Monday, December 6, 2010

Great 2010 autobiographies and Christmas presents




But where are the women?

Were they not admitted to the echelons where you can have the sort of life you write this sort of book about? Did they write a book but fail to persuade a publisher? Were they too busy pairing socks?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

A new name for books

Some time in the early 1980s I was introduced by a friend to the work of US cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the first cartoonist ever to win a Pulitzer. I immediately became, and have remained, a rusted-on devotee, reading the cartoons daily, saving favourites, buying the collections and, since Doonesbury went online, reading the strip every day. Most of what I know about the US is stuff that I have learned, or deduced, or intuited, from reading Trudeau's cartoons and the responses to them in the Blowback section of the website.

A friend in Abu Dhabi, apparently as reliant on the BBC World Service as several other Anglophone friends in non-Anglophone countries have been over the years and therefore likely to hear all kinds of good stuff, said today that she'd heard Trudeau being interviewed recently and recommended it. It's here. I recommend it too.

I see at the Doonesbury site that there's a de luxe publication out to mark the 40th anniversary of the strip. Like a lot of the advertising of Trudeau's books in the past, the ad subverts itself and works as a kind of extension of the strip by touting Doonesbury merchandise in mock down-market advertising language, today including a new synonym for 'books': old-media ownables.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Clarification: not a serious suggestion

A few posts back I made an observation about apostrophes that seems in the discussion to have escalated into a war about editors and authors. In the course of this discussion I said 'If I were a publisher and were hiring an editor either in-house or on contract, I would give him or her a test sheet to edit with thirty different deliberate errors on it, and nobody who got less than 30/30 would ever get a job.'

Please note: I was not seriously suggesting that this actually, in the real world, be done.

This remark was made in the context of a point about changes in education policy and practice over the last 30-40 years that have resulted in professional editors occasionally not having certain kinds of knowledge or skills that would have been taken for granted in that profession thirty years ago. I saw this generation come through university year by year, regularly getting bumptious with me for insisting that skills and understanding with the mechanics of written language (spelling, grammar, punctuation) were important if they wanted a degree in English. Yes yes, I know, it sounds absurd now.

I fear the remark has been taken literally, and it has escalated. This is partly my fault for my partly tongue-in-cheek defence of the proposition in the discussion. Note to self: tone is important.

It was a comment made at the same level of facetiousness as a favourite utopian fantasy of mine, viz: 'When I'm queen of the world, I'm going ensure that every boy, the day after his fifteenth birthday, is confined in a luxury facility with private five-star suites, personal trainers, limitless sports facilities, regularly updated state-of-the-art personal computer equipment for all, six gourmet meals a day and hot and cold running sex workers, and he won't be let out until he's 40.' (The Bloke: 'But darling, why would he want to get out?')

As with the 30-point editing test, it's possible to think that's a genuinely excellent idea without seriously advocating it in the real world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Patrick White Award, prizes, lists, elephant stamps and so on

The brilliant David Foster has won the 2010 Patrick White Award, and used his acceptance speech, as he is wont to do whenever he wins something, to attack something or somebody else.

Sigh. Apart from anything else, it's not usually a matter of writers 'putting their hands up' for prizes and awards; usually it's the publishers who put books in for prizes and awards, and I'm guessing the publishers would scream blue murder, and I can understand why, if a writer (a good writer, anyway) these days said No no, leave me out of it. It might even be in some of their contracts. All very well for Patrick White, whose publishers were British and didn't give a toss what was going on in Aw-stralia. Times have changed.

On the other hand, the guy is a genius. There are many Australian writers whose work I admire and some whose work I love, but for sheer power and originality of vision and style I think Foster is up there with (to list them in order of birthdate) Joseph Furphy, Christina Stead, Patrick White, David Ireland, Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, Barbara Hanrahan and Alexis Wright. There's them, and then there's everyone else. And all of them, apart from Alexis Wright, who's lovely, were and/or are known for their intermittently difficult, prickly, eccentric, combative and/or contrary-Mary moments. So I suppose it goes with the territory.

This is my Aust Lit List of writers -- not of 'favourites', for my favourites list is quite different, but of people I think were or are genuine originals and geniuses -- and I can just imagine the trouble it could get me into, but here I stand, etc.

And it's an opportunity to explore a different issue that has been bothering me more and more in the wake of the publication last year of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, which with the exception of such actual scholars of Australian literature as Professors Ivor Indyk and Peter Pierce seemed to be read by critics and commentators not for what was actually there, but rather almost exclusively in terms of who did or did not get an elephant stamp to say they'd been picked for the First Eleven.

But for me, and I'm guessing for most or all of my fellow editors, it was far less a matter of 'who was in and who was out' than of what was in, and what it was for, and how it fitted together with all the other things that were in, within the stern constraints of our word limits.

So while that's my personal Who's Who list up there, my personal What's What list of poems, stories and novels is quite different: individual works that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis. If I could teach an Aust Lit course based solely on the texts that I personally think are magical in this way -- not 'representative' of anything or anyone, not there for any educative or ideological purpose, just magical, like a swirling snow globe or a glowing old-fashioned night light -- it would look like this:

Jessica Anderson, The Commandant
Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup
Marjorie Barnard, 'The Persimmon Tree'
Charmian Clift, Images in Aspic
Delia Falconer, 'Republic of Love'
Helen Garner, The Children's Bach
Jack Hibberd, A Stretch of the Imagination
Elizabeth Jolley, My Father's Moon
Baz Luhrmann, Strictly Ballroom
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life
Olga Masters, 'The Christmas Parcel'
Les Murray, 'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle'
John Shaw Nielsen, 'Let Your Song be Delicate'
Kenneth Slessor, 'Five Bells'
Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians
Don Walker and Steve Prestwich, 'Flame Trees'
Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bad writing, bad reading

After reading Tim Dunlop's carefully written, very nuanced, complex but clearly explained piece about books, the internet and changing times at the ABC's The Drum this morning I was astonished, and not in a good way, to read some of the comments.

