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.