My Melbourne Writers Festival Experience

After my last post I did get a chance to attend a couple of events at the Melbourne Writers Festival, so here (to make up for a bit of a blogging hiatus), are some recollections and thoughts. Better late than never!

I ended up only attending free events, but I was not disappointed! Though the festival began on Friday the 21st of August, my first event was on the night of Thursday the 27th: The Festival Club. This event, which was on most nights, offered a mixed bag of what the festival had to offer. The main portion of this event when I was there was the SPUNC Reading and Writing Spectacular. SPUNC stands for Small Press Underground Networking Community, for those not in the know, so it was a good showcase of small indie publishers doing great things! Three things stood out that night:

  • Affirm Press’s Rebecca Stafford spoke about their upcoming Long Story Shorts: short story collections that they’re currently planning and accepting submissions for. If you’ve got a collection of short stories in your drawer, computer or mind, then you should send something their way. This is a publisher doing a great mix of things, and I’m interested to see what they come up with.
  • Sleepers Publishing was represented by author Kalinda Ashton, whose new book The Danger Game had previously failed to entice me, but after hearing her give a reading, I think I might have to check it out. Sleepers is becoming more awesome by the day: they put out a weekly video newsletter, the annual Sleepers Almanac and, recently, The Age Book of the Year, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, which I can’t wait to read.
  • Finally, I correctly answered a question (“What will Affirm Press’s short story collections be called?” See above!) and MC Angela Meyer rewarded my attentiveness with a copy of My Extraordinary Life and Death, a delightfully hilarious little picture book! Huzzah!

So my night was interesting, informative and I got a freebie!

On Saturday the 29th, I went along with friend and girlfriend to watch that day’s Artist in Residence: the author and illustrator Shaun Tan. If you haven’t seen or read his work, check out The Arrival. It’s a fantastic story about the immigrant experience told without words. And for no price beyond the tram ticket to get there, we could sit in our deckchairs and watch Shaun choose a little doodle from his sketchbook and then turn it into a finely crafted pen-inked drawing of a griffin mother and child, or wax crayon picture of a sinister penguin banker. We could either watch up-close or see his handiwork projected onto a huge video screen. He made it look so simple! He was a friendly guy; he would chat to people and answer questions as he was drawing. He even signed dozens of people’s books purchased from the nearby festival Readings store, including my friends copy of Tales From Outer Suburbia … I really must borrow it someday.

Shaun Tan giving a speech

Shaun Tan giving a speech

(Photo by anna_t, under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa license)

In our brief chat, I was intrigued to hear that he also did some of the preliminary concept drawings for the animated films Wall-E and Horton Hears a Who and is working on an animated short at the moment. This whole experience just cemented that he’s one of my favourite artists. It was so cool to get a chance to watch and engage as a talented artist created his work. Inspiring stuff! I just wish I could have seen some of the other artists and authors in residence.

Later that evening, I got along to another Festival Club. The Age’s Literary Editor, Jason Steger, was there for a chat. Among the interesting tidbits was his revelation that he read War & Peace in just one day, spread across a couch at home. And he gives it two thumbs up!  Other than that, there was more from SPUNC:

  • A representative from Spinifex Press spoke about their new work Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. It sounds like a comprehensive and important work on a troubling topic. The brief interview gave me the impression that this is a bigger problem than I’d ever suspected.
  • Emmett Stinson, who some of you may have had classes with, spoke about Wet Ink, where he’s the Fiction Editor. They were giving away free copies and I managed to bag one. I’ve had a look over a few issues now and it’s a quality publication. I’d like to subscribe once I get a real job as , say, a Fiction Editor?
  • There were words with the editor of Extempore, a biannual jazz journal, which actually sounds really amazing, even though I know next to nothing about jazz.
  • And Griffith Review, yet another journal that looks intimidating in its greatness. I don’t think I’ll ever have time to read all the snazzy-looking publications out there, thanks to events like this!

All in all, another great day and night at the festival!

My final part in the festival experience was a little bit of The Morning Read on Sunday the 30th, the final day of the festival. This event, chaired by Torpedo’s Chris Flynn, ran almost every morning of the festival and presented three authors reading from their works and fielding questions from the audience. I’d never heard of any of the three, but I was pleasantly surprised:

  • Peter Bakowski was first, and he got past my misguided prejudice against the pretentious beret-wearing poet cliche with his gentle, wise and casually talented words and manner. His reading of Portrait of blood floored me. I want to get one of his books already.
  • Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean author, read some short excerpts. I’ll definitely keep her in mind, with her detailed and colourful tales of daily life in Africa.
  • I didn’t hear Nicholas Rothwell read any of his work, but he did field some questions. He was so softly-spoken, introspective and thoughtful and used such descriptive language, I assumed he was a poet too. But upon internet research: nope! Journalist for The Australian!

Goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover!

Aaaaaand with that, I think that’s enough literary-related blathering for several weeks, at least on this blog. I promise my next post will be short, pithy, well-chunked and related purely to the interwebs.

In summation: There were so many events I wish I could have made it to, but I’m glad I saw what I did. I feel much more familiar with the festival and know exactly what sort of things I want to get in on early, next year. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see everything I want in 2010!

Beyond that, for anyone else who’s interested, the MWF Website has a roundup of all the blogging that’s been done about this year’s festival, as well as a selection of audio/visual recordings from the programme.

So that should have you covered if you missed out! Anyone else manage to see anything? Don’t let me be a lonely litnerd!

Writing and Editing for Digital Media Assignment 1: Evaluating Web Writing

The litblog, short for literary blog, is a rising force, not just in the blogosphere and on the internet as a whole, but as part of a diverse multimedia landscape. They may be written by individuals or groups, but generally focus on literature, books, writing, publishing and associated events and issues. But beyond this, litblogs vary significantly in many ways: their intended audience, their writing style, design, layout, and what sort of literature they focus on. They offer a community hub for those enthusiastic about literature and a choice of alternative news, reviews and opinion from that of traditional media. They recognise their differentiation from traditional media outlets and embrace the online medium in myriad ways. As I will explore, litblogs range from the well-established to the emerging, but they all have their own strengths and weaknesses as individual websites.

LiteraryMinded is the online presence for Melbourne writer Angela Meyer, or Miss LiteraryMinded. It is one of the many blogs on the Crikey blog network and although the blog previously existed on Blogspot (it migrated to a WordPress platform when adopted by Crikey) it retains its individuality; beyond some links on the edges of the website, one could quite easily read the blog without ever reading about Crikey’s other content. Its focus is of course largely on Angela’ news, reviews, interviews and musings on literature, books, writing and publishing, with a particular emphasis on Melbourne and Australian events, authors and the like. True to the flexibility of the format, her blog often contains other styles of posts, such as book excerpts, poetry, competitions, ‘confessionals’ and periodically a ‘guest author’ post. She embraces the online medium in posts such as her ‘responsive interviews’, where she will email an author a series of questions in the form of a word, phrase, hyperlink, picture, audio file or YouTube video, and the author then responds, with the same multimedia freedom.

The main page, topped by the LiteraryMinded masthead, shows the ten most recent blog posts in their entirety. Beyond external ads, and ads for Crikey, the side panel contains numerous navigation tools: an About page link, links to her Twitter account and Shelfari page, her blogroll, recommended links and RSS feeds. Navigation to other parts of the website is fairly straightforward: there is an archive, a short list of categories and a list archived posts. Each post also has extensive tags, but these can strangely only be read once reading posts in the archives, not current posts. It seems to be only through the archives that one can browse by tags, which could be off-putting to some users. The Google search box is also somewhat out-of-the-way and tiny, but works well. Beyond the aforementioned external and social media links, community interaction is encouraged. Each post has the opportunity for readers to comment, and discuss with Angela and others readers.

Overall, the main page is well-designed and easy to navigate in a number of ways, but perhaps rather long and text-heavy to an unfamiliar reader. The writing for her posts is often long-form, divided into a number of different topics. The option to view a ‘summary’ or ‘list’ view of more of the most recent posts could be beneficial, containing just a headline, kicker (currently not used), categories and the under-utilised tags. As it stands though, readers can scan the page fairly easily, as while the text is rarely in very small chunks, there are descriptive headlines, bolded keywords, regular use of images and clear division between different topics.

In one recent post, ‘Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky’, the content is well-balanced and optimised for the web, although it is perhaps more concise and focussed than other posts. She uses an introduction (highlighted in blue), to provide context and link this post to other related posts in the series. She gives a brief outline of an author and a short interview/bio, interspersed with a picture, an embedded video and further related external links. The text is fairly well chunked and uses bold highlighting of key words to aid in scannable, easy-to-read text. The focus is on giving the reader all the information they may want on the topic, quickly but in an erudite fashion, utilising multimedia and linking freely. As a representative example of her posts, this is very well-optimised web content. She is not afraid of long-form writing, but generally understands the benefits of hyperlinking and multimedia content, presented in an easily scannable form.

