicklit genre negatively due to the rules that they follow yet in the same breath celebrate “crime conventions” seems obtuse to me. What is derided in one genre is celebrated in another? How could that author not have seen that formula=conventions. A bit of a “Duh” moment really.

Another session that I attended was “But is it a good read”. Stella Rimington’s controversial comment that the Booker prize judges panel were going to choose “a readable” book was the basis of this talk. Stella Rimington brought up that she possibly should have used the word more “accessible” rather than ‘readable’. Other panellists were Stephen Romei, Chip Rolley and Neil James from the Plain English Foundation. There were a wealth of statements such as

“We are all different readers”

“what is difficult for you will be a zip along for someone else”

“I love being challenged but not challenged and bored”

“A good read will always be noticed by the public whereas a difficult read needs the prize to be noticed by the public”.

The idea of privileging difficult reads was brought up. Somehow, society consider the difficult read to be the better read. This did bring me to think that perhaps this was a Christian ideal, harking back to the narrow, less travelled road. It also is reflective of St Augustine discussing the guilt he felt for his enjoyable, leisurely reading.

There was a lot of discussion around the readability of Ulysses. Many people in the audience admitted to owning it but not reading it. One of the questions/statements from an audience member was on having rejected reading Ulysseys but having loved the audiobook as it is a book of rhythms and quite dependent on the auditory experience. Stella Rimington immediately dismissed this idea “That is acting. That is not reading”. (As an aside – this seemed quite startling for me as I have always thought of audiobooks to be a reading experience. But upon further thought, audiobooks do not require any decoding. They are a natural experience.) So telling may not be reading but certainly a story, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, can be much more enjoyable in an auditory capacity.

I want to write that Stephen Romei’s positive comments on genre writing were pleasing to hear. Romei pointed out (in relation to the Booker Prize) that genre novels do not get chosen not because of the judges but because of the publishers. The judges already receive a vetted list before they decide on a longlist as each publisher can only enter two books. So it is the publishers who are the ones who are setting the agenda against genre here.

Another mention of genre was at Criticism and Witticism and the Pascall Foundation’s Critic of the Year award which was awarded to James Bradley who was described as a “polymath of genre” and that “Bradley argues for a wider sense of what literature can be”.

Wrap-up

I had an invigorating 3 days spent browsing the different sessions at the festival. Sydney had brought out its best weather for the event. There were a few other sessions I attended on memoirs, the environment, politics and war that I have not discussed here. In the end, I chose not to attend any Sunday events because I felt recharged and I spent a day at home reading with my family. My 3 year absence highlighted to me that organisers, moderators and critics are aware that there is a broader readership with which to engage but this is not yet evident in the programming. Perhaps, this will come around next year (she whispers optimistically).

Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this

Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Bloody Culpa (but then again maybe the bookstores will have to shoulder this one)

Last week, RedGroup went into administration and along with it a number of Australian and New Zealand book chains – Borders, Angus and Robertson and Whitcoulls. Of course, the media have gone crazy blaming the darn internet again (my god – prior to 1994 you could only blame society). With the gradual decline of the print newspaper (hell, they’re giving them away at 8am these days) the media are bitter, enraged and ready to snarl at any hint of online business having healthier sales than a bricks and mortar company.

Now I am being implored by the media to “put my money where my heart is” and support my bricks and mortar independent bookseller and stop buying from those horrid online bookshops.

Well, let me say this to the book chains and indies.  You lost me, and a large chunk of the book buying market (romance readers), by being disdainful of our reading choices. I have spent decades struggling to source romance titles and finally have found places that will not only stock them but will sell them to me at a lower price than venerated bookstores can supply them. Why should I change my buying habits. As it stands, I would still have to source my titles through the online bookstore to give to my indie who has actively chosen not to supply them.

Yes, I do love my indie. Their loyalty program is splendid, their staff are friendly and knowledgeable (and all greet me by name) and for years they would order in books for me (back when I really didn’t feel comfortable with online purchasing). These books were, inevitably, romances.  But did this impact at all upon their book stocks? Well – they always stock Jennifer Crusie. But that is it. Despite the fact that they had staff that enjoyed the genre and and that they had customers that enjoyed the genre and that they had genre sections throughout the shop (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Crime) my “beloved” indie chooses to not sell Romance. Somehow, I suspect that independent bookshops would prefer to declare bankruptcy than to dedicate any space to the romance genre.

When you have a mortgage or family  or other responsibilities to look after, your book buying priorities change. Thankfully, I work in a public library so access to millions of books is at my fingertips. These same millions of books are accessible to any Australians who visit their public library. To find these books Trove is the best source for titles held throughout the country. That said, I love my keepers and I am all for the adage of “Buy the best, borrow the rest”. So when I find that I have borrowed and renewed a book multiple times and I am deeply in love with it I will go out and purchase a copy for my home.

I find that I buy approximately 20 books a year for my whole family and I buy these books from various sources. Now, the difference between paying $20 per item by going through my indie/chain or paying $8 for the same book through Book Depository/Amazon – it’s a no brainer. And it is insulting to my intelligence to beseech me to stop buying online. Franky, that “leftover” $12 supplies my home with 10 litres of milk (which lasts 3 days) or 1.5 other book titles. A win/win situation for my family.

And if the issue is “Buy Australian” there are a number of generalist Australian online bookstores who do supply romance titles and promote them, discuss them and enjoy them too. They provide a wonderful service and operate in a similar way to indies (except they know what their customers want to read). And their prices are reasonable, too. A shout out to Booktopia and The Nile.

The question is: do I still buy from my indie? That would be a resounding yes though not as much as I used to. I buy all my Australian and New Zealand authors and publications from them. It is the same price (and in many instances, cheaper) than buying those titles online. Will this save the store? I don’t know. Would I return to my local indie if it set up a romance section? Perhaps. I love reading the last pages of a book before I buy it and I also love skimming through a book to get a sense of the language that is being used. Once again, I can’t do that online. So it would really depend on the price and the quality of the titles being sold.

The important point to observe is that readers who choose to buy their books online do so for a number of reasons, be they cost driven, being too busy to be bothered going into a bookstore or quite importantly, inaccessibility of titles readers want to read.

I am putting my money where my heart is – and my heart is with the suppliers of books that I like to read. So if this means that bricks and mortar bookstores will close down I will be amongst the many who will be saying “Mea Culpa”.