Friday, July 22, 2011

Barbara Hanrahan tribute

If you're in Adelaide next Wednesday evening and feel like taking in a little Culture, you could come to this event at the State Library. North Terrace, 6 for 6.30. (Click on the image to enlarge it. If you're lucky you might even be able to read the fine print.)

In which the young Harper helps out the old Harper

Yesterday I posted on Facebook a link to an article about the fact that sales of To Kill a Mockingbird have increased over 100% since David and Victoria Beckham named their new baby daughter Harper after Harper Lee. The bub is in good company, with Paul Simon's son and Gregory Peck's grandson (and who knows how many other less well-connected infants) called Harper for the same reason.

Someone commented at that Facebook link that she wondered what Harper Lee thought about it; my immediate thought, given my own joy when the annual modest but very welcome Public Lending Right and Education Lending Right cheques arrive chez moi every May, was that if Harper Lee was still alive then I bet she was as pleased as all get-out. A quick check with Wikipedia revealed that Lee is indeed still alive; she was born in April 1926 and is therefore 85 years old.

Given its ubiquity and its staying power on literature courses in schools and universities ever since it was first published, I'm assuming that Lee's iconic novel has kept her in cat food and bananas all her life, but the boost to royalties from the Beckham input can surely, to an 85-year-old woman living in a country where people die daily because they can't afford medical treatment and care, be nothing but very welcome.

I didn't know this lovely story from the Wikipedia entry about how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be written, so here it is. Props to Michael Brown or what? They don't make patrons like that any more.

In 1949, a 23-year-old Lee arrived in New York City. She struggled for several years, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Air Corp (BOAC). While in the city, Lee was reunited with old friend Truman Capote, one of the literary rising stars of the time. She also befriended Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Brown and his wife Joy. Having written several long stories, Harper Lee located an agent in November 1956. The following month at the Browns' East 50th townhouse, she received a gift of a year's wages from them with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." She quit her job and devoted herself to her craft. Within a year, she had a first draft.

Friday, June 17, 2011

In which Ian Rankin does something unusual

Here's a little puzzle for people who habitually read literary journalism, especially in Australia.

What is quite unusual about this piece by Ian Rankin? What does it have that we don't often see in articles about literary favourites and highlights, or indeed in literary journalism at all?

Cross-posted at Still Life With Cat

Friday, June 3, 2011

Una selva oscura

This morning I paid the princely sum of $10 for this new book:

I was halfway to the bookshop counter, wallet at the ready, very possibly with Casey's recent lovely post about Dante in the back of my mind and thinking $10 was a really good deal for one of the great classics of literature, even if I did have to read it in unsatisfactory translation (for I've never seen a translation of the opening three lines that seemed to me exactly right, and I don't even speak or read Italian, but I know what I like), when I idly opened it at random to check the print size and found to my great joy that what I was about to pay a pittance for was a parallel text, with Dante's exquisite, lucid, singing Italian opposite the translation.

Five years of excellent teaching and intermittent hard slog at Adelaide Girls' High back in the mists of time has left me with the ability to nut out a little bit of German and quite a lot of French if it is put in front of me, but such Italian as has sunk in, ie almost none (though I still remember the Italian for the first phrase I ever consciously learned: Posso provarlo? 'May I try this on?') has done so by accident and through some sort of process of osmosis.

But it strikes me, not for the first time, that this verse is so beautiful one could teach oneself Italian simply by studying a page of this book a day. A dark wood, in which one has lost one's way: can you think of a better metaphor for middle age?

...Françoise sat down beside me with a volume of Dante and construed
a few lines of the 'Inferno' to begin showing me how the language
worked. 'Per mi si va tra la perduta gente' - 'Through me you go
among the lost people'. A line that crushed the heart, but in the
middle you could say 'tra la'. It was music.
– Clive James, Falling Towards England

The opening lines likewise crush the heart -- 'In the middle of this life we live, I became aware that I was in a dark wood, and the path was lost.' Or words to that effect. Also words to crush the heart, but look at the paper (or whatever it is) that they were written on.

