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This week, Stella Prize board member Sophie Cunningham and four of the Stella Prize shortlisted authors for 2014 came together to talk about the prize, their work and women’s writing, in a special Digital Writers Festival online-only event.

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Sophie Cunningham said that the Stella Prize is already impacting on the sales of the shortlisted titles, and getting the authors' names known – which was always the key agenda of the prize.

‘We wanted to generate more engagement with high quality women’s writing.’

The lives and stories of silenced women

A Twitter audience member commented on the fact that this year’s Stella shortlist follows a strong theme. – all the books, in various ways, explore the lives and stories of silenced women. She asked if the judges had chosen the books with this in mind.

Sophie speculated that the theme was no coincidence, but nor was it deliberate, or a result of specific briefing by the prize’s organisers. She said that while ‘board members try to keep away from the judges’, the judges who are interested in being involved with the Stella Prize are also likely to be interested in those themes. Last year, the shortlist was more thematically diverse; judges are not told what to look for when making their selections.

‘The dick table’

Clare Wright’s shared joke with her publicist became a public (and somewhat controversial) observation after a recent interview. While touring chain bookshops, airports and independent bookshops all over Australia to promote The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka late last year, she noticed that the tables at the front of bookshops, with the most prominent displays, largely consisted of books by and about men. ‘It was like every day was Father’s Day,’ she said. ‘The dick table’ became a private joke between her and her publicist. She said that some booksellers had been offended by her observation; they said that they know what sells and where to place titles.

Clare pointed out in her Stella chat that the value we place on writers (and the topics writers put their energy into) are very much influenced by how books are retailed; that these things matter.

‘Lots of bookshops have Stella tables now,’ she said.

Men and the great American novel

Kristina Olsson, author of Boy, Lost, said that she loves the Stella, though she wishes that we lived in a world where we wouldn’t need it to draw attention to women’s writing.

‘Certain subjects written about by men will be seen one way,’ she said, ‘and if written by women they’re seen another way.’ She particularly focused on the way domestic or romantic novels are viewed (and accorded respect) very differently according to the gender of the writer, using Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing as one example.

Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest, is currently working out of LA. She observed that in America, writers are very invested in the idea of the Great American Novel, that novel that takes in the idea of America, and is typically a novel of ideas with a strong domestic aspect. (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was an example.) ‘There’s a self-consciously macho race to be the best. It’s men writing the world.’

She was frustrated by the idea that a writer like Marilynne Robinson is not one of the names that automatically comes up in conversations about ‘great American writers’. That whole conversation, she said, is ‘very masculine’.

‘An important award’: Alexis Wright

Sophie asked Alexis Wright, as an Indigenous writer, how she feels about the Stella’s focus on increasing representation of women writers, when the problem of Indigenous writers' representation is also a problem.

‘We have our issues as Indigenous people,’ said Alexis, whose novel The Swan Book is shortlisted for the Stella Prize. ‘We also have difficulty publishing and having our work recognised. Indigenous rights across the board are everyday issues for us.’

‘The Stella Prize is a wonderful award. It has raised the profile of women writers. And it gives bookshops the opportunity to find something else to market. There’s a struggle all round in the writing and publishing world; bookshops are struggling too.’

‘It’s an important award.’

Above: You can watch the Stella Prize’s Digital Writers Festival event in full.


On Thursday 1 May, you can join The Stella Prize chair Aviva Tuffield, last year’s winner Carrie Tiffany and the (yet-to-be-announced) 2014 winner at the Wheeler Centre to to question whether the award has provoked a fundamental change in how women writers are viewed.

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highlight Adam Alter is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave (Bloomsbury). An assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, his research focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Adam’s publications include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Psychology Today and the Atlantic.

Adam will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May. In the lead-up, we spoke to him about loving academia, why it’s powerful to get feedback from children on your work, and his advice for aspiring writers: write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explaining your aspirations and asking for advice.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I had published was an academic paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.. My grad school advisor and I found that you could predict the performance of shares on the stock market based on their names: companies with simpler names do better than those with complex names, particularly when they first enter the markets. My first piece in print in a mainstream outlet was an op-ed in the New York Times. I summarised some of the ideas from my book to argue that people become different versions of themselves in different locations: walk through a messy place and you become a litterbug; walk through an area filled with people and you become misanthropic. Basically, there are hundreds − thousands? − of versions of each of us, each version reflecting the world around us at any moment in time.

What’s the best part of your job?

The variety in what I do. I conduct academic research, write academic papers, teach students, advice Ph.D. candidates, write books and articles, consult companies and government agencies, speak at conferences, non-profits, company events, college ceremonies, and so on. Academia is terrific, because you can study exactly what interests you. You carve out a path that combines all the elements that you enjoy while minimising the ones you don’t enjoy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

This is a much harder question − which is good news! The worst part, I think, is that people move around so much in academia that your close friends and family members end up scattered across the globe. I left Sydney to study in the US, and I’m now married and settled in New York City. I love living in New York, but my parents and brother are in Sydney, and most of the friends I made at grad school and as a professor are in Europe or Australia or Asia or Africa or South America or other parts of North America − and very few of them are still in New York. If I could bring together everyone who was special to me (and move New York to a warmer part of the country!), I’d consider my job close to perfect.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

drunktankLast week one of my colleagues told me that his ten-year-old son is studying a chapter from my book, Drunk Tank Pink, at his school in Brooklyn. In the chapter I talk about the power of labels − how important it is to be careful when we describe people by their race, ethnicity, religion, physical size, and so on. The students are working on projects based on the chapter, and they’re presenting their findings to the entire school. I’m visiting the class in May to talk to them about the book, and more importantly, to hear what they found interesting, important, and puzzling. It’s always flattering to hear that an adult enjoys something you’ve written, but for me it’s much more powerful to get the same feedback from a child.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was to turn everything into a story. Humans transmit information across the ages as narratives, and the bits of information that endure are embedded in stories. One reason why people remember religious texts for thousands of years is that they’re packed with great stories. This year, Darren Aronofsky is releasing Noah, a film about Noah and the Ark. Growing up, I watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments over and over and over again. I’m not religious, and you don’t have to be observant to appreciate those stories. In the end, any piece of information can be fashioned into a story. The best writers sell their ideas by puffing them up with details, anecdotes, and tangents that turn dry information into something digestible, transmissible, and memorable.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Nothing specific pops out, but much of what I’ve written has been published in places where readers offer comments. It’s always interesting to hear what people like, what they dislike, and how they connect your writing to ideas that hadn’t entered your mind till they explained the relationship.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Life would be different, but I’d still teach and advise and consult and speak.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Absolutely. I’m not sure there’s any skill that fundamentally can’t be taught. Some people are naturally stronger than others − at writing and everything else − but teaching brings you closer to your potential. I’ve been taught so much by so many excellent writers, much of it in the form of specific approaches or concrete tips. Either you know about those techniques, or you don’t, and the difference is a matter of education.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explain your writing aspirations as specifically as you can, and ask them for the single best piece of advice they have to offer. Most won’t reply, but some will, and when you hit the wall as you begin to pursue your aspirations, you’ll be able to reread the advice of someone who hit and managed to climb the same wall years earlier.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy my books from small, local bookstores, but they’re disappearing in New York City and everywhere else. When I can’t find books at the store, or need them in a hurry, I’ll order them online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

When you write fiction you can take any personality characteristic and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. I’d pick a character that reflects that approach − a fictional genius (like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Gregory House), or someone with otherworldly street smarts (like House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart). There’s plenty of time for fun and good food later; I’d try to learn as much as possible about what makes this fictional genius tick.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Philip Roth’s novella, Goodbye, Columbus. It’s an impeccably told story, and Roth’s protagonist, Neil Klugman, seems so real that you see aspects of him in almost everyone you know. But the main reason why the book had such an effect on me is that it tells the story of transience and change better than any other piece of writing I’ve read. It tells of one mostly glorious summer in Klugman’s life, which, as all summers do, eventually ends. That concept really speaks to me, because I’ve lived on three continents, in large cities and in small towns, sometimes surrounded by close friends and family, but at other times relatively isolated. When things change − for the better or for the worse − I always think about (and sometimes reread for the thousandth time) Goodbye, Columbus.


Adam Alter will talk about Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces That Shape How we Think, Feel and Behave at a Lunchbox/Soapbox event at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May, 12.45pm.

