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.