Cross-posted at Still Life With Cat

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On not writing about the Miles Franklin Literary Award

Passing over the irony of the fact that the main reason I've been neglecting this blog is that I've been flat out writing a book, missing my first deadline but absolutely determined not to miss my second (and I didn't, either. It seems that it's still possible in your late fifties to work all night; who knew?) -- passing over, as I say, the irony of that, I've been thinking in the wake of the second Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist in three years to feature novels written exclusively by men about why the very thought of writing another post about this (for if they're gonna keep doin' it then it is up to those of us to whom these things matter to keep callin' 'em on it) (God I love long sentences, I just love them to death) makes me want to lie down in my own bed in the foetal position with the doona over my head and my thumb in my mouth.

The closest I've seen to an answer to this question is provided by theatre critic, poet and novelist Alison Croggon in some online discussion in the wake of her excellent piece on the subject for the ABC's The Drum. Can't find that comment now but it was something to the effect that one way to get rid of pesky feminist critics was to force them to bore themselves to death explaining the same simple points over and over again.

Examples of the simple points in question: What patriarchy is. What 'hegemony' means. Why the idea of 'literary merit' is not an absolute given. How the dominant culture works. Why it's not simply a matter of who has which set of bits. In a word, Feminism 101.

Not only do I not want to bore myself to death going over these things in online arguments with men who think they already know everything, I also don't want to bore myself to death listening to or reading the magisterial pronouncements of people who haven't done the reading. For examples, see the comments thread on Alison Croggon's piece I linked to up there, if you can stomach it, which I bet you can't. And the comments on Jason Steger's piece on the subject in The Age yesterday are much worse again.

The reason one has to explain the same simple points over and over again is that, in general, blokes simply do not listen when women speak, and they do not read what women write. This is circular argument: they will say Oh but that's because what women say isn't good or interesting, and then you say Well that's because you're applying masculine values universally, and they say They're not masculine values, they're universal values, like for example everyone agrees on what literary merit is, and you say Well no we don't, women value some things differently, and they say Oh but what women say isn't good or interesting.


I speak from the experience of (a) six years of blogging, in which activity I include reading and commenting on other blogs, (b) 20 years of university teaching and (c) 50+ years of arguing with my father. The exception is (some) male academics in the humanities, especially those under about 50: those who have actually read some of the theory, and into whom some of the theory has sunk. You can practically see the shining light bulbs above these men's heads. I am very fond of all of them.

But as for the rest, I don't know how this is to be got over. Perhaps it isn't. See doona, foetal position, thumb, etc.

Also, in the discussion of this year's Miles F round the online traps, I've been seeing two (in particular) other honourable exceptions to this: The Australian's literary editor Stephen Romei, and novelist and critic James Bradley. So perhaps there is hope.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Apostrophe Corner

I see there's some sort of genetic link between being a member of the Flat Earth Society and not knowing where to put your apostrophes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Be careful what you wish for

I dreamed of a life in which I could make a living reading and writing, and do so independently: a life where I was in charge. I did a number of difficult things in order to make this come to pass. But tonight, years later, as I reap the fruits of same, my life is reminding me of something from my childhood.

TIME: the present

PLACE: my house


Water ..... Words
Brooms .... Books
Mickey .... Moi

Sunday, March 6, 2011

And his ghost may be heard

 While I was writing the book about Adelaide (which is now finished and sent to the publisher as of last week; hallelujah and so on), I became acquainted with the magnificent Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program being undertaken by the National Library of Australia. Much material of the livelier sort – merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative – comes straight from the Adelaide papers of the times, mainly the Register and the Advertiser.

And here's something I just stumbled on (you do an awful lot of stumbling over treasure when you're noodling around at that site) a moment ago while looking for something quite different. It sounds eerily familiar. Nuriootpa is in the Barossa Valley. NOW READ ON ...

From The Advertiser, 21 March 1908


NURIOOTPA, March 19. - An apple-packer, while passing over the North Para bridge, at 6.45 a.m. to-day, saw the body of a man floating in the river near Mr. C. Schelz's house. He called at Tolley's distillery and the police were communicated with by telephone. Mounted Constable Grosser soon arrived on the scene and with assistance took the body from the water.

It was found to be that of a man about 75 years of age, and 5 ft. 5 in. in height. The deceased was toothless and had blue eyes, grey hair, and a grey goatee beard.