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16 April 2014

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Sally Rippin’s series for primary school age children, Billie B. Brown and Hey Jack!, are bestsellers – and playground favourites. So she’s well equipped to give advice on helping instil a love of reading in reluctant readers. Here are some of her tips – and her story on the genesis of Billie and Jack.

A few years ago, I was approached by a publisher to begin a new series for early readers. For inspiration I began by pulling out all my old Dr Seuss books. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story behind The Cat in the Hat, in 1954, a magazine published an article that suggested children were not learning to read because their books were boring. A publisher compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognise and asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) to write a book using only those words. Nine months later, using only 236 of these words, Geisel handed him the manuscript for The Cat in the Hat.

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The next set of books I dusted off were my childhood copies of Richard Scarry. I studied these books to work out what had so appealed to me and decided it was Scarry’s unusual use of second person. Looking at these books as an adult I realised this was an incredibly simple yet effective way of connecting with my young reader.

The last series I pulled out were the Milly Molly Mandy books begun by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1920s. They contained no wizards or dragons, or even family tragedies to contend with, yet I still remember finding them utterly gripping. So, inspired by Seuss, Scarry and Lankester Brisley, I decided my stories would begin in second person, contain the language of a school reader and stick to the simplest day to day occurrences of a six to eight year old. Over the next few weeks I wrote a story using these limitations and tested it out on my son who is a reluctant reader. When he fidgeted or seemed to lose track of the story, I made notes in the columns to trim back or change the wording. Eventually I came up with the first book in the series: Billie B Brown, The Soccer Star.

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The series grew from six books, to twelve, to twenty, with a spin-off series for boys called Hey Jack! Three years down the track, my publishers informed me that the Billie B Brown series had sold its millionth copy. Obviously, this is thrilling news, but what means even more to me is that these days I hear almost weekly from parents and teachers who credit them for enabling their child to discover a love of reading. Having a struggling reader myself, I couldn’t feel more honoured and privileged to have been a small part of something that will offer their child a lifetime of joy and respect and ease.

Sometimes I feel sad that my son will never know Charlotte or Mr Tumnus or Mowgli as intimately as I did at his age, but in the last few years he has developed a Manga collection to die for, it being the only thing he will read for pleasure. It’s hard to see your kid struggle, but with a little persistence and patience, like my son, most kids will get there in the end.

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Over the years I have devoured everything I can find on helping kids learn to read, and spoken to many people in the same position as I am. Here is a short list of things I have gleaned from my research that have worked for us:

• Read to them every day – kids are never too old to be read to. This also becomes a precious time in the day where your child has your undivided attention for a moment, so that they will learn to associate books with warmth and joy.

• Make reading fun – once it starts feeling like a chore or you begin to resent your child’s slow progress, it’s no fun for anyone. Stop and try something else.

• Let them choose their own reading material – nothing wrong with car magazines or comics!

• Let them self-correct – as painful as it can be to listen to them make the same mistake a hundred times, they do need to work it out for themselves and will gradually learn to do this from the context.

• Talk to them about books – which ones did you read as a child? What are they reading? What are their friends reading? Go to author signings, bookstore events and libraries together. Make books a prominent part of your life.

• Download audio books − so that your reluctant reader can hear the books their friends are reading and join in their conversations. It’s also important they are given the opportunity to learn how stories work. This is difficult for them to understand when their only access to books might be school readers, which can be pedagogically sound, but often lacking in story, description and character development.

• Use reading opportunities; eg. reading recipes, instructions, road signs etc.

• Set a good example – let them see you reading.


This Lunchbox/Soapbox talk was adapted and expanded from an article originally published by Writers Victoria.

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15 April 2014

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Shakira Hussein reflects on a Queensland childhood frozen in time across several generations, under the era of Joh Bjelke-Petersen – so that David Malouf’s reflections of his childhood in the 1930s and 40s evokes memories of her own in the 1970s and 80s.

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Image courtesy of Mike Locke. Queensland sugar cane.

Back in the Bjelke-Petersen days, ‘Southerners’ used to joke about needing to turn their clocks back 50 years when they crossed the border into Queensland, even as they migrated there to enjoy the beaches and the sunshine and (so they told us) to escape from the socialists who were destroying the lifestyle down south. And it’s true that Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen seemed frozen in time, despite his government’s determination to tear down heritage buildings like the Bellevue Hotel and the Cloudland Ballroom. My mother, grandmother and I could all discuss our shared experiences of reading the same school readers (lots of stories about polite children, servants who knew their place, and terrifying encounters with wolves) and cooking the same recipes in Home Ec (porcupines and blancmange). Such fixtures had remained undisturbed for decades, and it seemed as though they would remain in place for decades to come.

Listening to Malouf in conversation with Ramona Koval at the Wheeler Centre on the eve of his 80th birthday, I reflected on the continuities between Malouf’s memories of his 1930s and 40s childhood and my own childhood memories of the 1970s and 80s. These continuities arise not only from Queensland’s frozen-in-time years, but from Malouf’s powerful sense of place. In his new collection of essays, Malouf writes eloquently about the impact of A First Place – ‘the one you had begun to grow up in, at least in the part of you that belongs to memory and to dreams’ − in shaping the way we see the world over the course of our later lives.

My own first place lay a couple of hours north of Malouf’s first place in Brisbane. For me, Brisbane was the destination for visits to relatives, school excursions, and Christmas shopping expeditions. But the topography that Malouf describes in books like Johnno and 12 Edmondstone Street was so familiar that reading them with a teenager’s self-absorption, I felt as though they had been written especially for me. Malouf’s conversation with Koval generated a similar sense of intimacy, as well as regular jolts of recognition at the scenes he described.

The Queensland summer storms, for example, which (as Malouf told his audience) would break at four o'clock every afternoon. Listening to his description of those storms, I remembered the way the humidity would build and build throughout the day until it finally became too heavy for the air to hold and poured down in torrents. The joy of running out into the rain, letting it soak your hair and clothes and skin, pressing your face against a eucalypt so that you could drink in the rainwater and the fragrance of the bark. No water in my adult life has ever tasted as sweet.

My memories of the Queensland school readers are pungent rather than fragrant. The education department had phased out the readers in the 1970s before I started school, but they remained in use at my country primary school for years afterwards. Malouf and I shared the same first stories, then, as well as neighbouring first places. Generations of Queensland schoolchildren grew up on the Queensland school readers with their selection of classic and not-so-classic poems, their moralistic fables, their introductions to famous figures from history and science.

And the wolves. Wolves chasing foolish farmers who stayed out too late, wolves menacing a father and son as they sheltered beneath a barrel, wolves tearing apart the loyal Russian servant who sacrificed himself by jumping from the sled on which he’d been travelling with his employers. Some public servant in the education department had decided that Queensland children sweltering in overheated classrooms needed to hear as much as possible about frozen landscapes teeming with wolves. Still more terrifying than the wolves was ‘Ginevra’s Box’, a poem about a beautiful young bride who went missing on her wedding day, never to be seen again by her grief-stricken family and groom. Fifty years later, a newcomer to their home opened a forgotten wooden chest. And there lay Ginevra’s skeleton, still clad in the wedding finery that she had been wearing when she playfully hid herself away in the box, only to find that she could not lift the lid to escape.

I was too traumatised by the memory of savage wolves and bridal corpses to retain any fond sentiment towards the Queensland school readers. Yet as Malouf writes in A First Place (and as my former English teacher verified when I sent her a text message in a state of PTSD during his talk), the readers were structured to provide children who were unlikely to finish secondary school with as broad an overview as possible of both European and Australian literature. And thinking back, I remember the readers introducing me to the story of Persephone (a story that I would tell to my own young daughter as we shared a pomegranate) and Henry Kendall’s Bellbirds, which I enjoyed enough to scrawl it across one of my folders while I was at university in Canberra.

And as much as I resented their high-handed tone, the readers somehow managed to instil their editors' pedantic belief in the beneficial effects of reading. In high school, I asked my English teacher why the school couldn’t include David Malouf in our set reading alongside Alistair MacLean and John le Carre, only to be told that my reading tastes were more sophisticated than those of my classmates. Well, exactly, I thought. Reading David Malouf might civilise the little brutes.

