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Melbourne Writers Festival

28 September 2013

MML and SW and MWFWhen the Melbourne Writers Festival program was announced we were very pleased to see several panels featuring romance authors. ARRA member Marg Bates went along and has provided this recap…

When the program was announced for Melbourne Writers Festival I scoured the program looking for any romance panels. No matter who the guests were, I would have gone because as romance readers we need to support the panels at these types of festivals so that they will keep on being included in the schedule. The fact that the guests were Sarah Wendell from mega blog Smart Bitches and Marjorie Liu, who not only writes romances but also writes for Marvel Comics, was awesome and it ended up being one of the most fun sessions I have been to.

I think the moderator for this session possibly had the easiest job of any moderator in any session of the festival. Basically, she introduced Sarah and Marjorie and then let them talk! She did ask a couple of questions, but really I think she was sitting back and enjoying the ride as much as the audience did. The conversation was meandering and wide ranging going from euphemisms and bad sex to erotica, covers, seeing romance as formulaic, the sexualisation of young girls to feminism and romance, were-ducks and so much more.

Modern Romance panel at Melbourne Writers Festival, led by Stephanie van Schilt and featuring Marjorie M Liu and Sarah Wendell

Modern Romance panel at Melbourne Writers Festival, led by Stephanie van Schilt and featuring Marjorie M Liu and Sarah Wendell

When a session starts with euphemisms and talking about how easy it is to write bad sex scenes, it gives some kind of clue as to how relaxed it is going to be. In talking about bad scenes, Marjorie Liu admitted that she has moved away from writing as many sex scenes because it is so difficult to write really good ones consistently. What both of them agreed on is that regardless of whether a romance has sex in it or not, what it must have is sexual tension.

What the success of books like 50 Shades has done is opened more readers up to the fact that there is so much other good erotica romance out there. After all, the erotic romance genre has been around for more than 15 years, with many of the digital-first publishers having large erotic romance sections because for many readers this was the only place to get what they wanted to read.

Speaking of what readers want to read, Sarah Wendell says that she wants to have a were-drop bear book written! After all, if there can be were-ducks and creatures with two penises why couldn’t there be a drop bear shape-shifter.

The conversation moved on to why women in particular love romance. Firstly, it is partially a question of agency—it is usually read by women, written by women, and produced by women. Another reason is that romance is one of the few places where women’s sexuality is portrayed positively, and can display the kind of nurturing that people want but don’t always have in real life.

For example, in a romance a woman’s satisfaction is always imperative and you know that by the end of a romance a hero will always truly see the heroine and make her feel valued and that she is being treated with tenderness. That doesn’t mean to say that the reader can’t tell the difference between the fantasy and real life (as examples, romance heroes always tend to have extraordinary stamina and never have morning breath) but it can be a roadmap to show a woman what she might value in a partner.

Later in the session, a question led to a discussion comparing porn to romance. This idea of the positive portrayal of a woman’s sexuality was one of the key differences because porn is nearly always male gaze and so often women have little to no agency. Even in erotic romance, the relationship aspect should still be the primary focus and still have that female gaze perspective.

A question was asked from the audience about romance and feminism and how that compares to the real world and in the course of the answer part of the discussion focused on the fact that romance must be inherently feminist because of the way it is all about the female and about giving her agency, even within the more patriarchal societal rules that are in place (for example in historical romance). This also led to some discussion about the fact that there is something wrong when there is this idea that there can only be one kind of feminism and that type must ape masculine traits like not wanting to talk about feelings and relationships. There is nothing wrong with stories that promote a female agenda. Often they are self-actualising and can give a sense of empowerment.

I haven’t really touched on who said what but one of the questions was specifically directed at Marjorie Liu asking her about her work both as a romance author and as a writer for Marvel comics, writing superhero comics and how this transition had shaped her work on comics.

Marjorie talked about changing from a predominantly female environment to a much more masculine one and she is the only female person of colour writing comics at the moment. There have been some difficulties, as some readers won’t read her books on principle but overall she didn’t seem too fussed about that. She does still predominantly write about the relationships between the characters and so her romance background has helped her with this aspect.

The final question was about future trends in romance publishing, which both panellists said was a difficult thing to answer. For example, no one could have foreseen the success of 50 Shades, but it was uber successful and is generating any number of similar-styled books. It was more a question of right book in the right place at the right time. Also, trends are cyclical. A while ago there was very little contemporary romance doing very well and now it is everywhere and there might be less paranormal, but no particular subgenre ever goes away fully.

Sarah thinks that people are curious about other places so she is looking for romances set in other countries like the rural romances that are doing so well here. Self-publishing will also help as even readers with the most unusual wants in a book will be able to find what they are looking for.

It was a fantastic session that hopefully you can see covered a lot of ground and serious subjects while still being a lot of fun! I look forward to next year’s romance panels at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Marg Bates

2 Comments
  1. aimskye permalink
    8 October 2013 10:03 am

    Great post. Thanks Marg!

  2. 28 September 2013 1:00 pm

    Reblogged this on ronnie strong.

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