Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pens and Prejudice.

I finally got around to watching the Pens and Prejudice episode of First Tuesday Book Club last night. It was a discussion about the perceived prejudice against woman authors. All during the show I had a comment by Germaine Greer in mind. She said male authors tend to write about how the world is, whereas female authors tend to write about how they wished the world was.

I often extrapolate Greer’s comment for science fiction into: male authors tend to write about how they think the future will be, whereas female authors tend to write about how they hope the future will be. I am yet to establish whether the original comment by Greer or my extrapolation is true, as I have not read that many books written by female authors. And I have to ask myself: why do I read very few books by female authors?

Jennifer Byrne on the show displayed some pie charts showing how the overwhelming number of books reviewed in newspapers and other publications are written by male authors. This may have some effect on me as a reader as about 15% of the books I buy are as a result of book reviews. But what about the rest?

I went through a stage of reading award-winning books, especially the Booker Prize. The panellists on Pens and Prejudice discussed the perceived prejudice many awards have against women. The Stella prize was established in Australia because of a perceived bias in the Miles Franklin Award, and there is the Orange prize for women’s writing in the UK. So maybe my bias towards male authors is influenced by the winners of awards being mostly male.

I thought one of the panellists had a good idea when he suggested an experiment where all the judges for an award are women, so we could see the gender balance of their short and long list selections.

A lot of the authors I currently read are as a result of my book buying habits of past decades where I bought a lot of books from garage sales and fetes. I selected the books primarily on whether their blurb interested me. I have always been particularly interested in apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction. Women wrote very few of the apocalyptic or dystopian novels that I picked up. So maybe women didn’t/don’t write that much dystopian fiction, preferring to write utopian visions of the future.

One of the books I picked up at a fete had a very disturbing dystopian future and had also won the Arthur C. Clarke award, that book was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. She has since become one of my favourite authors, with her Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood novels. And I am very much looking forward to reading the third book in that series.

The Pens and Prejudice panellists discussed whether a female author could write a novel like Christos Tsiolakas’ The Slap or Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections. Two books that I have read and very much enjoyed. I reckon Margaret Attwood could write a unique and very good version of The Slap.

I have recently read two very good science fiction novels by female authors: H.M Brown’s The Red Queen, and Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle. One is set in an apocalyptic future, the other in a dystopian future. So I will read female authors if I find they have written on a theme or topic I am interested in.

About 90, maybe 95, per cent of the books I have read have had male authors. Obviously part of this is because there are many more books published by male authors, but what about the rest of the disparity? Do most female authors just not write the type of book I am interested in?

Perhaps Greer is right.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Melboure Writer’s Festival – How they got published.

At the recent Melbourne Writer’s Festival, six of the authors I saw mentioned how they got their book published.

Jo Case was asked by a publisher to write her non-fiction book Boomer and Me after the publisher read an article Jo had written about her son’s Asperger’s.

Graeme Simsion originally wrote The Rosie Project as a film script. It won an Australian Writers' Guild award for the best romantic comedy script. But he had no luck getting the film made, so to get the script noticed he decided to turn it into a novel. The novel won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. A bidding war then broke out for the manuscript.

Catherine Deveny said she submitted the manuscript of her novel The Happiness Show by mistake, she sent the publisher a file containing it rather than the memoir they had contracted her to write. The publisher read the novel manuscript and liked it so much they wanted to publish it (Note: Deveny already had had six books published). 

A friend of Lucy Neave’s had an agent and recommended Neave to that agent. But the agent said Neave’s manuscript of Who We Were needed work. Neave worked on it for a couple of years and then sent it back to the agent.

Bali Kaur Jaswal did a mentorship with an agent. The agent helped develop the manuscript of Inheritance, but did not take her on. Jaswal sent the finished manuscript straight to its eventual publisher.

Many publishers rejected John Weldon’s manuscript Spincycle before it was picked up by an independent publisher. Weldon (pictured above) said that about a year later, a major publisher finally got back to him, but they were too late. Weldon didn’t have an agent.

Obviously the chances of getting published greatly increase when you know someone in the right place in the publishing industry. Those of us who don’t know anyone (yet) can take a bit of heart from Jo Case, John Weldon and Bali Kaur Jaswal’s experience. But note: Jo Case worked in the book industry as a reviewer and still works as a senior writer and editor at the Wheeler Centre. Lucy Neave, Bali Kaur Jaswal and John Weldon all teach creative writing. And Catherine Deveny had a long history in writing for a major newspaper, television and radio. So the only route open for those of us who aren't working in the business could be winning awards like Graeme Simsion did.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Readings at the Melbourne Writers Festival

At the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, Max Barry asked why do audiences sit around and listen to authors reading from their books at writer’s festivals? Shouldn’t they instead be watching authors write? A few years ago, he attempted to put that thought into action. He set himself up in the concourse at the Melbourne Writers Festival so people could watch on a big screen as he wrote. He said it was the worst writing experience in his life, as every murmur or giggle from those watching had him thinking he had made an grievous error. So he now much prefers to do readings from his books.

I heard him and a number of other authors reading from their books at the festival. Some of them had me wanting to buy their book, while others did a good job of convincing me not to buy their book.

Graeme Simsion

If you are an Australian writer and haven’t heard about Graeme Simsion and his book The Rose Project, then you haven’t been paying attention. Simsion has now sold his romantic comedy to 40 countries for around two million dollars. He is in negotiation with Hollywood studios to have it made into an A-list movie. The novel is about a scientist who sets out to find a mate, with a 32 page questionnaire. The main character, Don, has some of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome.

At the festival, Simsion read from the start of the novel. He read very quickly to mimic the voice of his character Don. The section he read was very funny, getting many laughs from me and the audience. He put on a very energetic performance, and I have since purchased the ebook of the novel. 

Max Barry

 Max Barry is an Australian whose book, Lexicon, I had purchased the morning before I saw him read. Lexicon had been getting a lot of good reviews from my Facebook friends, and I had very much enjoyed Barry’s last novel, Machine Man. Both novels are science fiction. Barry choose a section from the start of his novel, where there was a lot of action happening. What struck me about his reading was his unusual descriptive word choices, for example:

He didn’t understand the question. He had run into a pole and all his thoughts had fallen out. He groped for them and found Cecilia.

Catherine Deveny

Catherine Deveny was on the same panel as Max Barry. The panel was appropriately called Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard, because Deveny tortured her reading to death. She had selected a section from her novel The Happiness Show, but she spent ten minutes, at least, trying to set up the scene. She then interrupted her reading with more background explanation. Her reading, which I found neither funny nor memorable, was cut short by the moderator so the other authors could make a contribution to the one hour panel. If there is one thing I will take out of the festival it is that if I am ever doing a reading from a novel, I will choose a section that requires minimal backgrounding.

John Weldon

John Weldon is a first time novelist. He was on a panel with two other first time novelists. He had a big Aussie personality, much like the character in his book, Spincycle, where a man who recently separated from his wife. In the section John read, his main character needs to wash his underpants, but his wife took the washing machine. The section was humorous in a blokey way, not really my cup of tea. It also didn’t seem appropriate for an audience of 80% females. But if the rest of his novel was like his reading, then what choice did he have.

What I learnt about doing readings

Choose a section from near the start of the novel where the hook is, and where the assumed knowledge about the plot and characters is not that great for the reader/listener. Choose a section with humour in it, as laughter from the audience is great feedback. Mimic the voice of characters if you can. Put some energy into reading it, so you sound like you are proud of what you have written.