Those who see themselves as Defenders of the Book (ahem: Tim was not attacking the book, as he went to great lengths to explain in his opening paragraphs) are most likely to fulminate about one or both of two things: either the 'impermanence' of online writing, or the argument that goes 'the internet is full of dross'.

The first makes you wonder whether they have any understanding of the internet at all, or whether they've heard of fire, flood and silverfish, and suggests that they are confusing or conflating permanence with materiality, which in turn suggests that they haven't read Fahrenheit 451 which in turn makes you wonder whether they are as hard-core in their bibliophilia as they would have you believe.

As for the second: well, yes. Of course the internet is full of dross, if by 'dross' you mean the sound of people talking to each other. If you don't want to listen to this sound, the thing to do is develop the skills that will enable you to find, quickly and easily, the particular non-dross that you want. Typing 'Charles Dickens' or 'Virginia Woolf' into the Google box should do it. The 'internet, dross' argument also implies that material published on paper is, by contrast, not full of dross, which in turn suggests that these people have never been in a newsagent's shop or an airport bookshop, or indeed don't read the papers. The paper papers, that is to say.

But never mind the arguments themselves, as they have been and will continue to be amply rehearsed, over and over, everywhere you look. The point is that the people so eager to jump into the comments box to defend something that is not being attacked, and in so doing try to demonstrate what literature-lovers they are themselves, are revealing themselves as bad, careless, sloppy readers.

This seems to be because they're in thrall to the siren song of the false dichotomy. But it's not a matter of either/or. Tim explains very clearly in that article that that's not what he thinks -- so clearly, in fact, that you can see he has anticipated this sort of response and has tried, with only middling success if the comments thread so far is anything to go by, to head it off at the pass.

If I have any serious beef with the internet, it's not that it's 'full of dross' (those who make this argument seem to be complaining that some imagined all-powerful cosmic editor has not fixed all the spelling and typing errors made by teenagers communicating with each other, or by male academics for whom it is a point of pride, typing being a girly skill as everybody knows, that they don't know where the shift key is), but that it has revealed to me a number of things about human nature that I didn't want to know.

One of those things is that when a writer trying to make an argument agonises for hours over micro-details in a piece of writing -- diction, rhythm, sentence structure, clarity of argument and position -- it has in the case of most readers been a total waste of time. Because the other thing is the way that readers like some of those commenting on that post at The Drum respond not by taking in what's been said and responding to it point by point, but by skim-reading and then rushing to mindless tribalism. Which is one of the many enemies of truth.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

For academics, ex-academics and would-be academics: required reading

Because I am supposed to be writing a book and the deadline looms, which is also the reason why this blog has been so neglected -- no time to write posts of any substance even when the ideas are there -- I have suspended all forms of income-gathering apart from my regular reviewing job with the SMH, with one exception. The exception is an annual gig acting as second examiner of Honours theses in a university near you, which I am doing again this year for a number of reasons not least of which is to stay in touch with what's actually going on in my discipline in universities; examining Honours theses is a pretty reliable cage canary in this respect. Yesterday I had an email from the co-ordinator saying that they had been handed in and were en route to me.

So I can't work out whether the gods were laughing kindly or unkindly when a link to this blog post turned up this morning on Facebook to a blog whose title all PhDs will get immediately: Not That Kind of Doctor.

The Stage One part is particularly accurate, and has shot down in flames my plan that if I spend all of every morning examining theses, all of every afternoon working on the book and all of every evening reading the fiction that must be reviewed, I should meet all of the deadlines for each of the tasks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Abandoning the good ship Apostrophe

So, which major Australian publisher's website contains the following, in a bio of one of its fiction writers?
[Insert name of author here] lives in a partially renovated house in the Dandenong's.

Now, butchers and fruit and veg merchants and so on don't make their living from reading and writing. One expects them to commit the odd apostrophe howler on their specials boards. But a howler as egregiously wrongity-wrong-from-Wrongtown as this on a publisher's website really is not a good look. There's no point in spending a lot of money on classy web design if you can't get someone fully literate to write the copy for it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Books to the right of me, books to the left of me

 For the last three and a half years my reading has been what my editor Susan Wyndham of the SMH calls 'purpose-driven'; when you read four novels a week for review, pausing only to shoehorn in the entire oeuvre of Peter Temple in order to interview him for Writers' Week, or to write a full-length review or essay, or to read a book written by a friend, it leaves you very little time to read anything else apart from a few pages of crime fiction every night, for Reading in Bed Before the Light Goes Out is sacred to books read entirely for pleasure, although I must say I prefer Val McDermid's Tony Hill books to this new one, and am looking forward to moving on to Tana French and Reginald Hill.

In spite of which, the house is full to bursting with books, but like most people who live in such houses, it doesn't stop me buying more books, and today I went a bit mad and bought or borrowed about ten, including (against my better judgement) a new Kathy Reichs, a rather sensational-looking history of true crime in Australia, the Salman Rushdie collection of essays and criticism Imaginary Homelands, and the most wonderful history of photography in South Australia from the 1840s to the 1940s, which features a double fold-out reproduction of Townsend Duryea's magnificent fourteen-plate Panorama of Adelaide from 1865.

[NB this definitely counts as work done on the Adelaide book, especially since the Barr Smith Library has changed beyond recognition since the last time I was in it and it took me ages to find things and figure out how to work unfamiliar machines and so on. Barcode schmarcode.]

