Willy Lit Fest Part 1: Being Frankie and Talking Blogs

Last weekend I ventured along to the Williamstown Literary Festival and checked out a couple of panels:  Let’s Be frankie, Literary Blogging and From the Quill to the Kindle. All in all, it was good stuff, and it was nice to experience a different part of Melbourne, one that’s more like a coastal town, with the sea breeze, fish n chips and hordes of seagulls, along with some good literary company.

Thuy Linh Nguyen has already written about her experiences going to two of these panels, and Lisa Dempster has expanded on some of the stuff covered in her blogging panel, which I’ll get to later. But first, Let’s Be frankie.

I was drawn to this one because, while I don’t mind the odd look through a frankie mag if I see one,  I really wanted to see Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law. The former, still jetlagged from an extended holiday in volcano-wracked Iceland, I’ve long been a fan of, thanks to First Tuesday Bookclub, JJJ Breakfast, her blog and her numerous other writings.  The latter I recently became a fan of, upon reading his hilarious story about murdering cockroaches en masse in the latest Brow. And I’m really looking forward to his first book, The Family Law. PLUS he just did an interview with Virgule, the newish Voiceworks blog. Check it.

So with Susan Bird as chair, and plenty of  audience interlocution, their casual discussion covered all kinds of things, from freelancing to Twitter to Ben’s mum’s vagina.

Ben, who often writes somewhat ‘personal’ stuff about his partner, parents and siblings, mentioned that family is such an interesting subject for writing because it’s one of the basic social units, like a microcosm of society. It’s true, your family shapes who you are and how you relate to people. Plus everyone’s got one, so it’s always at least somewhat relatable.

They discussed how important it is to run your material past the people you’re writing about if you think there’s the slightest chance they might have issues with it. Plus, it really helps to flesh out your work and get a new perspective on it.

They went on to discuss that, sure it can be good to be honest and lay everything on the table when you write, but have you really thought about the consequences of putting what you’re writing out into the world? Have you considered your audience and the context and how it could be received? Some boundaries are important. Sure, external censorship is something to take a stand against, but it’s interesting to think about how important self-censorship can be, for good or ill. And all of this applies not just to stories, articles and essays, but to blog posts, status updates and even microblogging/tweets (hello Catherine Deveny). They also touched on the idea of ‘the illusion of intimacy’, which I’ll get to later.

Ben discussed the life of a freelancer. He always strives to find something interesting in any dull freelance gig he takes on, and noted how easy it is to get overloaded, because you always think every assignment is going to be your last. He also recommended that, when you’re writing, you should keep a template of ‘good writing’ close by (or perhaps at the back of your mind), so that you’ve got something to aim for, no matter how high you’re aiming.

Marieke mentioned how handy she found News Ltd. lawyers, as dull as they might sound, and how they kept her out of trouble 99% of the time when she wrote for the Green Guide. Still, she was a little surprised that the people she’s writing about actually read her columns and sometimes take offense. It was similar back when she was writing her blog. She saw it as a place to vent, and didn’t really consider any potential offense, defamation or other trouble she could face. It’s funny, I guess when you’re a lone blogger, most people aren’t going to bother taking you to court, whereas a huge organisation like The Age with a reputation, stakeholders and circulation necessitates the team of lawyers.

She also discussed how it’s easier writing about crap TV, because writing about programmes you love just turns into celebratory, masturbatory drivel. Finally, she compared her scriptwriting to her blogging, and discussed how writing for TV doesn’t get much personal response when the finished product finally emerges, whereas writing online has the benefit of immediacy and instant feedback.

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Speaking of writing online, the next day, satisfied but eager for more, I went along to the Literary Blogging panel, with Lisa Dempster and Angela Meyer (aka Ms LiteraryMinded), both of whom have blogs I follow and enjoy reading, so I was interested to hear their thoughts. There were plenty of questions from the small but engaged crowd and it gave me a lot to think about.

They both agreed that blogging can help you find your voice, build your style and help you grow as a unique writer. Lisa reckoned writing her book Neon Pilgrim was easier because she’d been blogging for so long. She didn’t have to struggle to find a writing voice; she already had that part mostly sorted.

