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Gothic politics and a Corpse – no it’s not Tony Abbott, it’s Festive take four

September 8, 2010

So the plan for Sunday – the 2010 festival’s last hurrah – was get to Fed Square a little bit early, have a couple of sneaky pints of Fat Yak, then toddle off to the BMW Edge to hear three writers talk about fiction and politics. And what happened was I ended up in a shipping container dubbed Magazine on the banks of the Yarra playing a drawing game with China Mieville and a bunch of other people.

I think I’d heard of Exquisite Corpse before Sunday’s Big Issue session at Magazine, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it was. I certainly played it as a kid. The fact that it was a game played by the Surrealists early in the 20th century sounds like something I might have heard at some long-ago point but it wasn’t a tidbit of fascinating info I could easily have thrown into a slightly drunken dinner conversation. I’m pretty sure you’ll have some idea of how it works. Draw a head, fold the paper over, pass it on, take someone else’s folded-over paper, draw a body, fold it over, pass it on, take someone else’s folded-over paper, draw some legs. Game over.

Mieville – who hosted the event – took it one step further. Having all finished drawing a pair of legs we then passed the drawings on again, making sure we had something we hadn’t contributed to. Mieville then asked who in the audience professed to be a writer or a wannabe writer. A number of us, obviously, put our hands up. He then bullied us, basically, into committing to writing a story in the next 12 months about the creature on the piece of paper that we were holding. A piece of paper we hadn’t opened yet. I think you can guess what the drawing to the left is. This is what I’m supposed to write a story about. If you’re wondering about the blob at the bottom of the drawing, that’s the shadow of me taking a photo of it, and if you’re wondering about the overall fuckedup nature of the colour scheme, that’s me not knowing how to use Picasa properly. Oh, and I should point out, if you hadn’t guessed: China Rocks! ? Not my contribution. Oh no. Not me.

Speaking of my contributions, though, I have to say … God help those who got the drawings I helped create. Some people would question my ability to string a sentence together, so imagine what I’m like when I try to do something with a writing implement other than write.

All of the drawings were supposed to be uploaded to the festival’s website earlier this week. As far as I can tell this hasn’t happened yet, although I’ve just found a truly glorious photo of me at a festival after-party thingummy look morbidly obese and profoundly low-functioning. Which obviously I’m hugely happy about. Photos of all the drawings were taken, and no doubt they’ll be appearing on a website near you sometime soon.

I have to admit, having taken part in a Surrealist drawing exercise with one of the world’s finest writers of fantasy and science fiction, the rest of the afternoon was a slight letdown. The fiction and politics session was good – Mieville, British crime novelist RJ Ellory and Singaporean satirist and political commentator Catherine Lim had interesting things to say about the state of the world, language and its uses, censorship. Mieville was particularly convincing on the use of sexist and racist language by “hipsters” thinking they’re ironic when what they’re really doing is reinforcing sexist and racist ways of thinking. I don’t think I’m a hipster, but I certainly use sexist and racist language and think I’m being ironic. And I’ll probably continue to do so, but he has a pretty convincing argument. So do vegetarians, but I like sausages. He was also highly critical of Ian McEwan and the politics that, Mieville says, infuses his fiction. I hadn’t been aware of McEwan as a particularly political writer. That’s something I’m keen to pursue. Ellory was interesting but seemed a little too obsessed with what most people would dismiss as conspiracy theories – the idea that JFK and MLK were assassinated by the same corporate/bureaucratic behemoth that tried to bring down Clinton for shagging Monica seems a tad farfetched. But maybe I misinterpreted him. Much of what Lim had to say was familiar but it was nice to hear it from a Singaporean rather than a middle-class white Western leftist. And she was pretty funny.

The discussion really only got totally absorbing towards the end, when disagreements on the meanings of “political correctness” and “reviewers” versus “critics” caused a bit of a kerfuffle between Mieville and Ellory. “We’ll get drunk later and fight about it,” Ellory said, to basically nobody’s laughter but mine. He looked a bit embarrassed, apparently. I didn’t notice. I was too busy laughing. While the semantics of reviewer and critic aren’t that important a discussion about what each meant by political correctness would’ve been fascinating, but by that stage it was time to wrap up the session.

The final session, The New Gothic, was cool because I’d read books by all three panellists – Joel Deane’s The Norseman’s Song, Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die, and Chris Womersley’s Bereft, although Welsh was spruiking her latest book. All three read from their books and then discussed their ideas about Gothic – whether they think they’re gothic writers, what aspects of their work are particularly gothic, what writers had influenced them and whether they were gothic, what the “new” gothic was, if anything. Unfortunately by this stage I was pretty knackered and can’t remember a lot of what was said. In fact I must admit the most vital piece of information volunteered was from Welsh – a Glaswegian, for goodness sake – who mentioned a Melbourne bar called Naked For Satan. Which I’d never heard of before. Know where it is now. Going next week. Ta, Louise.

Despite my love of reading and writing and books I rarely go to Melbourne Writers Festival events and when I have in the past, it’s been to see writers I like read from their books. I haven’t bothered with the sessions in which writers talk, rather than read. In hindsight there’s at least one good reason for that – those sessions attract morons who think the crowd will be more interested in their “questions” (by which they mean boring, longwinded opinions) than anything the writers have to say. Yes, redhaired bint up the front of the fiction and politics session, I’m looking at you. (Mieville would no doubt disapprove of my use of the word “bint”. Oh dear.) But despite daft and irritating questions these sessions are well worth the effort. Listening to your favourite writers – or any writers, really – talk about their craft and their inspiration, their ideas and their motivations and the writers they like and appreciate or despise but admire – it’s all dizzying. I don’t think I’ll bother blogging next year, for obvious reasons. But I think I’ll attend a few events. It’s well worth the effort. And the stupid questions.

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