Anyway, from among this largesse, the award for Quotation of the Day has to go to Peter Morton from Flinders U for this observation from After Light: A History of the City of Adelaide and its Council, 1878-1928. Of the period pre-1898, he writes:
Then there were the massive problems of contaminated food and drink, and especially water, meat and milk. The quality of all three in the city was so dubious that it seemed the only citizen likely to live a natural span was a beer-drinking vegetarian.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


As anyone who's ever tried to write anything knows, there is no substitute for slog. And yet the amount of time spent on something doesn't necessarily equate to the amount of progress you've made with it. Sometimes sitting at a desk wrestling a paragraph to the deck is like wading through a swamp of used chewing gum. And at other times, a decision you make or a revelation that's delivered to you by the writing fairies will mean massive progress in the blink of an eye.

That bit in that last post down there, for example, about the 'four types' of writing, and the decision (more of a realisation, really) that this Adelaide book should and would be a Narration-and-Description sort of book, is going to save me an awful lot of floundering around.

When you're writing about a city you keep drifting back into the uncertain notion that you should be giving statistics, dates and facts about drainage and trams and so on. But it's not a history book. Sure I'll give the dates of things like gaslight and explorers' expeditions. But bearing in mind that the thing that has captured the public imagination about Matthew Flinders most enduringly is the story of his cat, I'll be concentrating more on stories: on the way that Edward John Eyre is remembered outside of Australia chiefly as a brutal, murdering bastard who caused the leading intellectual lights of Victorian England to line up on opposing sides and had a lasting effect on the development of international law; on why Captain Charles Sturt gets unkindly called 'a born loser' in his ADB entry; on the evidence that Colonel William Light was a crazy-brave soldier, artist and linguist as well as a surveyor; and on how Robert Gouger was one of the two people who cooked up the whole idea of a convict-free colony in South Australia while they were both in jail themselves.

(All but one of these people were broken in health by the effort and stress of establishing South Australia and died young. The alleged brutal, murdering bastard was the one who lived to a ripe old age; make of that what you will.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book progress FAIL

The attempt to chart the progress on the writing of the Adelaide book tanked almost before it drew breath, as you can see. But progress has in fact been made, albeit in less tangible ways than counting words. My dear friend Lyn was in town on Friday and as is so often the case I found the use of a sympathetic and enthusiastic sounding board a wonderful way to get ideas into shape.

Apropos the book, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how very much of writing, all writing, is a matter of solving problems of technique. What material to use, and which of it to put where, and why. What sort of narrative voice to establish and how to maintain it. For no good reason I found myself thinking of the tenets of Rhetoric as taught in the US, and the notion of the Four Types -- narration, description, argumentation and exposition -- and how useful that conceptual framework is as a way of deciding what you want or need to say and how you want or need to say it. With this book there will of necessity be a certain amount of exposition, but it'll be mostly narrative and description: stories and images of my city.

I don't think enough writers think enough about technique, especially these days when there's a whole generation of writers who spent their education being taught that grammar and syntax and spelling didn't matter, all that mattered was to Be Creative. This and other forces have conspired to convince that whole generation -- or at least this is the case if the general standard of written expression online is anything to go by -- that content is all and technique doesn't matter, and that it's perfectly possible to be a Great Writer even if you have no idea what you're doing when you write a sentence.

Yes of course the inspiration of the moment is important, as are emotional sources and the workings of the unconscious, and indeed all those things are playing a large part in the writing of this book. Similarly, a book like this needs to maintain adequate levels of ideological awareness, understanding and thoughtfulness; power and money flow around a city along complex but predictable channels. And then there's the material itself, the endless texts and facts.

But all those things need to balance each other, to have a shape, to be contained, to be arranged so that some form of continuum emerges, suggests connections between different stories and images and ideas, and provides a navigable pathway from one idea to the next. And they need to be expressed by a consistent and believable voice, be told in a way that's beautiful and reader-friendly.

And all of that means making lists, charts and diagrams, and doing some serious thought about word choice and sentence structure, right down to the rhythm of individual sentences -- which is something I think about a lot, and will often search for a synonym with its stress on a different syllable so that the sentence will be less bumpy and more lilting, or work away at a sentence structure that will end the sentence on a satisfyingly strong stressed syllable. (Unlike that one.)

It's all as far away as it could possibly be from the capital-R Romantic view of writing: that it all comes gushing forth unmediated and unchecked from one's heart, gut, brain and so on. That's all very well as a metaphor, but on a literal level, the stuff that comes gushing forth from one's various internal organs is usually not very nice. And more to the point, that's the stuff that your body wants to get rid of, not the stuff that it wants to keep.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Picture the scene

I have seen “Dancing with the Stars” and it’s a lot of fun, but the truth is, I have no time so I almost never get to watch television. My dream is to have a new TV show called, “Dancing with the Writers.”

-- Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation and former professional ballroom dancer

In the Australian version, I can tell you now who'd win: Shirley Walker, author of The Ghost at the Wedding, former distinguished academic and mother of novelist and scholar Brenda and songwriter Don of Cold Chisel fame. At the inaugural competition for the Frank Moorhouse Perpetual Trophy for Ballroom Dancing (Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference circa 1980), Shirley and her husband Les made the rest of us look really stupid.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shame: book (lack of) progress

Yesterday there was no book progress, unless you count a squiz at the River Torrens, on the map and in the flesh, trying to work out exactly where it rises, and what happens to it between Weir 2 and the brewery.

Today we have a regular weekly deadline and a plumbing emergency.

Tomorrow we have our regular weekly hour on the phone with my father, which in the wake of yesterday's events in Canberra will leave me desperate for a strong drink and a long lie down, when what's actually needed is a head start on next week's deadline.

And on Friday my dear friend Lyn will be in town and the day is devoted to hanging out and having fun with her, though some of it will be spent looking at Barbara Hanrahan prints, and if anything qualifies as Adelaide research then looking at Barbara Hanrahan prints must surely be up near the top of the list.

There will probably be extended disruptive follow-up to the plumbing emergency.

Oh well.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book progress chart, Day 2

I got ahead of the game again today: wrote 555 words on 'weird Adelaide' plus an hour and a half of research-related book-sorting, web-surfing and wool-gathering.

