Event: Melbourne Writers Festival—Notes on Women in Culture.

The panel was chaired by the director of feminist publishing house, Spinifex Press, Susan Hawthorne, and the speakers were Tamil writer CS Lakshmi, and feminist fiction and non-fiction writers Emily Maguire and Sophie Cunningham.

I saw Cunningham speak at last year’s festival, and some of her comments on third and/or fourth wave feminism really rubbed me the wrong way. This year she spoke again about the discrepancies between the pay rates of men and women and where that money goes. While only $0.40 for every dollar earned of men’s income goes to the family, $0.90 of women’s money goes to the family. Therefore, “women need to work or our culture falls apart.”

Cunningham also spoke about her pet project, women in literature. As the chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and of the Stella Prize, she knows her stuff. Apparently when the representation of women in literature hits 30%, people think it’s about half. (I believe she mentioned it’s at about that percentage currently, in terms of how many books by women are reviewed and how many books are reviewed by women in major publications.) This reminds me of the 33%–66% division of labour rule in male–female households: that women will do up to 66% of housework before they start to think they’re doing too much, while men will do 33% before they start to think they’re doing too much.

I think both of the following quotes came from a piece Lakshmi read to the audience. They’re poignant no matter who wrote them and where they appeared:

“Women pretend to conform whilst they’re breaking the rules.”

“Sit still otherwise you’ll rock the boat.”

That last quote reminds me of 50 Shades of Grey, in which Christian makes Anastasia “sit still” and not move when he’s performing sexual acts on her. I don’t know many men who prefer a woman to be physically non-responsive to their touch, but there are a lot of things about the book I don’t understand.

Speaking of 50 Shades (at this point in time, when it’s the highest selling book ever, who isn’t?!), in another panel I attended on Saturday about writing about sex (featuring Susan Johnson, Chris Flynn and another appearance by Maguire) it was brought up. Nothing of note was added to the discussion really (sex and gender roles are conservative, defined; the sex is clinical, etc.), but Johnson did, it’s worth noting, spoil the ending for me! Not that I was planning on reading the next two installments (one’s enough!), but there were a few audible groans from the audience when she revealed that *spoiler alert* Christian married Anastasia in the end.

Johnson has a piece on the trend of the trilogy in this weekend’s Q Weekend magazine, for which she is the senior features writer. She mentioned how she finds the book like a sexed up version of Beauty & the Beast, which made my heart yearn for a simpler time, when feminism and Stockholm syndrome and abusive relationships were not at the forefront of my mind when examining my favourite Disney movie. Sigh… I’ll never be able to enjoy it like I once did thinking about the Beast forcing Belle to eat and suspending her from the ceiling of his Red Room of Pain if she doesn’t do as she’s told!

But back to the panel at hand.

The notion of positive female representation in science fiction and fantasy came up, an issue about which I’m quite passionate, but which I’d like to know more about, too. Maguire says it’s easier to write a “strong female character” in sci-fi because you “don’t have to have the rules of this world” posed onto the character. I think it was Cunningham who then mentioned that that’s why a lot of sci-fi is set in post-apocalyptic worlds where the restraints of our current notions of society and culture are abolished so writers can explore different aspects of the characters that they might not have should they exist in this world.

Author John Banville was brought up, who has said he’s “never understood women… Don’t want to… I’m in love with all of them, always have been fascinated by them… They always do the unexpected—at least I don’t expect what they do. They say: ‘We’re ordinary, we’re just like you.’ I say: ‘You’re not. You’re magical creatures.’”

While that’s a lovely gesture on the surface, do we really want to be seen as otherworldly? At the end of the day, everyone’s just a person. And, at the end of the panel, Lakshmi told a story with the theme that gender has “no specific qualities”. So how can one be “ordinary” and one be “magical”? Reverse sexism on Banville’s part, perhaps?!

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011: A Long, Long Way to Go—Why We Still Need Feminism.

Bendigo Writers Festival.

Sexism in Fantasy.

Image via TheVine.

Event: Evolution of the Bookshop at the Wheeler Centre.

I never thought a seemingly boring panel conversation about e-books versus hard copy print media would trump a discussion about masculinity in Australia, but it seems “The Evolution of the Bookshop” has come out on top when it comes to talks I’ve seen at the Wheeler Centre lately.

I’m a bit late reporting on this one, but a couple of weeks ago I attended “The Evolution of the Bookshop”, which entailed the panel of Michael Webster, Corrie Perkin, Jo Case and Chris Flynn, with Sally Heath as the facilitator.

The main item of contention on the agenda was the receivership of the REDgroup, which includes Borders and Angus & Robertson (for those of you living under a rock in recent months) and how online shopping from overseas stores, like Amazon and the Book Depository, may have contributed.

2010 was a good year for books in Australia, actually, as Webster, of RMIT and Nielson BookScan, pointed out in a riveting (no, I’m not kidding!) spreadsheet. There was no denying the large amount of Australian dollars that were spent online on books, what with parity and all that jazz, and the panel urged the audience to buy local throughout the night.

But when Flynn, fiction editor of The Australian Review of Books, compared the prices of all the books he bought over the course of a year at Borders (the devil’s bookstore, according to the panel!), Readings (of which Case is a staff member) and the Book Depository (there was over $1000 difference between online and at a bricks and mortar bookstore), it doesn’t bode well for physical bookstores.

Personally, I’m not in the financial bracket to be supporting local bookstores when I can get the books I want online for half the price at a click of a button.

Earlier this year, I went into Borders at Melbourne Central wanting to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s Fragments, The Great Gatsby and Sloane Crosley’s two books of essays (which you may remember me writing about here). They had none of them in store. An hour later I was at home on Amazon, $70 poorer but immeasurably happier that four brand new books were on their way to me.

Case made the case (haha!) for the experience of shopping at a bookstore, but Flynn countered with the presumption that people who shop online probably already belong to an online community, and thus their experience at an online bookstore is just as valid and important as at a physical one.

As the owner of her own bookshop, Perkin asserted that she just can’t compete with free shipping and the iPhone app Shazam, which allows users to record a piece of music, to which the app generates the full details of and where you can buy it online.

But independent bookstores compete on service, not price. Perkin relayed the example of running out of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals recipe book and being told that the next shipment wouldn’t be for awhile as it was, and is, a very popular title. She was forced to buy copies of the book on the Book Depository at her own expense, and provide them to her customers who had already committed to the title via pre-sale. Now that is service!

Flynn countered that whether we like it or not, e-readers have hijacked traditional forms of reading, but based on a show of hands, not one person at the Wheeler Centre that night owned or read books on an e-reader.

On a side note, I will be visiting the best second-hand bookstore I’ve ever been to over the weekend, and there’ll be more to come on that next week.

Related: “Who the Bloody Hell Are We?”: The Sentimental Bloke at the Wheeler Centre.

The Ten Books I Wanted to Read This Year But Didn’t.

All Eyes on Marilyn.

Images via Crunch Gear, TS Bookshop, Lance Wiggs.