3000 Books is one of the newer litblogs, started in 2007 and run by another Melbourne writer, Estelle Tang. Its main focus is book reviews: roughly one a week, but it also covers general and related literary news. It is based in a Blogspot platform and has a comparatively simple design. The main page is the seven most recent blog posts, again not summarised or in an immediately scannable form. While this may be an issue, it’s not so much of a problem as the posts tend to be quite short, and even those are chunked into small paragraphs. Those posts that aren’t short are single book reviews, identified by a single book cover photograph.

The side panel features a quick description of the site and author, what she’s currently reading, archive of previous posts, RSS feed, blogroll/recommendations and a very extensive list of tags used on the website. The site is very uncluttered-looking, with lots of white space (or yellow and pink space, in this case). She uses labels for most posts and this, paired with the search box at the top, make the site fairly easy to navigate. The use of general post categories could be beneficial though, as there is no way to sort between review posts and other types of posts. Additionally, although she utilises linking fairly extensively, she does not frequently link to other reviews or additional information on the books she reviews. More use of multimedia content beyond the occasional picture could also be beneficial to the site, but perhaps suits the intended bookish audience that may not mind reading mostly text. Speaking of audience, the blog of course has the option for comments.

As an example of a typical post, a recent review post ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower’, contains a picture of the book, a link to a related review of hers and the review text. While other posts contain more extensive linking, it shows that she divides her posts into two general categories: miscellaneous news and reviews, with the latter being fairly similar in form to a print review, without utilising any of the potential of the online medium. This isn’t too much of a problem though, as she never lets her paragraphs or posts get too long-winded.

Overall, 3000 Books is somewhat plain and simple, but clean in presentation and reasonably easy to navigate. However, the non-review posts are not clearly headlined or tagged. But for a standalone website, it links quite extensively to others in the blogosphere, the writing and publishing community and broadly online. A very solid website, but some improvements could be made.

The Bookslut blog is part of the broader Bookslut website, a monthly web magazine and one of the older and more well-established of the litblogs. It was started in Texas in 2002 by Jessa Crispin, and while she is still the editor-in-chief, the website features a host of staff writers, columnists and occasional reviewers. The blog, however, is largely maintained by Jessa and Michael Schaub.

While the main website is updated monthly with features, columns and reviews, the blog is updated daily and accessible by one link on the homepage. Each post contains the date for a headline and a handful of short paragraphs of literary news, usually linking to a number of other related literary websites.

For such a well-established website and blog, it seems to be hesitant to emerge into the world of Web 2.0. The posts do not have space for comments, although there is a link to email the contributing author. But this lessens the strong sense of community this website could foster. Tags and categories are not used, so searching on a particular topic is left to the search bar. However, this seems to only search for things posted in the webzine, not the blog. I could find no sign of anything resembling an RSS feed for the blog either. Posts older than a week or so seem to disappear at the bottom of the page, with no apparent archive of old posts. A Google search revealed such an archive, but I could find no link to this myself. Finally, there are no pictures or any other multimedia in the blog posts. I would point out most of these issues if I were to suggest improvements, but for a dedicated reader, the site works well enough. As this is an old site for dedicated literary types, this probably partly explains the lack of all these features.

On the plus side, the blog posts are short and punchy enough to be easily scannable. They rarely go beyond a paragraph or two and are usually well-written and witty, which is an achievement for such short posts. It’s just a shame that any posts older than a week are hard to find. As it is, the blog may as well be just the one page, changing daily. Having said that, their content would be useful and interesting to their intended literary audience.

As I have explored, litblogs are as varied as any other website. All of them, from the most well-established to the freshest, have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important for them to remember their audience, keep their content interesting, accessible and navigable and to remain up-to-date with online developments. If they do, literary aficionados will continue to happily frequent their websites, and they can stand as examples for web users in general of what makes good web content.

References

3000 Books. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website 3000books.blogspot.com

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via 3000 Books website 3000books.blogspot.com/2009/08/everything-ravaged-everything-burned.html

Bookslut. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com

Bookslut Blog. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com/blog/

LiteraryMinded. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded

Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via LiteraryMinded website: blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2009/08/20/queensland-poetry-festival-special-elizabeth-bachinsky/