Also checked the street directory to see that the road really does curve away from the river, and detoured up to Montefiore Hill on my way home from Quiz Night (we, The Betty Boops, came second) to check the statue of Colonel Light and make sure his finger is in fact pointing in the direction I thought it was pointing in, and confirm while I was there that the Adelaide Oval is no longer the world's most beautiful cricket ground since they put stupid futuristic domey-looking things on it.

Bit behind with the book reviews, but.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And as the deadline looms ...

We're now into September (we're almost a week into September; gah) and that means that I'm getting up towards the pointy end of the deadline for the book about Adelaide for this series. It's time to get serious. Actually I was already pretty serious, but it's time to get more serious.

To that end, I'm hoping that making a public commitment en blog to a daily minimum of work on the book, a commitment that will shame me into actually doing it.

So here it is: starting today, and working around the regular four novels a week reviewing gig, I must also do a minimum of either (a) writing 500 words or (b) two hours of work (writing, researching, self-editing, faffing around with the bibliography) per day. Whichever comes first. Or both.

And not just during the working week but every day. 7/7. It works like flexitime: I can save up for a day off, or make up time afterwards. If the latter, it has to be within that working week. I'll use the appropriate blog to report back, and to shame myself publicly if need be.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Anthology

Here is one of my fellow Section Editors of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, published overseas as The Literature of Australia. It's the lovely Dr Anita Heiss, also co-editor with poet and lecturer Peter Minter of the associated, stand-alone, Deadly-award-winning volume The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. This photo was taken a few weeks ago in the Red Wheelbarrow, a widely-admired and much-patronised English-language bookshop in Paris, where to her great pleasure she found a copy of the book. As you can see.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In which we regret, not for the first time, that Alexander McCall Smith is already married

'A good choice, Bertie,' said Stuart, as he came in to pay for the petrol. 'And how about some chocolate?'

Nobody had ever said that to Bertie before. How about some chocolate? It was not a complex phrase, but its power, its sheer, overwhelming sense of gift and possibility filled Bertie with awe. Well might more of us say those words to others, and more frequently -- how healing that would prove to be. 'Look, we've had our differences, but how about some chocolate?' Or: 'I'm so sorry: how about some chocolate?' Or simply: 'Great to see you! How about some chocolate?'
-- The Importance of Being Seven

Sunday, July 25, 2010


One of the many lovely things about reading fiction for a living is that it tends to make you an armchair (time-)traveller. Just in the last few weeks I've read books set in the 1990s, the 1970s, the 1950s and the 1760s; books set in Scotland, Leningrad, Berlin and Buenos Aires, the Netherlands, the English Midlands, Chennai, Chicago and country Victoria, just off the top of my head.

Many of the novels I read for review are partly or wholly set in times and places of brutal regimes. One juxtaposes 1970s Argentina with the German Democratic Republic (so-called) of the same era. Another is set in Leningrad in 1952, where survivors of the wartime Siege of Leningrad are now living under Stalin, speaking in whispers, fearing their neighbours, watching their own every move. A third is partly set in India, where everything that happens is immediately politicised and a herpetologist knows better than to try to find out who it was, knowing that he would come home that night exhausted and therefore not thinking or moving quickly, who left a deadly snake in a basket on his verandah.

So every time I see people snarling and squabbling over Rudd v Gillard, or even over Gillard v Abbott, much less get irresistibly drawn into said squabbling myself, I think of a phrase that has been much in my thoughts ever since I first came across it, one that has had a calming effect on many occasions and has reminded me again and again how extraordinarily useful and powerful a psychoanalytic angle can be in explaining our behaviour to ourselves: 'the narcissism of small differences'.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stage and screen

Two wonderfully engaging pieces of critical writing I've seen lately are reminding me that there's a form of cultural commentary that isn't reviewing, isn't academic or avant-garde, isn't straight-up feature journalism and isn't really an essay either. It's written for a general readership of whom it is required only that they care about the subject matter and can follow a complex sentence, and it's written in a space, and in an amount of space, that gives the writers a bit of room to move, to amplify and stretch.

The first is a piece in today's Australian Literary Review by Peter Craven about the filming of Patrick White's 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm. Craven and I do not see eye to eye on many things, never have and no doubt never will, and there are half a dozen things in this piece that I would argue the toss about, especially in his reading of the novel. But as an informative and atmospheric take on the filming process, especially if one loves this novel and has waited many years for someone to make a movie of it, this article takes a lot of beating, and makes me look forward to the film, which for a while I feared might be a dog but it's looking more hopeful since this morning when I read this.

Have a look in particular at that illustrative still, which shows what a stroke of genius it was to cast Judy Davis as Charlotte Rampling's daughter: not only do they have disconcertingly similar bone structure and colouring, but they also have similar default expressions, that look of a sardonic feral cat who knows something you don't.

The other, earlier piece, also courtesy of The Australian, is quite similar in conception: theatre critic John McCallum's really lovely piece from a week and a bit back about Robyn Nevin and William Hurt in rehearsal for the STC's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

McCallum is one of those theatre critics who can say something useful and illuminating even in the ridiculously small space so often allotted to theatre criticism and without ever falling into cliche, but he's at his best in these longer pieces where (as with the Craven article) straight-up information is amplified into an atmospheric and ruminative piece of writing. McCallum is the more intellectually disciplined and the (much) less magisterially opinionated of the two, but what often comes through in his work, without any self-indulgence and sometimes apparently in spite of himself, is his own feeling about the material -- not just the play, I mean, but the actors, the ideas, the situation, the whole enchilada. In this case, he seems half bemused and half enchanted.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Barbara Hanrahan

Annette Stewart's new biography of Barabara Hanrahan (Wakefield Press, come on down) was launched by Barry Oakley in Sydney recently as part of this here event (click on image to embiggen):

Which I wish I could have been at. I have now, through sheer serendipity, scored a review copy and am racing through it. It's a straightforward and basic account of Hanrahan's life and work, heavily reliant for its material on her copious diaries, her life partner Jo Steele, and a handful of her friends. There are worse sorts of sources.

