Typecasting and narrative voice at the 2011 Emerging Writers’ Festival
The Emerging Writers’ Festival, in its usual form, has thus far been about tequila shots and one long drunken conversation about The Wall. Yesterday I went to some actual sessions. Here’s a write-up of two of those.
The first session I attended yesterday was all about ‘typecasting’. Do the authors on the panel agree with the way they’ve been categorised (by the academy, commercial imperatives, the public)? Is Anita Heiss an ‘Indigenous chick-lit writer’? Is Ryan Paine a ‘young writer’? Is Julian Leyre a ‘gay writer’, and is Karen Pickering a ‘feminist writer’? In short, all agreed that there are pros and cons to these labels. They have helped them find certain interested audiences. On the other hand, the labels (or their associations, ie. a certain kind of book cover) have often limited who they reach. But the labels do all spring from a place of passion and interest.
Ryan Paine approached the topic differently. He’s an editor who has worked with young writers (at Voiceworks) and older ones at Wakefield Press. He said that one thing he’d noticed is that older writers can be a lot more reluctant to take on editorial advice. He thinks that the potential of publishing and reading young writers is they’re still curious, still open – and open to turning criticism on themselves. He said that often within the left, we ‘peddle the same opinions to one another’ and don’t challenge our views or read opposing commentary on certain prominent issues. It was a nice, challenging thing to hear at a writers’ festival – a place where one can wander in and out of panels in a bubble of ‘confirmation’. I tried to get out of my comfort zone at Sydney last weekend, in a panel on economics. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the more ‘writerly’ panels I went to, but I did learn a few things. I think Paine has a pertinent point, and I hope people like him keep coming along to remind me to broaden my horizons.
Heiss said she’s typecast as an Indigenous writer first and foremost, and then a ‘chick-lit’ writer (she prefers to think of it as commercial women’s fiction). She said the label ‘chick-lit’ devalues the lives of the women she writes about – urban, educated women dealing with universal experiences (one example is the relationship with other women in their lives). The label also suggests there’s nothing of substance for the reader, she said, but her writing is informed by a range of different experiences, and there are themes and issues in her books which are not just Indigenous themes and issues, but Australian themes and issues. When she wrote her first commercial novel she didn’t know she was writing in the realm of a particular genre, she was purging 15 years of bad dates! Also, she’d been reading novels on Maroubra Beach and couldn’t see any female heroines like her. She has also written and edited nonfiction, written poetry, travel articles, social commentary and children’s books, has a PhD and was chair of the ASA, but she said people separate all of this from her commercial novels. I think it’s admirable that someone has the drive and capacity to write stories both entertaining and informative in a range of forms for a range of different readers.
Julian Leyre, Frenchman turned Melburnian, has written for all different forms – novels, film, an exhibition. He noted that the audience was different for each. The ‘gay novel’ is mostly read by gay men, similarly the gay-themed film is mostly seen by men, but the exhibition – about same-sex migration – was a hit with both men and women. Leyre created a ‘we’ voice to tell couples’ stories in the exhibition, to give a voice to the community. Despite some limitations, Leyre is definitely looking forward to making more ‘gay work’.
Karen Pickering began with a sarcastic reverse-descrip. of her ‘limits’ as a feminist, playing the stereotype - ’No one wants to have sex with me’, ‘I hate men’ – and we all had a giggle. But seriously, what Pickering loves is discussion. For her, writing is just a necessity, ‘an idea delivery-system’ to get the message/s across. She said it ‘feels good being in the middle of such a huge cultural conversation that you care so much about’, and so, no, she doesn’t care about being typecast. What it’s forced her to do, as a public person, is become more rigorous, clarify her beliefs, and learn to admit if she’s made a mistake. She also said you should reach out beyond your natural allies (pretty similar to Paine’s idea).
Overall, I felt these writers were people with passions, ideas and open minds whose strong identities become de-complexified by these ‘labels’, sometimes to their gain (getting ideas across to people in capsule form, perhaps), and often to their detriment – because, after all (as Paine said) you can never accurately typecast someone. We are all complex, and we change from one minute to the next.