Malouf also writes about the story of leaving home, whether we tell it as the story of Odysseus (the hero who sets out to have adventures but is destined to return home), or of the Wanderer (who remains an outcast ‘doomed to perpetual movement and exile’), or of Aeneas (the hero who flees the ruins of Troy to found the city of Rome as his new home). I left Queensland planning to be a Wanderer – movement and exile didn’t sound like doom to me. By circumstance rather than choice, I instead seem destined to be a rather cranky Aeneas, having found my new home on the ‘other shore’ of Melbourne. However, I hold fast to my resolution never to stage an Odyssean return to Queensland, where the locals are unlikely to greet me as a conquering hero.

And yet, the atoms of those afternoon subtropical rainstorms are still lodged somewhere in my bones.


Shakira Hussein is a writer and researcher at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne.

Watch our website for the video of our event with David Malouf and Ramona Koval: coming soon.

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Video Games and Literature

Blood Meridian as a video game? What about P.G. Wodehouse? At The Millions, Maxwell Neely-Cohen writes about games as storytelling, and asks why there’s not more intersection between the narrative-rich worlds of books and video games. He talks to the video games community and to games writers, who share their ‘disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”’

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Should Bret Easton Ellis have written ‘a violent action game’?

Entries Open: Big Issue Fiction Edition

Entries are now open for the annual Big Issue fiction edition, under the theme ‘Make Me Smile’. All entries will be judged blind, with no names attached, and humour is encouraged. (As is lateral thinking.) Stories should be 2500 words or under. Entries close 31 May. More information at the Big Issue online.

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TV, Twitter and Nielsen Ratings

Australia is set to become the third country in the word to get the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service, ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. Over at Killings, Stephanie Schilt looks at the love-hate relationship between Twitter and TV (and confesses that she joined Twitter because of Community – the TV show, not an actual community).

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Unlikely superstar

A neighbourhood bag lady in Chicago turned out to be a world-famous street photographer, Vivian Maier. ‘Even rooting through trash bins at the beach or in the alleys, the haughty old woman always wore a long dress, a peaked hat, stockings, and blocky shoes, as though still dressing for a station in life she had long since fallen from.’

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photograph by Vivian Maier

AIDS in America’s deep south

In America’s deep south, there is an AIDS problem: the death rate from AIDS in Louisiana is twice the national average. Why? ‘'If you think about where the rates are highest, it’s in the most conservative places … It’s where the conversation is not being had, and where shame and stigma exist because of religion, because of culture, because of racism, because of homophobia—you name it, it exists for those reasons.’ The New Yorker looks at the situation.

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11 April 2014

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Last month, we published an article on anonymous reviewing, in the context of the new Saturday Paper’s embrace of the format. We interviewed a range of writers, reviewers and arts managers for their views; most were against anonymous criticism as a form.

Soon after, we were approached by a Saturday Paper reviewer offering to give an alternative view.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case spoke to the reviewer about the ‘creative potential’ of anonymous reviewing as a form (and the wider possibilities of doing criticism differently), the need to give a new space for literary coverage a chance, and a look at the Saturday Paper so far.

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Image above courtesy of cometstarmoon.

You have said that you’re in favour of anonymous reviews. Can you talk a bit about what you think the benefits are of anonymous reviews?

There’s a creative potential in anonymity that I don’t think is being recognised. It’s not about getting away with things; it’s about a certain level of freedom. It’s about detaching yourself from your identity in a way.

I think we’re pretty used to anonymity in the digital sphere. We’ve seen that abused in the digital sphere, too, but we rarely talk up the creative potential. Writing is so attached to the ‘I’. To move away from questions of the self, perhaps you just need to completely remove yourself.

Do you mean anonymity allows you to remove yourself from your part in the writing community?

Yes. You can be freer with your own point of view. For me, it’s not about attacking other people. I’ve talked to other reviewers at the Saturday Paper and they’re struggling with where they sit in the review. I know someone who’s writing a review currently of a book about the Boston Bombers, and at the time of that bombing, this person was obsessed and staying up until 3am watching the news on it, but how do you put that into an anonymous review?

For me, it’s also a reaction against the growing ‘I’ industry. The personal pronoun ‘I’ industry. I know The Lifted Brow are going to do an issue later in the year that will be far more creative than anything the Saturday Paper is doing, where they’re going to completely ban the first-person pronoun from the entire magazine. For me, that’s really interesting.

My hope for the Saturday Paper is that it opens up a creative potential. My absolute favourite review of all time is Delia Falconer’s review of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, which she wrote in the third person. ‘She read this book, she had these questions…’ It ran in the Australian Literary Review (may it rest in peace). I don’t think that kind of thing is currently happening in those pages. But I implore Erik to really explore the potential of this anonymity and own it.

I’ve read the Wheeler Centre article about anonymous reviewing, and it’s so humourless. Everyone’s made their minds up; they’re completely against it. But they’re being quite blindsided by the negative capacity of anonymity. They’re projecting the worst onto this. Which is in opposition to what they’re saying. ‘Good criticism should open up a dialogue between author, critic and reader. Anonymity shuts down any serious dialogue.’ I don’t agree with that. Why does it have to be a two-way dialogue? For me, it’s opening up creative potential.

We live in the social media age where we expect a right of reply every time anything gets published. Part of me really likes that, but not everything’s an open dialogue. Sometimes there’s just a call that’s made and the right of reply is in the discussion that happens around it and doesn’t need to be with the author. For me, that’s one of the great things about this. That I can put stuff out there and not have to think about it again. Not have it come back to me. And I’m not saying that in terms of escaping … if I say something wrong, I’m not trying to escape that. I just thing it might be more useful, if that is a wrong position, if that is discussed at a public level. The comments that come back are always pissy and you’re always going to stand up for what you say, and no one ever apologises because everyone’s a dickhead.

Do you mean the idea that the conversation, when it happens, focuses on the work and what is said about the work, rather than who’s saying it?

And if there’s an issue with the criticism, it gets taken up by the readers rather than coming back to the author or the critic. I love that there’s this one space where that’s not possible. More often than not, in the digital age, with comment threads and Twitter, it just loops around into this feedback loop. This breaks the circuit, or has the potential to.

I think it’s too early to criticise the format. Criticise the content. There have been some shoddy reviews run; there have been some really great ones. There have been nine in total now. Give it a bit of space and time before you make a judgement call. That probably applies to the Saturday Paper as a whole. Most other newspapers that have been around have been around for 40 years. Don’t kill it now, just give it a bit of space. Unfortunately that’s the age as well. We want answers now. I find the humourlessness and the judgement calls on this a bit unfair. If you think anonymity shuts down dialogue … well, don’t shut this down.

Because it’s criticising it before it’s had a chance to generate more discussion?

Yes. Honestly, give the dude 12 months. See how it goes. After 12 months, there could be a public call to say the experiment hasn’t worked. There’s no shame in that. I hope Erik is approaching this as an experiment. They’re finding their voice with this roster of whoever these people are and that will take time – to crack the code of this anonymous format and start using it more effectively.

I trust that Erik has chosen responsible people and I am aware of some structures of investigating conflicts of interest. Reviewers are asked to state up-front if there is a conflict of interest. I hope that goes beyond the reviewer stating it and there is some literary background check. I’m trusting them.

There have been mistakes in the last three weeks. There was a lot of emphasis on the readers building trust with the pseudonyms. There’s been one particular fuck-up where someone was attributed to the wrong pseudonym and it was simply an editorial hiccup. That is apparently going to be corrected in print this coming week. A couple of us went to Erik and aired that concern and he’s rectified that.

The only point I really agreed with in your piece and that I took to Erik was about gender and diversity. I talked to Erik today about concerns that they’re absolving themselves of the Stella count and criticism is such a big part of those stats. But Erik told me this morning that they will pass on the gender breakdown to Stella at the end of the year, and will do that annually and publicly. I think that’s good. Again, there’s a lot of trust in play, because we’ve got no idea. But they’re journalists; if they breach trust, they’re fucked.

What do you think about that question of trust, and that idea that with anonymous reviews, all the trust goes to the publication?

I was very concerned when it was announced. I thought ‘this is going to be insider baseball, a whole bunch of bitching’. But when Erik approached me, I thought, this is great, I can do this with a level of responsibility. And I hope the other reviewers are too.