And it's reminding me how highly I've always rated Hanrahan. In general I have an intense dislike of literary league tables, 'Best Of' lists and attempts to identify the Great Australian Novel, but in this case I'm willing to make an exception: for sheer verbal and visionary power and originality, I think Hanrahan is up there with Patrick White, Christina Stead, Les Murray, David Foster, and the Jack Hibberd of A Stretch of the Imagination.

And that list in turn reminds me, as the biography evokes Hanrahan's singular personality -- her ferocious fantasies and 'fits', her rages, her jealousies, her depressions and paranoias and interior struggles of many kinds -- that there's no correlation at all between being an artist of genius and being a sociable, urbane, easy personality. No correlation at all.

It makes you wonder whether the nice, by definition, are lesser artists. Which would be very bad news for writers' festivals, because if that were a reliable theory then you'd have to choose, when drawing up the invitation lists, between calm, co-operative, sociable, competent writers with chip-free shoulders who turn up on time, prepare for their sessions, interact nicely with the punters and take organisational glitches in their stride, and geniuses who, erm, don't.

Because we can't all be Carrie Bradshaw

More thoughts on writers' festivals and other writerly public appearances, this time from somebody else: an entertaining assortment of dressing tips for women writers from Amanda Craig, the British author of a good recent novel called Hearts and Minds. Hat tip to Cassandra Golds for the link.

Monday, June 7, 2010

"If It's Crap, Why Do I Cry?"

The best seminar paper title I ever saw, hands down, was this: 'If It's Crap, Why do I Cry?' As that suggests, the paper was looking at 'high art' versus popular culture, with specific reference to the lofty dismissal of the latter, and examining emotional response as a deal-breaker for determining where 'high art' ends and whatever the other thing is begins. Anyone who follows Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury and knows the back-story of these characters in yesterday's strip (though Trudeau is so good that I'm sure it stands alone as well: here's some background if not) will have been giving these matters some thought as recently as yesterday.

If you don't or can't cry, then it's unlikely that you're worth a cracker as an arts and/or literary critic. But there's an ongoing mental process of sorting emotional from intellectual responses to a work of art, especially when it's popular culture and you know there will, even these days, be resistance from some quarters to the notion that that's worth anything at all, much less the serious attention of a critic. And it actively damages your capacity to think about a book in a substantial, knowledgeable way if you're too busy laughing, crying or throwing up. You have to wait until you've calmed down before you bring the brain into play, and then your initial visceral response is one of the things you have to think about.

I trust the body's understanding of what's going on in art, as in life, and its responses have their place in art criticism, though I've been mocked before for saying so and no doubt will be again. (Also, the mocker in question is one of those people whose disapprobation makes you think you must be doing something right.)

I occasionally get asked whether my academic reading and training interfere with my pleasure in art; I assume these people mean the sort of spontaneous nonverbal response I think of as wild (or maybe feral) pleasure, pleasure that is bodily and instinctual and has no truck with literary theory and so on, but the answer is that no it never does; it's entirely possible to think rationally about something after you've finished laughing, crying or throwing up, nor do I think of the cerebral and the visceral as a dichotomy but rather as occurring along some sort of sequence or spectrum of response. And anyway, there's also a certain wild pleasure in thinking.

When my mate R offered me a choice of three movies yesterday afternoon, namely Robin Hood, Animal Kingdom and Love Lust & Lies, I went immediately for the last-named. We'd had a sort of plan to see Robin Hood for quite a while, and not only is Animal Kingdom getting rave reviews but R knows that I am a big fan of Jacki Weaver, especially since I saw her onstage in Last Cab to Darwin in 2003 and realised just exactly how gifted an actor she is.

But in the course of work-related reading, I'd just finished a novel about a rape victim who falls in love fifteen years later with a jailed rapist (not the same one), part of a behavioural pattern clearly set long ago. It's a very good novel and the writer is herself a rape victim, so there are very detailed accounts not only of the physical event but also of the even more detailed and painfully frank, self-lacerating accounts of the profoundly complex and tangled internal processes leading towards and away from it, and on top of all that you know she knows what she's talking about because she's been there, and you have some sense of what an excruciating experience it must have been to re-live her experience in order to shape it into fiction.

And because the writer is, as I say, very good, all of this stuff has been very successfully processed into a proper shapely novel -- what Helen Garner calls 'a little machine that works' -- rather than half-baked, which is to say insufficiently transformed, autobiography. So there was the power of the subject matter, of the writer's dark relation to it, and of the crafted work itself.

Having just finished this short but profoundly disturbing novel, I contemplated seeing either Robin Hood or Animal Kingdom and realised that the thought of sweaty, violent masculinity crashing through either the trees of medieval Sherwood Forest or the suburbs of contemporary Melbourne was making me feel quite ill. Sweaty violent masculinity is something I can usually take in my stride, but in the immediate wake of this novel I couldn't face it at all. So off we went to Gillian Armstrong's excellent Love Lust & Lies, which is the fifth and latest instalment in her Seven Up style doco about the three Adelaide girls whom we first met in Smokes and Lollies (1976) when they were in their early teens, whom Armstrong has revisited for a catchup doco several times since, and who are now all cruising for 50.

Love Lust & Lies, of course, made us cry.

Oh well.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writers' festival question time: thoughts from the chair

I've just been reading an entry on the Book Show blog about question time at writers' festivals, here. It's an entertaining sampler of Dumb Questions People Ask, but having had very different experiences at Writers' Week in Adelaide I'm wondering what causes the differences.

My guess is partly scale (all but a handful of evening sessions with Very Big Names happen at the same site, which comprises two big tents for parallel sessions plus a terrific book tent and ditto food and wine, plus surrounding parkland and riverbank, some of which is in deep shade and all of which is beautiful, although if it rains you're stuffed) and partly the audience demographic, which in Adders skews middle-aged to elderly, well-educated, and polite but forthright.