The deceased arrived in this town on Tuesday night with a swag and was last seen alive late yesterday afternoon, when he was camping on the bank of the river near the spot where his body was found. He was a stranger in these parts. A paper found on him bore the name of Michael Whelan. The swag, which was neatly arranged, was attached to the body. An inquest was considered unnecessary, everything pointing to accidental death from drowning.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You keep using that word

Just in case anyone here is confused about the meaning of the word 'love', allow the Australian Christian Lobby to explain it to you:

Brigadier Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby has no qualms about the law. The head of the influential Christian pressure group said a church school should have the right to expel any openly gay child.

"But I would expect any church that found itself in that situation to do that in the most loving way that it could for the child and to reduce absolutely any negative affects.

"I think that you explain: this is a Christian school, that unless the child is prepared to accept that it is chaste, that it is searching for alternatives as well, that the school may decide that it might be better for the child as well that he goes somewhere else. I think it's a loving response."

If you're wondering, it's here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Work: more smart, less hard

It was Oscar Wilde, I believe, who once said that he'd done a hard day's work: he'd spent the morning putting in a comma, and the afternoon taking it out. Whenever I have that sort of writing day, spent fruitlessly staring and tinkering and staring and tinkering, seeing a problem down a long vista of tunnel vision and failing comprehensively to solve it, it's Oscar Wilde who comes to mind.

But this morning I'm reading Daniella Brodsky's Vivian Rising and I've just come across this:
'... I'm not getting off the phone with you until I think of a good piece of advice.'

'We might be here awhile. Remember the Pacific Seafood Extravaganza debacle?' I say, recalling the day I was out sick and Wendy stayed at the office till after midnight thinking up a good rhyme for flounder.

'Right,' she says. 'I still don't know how your grandmother came up with "grab a pounder of flounder."'
Next time I'm having a day like that, I won't describe it to myself as the insertion and removal of commas, but rather as an attempt to think of a rhyme for flounder. In my family, any pointless endeavour is known as 'calling a Burmese cat', but the search for an impossible rhyme is a more fitting metaphor with regard to the writing life.

There are three different possible ways out of wasting a whole day in this manner, all of which involve reframing the problem rather than, erm, floundering around looking for a solution to the existing one, whatever it is, that you have idiotically set yourself:

1) Come up with an outrageous Ogden Nashish solution, as per 'pounder of flounder'.

2) Write blank verse.

3) Think of a different fish, but not lobster or oyster. Whiting, say, or shark. Better still, eel.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on self-editing

Which actually sounds kind of rude, but is in fact the opposite of any form of self-indulgence; one must be strict with oneself. Here, as of this morning, are the red-pen annotations on the hard copy of what I sincerely hope will be the penultimate draft of the section of the Adelaide book that deals with Don Dunstan and his Pink Shorts, strung together, in the order in which they appear, for your entertainment. Like the parlour game of Consequences, they do in fact provide a surprisingly coherent narrative, thus:

One newspaper described them as 'flesh-pink'. They had a point, and I wasn't sure about it either. CHECK AND FIX THIS. Add something from the PhD on food and drink? You need to paraphrase this info and conflate it with DD's own portrait. MASH UP. Make more of a song & dance about this. Get DJO's permission. There was also a dash of leftover Cold War paranoia, and another of unreconstructed British imperialism. And to have been a little outraged that it was possible for any Englishman to be sacked by an Australian, even the head of the government that had employed him: 'My loyalty,' he said, apparently under the impression that he had come to work in one of Her Majesty's colonies, 'is to the Crown.' NO LEAVE THIS BIT OUT. As Dunstan had written about a different matter. Factor in dates of Royal Commission. ... the reforms in matters of sexual freedom, particularly the decriminalisation of homosexuality ... Say where photo is. Find name of song -- PERMISSION! (Which had made it possible for him to turn up there in shorts in the first place.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg

Apparently now writers aren't allowed to behave badly or they will be punished. I wonder if this new boilerplate contract contains the phrase 'damages our brand'.

Well, there goes Oscar Wilde. There go Jane Bowles and Jean Rhys. There go Verlaine and Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Colette, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Ashbery and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. There goes Norman Mailer and there, in spades, go William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. Add your own. It's a long list, as long as a piece of string.