My main concern is the bad reviews, especially the particularly shoddy one that ran last week of P.M. Newton’s book. It was just offensive in terms of not-good criticism, not making a case against that book. And unfortunately those were the initials that were misprinted on someone else’s work. So that someone else has been attributed with bad writing, and that person who was attributed did a really great review, of Sam Wallman’s book of graphic work. That one was outside of the mainstream publishing cycle and that was the more interesting review for me.

That’s part of a bigger conversation that has nothing to do with anonymity. I think the books pages are really stuck in publishing cycles and the pressures from publicists to cover certain work. I think Stephen Romei does a really good job of every now and then chucking in a bit of a different tack. That he’s invested in Ronnie Scott to write comic reviews is amazing and recognises that there is this kind of niche, almost self-published, community that doesn’t get the big reviews.

For me, at the very base, you’ve got to support this stuff. The closure of ALR was a huge thing and no one made a big deal of it. As spaces close for writers, that’s death. And this is a new space, so give it some space.

What about the idea that this is a new space for writers, but book reviewers in particular … half the reason you write is to engage with the work and put your opinion out there, but part of it is that you create a piece of work you want to be proud of. So the idea that in the books pages in the Saturday Paper, writers can’t put their name to their work and that can’t be part of their body of work … that’s disappointing in a new space for writers.

I do agree with that. I think that completely ignores, first of all the financial reality of writers. The Saturday Paper does carry a level of prestige and that you can’t trade off that to get another gig really ignores the economic structure of the life of a writer.

For me, I think the story that isn’t being told is the mix that Erik’s got. He has told me that there are reviewers within that structure who have never reviewed before. At the same time, I have a feeling that a lot of them are potentially in positions of power and this extends their reach, which I’m not sure about.

You think that’s the trade-off of having those positions, that you’re restricted in what you publicly say?

Be a freelancer if you want to be free. That’s an interesting question, I guess.

I’m putting this out there … you are not a smart person if you read The Monthly. You are not a smart person if you watch ABC. If you watch The Book Show. You are being spoon fed culture. You’re not going out and finding stuff; you’re turning on the TV and it is being fed to you. And a lot of the time, you dumb yourself down on those things as a critic.

One of the reviews in the first Saturday Paper, there was this one word – micropoetic – and I thought, I’ve never read that before. That review was specialised. Within a short word count, a very close careful reading of David Malouf’s oeuvre and getting that across. That very, very tiny review of the Sam Wallman, that was beautiful work. Referencing Ivor Indyk talking about embarrassment in Australian culture: specialised. That’s what the Saturday Paper could be. I don’t know if anonymity necessarily comes into it. There is an art to commissioning.

Do you think some of that is having a stable of people you encourage to pitch to you as well, who know an area? This can be fraught and that’s where a conflict of interest can come in, but …

What is the conflict of interest? If I’m telling you, you’ve got to fucking read this book by my mate. Is my mate giving me 50 bucks to say that? No. Or am I mates with that person because I fucking believe in that person’s work? Yes, that’s probably how we met. That’s the smallness of the culture. You need to support work that you believe in in Australia, because there’s not much of it.

So would you review work by your friends, then?

I have reviewed work by my friends. Not close friends, but people I know on friendly terms. And it’s been the case when I haven’t seen work like theirs represented in the mainstream. Not in the Saturday Paper. I’ve put my name to those reviews and you could do the maths.

I think people are getting caught up on the anonymity thing. Come back to that, yeah, but think about the creative potential of it. I keep coming back to that. There is a freedom there that is being policed. We are being told it’s being policed and we do have to put our trust in it. But also, Erik can do what he wants. It’s a private company. If you’re not happy with it, start your own paper.

But don’t you think that while people can do what they want, other people can also … this sort of conversation about how we do things and why is perhaps valuable?

I love it. It’s incredibly valuable. What it’s done … I may not agree with anyone in the Wheeler Centre article, but that itself has opened up a dialogue. I think it’s too soon to make these comments and that everyone is being particularly humourless, but it’s opened up a dialogue. I want to chuck out the Geoff Dyer quote: ‘I’m so revolted with writers taking themselves seriously that I’ve deprioritised writing in my life.’ That’s my approach to life at the moment.

But in a weird way, I think this is great. It’s brought people together to discuss criticism so closely and people are so invested in it. That’s the best thing Erik’s done; he’s opened up that discussion. I remember poetry was on the front cover of the Sydney Morning Herald because Robert Adamson had sent death threats to John Kinsella. It was like, what are you guys doing? This is what gets poetry on the front page? But at the same time, it was like, fuck yeah, poetry’s on the front page!

To me, I really thank Erik, because it’s boosted the profile of literary criticism. Yes, it could well be a marketing ploy for the Saturday Paper … and yet we’re still talking about it. But as someone who is still incredibly passionate about literary criticism, it’s advancing the visibility of literary criticism. That can’t hurt. Suddenly there’s something flashy, you can disagree with it – that’s criticism in action.

That’s the positive side. The negative side for me is, don’t push people away from literary criticism by being humourless about this stuff. Don’t make it too meta. Don’t try to guess who the initials belong to. Don’t try to tear this down because it doesn’t speak to you. Because ultimately, who’s having the problem with the conflict? It won’t be the readers; it’s going to be the industry. And don’t tear it down from an industry perspective, because we’ve got so little space. Erik could just cut the pages. That would be the worst outcome for me; Erik drops the whole thing. I can’t see this being a long-term thing. I would like to see, in 12 months’ time, when hopefully the paper has more pages, the books pages expand and the anonymous thing drop. Or maybe they keep one or two anonymous columns or pieces.

I think the anonymous column is an interesting idea. Yesterday, I was speaking to someone who has an anonymous blog on comedy that they’ve been writing for ten years and has a specific following. And there’s Theatre Notes – Alison Croggon’s not anonymous, but it’s similarly specialist. It strikes me that if you’re writing about a particular area, it has more meaning, or it’s easier to follow.

I think people are worried that people are going to betray the anonymity to dish dirt on the industry. To me, it’s the other way round. It keeps the industry at arm’s length. You’re dropping your identity. I can freely criticise structures of power. I can criticise openly the people who deserve criticism, which is the industry. I’m not going to abuse the trust of authors; I think authors have a hard enough gig. Publishers, horrible publicists, writers festivals. If anyone needs criticism, it’s those guys.

For example, I read this speculative review of Melbourne Now in unmagazine, which just blew my mind. It was very precise and very critical of the exhibition and it hadn’t even opened yet, and they were right about it. One thing it did was to review the marketing of the exhibition, something I’ve never seen done before. I think that’s fascinating. I would love to write for the Saturday Paper a speculative review of, say, Christos Tsiolkas’s next book. Where is he going to go from here? That’s the creative potential I’m talking about.

Do you mean, for instance, reviewing a book in the context of the publishing process?

I guess I say that and I come back to that Critic Watch column about Hannah Kent in the Sydney Review of Books, which was disgusting. Which was exactly that. That was dud criticism in terms of, who cares if they paid Hannah Kent $2 million? She deserves $2 million. That was an investment and they knew that book was going to sell. Actually, that’s exactly what I don’t want to happen. What I really want is for it to be just about the writers, but often the industry isn’t doing things in their best interest. So they should be held accountable, but not if it’s some, ‘Oh this writer got paid this much’ gossip.

So the creative freedoms that anonymity could bring is to review things in a different way?

Yeah. The anonymity is not of much interest to me personally. It’s neither here nor there. If you are a person in a position of power, it does free you from the connotations of you giving the review. I still have problems with people in positions of power extending their reach beyond their positions of power. But for me, it’s too early to say what this could potentially be.

So it sounds like one of your biggest problems is that this is a new space for books and writing to be talked about, someone’s trying something new, you like the idea of someone trying something new, and people are taking it down before we’ve had a chance to see what it is and we should be encouraging creativity and different things and this is doing the opposite?

Exactly. I’m coming out ‘openly’ to say that I have concerns about the Saturday Paper, but I’m just asking that the critics of the format trust that the people behind those initials are being responsible. I know two of the other people, but I don’t know the rest. Continue to interrogate it, sure, but trust that Erik has picked people who are trustworthy. I think if it was all revealed tomorrow, people would be surprised at the breadth of people who he’s chosen.

I’m really worried that they’ll cut the books pages. And I’m pretty sick of how sanctimonious people are being. Literature at a micro level needs nurturing.

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highlight Andie Fox is a writer with a background in economics who writes about motherhood from a feminist perspective. She currently writes a weekly column in Daily Life and regularly contributes to the Guardian. Andie is a contributor to several books, including The Good Mother Myth and blogs at Blue Milk.