Over the years I've chaired a number of festival sessions in two different cities, though perhaps significantly neither of these was Sydney, and am still pleasantly surprised by the level of knowledge, engagement and intelligence shown by about 95% of the people who get up at question time. In Adelaide there are standing microphones in the tent aisles, so if people want to ask a question they have to make the commitment of getting up and making their way to the mic and queueing when they get there. And then when they do get there, they have the beady eyes of the rest of the audience upon them and will feel the heavy weight of disapproval if they bang on, ask stupid questions or show hostility to the guest, like the woman who got up a few years ago and said to Helen Garner, through a big cheery appeasing smile, 'My daughter's friend really hates you, what should I say to her?'

But it's the responsibility of the person chairing the session to make sure the session doesn't fall apart, and there are a number of techniques for this.

* Take notes, mental or paper (but probably not on your iPhone), of what the guest(s) is/are saying, so that you'll be ready with a few Dorothy Dixers -- or, indeed, real questions -- if nothing is forthcoming from the audience.

* If it's a one-writer session and she or he is clearly recalcitrant and ornery, and you are feeling brave, simply end the session early instead of soldiering on asking good-natured but increasingly desperate and laboured questions that the guest either answers in monosyllables, mocks, or ignores. I've seen a couple of hardened Melbourne literary types reduced to helpless gibbering by MWF guests (Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley respectively, they were, and there's a warning for you right there: never underestimate a festival guest who looks like a harmless little old lady, for she will do you like a dinner. My own worst-ever experience so far was with Ruth Rendell).

You are chairing this session for love, probably neglecting your day job in the process, and you did not sign up to be publicly humiliated. If you get angry enough, there's nothing to stop you taking in a deep lungful of the red mist and saying to the writer 'So tell me, Pommytwit McArrogance, what exactly do you think about the morality of having accepted the Festival's invitation, plane ticket, hotel room and free publicity if you're just going to sit there sneering and rolling your eyes?'

* Keep an eye out for rogue members of the crowd. This year at Adelaide Writers' Week I could see him coming a mile away: elderly, thin, untidily dressed, muttering to himself through a wolfish grin at nothing in particular and apparently having trouble with both his belt and his teeth as he made his way very slowly and ostentatiously across the front of the audience, between the front row and the stage, and my prayers (No no no make him keep going straight out of the tent don't let him turn down the aisle to the mic no no please Goddess) went unanswered. When he finally did get to the mic he unleashed a meandering stream of invective about how outrageous it was that nobody but him understood that Roger McDonald was the greatest Australian writer who ever lived, which he was perfectly within his rights to think but which didn't haven awful a lot to do with the session topic, which was 'Memoir'. (Nor with the guest list, which Roger McDonald wasn't on this year.)

As soon as was both possible and decent, I got a word in at the end of one of his increasingly long and indignant sentences to say 'Excuse me, Sir,' (always address them as sir or madam) 'but there are several people behind you in the queue, so could you get to the point and ask your question, please?' He did, albeit with much resentful tutting and eye-rolling, and Goddess bless Craig Sherborne for answering it, immediately, politely, succinctly and deadpan.

When this sort of thing happens, or indeed any other disruptive sort of thing you weren't expecting, YOU MUST INTERVENE, because nobody else is going to until the audience starts throwing food scraps. Or, if you're in Adelaide, throwing plastic mineral-water bottles, festival programs, tubes of 30+ blockout, Panamas, sunglasses, paper fans, signed copies of Hitch-22 or The Slap and bits and pieces of Zimmer frame.

* With reference to the above, always make sure you know where Security is before you get up on the stage. Also the tent manager and the sound dudes, and it's helpful to ask for and remember these people's names beforehand.

* Speaking of the sound dudes, there'll always be at least one person in the audience who starts jumping up and down and waving his or her arms and disruptively bellowing "Can't hear! Get closer to the microphone!' These people usually (a) date from an age when getting closer to a microphone made things better instead of worse, (b) don't understand that the techs are the people they should be notifying, (c) are almost certainly sitting somewhere out of proper speaker range in any case, (d) haven't caught on that above a certain decibel level the noise from the East Tent will start interfering with what's going on in the West Tent, and (e) don't have their hearing aids switched on.

* We are living in an age where nobody thinks any more that it might be polite to actually ask the participants whether it would be all right if they recorded (audio, footage, still photos, you name it) the session. They just go ahead and do it. Then they put it online, where you can study, at your leisure, every possible aspect of your appearance, voice, manner and general public presentation.

Do not agree to chair sessions unless you think you will survive this process. Especially not if you then have to cope with eminent gimlet-eyed crime writers whose initials are RR instructing you immediately before you get up on stage to interview them (see next dot point) that you must prevent people from taking photos, and somehow stop yourself from asking 'And how, pray tell, do you propose I manage that?'

* If you a chairing a single-author session, almost all of them will say they want to be interviewed rather than give any kind of presentation. Allow three working days for preparation if you want this to go even remotely well, bearing in mind that you won't find out that that's what they want until after they've arrived in town.

* Do not lose your nerve.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Poetry in books

Every now and again a name will leap up off the screen at me out of news or literary sites and I'll think proudly (or, in some cases, not) 'Aha, former student.' Here's one I remember very clearly indeed: Georgia Richter, now poetry publisher at Fremantle Press, writing about books and poetry and books of poetry.

Georgia is one of the very few people I can think of who could write a villanelle on a serviette and finish it before she ran out of room or the serviette disintegrated from all the crossings-out.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Randolph Stow, 1935-2010

From the FaceBook page of Nicholas Pounder, legendary Sydney book dealer and self-described 'mild-mannered antiquarian', I've just learned of the death of Australian novelist Randolph Stow. (Link via Geordie Williamson.)