They said that blogging is a discipline to stick to, and that you have to want to stick to it, then it builds its own momentum, just like other forms of writing I guess. But it’s unique in that it’s a good way to test ideas and see what others are thinking. You can admit that your ideas aren’t fully formed and open them up for discussion.

Angela says she still questions her role when she’s blogging: is she a reviewer? A cultural commentator? ‘Just a blogger’? Or, simply, a writer? It’s part of the necessary constant process of self-reflexivity.

And again, they touched on this idea of self-censorship. They wondered about ‘stepping on toes’, especially in such a tight community like that of Australian literary bloggers. You want to be honest, but there is always a degree of self-censorship. The question is where to draw the line. Personally, I want to be able to critique art, literature, media and the world around me, but at the same time, it can be damn hard to really call out perceived major flaws in something, or someone’s work, especially if they’re just starting out or you know them personally. So do you tone down your critique, not put up a review, or be bold, harsh but fair, and give an open opportunity for anyone to reply, refute and defend?

They also discussed this ‘illusion of intimacy’ idea that Ben and Marieke touched on. Sometimes these writers have been accused of being not just honest, but ‘oversharers’. But the fact is, people often don’t know about all the stuff that they’re not sharing. It can seem like they’re telling readers everything about their life and readers might feel that they know everything about them. But like all art, blogging is a constructed representation, and while you may be getting an honest picture and feel you know all about the author, you only know about them from what they give you. Three quarters of their life, or more, might not even be hinted at.

Is this ‘illusion’ a bad thing? Not really. Unless you want to go, warts and all, publishing the minutiae of your life, while alienating everyone you know and possibly facing legal action, it’s hard to have it otherwise. The boundary has to lie somewhere. In the end, of course, it has to be a personal decision. As long as you strive to be honest and fair in what you do reveal, and seriously consider what to publish and what to hold back, then it’s all good.

When asked about whether one should try to blend a large variety of topics in one blog , Lisa replied that cross-over is fine. The blog is your blog, so its topic is always going to be you and your interests. Other people have cross-over interests too, and if your blog is good enough, people will keep coming back for the stuff that they’re interested in, and won’t mind the odd uninteresting post.

There were a couple of other tidbits to think about:

  • A blog evolves over time and has its own narrative. So in a sense, a blog is a story.
  • Before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, people used online ‘handles’ more often. But now with such sites we’re commonly going by our real names online, or our real names are not so hidden anymore. Interesting point.
  • How is blogging perceived? How do you perceive it? Is it for your ‘best’ work? Does it really distract you from other writing? Or is it just a part of the broader spectrum of writing?
  • Finally, they mentioned two interesting things I’d never really heard of: blog tours, where someone hops along onto various blogs from all over the place, providing guest posts on each. Then there’s blog carnivals, where various bloggers all riff on a chosen topic, and they can engage with each others ideas on that topic.

Essentially, this panel built on what I already knew about blogging, gave me a lot to consider and gave me a good kick in the rear to blog more. All in all, blogging is experimental: it’s an experiment for each individual and also because the internet is a medium in flux, all of this stuff is still changing and being negotiated.

Speaking of emergent mediums: eBooks!

But that final panel will have to wait for Part 2, in the next day or two. This time I’m not going to go away for a week or so; I’m going to get some of that momentum happening with this blogging thing.

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Marieke Hardy’s m-Book

We’ve had Facebook and eBooks, now here’s an m-book.

In this case, m-book stands for mobile book, but it could also stand for Marieke’s book. You might know Marieke Hardy as part of the breakfast show trio on Triple J, as writer of columns in The Age’s Green Guide, as Ms Fits on her blog Reasons You Will Hate Me (now on indefinite hiatus), or as the regular on First Tuesday Book Club who’s not Jason Steger or Jennifer Byrne. Among other things, she also writes for television and even wrote a few episodes of Neighbours, but I won’t hold that against her. I think she’s great, and she’s something a book nerd crush for me, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend. A number of other people I know have disagreed vehemently with my glowing opinion of her, so she definitely divides people.