We spoke about connecting with readers through your writing, why memoir-style writing is difficult to write well and safely, and why it’s good to pursue writing as a second career – and not just for the obvious monetary reasons.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Excluding academic journals, the first article I had published was in an American women’s magazine and the first piece I had published in Australia was a commissioned article for Fairfax.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of the writing job is the opportunity to initiate conversations on a broad scale with other writers and readers. Connecting with someone, not just listening to or being listened to, but that moment of mutual understanding when you’re flooded with insight and closeness to others, it’s what really excites me in all areas of life, including writing.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of the job is the anxiety that often comes with how public it all is. I am a fairly private person, though I have written a personal blog for years and weave personal anecdotes into even my political articles, so the very public nature of writing is frequently uncomfortable for me.

good_mother_myth What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

The most significant moment in my writing career was probably the book reading that happened in New York recently to launch a creative non-fiction anthology I had a piece in. The book was The Good Mother Myth and there were actual celebrities attending and a queue for book signing and again, It Was In New York! I wasn’t actually there for ‘my most significant moment’. New York is not quite affordable for me right now. But I might have been there so the dream was thrillingly close.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I sometimes write memoir-style essays and they can be very satisfying in that way where you are figuring something very personal out while also relating to something universal with readers. It can be an intoxicating kind of intimacy. But they are also the most difficult to write well and safely.

Everything Kiese Laymon has to say about this topic is worth reading because he’s both a very clever novelist and a gifted essay writer. He has the ability to swoop around very unwieldy social problems like racism while simultaneously diving into incredibly fragile moments in his own life. However, Laymon can be hard on himself about his compromises. It makes for very compelling writing and it’s also where some of the finest progressive thinking happens, when we hold ourselves to account like that. But importantly, he also advocates for not showing all your working and I think that’s critical advice for anyone wanting to do confessional writing. Be very honest with yourself; don’t think you have to reveal all to your audience though.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I am always surprised to learn that someone I admire likes my writing.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I have another career in economics that I also love. On its own that career wouldn’t quite keep me satisfied so having two jobs works for me. I would have gone into academia had a writing career not emerged.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t see why writing cannot be taught, I’m hugely envious of those who studied it, but I think introspection probably can’t be taught easily and writing eventually relies on having something to say.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

It might be presumptuous of me to offer advice to anyone wanting to be a writer, but I will say the following from my experience. Don’t overlook the option of pursuing a writing career as a second venture. I mean, not just having a second job, but a second career … one you can find pleasure in outside of writing. There’s a lot to be said for having another income source, of not always writing with the pressure of coming up with 1,000 thought-provoking words right this very moment to pay the rent. Attaching intense financial stress to creative output is incredibly tough on a person. Having said that, obviously having a little pressure is motivating and I never write more efficiently than when I am fitting it in around sleeping children … but I’m always tired.

If you choose to make writing one of two careers in your life then you will have many moments where you watch writer friends being incredibly productive and you feel like everyone is publishing constantly and you’ve stopped doing anything. Remind yourself that your best writing comes when you have had the space to distil thoughts first. The reading, talking, arguing, playing with ideas that you do while you are pursuing another career and while you are attending to the obligations of your life can be very useful for your writing.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Difficult question. The protagonist of Lily King’s Father of the Rain is someone I’d meet at a dinner party and want to be friends with by the end of the night. Daley Amory and I would have a lot to talk about. But I also like people who tell scandalous stories at dinner parties and this is a little obscure, but someone like Wolfi, that strange and brilliant philosophy student in Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire would be an ideal dinner companion for me.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Rachel Cusk’s two memoirs, A Life’s Work and Aftermath, were breakthroughs for me with my writing. I was a new parent and she was the first writer I found interested in connecting her personal experiences of motherhood to the broader discussion of feminism and writing. Plus, Cusk has been prepared to go as dark as required with that pursuit. I didn’t find her books all that confronting, to be honest, but some readers did and it’s always very interesting when terribly human moments disturb people to that degree.

The other thing Cusk showed me is that you do not always have to start your conversation with readers at the beginning. Some pieces are written for beginner-level understanding – they’re extremely important − but it is perfectly acceptable to pitch other essays only to readers who are progressed on the issue. It is nice to see what your article provokes with them and to learn from their part in the conversation. (Although reading the comments on those articles where you didn’t start from the beginning and bring everyone with you might be a brutal experience).


Andie Fox publishes a weekly column in Daily Life.

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What’s it like to be an anonymous reviewer? What are the freedoms and responsibilities that come with anonymity?

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case talks to one of the creators of Australian Tumbleweeds, a long-running anonymous comedy blog run by a small team of writers who are passionate about televised comedy and brand themselves ‘Australia’s most opinionated blog about comedy’. They’ve been satirised by Mick Molloy’s Foxtel comedy The Jesters, and praised, threatened (and offered jobs) by some of the Australian comedy industry’s movers and shakers.

As well as anonymity itself, we talked about the state of Australian comedy (and television writing), why being critical encourages good work.

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Image courtesy of USB.

Can you tell us a bit about your comedy blog, Australian Tumbleweeds, and how it got started?

My friends and I, because there’s a group of us who do it, had been talking a lot about comedy on various forums overseas. After a while, we thought, we’re talking so much about this, we might as well start a blog and put all our stuff there.

We also started an awards thing, which we do every year – basically an award for various crap Australian comedies. It’s changed a bit over the years. When we started, there was a lot more crap comedy. We’d like to think we’ve had some influence, though almost certainly we’ve had no influence. But TV reviewing has become a bit less nakedly promotion of local stuff.

It’s more willing to be critical?

Yes. But that’s happened across the board with the arts. But there is still a sense of ‘we’re all in the industry together, we’ve got to get people to watch these shows’, rather than writers pointing out that a lot of these shows are not worth your time.

Did you start the blog because you wanted to be able to be critical of comedy?

Well, we were already sort of being critical, on forums. But we wanted to formalise it and say more of what we thought. Because we felt, and still do, that a lot of Australian comedy shows are not very good and a lot of people are not willing to say it, because the reviewers are, to a large extent, captive of the industry. They’re friends with people in the industry, they deal with the industry a lot. I believe some critics, who I won’t name, are desperately trying to get into television, so they’re going to be quite guarded about what they say about people who can help them in their careers.

Other people are just rubbish. Television criticism is often a place where crap journalists are shunted. There are reviewers who have made glaring factual errors repeatedly, but they’re still getting work. But I think TV criticism is going through a phase similar to the one film criticism did 15 years ago. It used to be where old duffers were sent to die, but now a lot of it’s being outsourced. That’s bad for journalists, but good for criticism. Newspapers will now pay a quarter of what they used to pay for film reviewing, but to someone who is a fan and knows what they’re talking about. Television hasn’t gone through that.

Would you write differently under your online persona than you would for publications?

At this point, probably not. When we started, part of the decision to stay anonymous was because I was doing other work in the media that meant there might have been an overlap, and it may have caused a problem. It doesn’t overlap with any of my other work at this point.

There are some comedy people who I respect a lot and I’ve only said nice things about, but I know they hate any form of criticism. Any review that is not a five star you’re awesome is taken as a personal slight.

Really?

Surely you know most creative people are horribly sensitive. They don’t want negative reviews in any way, shape or form. Comedy people are really bitchy. Because it’s their work … I guess it is the same with book reviews and any other form of reviewing. The subjects think, ‘you’re taking money out of my pocket’.

We at the blog have occasionally had work offers and we’ve said no, because we don’t want to further our careers in comedy. We don’t want our own TV show. We like what we’re doing. On the one hand, the work offer is not tempting, and on the other, we don’t want to get close to people, because we want to be able to criticise them.

The last job offer we got – I won’t name who, but it’s a name people in the industry would know – was a blatant attempt to get us to say nice things about this person’s upcoming show. And it was obvious why he had to do it, because his show was crap. Other people we knew in the comedy world told us that was what this guy was doing.

comedy_steve_floyd

Image courtesy of Steve Floyd.

What kind of offers are they?

This was an offer to write on a show that was coming up, because he liked our style. He said all the right things, he was quite nice. But from the research we’ve done, he’s someone who goes out of his way to co-opt critics. He’s gone on various forums where shows are being discussed that he’s part of and defended them vigorously, which is unusual.