Not known for conviviality and for many years an expatriate, Stow is one of Australian literature's most overlooked and underrated writers, at least these days. I first encountered him when we 'did' The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea at school, and along with the rest of my generation got some early inklings from this book of the beauty and isolation and general weirdness of Western Australia and its coastline, and of the power of poetry to sustain life, and of what might have happened to some of the Australians who fought in the Second World War.

Under his sandals, leaves and nuts fallen from the Moreton Bay figtrees crunched and popped. Beyond the merry-go-round was the sea. The colour of the sea should have astounded, but the boy was seldom astounded. It was simply the sea, dark and glowing blue, bisected by seagull-grey timbers of the rotting jetty, which dwindled away in the distance until it seemed to come to an end in the flat-topped hills to the north. He did not think about the sea, or about the purple bougainvillea that glowed against it, propped on a sagging shed. These existed only as the familiar backdrop of the merry-go-round. Nevertheless, the colours had entered into him, printing a brilliant memory.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Who are you calling derivative?

One of the criticisms commonly levelled at J. K. Rowling is that her Harry Potter books are 'derivative'. By this people seem to mean that they are like countless other 'off to boarding school' books, in the great English tradition, or that they are like The Sword in the Stone, or that they're like The Little White Horse, or The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Lord of the Rings, or or or.

Why yes. Yes they are. They are a clever and loving pastiche of precisely all those things, and of a whole lot of other things. That, or so I have always assumed, is partly the point of them: that much of the pleasure in reading them, and a large part of the explanation why so many adults love them, is in the recognition factor and the clever play with the texts of the past. For a well-read adult, reading the Potter books is the same kind of experience as reading a good contemporary detective novel that skilfully uses and plays with and echoes all the most established conventions of crime fiction that we the crime fiction lovers have come to know and, erm, love.

In order to secure what turned out to be one of the great conversations of my life, a conversation that I will remember till I die, I once shamelessly manoeuvred until I was seated directly across the dinner table from the late, great and much-lamented Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett, a Renaissance woman who who went to school with Muriel Spark, married the founding editor of The Scotsman, and in terms of sheer literary talent could hold her own with both of them, which did not stop her in earlier life from making a living as a portrait painter.

I asked her starry-eyed fan questions all through dinner, but she volunteered without being asked (I wanted to ask, but it would have been rude) the information that she had found Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey's mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver a wonderful model for her own Sybilla Crawford, particularly in the matter of her relationship with her heroic son, and was taking it for granted that many of the readers who liked her work would also be familiar with Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother, and would see the resemblance and appreciate it for the playful homage it was.

Part of the point of that characterisation, in fact, is the pleasure of watching Dunnett take a model in a very different genre (though she wrote some cracking contemporary thrillers herself, as well as the historical sagas) and, with an elegant flourish, show how certain archetypes of character and family relationship could be remodelled while keeping their essence in the telling of a very different sort of story in a very different sort of way.

But I digress, because actually this isn't a post about Harry Potter, or indeed about Dorothy Dunnett: it's about the reclusive British writer Jude Morgan, whose 'novelisation' of the lives of the Brontës under the unpromising title The Taste of Sorrow, published last year, turned out, against all (my) expectations, to be really good. Normally the 'novelisation' of real people makes me very squeamish, but Morgan somehow -- I'm not sure quite how -- manages to overcome the very real and very obvious disadvantages of this kind of writing, to the point where he's made a successful career out of it and is clearly on a roll.

For, less than a year later, he has a new novel out. A Little Folly is set during the Regency (he began his career with Heyeresque Regency novels) and again 'derivative' not only of various 19th century novelists -- there's one character straight out of Dickens (who was a year old in 1813, at the time the novel is set), one straight out of Thackeray (who was two), one straight out of Charlotte Bronte (who was born five years later), one straight out of Henry James (whose birth was still 30 years in the future), and pretty much everything else is straight out of Jane Austen, who was 38 and at the height of her powers: a pastiche of various Austenesque characters, situations and conventions, as well as some pretty impressive imitation right down at the level of sentence structure and the way Austen uses grammar in the service of her wit.

Not only is it homage to Jane Austen et al, it's also, at the meta-level, homage to Georgette Heyer, who herself, of course, in a way only historical novelists can (and must, one way or another), was attempting to echo in her style and characterisation the era of which she wrote.

The word 'derivative' applies only when the deriver doesn't really know what she or he is doing, as with the numberless hordes of Candace Bushnell wannabes, vampire novelists who don't get the metaphor(s), historical novelists whose fashions in skirts and dialogue quirks are from the wrong century, and humourless fantasy writers whose furry and leathery characters all talk like Yoda and have names full of gs and ths. And neither Dunnett nor Rowling nor Heyer nor Jude Morgan could for a moment be thus described.  When you write, you're placing your work into a set of traditions that already exists, whether you like it or not; even writers who pride themselves on being innovative or original are doing so in conscious resistance to what has gone before. Writers like Morgan aren't 'derivative'; they're entering into a conversation with literary history.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But wait, there's more

A sub-genre appears to be emerging from the vampire revival, as more and more vampire writers go for series instead of just the one-off, with very deliberately open-ended plots, and given the extraordinary post-Anne-Rice, post-Buffy commercial book-to-screen successes of Stephenie Meyer's sparkly teenage vampires and Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse, why wouldn't you.

David Wellington did this (again) with his most recent novel 23 Hours, in which the fiendish 300-year-old vampire Justinia Malvern escapes in the end to drink blood another day and the righteous Laura Caxton likewise survives and escapes custody, presumably to chase Justinia down through the next volume and so on ad infinitum.