In any case, I’m a fan, so I was definitely curious when I read about her new project. She’s writing a story called Vigilante Virgin for The Age, about a socially inept woman who tries to jumpstart her life by joining up with a bunch of community activists. So, this story is something you sign up for on your phone, hence the m-book. If all goes to plan, you send a text to them and then you get sent a message every morning at 7 AM. Simple, right? But the message you get isn’t the story segment. It’s a link to a website containing the story segment that you can read on your phone if your phone is internet-enabled.

But there’s more. I was curious enough to buy into it, if only for a day and for the sake of an experiment. But apparently if you’re on 3Mobile like me, you can’t view it. I found this out when every time I tried to subscribe, I got an error message. So I gave up.

And yet, when the story launched on the morning of October 12, I somehow received two messages containing the link. For whatever reason, these also would not view on my phone! However, as I soon found out (through the utilisation of l33t $killz) it is entirely possible to just type the link into your computer’s internet browser, unsubscribe on your phone and continue reading on your computer for free. The link remains the same every day, and you can look into the archives for every previous segment.

If it wasn’t already clear enough, there’s no reason for anyone to keep subscribing, other than a sense of loyalty to Marieke or The Age. Or maybe a devotion to Borders, with their ad running at the base of the story every day. One could subscribe on the second last day and, with that link, read the entire archive for a fraction of the amount paid by a loyal subscriber. So basically, The Age is doing it wrong.

Maybe it would be better if the story instalments were simply received as text messages daily. This way, anyone with even the most basic phone could receive the story segments and easily store them to read later. Then it would truly feel like an m-book. Sure, maybe then people would just forward the story to their friends, starving The Age of subscription revenue, or maybe it would work as free publicity, encouraging some friends to take up a subscription of their own. Or maybe by designing a story service with greater interactivity, more people would get interested and involved. Each person could be given an individual log-in as an incentive to participate in the conversation, and maybe have the chance to vote via SMS to influence the progression of the story. An en-masse mobile-phone choose-your-own-adventure story. Now that would be a cool way to really embrace the medium.

As it is, the subscription should be much cheaper. Right now, a full-paying subscriber pays 55c a day for 20 days, plus the sign-up SMS of 25c. So at roughly 350 words a day, you’re paying a total of $11.25 for a 7000-word short story, not a book.

Still, keeping up with a serialised short story is always fun. I’d be almost glad to pay for more things like this in the future, if the price was much more reasonable and if things worked a bit better.

As for the story itself, it’s good so far. Definitely has a touch of Marieke’s distinct sardonic wit and some evocative descriptions. So far, it’s been more about character, mood and humour, rather than a barrelling plot progression. Still, it’s going to interesting places and I’m definitely keen to see where Judy, the sausage-roll-shaped protagonist, is plonked by the story’s end. Maybe I’ll provide a summary of my thoughts once the story has reached its conclusion. George Dunford at Hackpacker is planning to the same, and he’s already shared his thoughts so far, much of which I agree with. Adam Ford blogged a little about it too, but isn’t keen enough to subscribe. He also points out a number of others who have been doing serialised online works before this. Gullybogan, meanwhile, is rather cynical about the whole thing.

Anyway, if you’re interested, The Age put up an edited version of the first week’s instalments. It’s a good representative sample. But I wonder if people who already paid for the first week felt betrayed and then unsubscribed? And maybe the story will come out later in another form. Who knows? It’s up to chapter 15 and only has another 5 weekdays left, I believe. I’ll keep reading for free on my computer (so…then it’s a c-book?) until the end and look with interest for whatever The Age and Marieke are doing next. I wonder if they’ll decide to take this sort of thing any further.

For all its faults, I hold Marieke in no disrepute. This is mostly The Age’s experiment. The story itself is solid, she’s the writer, and her writing and coquettish ways will remain delightfully compelling to me, no matter what my girlfriend or anyone else says, dagnabbit!