This is the kind of thing that goes on. If we’d said yes, we’d be compromised.

That’s interesting, that idea that you would have been compromised, but you are working anonymously, so if you didn’t have concrete ethics, you could have taken the work and no one would know you had.

That’s the danger you get with going anonymous. We’d like to think we’ve been doing it long enough that our readers know what we’re like … Part of what we like about being anonymous is that it forces people to pay attention to what you say rather than who’s saying it. And we know from what we’ve heard that there are numerous people who’d be extremely dismissive of what we have to say if they knew who was writing it but because they don’t know, they can’t say ‘that’s crap, it’s just some wanker wannabe’ in case it turns out we’re Rove or Andrew Knight or Austen Tayshus.

That’s such a common insult that’s hurled about, claiming a critic has tried and failed at comedy, but it doesn’t matter. The writer could be a failed wannabe with a pile of scripts, but if what they’re saying in their review makes sense, that should be the points that you attack, not the person. To some extent, by being anonymous you remove that target and if artists want to counter the criticism, they have to counter the criticisms.

I can understand why people want to know about people’s motivations and background, but a lot of the time it’s not relevant.

You don’t think the context of the person who’s writing the review allows you to read the review in a certain way?

The context should be developed over the course of a reviewing career. In our case, it’s a small team who’ve been doing it for more than a decade now and we’ve got a body of work that you can look at. You can say, these guys have disliked everything Chris Lilley has ever done. What a surprise they don’t like his new show – I’m going to ignore them. And that’s fine. That’s what we want people to do; to figure out where we come from based on our work.

I know that the Saturday Paper has said people will be able to do that with them because the reviewers will each have a set of initials they stick with.

I think that’s all you need to be able to do. If somebody’s driven entirely by spite and bitchiness, I think that’s going to become clear. And if they’re reviewing a book you’ve read and you think ‘that book was quite good, that reviewer is railing about something irrelevant’, you’re going to decide they’re not a reviewer to follow.

There are reviewers I don’t trust in any way, shape or form and I know very little about their personal lives. I just know they’re not reviewers that work for me. As long as you can identify Reviewer X as Reviewer X across a body of work, you know what you need to know.

So it’s about having a small team and using that team consistently so you can follow them?

Yes. It works for us.

Do you get into conversations with people who do write to you?

We reply to emails. Usually if you reply rationally to people who are being hostile it pulls them up short. A lot of the time we don’t care. If nobody’s saying things are no good, you get to the point where there’s an expectation that people be supportive no matter what the quality of the work.

We review for people who watch television. We talk about shows as things you watch. So we’re often negative, because a lot of shows are not very good. But because that’s rare in Australia, people think you’re having a personal go at them.

To be fair, it’s their creative endeavours, it probably does feel like we’re having a direct go at them. We’d like for them to not feel hurt, but a lot of the time the only way for that to happen is to be nice and supportive and we’re guessing they have lots of friends and family and fans to do that.

It’s ridiculous, why would they care what we have to say? We’re a handful of people on the internet. These are people with name recognition and TV shows on major broadcasters and often international careers.

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The Jesters: A local comedy show that the Australian Tumbleweeds have praised.

You often write about what you think of other reviewers’ work on your site.

Yes. That’s part of why we started. If only those guys were reviewing things without saying everything Australian is awesome all the time. But that’s TV reviewing. Ben Pobjie has notoriously said in his reviews on the TV pages, ‘it’s just television; it’s important but it doesn’t matter’. If you said that on the sports pages, you would be fired. But in television, it’s seen as fair enough to have a laissez-faire ‘it’s TV, turn it on or not’ attitude. If you’re going to watch television and write about it, you might as well take it seriously. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Part of why we’re anonymous is that the people who make television take it really seriously, serious enough that they would try to contact a tiny little website with a readership of nobody to try to browbeat us or make threats or get us on side.

If you’re a viewer and you want to know what’s good, where are you looking?

So you’re anonymous so you can take it seriously?

I think so.

People in the comedy field seem to bear grudges. But if they’ve worked really hard and made something that’s no good, people watching it don’t sit there and go well, they worked hard – I was bored shitless but they worked hard on that.

In other areas of Australian artistic endeavour, we’ve seen that having a base of critics who are constantly supportive doesn’t help.

Because people don’t trust the critics then?

People can make up their own minds. People know what’s rubbish. People become disengaged when critics are constantly supportive. You’re no good as a critic if you’re supportive of things regardless of merit. People don’t care what you have to say then. I think being anonymous is a way to get around that in a small market like we have in Australia.

If you’re in America, you could probably be bitchy about a field safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to cause any ripples to you. Or it’s less likely to. But in Australia, where it’s quite a small area … you’re really aware of the people creating the work. You know how long and hard they’ve worked on it. But your duty as a reviewer is to say that the work is not that good, and not worth your time and money, if it’s not.

What do you think about that idea that the job of a reviewer is to say what they think, even if there are those interests and those concerns, to say what you think anyway. And if you can’t do that under your own name, then you shouldn’t be reviewing. That’s part of the job.

That’s a reasonable idea to have if you live in fairyland, but in the real world … That’s a good idea if you’re dealing with a group of people who can take criticism.

There are plenty of comedians who I wouldn’t have any trouble saying to them ‘that thing about you on that website, that’s me’. And I have done that, with a couple of people. But there are lots of others out there who can’t take criticism and they’re very volatile.

Plenty of authors write under pen names. No one grumps about that.

To be honest, a lot of this talk about ‘we want to know who the critics are’, I suspect they want to know who the critics are so they can have a go at them. ‘I want to know who said my book is shit.’ Why? That’s a menacing point of view.

I’ve thought about this from the point of view of a writer. When you get a review, you do look at the context of where it’s coming from. And you read it differently on that basis. For instance, one of the reviews of my book [about motherhood and Asperger’s] was from an author who’d written her own memoir about having a child with autism. A book I really loved. And with that review, I placed a huge store on what she said, because I felt she was coming from this context where I really trusted her and she understood where I was coming from as a writer and as a mother.

That idea of creators wanting to know where the reviewer is coming from so they can read the response in context … what would you say to that?

I think it’s a valid response, but I think in a lot of ways it’s incorrect. I could write something and give it to a dear friend who’s been through lots of the same things over several years, and they could say, ‘wow, you’ve really summed that up’. Or I could give it to someone with a completely different circumstance and they could say ‘I don’t get any of this’. And I would say that both of those replies are valid.

Sometimes it’s nice that people are on the same page and know what you’re talking about, but when you’re making art, you’re communicating with everybody, to some extent. And unless you’re writing a computer software manual for advanced users of HTML, you have to be general.

There are reviewers who have nothing in common with you, and there are going to be ones who are on board. And reviewers can lie too. They could say ‘as somebody who’s gone through this, I think this book is awesome’. And they haven’t been through that at all.

One of the things that is interesting about this is that you have a lot of authors claiming a whole lot of privileges for themselves and saying reviewers can only do things a certain way. An author can make up whatever they want, they can publish under a fake name, they can do all manner of things. But a reviewer is only allowed to do one thing when dealing with their work and anything else is betraying them. Reviewers don’t review for writers though.

I get what you’re saying. I guess that’s where it gets really important to be specific about what you’re saying.

A good review should explain, to a certain extent, why the writer of the review does like things or why they don’t like things. That should extend to the subject matter.

A good review should tell you enough about the work itself that you can tell if the reviewer’s complaints or criticisms about it are valid. If a reviewer is saying ‘this is a boring tale of some woman pottering around with her kid’, someone else might say, ‘I’m interested in that story’. A negative review might have told me enough about the book to know that I’m interested in it, even if you didn’t like it.

If you’ve put your name to something and you have a history of being published, you’re basically saying you can use what I’ve done as a guide to what I’m saying today. If there’s no context, it’s up to you as a reviewer to make sure your review has that context.

There are loads of reviewers out there now who would be vastly improved by having to write anonymously, because they just sit on their fat cans and coast on what they’ve said in the past. If you’re writing anonymously, you need to be more transparent. All people have to go on is what you’ve said in the review.

Do you think that when you review anonymously, people feel less guarded in attacking your reviews? You were talking about receiving threats.

Yes, there is a bit of that. You’ll find that across the internet though. People have become more accessible but less real.

