Max Kobras talks to a local publishing group trying to save the art of writing literature by using the ubiquity of the internet. A long shot? They actually prefer to keep things short.
Whether blame the internet for conditioning people to only digest bitesized segments of information or on the film industry for creating more highly-watchable content than any one person could possibly consume, the world of written fiction has undoubtedly taken a few hits over the last decade. But there are still some local literary crusaders left out there, fighting for the survival of the written word.
One of these crusaders is Spineless Wonders, a Chippendale-based publishing company “devoted to short, quality fiction produced by Australian writers”, which was founded in May 2011 by Bronwyn Mehan, Linda Godfrey and Julie Chevalier. When asked why they decided to start this business, venturing into such a risky industry, Bronwyn’s answer was simple and blunt: “there was a need for it.” She does extrapolate on this, recalling her Newcastle upbringing that taught her to seize any opportunity, and there was indeed a niche of Australian short fiction that had yet to be filled. Ultimately though, it is clear that the creation of Spineless Wonders developed from a love of literature and the desire to see more of it.
Although working with an old, some would say outdated, medium, their business approach has been anything but. As their name suggests, the company has a primary focus on publishing and selling digital books (ie; those without spines). They are one of the very few publishers that releases ‘microliterature’, generally considered to be anything shorter than one thousand words (shorter than the words on this page) and sometimes known as prose poems or flash fiction. However, neither of these traits are wholly unique to Spineless Wonders, and ‘short’ literature is not what truly sets them apart. Rather it’s their commitment to forging a devoted community and maintaining a strong presence within that community, both online and off, that has garnered them a dedicated, if a somewhat small, following.
This is most clearly evident with Little Fictions, a night of short and microliterature readings curated by Spineless Wonders. It began in Adelaide back in 2011, but has been held monthly at the Knox St Bar in Chippendale since last year. This event eschews the traditional style of readings where the author speaks, instead professional actors perform the story. The actors also have no assistance from, or communication with, the original writer and so are forced to create their own personal interpretation of the piece.
Short story writer and playwright Patrick Lenton is very supportive of this model. “I love bringing another person’s interpretation into my writing, sometimes they notice or stress things that I never set about doing, allowing me to view my own writing through a new lens. And because all my works are comedic and quite performative, it’s wonderful seeing them come to life,” he said.
Contrary to my expectations though, it was an actor who had more doubts about having no contact with the author. “I would definitely like to have the author’s input. It’s great when the author is in the audience because it’s really fascinating, and terrifying, to see their response,” said Eleni Schumacher, who has been performing at Little Fictions since last November. “These nights are about the stories, you know, so if collaboration between author and actor would help get the most out of the stories, than I think that would be great.”
If the performance model could do with some adjustment, at least the venue is perfect; Knox St Bar has a great little stage and there is plenty of space for the audience. When I was there, there was probably near 30 people, including some authors, who were there strictly for Little Fictions. And the best thing, just about everyone seemed to recognise each other from last time. For the niche of short form writing, it is amazing to see strangers form a close-knit community around what is usually a very solitary art form.
It’s never too formal either. I must give some credit to MC Adam Norris who is very talented at maintaining the good mood of the room; Little Fictions ends up being just the beginning of a great night. “You come along and have a chat, get a drink and grab something to eat. You sort of combine it with your dinner plans. But you don’t dress up and have your entire night revolve around this one event, like when you go see a play,” said actor Eleni. Being such a social event and free from high-art pretensions makes it a very approachable experience, which is perhaps the drawcard of short fiction as well.
Patrick makes an apt comparison of short fiction with lighter forms of entertainment. “Short fiction has so much potential to reach quick, comedic beats like in sketch comedy or standup.” Even with the dramatic, highly serious pieces, microfiction is sharp and climactic, delivering a precise point or message. Plus the stories are broken up with quick breaks, giving you enough time to reset.
Little Fictions has only been held for around a year now, but it is certainly being recognised and constantly growing. This is a fantastic time to experience it too as, rather than their usual monthly affair, Spineless Wonders is holding four extra shows throughout September for Sydney Fringe Festival. The first, Comedy Knox, has unfortunately already passed with a bang, but you can still catch Sydney Stories (Monday 14th), The Great Unknown (Monday 21st) and Crime Scenes (Monday 28th) all of which will be held at the Knox St Bar in Chippendale.
Do you know that you are a writer – you just haven’t been able to write anything yet? Or do you enjoy human company a bit too much to attempt the whole prolific-genius-locked-in-their-attic archetype? Check out some of these groups, online and offline, that will get your pen pushing in the right direction.
The Writers Bloc
This is the kind of genius idea that only a writer would come up with. Kind of like Couch Surfing for those aspiring to write at their best, The Writers Bloc is an online community that volunteers to edit and review each other’s work. It functions on a mutual exchange basis, so you must volunteer to review other people’s work before you can ask people to review your own.
The NSW Writer’s Centre
The Inner West is very lucky that we have this creative resource in our own backyard, in Callan Park in fact. Sign up to become a member of the centre ($75/$55 annually) and you will have access to writing groups, monthly industry talks, manuscript reviews and a library dedicated to the production of literature. Sounds good, hey? Next Thursday, September 17th , they will be hosting a a free panel-event about the state of comedy in Australia with the writers of ABC’s Black Comedy.
Slam Poetry Nights
If you fancy yourself as a bit of a performance poet (or would like to) a great way to work on your rhetoric and rhyming skills is to enter a Slam Poetry competition, where your work will be judged by a well-lubricated audience and you’ll get to meet people who are just as obsessed about wielding the power of the word as you. Check out Parliament on King’s (Newtown) Poetry Slams on Sunday nights and the monthly Caravan Slam held at locations around the Inner West. Slam crowds are known for their encouragement and friendliness, so don’t be shy.
Start your own writers group
Seriously! Why bother with a book club when you can read what your friends have been writing? The most surprising people have a cupboard full of doodlings they would love to share – and creativity often happens best with collaboration. If you are having trouble getting friends on board, request to become a member of one of the local writing groups on www.meetup.com, such as Marrickville Writers’ Corner, The Inner Sydney Writers’ Salon or Mums Who Write.