All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Melbourne Writers Festival Recap – Part 4

on September 15, 2013

MWF13My second session on Sunday the 25th August (and actually, one of the first sessions I booked into) was Modern Love featuring blogger Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books fame and also paranormal romance and comic book author, Marjorie M Liu. It was pretty much the only romance event on the program so I felt obliged to support it in the hope that next year, the festival explores the genre more thoroughly and that hopefully includes an Australian romance author panel.

This event was by far the most laid back and casual – it was very unstructured. In fact one of the first things the moderator announced was that there wasn’t going to be any structured questions and that the three of them had decided before the audience came in that they were just “going to talk about cock”. So as you can imagine, that kinda set the entire tone!

This event had me scribbling madly so I just noted down a lot of quotes and sentences that I’ll just briefly recap:

There’s quite obviously a fundamental difference in what male readers consider hot and what female readers do.

A book doesn’t have to have sex in order to be hot – sexual tension can be used very effectively without there being a physical scene.

Sarah Wendell: when she started her blog, she used to get emails from people who didn’t know there were other romance readers out there. Post 50 Shades Of Grey she gets emails where people confess to liking reading about sex and wanting to know if there are more of these types of books. And 50 Shades really is just the tip of the iceberg. For a lot of people, it put erotica onto their radar but once they get past that, they can see how much more there is – like discovering a new world.

The emergence of digital-first presses in recent times have meant that there’s high quality erotica out there that has sprung up from a powerful demand. People want to read romance and a lot of the digital-first presses are really embracing this and have whole lines dedicated to romance and erotica. Readers are finding the sorts of stories that also perhaps might not get published in the traditional way. There’s a wide variety out there and it’s growing every day.

The point was made that you don’t know who is writing or reading erotica. There’s no real obvious audience, it appeals to a broad range of people and a lot of people who do read it keep it secret, so there’s no way to tell.

Marjorie M Liu: Erotica is the one place female sexuality is portrayed positively. It also gives women what the patriarchy does not, which may be why it is discussed with such scorn. Female pleasure is important – often it’s the most crucial thing in the story. Even in 50 Shades of Grey despite all the problems in that book, her satisfaction is still immensely important.

You can read erotica knowing that they’re fantasies but the reader can see the possibilities.

Marjorie M Liu: Romance heroes see the heroine. The way women are portrayed elsewhere (victimised or airbrushed, held to impossible standards) tends not to occur in erotica. Everyone wants someone who sees them for what they are, erotica and romance provide this which is probably why women relate so well to it and are attracted to it.

There needs to be a shift towards women of colour and women of varying sizes but there’s no shaming in romance or erotica.

In a society where there is a tendency towards oversexualisation, romance is female focused and can balance that out.

The heroine can overcome shame by owning her sexuality.

However – sometimes it’s not always good to learn about sex from romance novels! Loss of virginity resulting in lots of orgasms, etc. It’s not most people’s experience and there is the danger of high expectation.

There was some talk about euphemisms. In erotica and romance, there tends to be more usage of the word “cock” than “dick” (and this is certainly my experience). I think for a lot of people, cock is a more powerful word, it conjures up more erotic images. However there’s no real equivalent female word – the choices seem to be either pussy, which can be distracting, or c**t which has negative connotations and is a word that still jars some people when they read it –> I’ll admit to this. I don’t enjoy hearing c**t in sex scenes, especially if it’s used a lot.

Marjorie M Liu admitted that she finds sex scenes difficult to write. She began to deal in intimacy rather than sex, because it was easier. There was talk about a lot of bad sex scenes being out there – it’s a hard thing to do well. Author Lisa Kleypas was held up as one author who consistently writes good sex scenes. I’ve never read a Kleypas novel but I have heard good things about them! Must give her a try.

When a writer can do sex well, it’s revelatory.

What a sex scene does, is create problems for the hero and heroine!