(There, it might even be argued, goes Virginia Woolf, for here she is, fooling His Majesty's Navy. That's her on the left-hand end: click on the photo to enlarge, or, as we say in the blogosphere, embiggen. Has anyone ever done a proper academic feminist/postcolonial analysis of this affair, against the background of British/African relations c. 1910? I think there's a thesis in it.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

After computers: the art of second-guessing

The idea of book-as-baby is a common trope, and it applies not only to books but to any piece of writing that is going to be read by someone other than you. You labour to bring forth the object, and then send it out into the world.

In order to prepare a child for the world, you do your best to second-guess the hazards she might encounter. You nourish her, vaccinate her and educate her. Does the parallel with writing still hold? Why yes. It does.

My earliest forays into publication, back in the early 1980s when newspapers and books were still edited wholly by literate human beings and not largely by American grammar-checking programs, involved the then literary editor of The Age (not the current one) parcelling up volumes of poetry in fours and fives and asking me to write 500-word reviews covering all of them. This as you can imagine was no easy task, though it provided valuable early training in the art of saying something useful in a tiny space. (Which may be why I love to bang on at such length en blog. It's because I can.)

This was fine until I realised that as often as not, on publication, the final paragraph had simply disappeared. Which was another valuable lesson in the fact that in the production of newspapers, the measurement of column inches takes precedence over meaning -- as it must; space, like money, is measurable and finite, and doesn't magically expand just because one feels the need to calibrate one's nuances more finely. (As with money, again.)

And some sub-editors, I discovered, will simply physically trim the edges off your copy as though it were cookie dough, sorry, biscuit dough. I developed a strategy of writing penultimate paragraphs that would, if called upon, serve as final ones, for the times when the 500 words I had been asked for and provided happened not to fit into the space around the advertising -- for which the books pages were, then as now, desperate in order to justify their existence to a stern and pragmatic management, and the sub found it easiest simply to lop off the last little bit. It felt - no, don't go there.

I was reminded of this last night when I wrote a sentence I quite liked, comparing Don Dunstan's pink shorts to Cinderella's glass slipper, 'unwearable by all but one.'

The spell-checker promptly 'corrected' unwearable to unbearable.

I constantly see things in print, and I bet you do too, that appear to make no sense until it dawns on me that Word has 'corrected' something and no human eye and hand have intervened to correct it back. And everyone even remotely connected with writing and publishing knows that sometimes literals creep in, or amendments somehow fail to be taken in, or corrections are somehow not corrected back. I had a vivid mental picture of readers sitting down with the book and puzzling over the notion that the Pink Shorts were unbearable to all but one.

(Which has its own strange charm, as notions go, but which we know not to be true.)

And so I have changed the sentence to something less satisfactory but stronger proof against the processes, as they now are, of publishing. The child is now safe from the measles, but one sheds a parental tear over the pinprick of broken skin.

Monday, January 10, 2011


As I think I may have blogged about before, either here or at t'other blog, I learned after many years of chronically costive writing practices that if I hit a snag in a sentence or a paragraph, what I should do instead of painstakingly rearranging the grammar or rebooting the paragraph or Googling down the highways and byways of the virtual world in search of confirmation or denial before moving on to the next glacially slow sentence was simply to write a short note to myself in the text, saying what needed to be done, and to write it in caps inside square brackets for clear demarcation and easy spotting.

In practice, almost all such interjections consist of either [CHECK], which usually means 'fact-check', or [FIX THIS], which can mean anything from a clumsily structured paragraph through a bungled segue to a sentence that has simply lost its way and its will to live, and has lain down in the dust to die.

But the book on Adelaide that I am currently hustling to finish is both much longer and much more complicated than most of the stuff I write, and the manuscript as it exists at the moment, while indeed full of [CHECK] and [FIX THIS], also has a few longer and more exotic interjections in it. My two favourites to date are [GAH, JESUS, SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT -- REWRITE THIS WHOLE SENTENCE] and [NO YOU FUCKWIT, HARDLY ANYBODY KNOWS ABOUT THIS, WHAT YOU'VE WRITTEN HERE IS JUST COMPLETELY WRONG].

One can only hope that in one's hurry one does not send one of these early drafts to the publisher by mistake.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Australian novels: a quiz

The multi-talented Ampersand Duck has put together a quiz about favorite Australian novels. I was surprised by how hard I had to think about some of these. It's a magnificent bit of procrastination for those struggling to get back into a work groove, especially seeing that most of the people who read this would probably be able to justify it as work. Sort of. More or less. The quiz is here.