A Different Voice
This session was all about ‘voice’ in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In the realm of creative writing, it’s a topic that fascinates me, as it’s something essential to a book, but also something that’s difficult to describe or pin down.
Maxine Clarke talked about performing poems that are in some ways based on her experiences but are often telling a story, and are in a fictional voice. The challenge with poetry and performance poetry is that some people automatically assume it is her voice and her experiences. She wondered then – what ethical obligations do you have, to tell the audience that this is or isn’t a true story? Is there any obligation at all? Clarke showed us a favourite book from her childhood, written in the voice of a small black girl – and explained her surprise when, as an adult, she tracked it down and discovered it was written by a white, middle-aged male. Clarke suggested that you’d really have to do your research and get it right. But some writers can pull it off.
Tony Moore writes nonfiction. He said you can use quotes from archives and interviews but you still have to infer the ‘psychology’ of these historical figures, make them into characters. How does he do that? Often he’ll find record of a moment where everything was at stake for this historical figure (ie. in courtroom proceedings) and one line or action from a moment like that can reveal so much about them. He’s worked on documentaries for the ABC, too, and has been a publisher, and he said the power of film and the power of the word can change how governments act, more than any dry old policy (in his experience). How else can you emulate someone else’s voice? By being a flâneur, walking in the shoes of another – by playing with identity, dressing as another (in a metaphorical sense). It makes sense to get out of your own experience, he said, your own social milieu. It all aids empathy and empathy is essential for good writing. Something I’ve harked on about on here before. (I think it’s essential for good reviewing, too – to address the possible intentions of the author.)
Simmone Howell was, for years, writing stories about young people because she found them fascinating. And she said he inner age is about 15. That youthful voice seemed to occur naturally for her, and so her novels feature young adult characters. ‘That’s the voice that wouldn’t go away’, and hence the voice she developed. She listens to teenagers, their ‘bravado and their hesitation’, but she doesn’t attempt to make her stories too ‘present’ by adopting ephemeral slang or technology that may be obsolete in three years. Hence, her books have a bit of a ‘retro’ feel (I think this is certainly part of their appeal: the ‘retro’ is genuine). She doesn’t think about the ethics of representation - at the moment she’s writing as a male and she’s had people from different minorities and ethnic groups as minor characters. (Clarke made a great point later on that perhaps these minor characters are a way we can represent diversity, without ‘appropriating’ a community).
Alan Bissett performed for us an extract from his monologue based on the strong, charismatic women in his family (in his delightful Scottish accent). He said there was a revolution in language in Scotland in the ’90s when James Kelman won the Booker with his novel written in a Glaswegian dialect. The book was in third person, challenging previous novels written in plain English with the dialect ‘safely enclosed in speech marks’. Kelman used dialect to level the class system. Trainspotting followed, a very successful Scottish novel, and Bissett started to find his voice – a mix of dialect, plain English and the language of American pop culture. Using these three registers he wrote his novels. I related to what he said about some novels that appear to be written in a difficult style – at first there’s a wall, but after about three pages the reader is locked inside it. There’s an internal logic and syntax. This was definitely the case for me with a novel like A Clockwork Orange. At first, you think it’s going to be a slog, and then soon you barely notice you’re reading, you’re just seduced by the voice. I’m having a similar experience at the moment with sections of Cloud Atlas. On creating voice, Bissett also said you start with your own experience and build from that – you draw similarities between yourself and the character/s. Howell said a similar thing at the end: ‘You start with a kernel of truth and you make something into more than what it is.’
So, essential to voice are curiosity, empathy and then imagination, and sometimes research (immersive or otherwise).
Rest of the fest
TweetFilm, tonight. Unfortunately I’ll be missing some great-looking things like the genre sessions and Not Your Nana’s Slide Night, as I have so f**king much to do before we go away in two weeks. I will, however, be in the Poetry Cafe on Wednesday, and will stick around for Dirty Words!