Being anonymous, you’re even less of a person, so people can be quite hostile and quite dismissive up front. We usually find that when we do reply to people’s emails, they realise we’re actual people and that our opinions are not meant personally. There’s a lot of stuff we just really don’t like. We are quite passionate.

On television, there are only so many resources and there’s only so much air time. Every time there’s a terrible show, and more importantly, every time people who’ve made a terrible show get to do another terrible show, that’s pushing other stuff out of the way. So we get quite riled up. But we try not to go too far because we are aware these shows are made by people. We try to keep our comments focused on the shows themselves.

Most people review because they’re fans.

Yes. We want to see more good stuff. If you say everything’s good, it becomes meaningless. So you have to say some things are bad if you want to encourage the good.


The Australian Tumbleweeds have been publishing since 2006.

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08 April 2014

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Human sexual behaviour is constantly changing, evolving alongside broader social and cultural changes. These days, both men and women have more sexual partners over a lifetime than they did in the past. Researcher Dyani Lewis weighs the pros and cons of 21st-century promiscuity, and looks at why awareness of STIs has fallen so out of step with sexual mores and habits.

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Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

If you were a zoologist, or an animal behaviourist, you could probably go to Africa and observe a couple of wildebeest mating, and you’d probably be observing the very same thing that you would have witnessed their wildebeestian ancestors doing a couple of million years ago.

Humans aren’t like that – our sexual behaviour isn’t static; it’s constantly changing. It changes because social structures and marital systems change. It changes because we develop contraceptives to thwart nature’s reproductive end-game. It changes because we learn about new ways of having fun and enjoying ourselves in the bedroom.

And it also changes because of the sexually transmitted infections that so frequently want to share in any fun that we might be having.

The Kinsey Reports, two books titled Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, were published in 1948 and 1953, respectively, and they probably mark the beginning of our modern quest to document, and catalogue and understand the breadth of human sexual behaviour. Even in the few short decades since these books were published, there have been dramatic changes to sexual practices.

Interestingly, some of the changes in our sexual behaviour not written in any report, but are instead written in the sexually transmitted infections that have co-evolved with us.

How herpes has evolved along with our sexual behaviour

My favourite example is herpes.

Genital herpes is that awful STI that causes bouts of tingling blisters that rupture into unsightly sores in sites usually unseen by all but the most intimate of companions. As far as STIs go, genital herpes isn’t actually that bad. Up to 80% of people who have been infected remain completely asymptomatic, and most others will have only one or perhaps a few outbreaks, despite the virus establishing a lifelong residence inside the sensory nerve cells that lie under the skin.

There are in fact two different types of herpes simplex virus that infect humans – herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Most cases of genital herpes in humans are caused by the HSV-2, and in Australia, HSV-2 affects around 12% of adults. Its cousin, HSV-1, usually stays above the belt, causing facial cold sores.

Humans and herpes viruses have been evolving together for millennia. In the late 1960s, researchers made the observation that the two herpes simplex viruses in humans clearly occupied different territories on the human body – HSV-1 on the mouth, HSV-2 on the genitals.

Humans are actually quite unique in having two very closely related viruses that have evolved to occupy very distinct ecological niches on our bodies. In our primate relatives, a single virus infects both mouth and genitals. This is more than likely due to their sexual and social behaviour, and also their anatomy. In chimpanzees and other non-human primates, there is frequent genital inspection – of their own and others’ in their troop; there’s oral sex between males and females; and they also have a more compact body shape, which means that self-grooming and auto-fellatio are literally within reach.

It’s quite likely that these behaviours were also common for our own distant ancestors – which, depending on your views of auto-fellatio, is perhaps another reminder that evolution doesn’t breed perfection. But I guess that’s the price you pay for being able to walk upright.

But over evolutionary time, through changes in behaviour and changes to our anatomy, our genitals and mouths became isolated, allowing HSV-1 and HSV-2 to become the genetically distinct viruses that they are today. Not only did our flexibility change as we began to walk upright, but our ancestors sexual and social behaviour also changed. A proclivity for oral sex was replaced with a preference for face-to-face sex and kissing, so that mouths were kept with mouths and genitals with genitals.

Just as we can learn something of our ancestors’ behaviours by looking at how we came to have two herpes simplex viruses, we can now also learn about current sexual norms by looking at where these two viruses reside. The 1960s observation that HSV-1 occurred in the mouth and HSV-2 in the genitals is still largely true, but the two viruses are increasingly squatting on each other’s turf. Two decades ago, in 1994, less than 30% of Australian genital herpes cases were caused by facial HSV-1 – the virus that usually causes cold sores. But by 2006, the number had increased to over 40%. We are apparently having more oral sex than we did in the 1960s, and probably more than we did even 20 years ago.

But that’s not really a big deal, and it doesn’t mean that we’re more promiscuous.

Chlamydia: Australia’s most common STI

So, what other aspects of sexual behaviour have changed? Here, again, I’d like to introduce you to one of our evolutionary fellow travellers – another sexually transmitted infection that takes up residence in our nether regions if we give it half the chance: chlamydia.

In Australia, chlamydia is our most common bacterial STI, as it is in many Western countries. Every diagnosis of chlamydia is notified to the Department of Health, and the numbers of notifications have been steadily increasing. In 1994, there were 7,500 notifications of chlamydia infection across Australia. In 2014, we can fairly safely assume it will be more than 10 times that number; last year, there were over 82,000 cases of chlamydia diagnoses. Surveys suggest that around 5% of young people below the age of 30 have chlamydia – that’s one in 20. If you were all between the ages of 15 and 30, there’d be a handful of people in here with chlamydia.

Chlamydia is incredibly easy to test for, really easy to treat, but also extremely easy to pass on from one person to another. This is particularly so, because around 4 out of 5 men and women who have chlamydia are completely unaware of the infection. And while it hangs around in its unsuspecting host, not only can it be transmitted unwittingly to their sexual partners, but it can also do some pretty serious damage, particularly in women. It can cause internal scarring of women’s reproductive tracts – especially the fallopian tubes – that leave some women infertile, or at higher risk of having an ectopic pregnancy if they fall pregnant. Other women develop painful infections that leave them with chronic pelvic pain, even after the infection has subsided.

When we look at who gets chlamydia, there is a pretty clear picture that emerges about who’s at risk of infections. And it’s a picture that is mirrored in most sexually transmitted infections that are studied – from gonorrhoea to HIV to genital herpes.

Reluctance to use condoms

Perhaps surprisingly, the picture that emerges is not all about condoms. For a start, condoms won’t protect you from everything. They won’t protect you from our friend herpes simplex, and they are probably not great at protecting you from genital warts, either.

The other thing is that people are reluctant to use condoms, which does put them at risk of contracting an STI. In 2008, researchers at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society conducted a survey of Australian school students to ask them about their sexual practices and what they knew about sex. Of those who were having sex – which was over a quarter of Year 10 students, and over half of Year 12 students – only half were consistently using condoms.

So apart from not using a condom, what behaviours put you at risk of contracting an STI?

A survey of chlamydia infection in young people attending general practices was recently conducted by former colleagues at the University of Melbourne. When they looked at what factors were associated with infection, they found that the number of partners that someone had in the 12 months before being tested was more strongly associated with chlamydia infection than whether or not they had consistently used condoms. So, around 5% of young people overall were infected with chlamydia, but for people who had 3 or more partners, 11% were infected. Women with multiple partners were 4 times as likely to have an infection than the women who only had one partner, and men were 5 times as likely to have a chlamydia infection than if they were less promiscuous.

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Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

More sexual partners than ever before

And we are more promiscuous than we used to be. At the time of the Kinsey reports – the late 1940s and early 1950s − women aged 30-44 years reported an average of just 4 male partners in their lifetime. Men reported a slightly higher, but still rather modest, 6-8 female partners. Those high school kids that I mentioned earlier – 30% reported 3 or more partners just in the year leading up to the survey. If we take a slightly older crowd – young people attending a Big Day Out music festival in 2006, where participants were between 16 and 29 years old, the average number of lifetime sexual partners was reported as 5 for both men and women. So, women in 2006 had exceeded the number of lifetime partners that their grandmothers in the middle of the 20th century did, when they were still several years younger on average. Men in 2006 were also well on their way to surpassing the number of lifetime partners of their older male counterparts 75 years ago. But, most of you probably know all this from your own personal experience.

Does promiscuity matter? Does this mean that we’re too promiscuous for our own good?

