If you think debates about literary issues are snoozeworthily polite, you should have been at last night's panel Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content.
As moderator of the event, I had four excellent writers to talk with - Leanne Shapton (Swimming Lessons), Anakana Schofield (Malarky), Marjorie Celona (Y) and Rebecca Lee (Bobcat) - who grappled with the question of what defines their styles and whether style should even be noticed.
But it wasn't until the Q&A period with the audience got started that things turned edgy, The Quill & Quire's James Grainger suggested that literature had to do more than provide story. If story is all you want, he said, then you can watch television. He went on to says that it's not literature unless you elevate the language, like Ulysses.
"Ulysses, are you fucking kidding me?" cried writer Lisa Foad from the audience. "You have four brilliant female women on that stage and you're talking about Ulysses?"
Unfortunately, she was so exercised that she couldn't express exactly what triggered the outburst, or to offer a question, for that matter, but it changed the tone of the evening in what I thought was good ways.
Grainger tried to defend himself saying he hadn't mentioned only Ulysses by Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, as well, which, he said had no story.
Which prompted another woman in the audience to call out angrily, "Well, Mrs. Ramsay does die in the end, doesn't she?"
It wasn't the only energized moment. Schofield, whose book Malarky features a fractured narrative reflecting a grieving woman's headspace as she loses her grip, gave an impassioned speech calling for more challenging writing. She argued that the commercialization of literature had flattened out all the styles so that few writers were getting published who were trying to challenge conventional forms.
As she was talking about how story was over-privileged in the market, Celona, almost jumping out of chair, broke in to say that story was what mattered most.
"I teach students who write perfect beautiful sentences, one after the other and it's lovely to bathe in their world, but I after I've read their work, I haven't learned a thing."
While these fireworks made for great theatre, the two more soft-spoken of the panelists made essential contributions to the discussion. Lee said she had an observational style but actively strove to change it. The key, she said, was to get inside the head of a character - she writes almost exclusively in the first person - and to try to make the characters get closer to each other. Good things happen then.
When content became the subject, Shapton introduced the intriguing distinction between illustration and art. When it's art, she suggested, that's content. She went on to define content as a "nugget of awesome."
Then in one of the event's more soulful moments, Lee suggested content came out of situations in which she was able "to collapse experience into meaning."