The conversation moved away from sex and towards the broader topic of genre – there is a romance formula and people tend to make fun of it but most genres do run to a formula. There’s an expectation that comes from the reader with genre fiction – when a reader picks up a genre book, they know exactly what they want and the book needs to deliver that. Or they’ll go somewhere else. Romance novels are about the establishment of a relationship or the resolution of conflict within one to a happy ending – most important word there is happy. It’s not a romance novel if it doesn’t have a happy ending! Marjorie stated that romance novels made her wonder what she wanted – not just in her relationships but also in her own life!

The romance community is a very tightknit and passionate one – for some it’s a guilty pleasure, being able to read about and discuss these books with others. Guilty pleasure is an unattractive term though because pleasure shouldn’t be guilty. Every part of culture has merit.  Sarah Wendell stated that the way in which people interact has changed – each generation inherits more leisure time because so much of the process of life is automated. This creates a surplus of cognitive energy which is diverted into entertainment and interaction. They are no longer content to just passively consume. With romance readers, because there is a “forced shame” they are more isolated – so when they connect, there is so much more to talk about. Finding a “safe place” allows creative space to respond which leads to more romance writers. Romance writers are romance readers. As Marjorie stated: “We love what we do and we want to contribute to it”.

People claim that erotica is simply porn for women but it’s still the exploration of a relationship and conflict through the female gaze. So much is lost in literature because it’s seen through the male gaze and that begins to become the norm.

Sarah Wendell stated that she doesn’t have a problem with young people encountering sexuality because they are exposed to violence from a young age as well. But she thinks it is important to experience it in a realistic manner, not an airbrushed one. Also, according to Wendell, she gets asked how she can read romance because she’s a feminist. According to her, there’s no way that romance books are not feminist because the female story is always primary!

Marjorie expounded on that further by saying that there was some idea that “feminism should be manly” which leads to a lack of belief that feminists can read romance. Women can’t be seen to be talking about feelings or relationships because that’s going backwards. There’s nothing wrong with love – it’s about female empowerment and self-actualisation. People also assume that because she came from a romance novel background, she’s not capable or writing action or people won’t read the book because she’s a girl. She’s actually the only female person of colour writing comics.

Next there was a big discussion about the covers and how they can be well, sort of terrible. Lots of pastels and cartoony covers on chick-lit and half naked people on romance covers. 20-25 years ago, book buyers were men and they would buy for their stores what they liked and thought were ideal covers: big boobs, long blonde hair, etc. They sold, because they were the only options and that led to more of the same covers, etc. A self-perpetuating prophecy. Cover art is there to send a message to the reader – this is what you are looking for. Often dissatisfaction comes when the book did not provide what the cover promised it would.

Readers have no control over the covers but they must wear the reaction – plain covers like the 50 Shades ones have become immensely popular because they do not invite the same criticism and commentary that covers featuring semi-naked people do.

What’s the next romance trend? No one knows – it’s impossible to predict. Certainly no one did with 50 Shades of Grey.

Sarah Wendell touched on something that is interesting to me, which is the importance of Australian novelists writing Australian characters in Australian towns. Rural romance is currently a big deal here, it’s very popular and there are a plethora of authors who deliver with every single book. This needs to continue – people want variety and don’t want to read about the same things all the time but also sometimes they want familiarity. Australian readers are always going to want Australian stories.



This was such a fun session – there were lots of laughs and it really was just like a casual conversation. The two speakers, Marjorie M Liu (middle) and Sarah Wendell (right) were very passionate and knowledgeable and played off each other really well. I’ve heard a lot about Sarah Wendell in particular – she’d been in Australia for the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Fremantle earlier in August and had been praised very highly by people who had been there and heard her speak.

The session was a great showcase for romance and reading it – I hope the powers that be at the festival took note!



One response to “Melbourne Writers Festival Recap – Part 4

  1. Marg says:

    I always find it interesting to read someone elses recaps of the same sessions and see what the different aspects we each choose to write about are!

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