And now we have Jasper Kent's Thirteen Years Later, sequel to Twelve (they do love their numbers, these vampirists) and second in a projected 'quintet' (Kent is a composer and musician as well as a novelist). It's as though the 'vampire novel' form were declaring itself, like its subject, conditionally immortal; I guess stories of the undead just naturally lend themselves to open-endedness. I haven't read the Kent books, but they look like classy generic hybrids: historical horror fiction, up the literary end of 'genre'.

My friend and former colleague Prof Ken Gelder published a book about vampires in 1994. Given the current crop of vamp lit in all its diverse flowerings, he'd be crazy not to be thinking about a sequel himself.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Whoa, sorry about accidental posting, all whose feeds picked up what was actually a first draft of some opening remarks of a long post about the Miles Franklin and why I think there's this constant fussing about the bloody thing. (Miles F. herself, of course, would just love the constant fussing and be extremely sardonic about it.)

So pay that false start no mind, please. Fellow-users of Blogger will know that the SAVE NOW button is right next to the PUBLISH POST button, and so far this morning I'm not sufficiently caffeinated to tell the difference.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Miles Franklin shortlist

Clearly I have lost my Miles mojo.

Contrary to my prediction here the other day, the shortlist does indeed again contain six books (the length has varied over the last decade or so, usually from four to six), rather than my predicted five. I only picked two and a half of the six: Brian Castro's The Bath Fugues, Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly, and a two-way punt on Alex Miller's Lovesong. And my predicted winner, David Foster's Sons of the Rumour, hasn't even made the shortlist.

I'm glad to see Truth there. As I said, the five I picked were not necessarily my personal favourites -- they were predictions rather than choices.

The list:

Lovesong by Alex Miller
The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster
Truth by Peter Temple
Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another year, another Miles Franklin shortlist prediction from Mystic Mog as was

The Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist, according to the official website, is due to be announced on April 21. Having had some success in the past, though way off base last year, I feel emboldened to have a go at predicting the shortlist and winner again this year.

These are not necessarily my own picks, just what I think might get up, on what I think will be the standard shortlist of five: Brian Castro's The Bath Fugues, David Foster's Sons of the Rumour and Glenda Guest's Siddon Rock plus two of the following: Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly, Alex Miller's Lovesong and Tom Keneally's The People's Train. I don't expect Peter Carey to make the cut and I'm guessing Alex Miller might not either, but I'm not as much of a Miller fan as most people so I might be off base there.

Foster the incomparable to win.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature

My longtime Australian Lit colleague and recently acquired FaceBook Friend Susan Lever has suggested I link to the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, published by the National Library of Australia: it's here. You have to register, but you don't have to pay. [UPDATE: no, apparently you don't even have to register to read it!] There are full archives and an excellent, detailed search function.

The Association for the Study of Australian Literature was formed in the late 1970s and an extraordinarily successful venture it has been and remains; for some of us the ASAL conference was and is the highlight of the academic year and I think many people felt as I did that ASAL, rather than their own university department, was their real -- or at least their main -- intellectual community.

It was also, usually, a riot, though these days it seems more seemly. I have particularly fond memories of Townsville 1986, when Prof (well, he is now) Ken Gelder won the Parody Competition with a masterly mashup of classic texts, conference papers and conference conditions, notably the so-called unisex toilets and the conflation in one paper of the work of Catherine Helen Spence and Karl Marx, thenceforth referred to as Marx and Spence.

JASAL was set up by a small group of dedicated ASAL members after it became clear that the opportunities for publishing scholarly work in Australian literary studies were getting thinner and thinner on the ground. The current issue is a tribute to poet Vincent Buckley and includes articles by his friends and fellow-poets Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Jennifer Strauss, plus reminiscences and scholarly articles by friends, former colleagues, former students and specialists in Australian poetry.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Glenda Guest and Siddon Rock

What's she doing writing a blog post about a book she hasn't read, you ask. Well, for one thing I'm waking this blog out of its five-month coma to try yet again to get some order into my thoughts on the topic I know better than any other, that of Australian writing -- though the idea of 'Australian writing' gets more and more problematic as the intertubes kick internationalism along. (On the other hand, I did hear some very nasty, and stupid, nationalist stuff coming out of Central Europe on the radio yesterday so there is obviously resistance to the inevitable.)

Anyway, I'm trying a trick that's often successfully used by bloggers who want to kick-(re-)start their sites and that's to vow to post something -- anything, no matter how brief or glancing -- every day. There's something about the discipline of this that I really like; blogging is not so far away from meditation. And staying in regular touch with developments in my own main skill set can't possibly be a bad idea.

What's inspired me to start today, though, is the news this morning that first-time novelist Glenda Guest has won the Best First Book prize in the Commonwealth Literary Awards for her novel Siddon Rock.

There'd been a bit of a subdued buzz about this book, and Guest herself, after the novel was shortlisted, and I expect her and it to get more publicity in the wake of the win. What with her success there and the brief synopsis I've just read at the website of her publishers, Random House, I'm now curious and enthusiastic enough to seek it out and make the time to read it:
When Macha Connor came home from the war she walked into town as naked as the day she was born, except for well-worn and shining boots, a dusty slouch hat, and the .303 rifle she held across her waist.

Macha patrols Siddon Rock by night, watching over the town’s inhabitants: Brigid, Granna, and all of the Aberline clan; Alistair in Meakin's Haberdashery, with his fine sense of style; Sybil, scrubbing away at the bloodstains in her father's butcher shop; Reverend Siggy, afraid of the outback landscape and the district’s magical saltpans; silent Nell with her wild dogs; publican Marg, always accompanied by a cloud of blue; and the new barman, Kelpie Crush.
It is only when refugee Catalin Morgenstern and her young son Josis arrive in town that Macha realises there is nothing she can do to keep the townspeople safe.

On hearing of her success, Guest told the Guardian that she was 'standing here like a stunned mullet', an epithet that no doubt left English punters bemused at the strange ways of colonials. 'It's not about the money,' she said, 'it's not about the credit, it's about being given verification that this is any good, that I can actually write."