No, I don’t think so. But that’s not to say that promiscuity comes without consequences. Our sexual behaviour has changed, and as a consequence, our sexual health behaviour must also change.

Normalising preventative health

Knowing that we are at risk, so that we can minimise the risk to ourselves and to others, is probably the first hurdle. And it’s by no means a small hurdle. Thirty per cent of the music festival revellers that I mentioned before said they didn’t bother to use condoms all (or even most of) the time, and yet only a quarter of these people thought they were at any risk of catching an STI. Proper sexual health education in school, followed by ongoing public health campaigns, need to keep the message coming loud and clear: STIs are everywhere, and you need to protect yourself and your partners by staying safe – and of course wearing condoms is a big part of that.

But sexual health check-ups also need to become a normal part of preventive health care, alongside things like exercise and good diet and getting your moles checked out for skin cancer. Doctors can certainly play an important role in encouraging young people to get tested – not because having an STI means you are leading a wild and debauched existence, but because STIs are a fact of life, and getting the right treatment as early as possible helps to keep you and your partners, and the community, safe.

But it’s not just about individual attitudes and choices and behaviours. Policy can also play a important role in improving sexual health for Australians.

HPV vaccine: How good policy can reduce STIs

Let’s take the example of the HPV vaccine. Australia was the first country to introduce a school-based HPV vaccination program for girls in 2007. HPV is probably best known for its capacity to cause cervical cancer. But there is now clear evidence that it can also cause anal cancer, penile cancer, vaginal and vulval cancers, and cancers of the oropharynx, or throat.

People are probably more aware of this last one thanks to Michael Douglas’s famous ‘cunnilingus gave me throat cancer’ remarks that he made last year at the Cannes film festival. Gardisil, the vaccine used in the school vaccination program, protects against two of the main HPV types that cause cancer, as well as two types that don’t cause cancer, but instead cause the majority of cauliflower-shaped genital warts.

When the HPV vaccine was introduced into Australia in 2007, there were the usual outcries from fringe groups in the community claiming that vaccinating 12- and 13-year-olds would somehow make them more promiscuous. But sense prevailed and research has already shown that the vaccination program is working. At the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, clinicians have already seen a dramatic decrease in genital warts in young women since the vaccination program was introduced; between 2004 – before the vaccine was introduced – and 2010-11, the rate of genital warts in female patients plummeted from 9.6% to less than 2%.

It is likely that a similar decline in cervical and other genital cancers, as well as head and neck cancers, will be observed over the coming decades, especially now that boys are also included in the immunisation program.

This is a clear example of sensible policy that has listened to science, and it’s now minimising the harm that a sexually transmitted infection can cause.

So, are we too promiscuous for our own good? I don’t think so. But we do need to remain vigilant if we are going to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections and reduce the harm that they can cause. Humans and sexually transmitted infections have been bedfellows for millennia. But with the right knowledge, evidence-based policies, and an openness to discuss and address sexual health as a community, we can certainly make a difference.


Dyani Lewis is a freelance science journalist based in Melbourne. She has a PhD in plant genetics and has also worked in sexual health research.

This is the edited version of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given last Thursday 3 April at the Wheeler Centre, as part of #sexweek.

Our free Lunchbox/Soapbox series of events take place every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre at 12.20pm. Lunchboxes are available for purchase from The Moat lunch cart.

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07 April 2014

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Why rubbish art is excellent

In his series, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, photographer Chris Jordan captures the scale and absurdity of American consumption in images of its debris, which somehow become both beautiful and grotesque under his watchful eye.

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A hipster comes full circle

As the first line of this lovely and hilarious piece points out (getting hipster points for irony), articles on the phenomenon of hipsterism are boringly ubiquitous. But even if the very mention of the h-word makes you roll your eyes, this journalist’s elusive search for hipsters at the request of his trend-seeking editor, as he strokes his beard, sips his macchiato, and wonders where all the hipsters are, will make you chuckle.

Meg Wolitzer’s inspiration for The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer recently shared her cultural inspirations for her wonderful novel The Interestings with the New Yorker. They ranged from Archie comics to Michael Apted’s 7-Up documentary series and folk music.

‘When I was writing The Interestings I sometimes drew crude, Harvey- and Archie-inspired images of my characters, in keeping with the spirit of Ethan Figman and Figland, although he (and it) are supposed to be brilliant. Not so my doodles.’

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Belgian teacher reveals Game of Thrones spoilers as punishment

A Belgian teacher has come up with a truly creative (and, we imagine, effective) method of crowd control – he threatened a badly behaved math class with Game of Thrones spoilers, after asking for a show of hands as to who watches the show (70% of the class). ‘I’ve read all the books,’ he said. ‘If there is too much noise, I will write the name of the dead on the board. There are enough to fill the whole year, and I can even describe how they die.’

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Geoff Dyer moves to California, has a stroke

Geoff Dyer is one of those writers who is always interesting, on any topic – from film and art to travel or his personal life. He has an essay in the current London Review of Books on what happened after he moved to Venice Beach, California, cheerfully saying it was the place he intended to die … and then having a stroke.

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04 April 2014

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highlight Holly Childs is a writer, editor (Crazy in Love magazine) and artist. She makes work around digital semiotics, transformations of language and culture, aberration and fashion. Her first novella, No Limit, has just been released by Hologram.

We talked to her about writing poems about dishwashers, being sponsored as a writer by a Paris fashion label, working all the time but rarely getting paid, and creative feedback loops.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A poem I wrote about dishwashers. It was selected for publication in a South Australian high school poetry anthology. The launch was held at the private girls school next to my high school and my best friend and I spent the duration of the speeches outside at the snack table eating and filling our pockets with gummies and chocolates.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have a few jobs, all linked. I write fiction and poetry, and creative texts for art contexts. I am a co-editor of Crazy in Love magazine. I sometimes curate exhibitions and organise other art events. The best part of all of these jobs is reading, writing, publishing, and exhibiting works that expand my understanding of what is important, possible, true, real. I also like that I can making connections with people I wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise. Tangentially, I’m the first writer to be sponsored by Paris-based unisex label ASSK. We want to inject Rihanna-style tabloid disturbance, fashion and club music into literary contexts.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Working all the time but rarely getting paid. Never breaking even. I earned about $2 for every hour I wrote in 2013. Not quite enough to cover costs. Maybe I’ll get to $3 p/h in 2014.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

No_Limit_cmykI have three, but they’re short. The first was the moment I realised I could construct narrative. I had really severe allergies and for years I could only write kind of abstract poetry and pretty context-less phrase strings. But last year an Issey Miyake + Dyson limited edition hand-held vacuum cleaner from my mum was instrumental in the recession of my symptoms and the completion of my first ever fiction manuscript.

Then, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at home struggling to concentrate on whatever I was supposed to be doing. I started watching a documentary in which Björk and David Attenborough meet in a museum, suitably titled, When Björk met Attenborough. I was possibly crying softly because each person is so small and contains so much when I received an email from Johannes Jakob, that everything guy at Hologram, saying that he wanted to publish my first ever fiction manuscript which would become my debut novella No Limit.

Next moment in my writing career was a few months later. Rapper Le1f was at my house and he picked up an unproofed copy of No Limit and asked what it was. For a couple of months while writing No Limit I had listened to Le1f’s mixtapes to get zoned to write. I adopted ‘trigger words’, a strategy I read on The Fader that Le1f used to keep key concepts centred within his tracks. He mentioned ‘bass, fog, slither, purple, black, grit’; my triggers were more like ‘ash, dust, locust plague, smashed iPhone screen, lolz’. This was significant as it was the first time I realised that there could be creative feedback loops; that the artists I admire might also get something out of my work.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I like Stephen King’s idea that writing a story isn’t creating something new, it is digging up fossils, ‘part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world’, and trying to get them out of the ground as intact as possible. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s from his book On Writing.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

The first thing Sam Twyford-Moore said to me in real life was something like, ‘I hope you weren’t watching the livestream earlier because I think I said your name pretty loudly and that you’re weird but really cool’.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Watching Ryan Trecartin deliver a lecture on my computer in bed with a blocked nose and a sore throat. Internet going pretty slow. A possum, or maybe a large rat, is possibly dying in the wall of my bedroom and flies are accruing in the cracks. I’m really cold you guys. Someone on the other side of the globe is calling me on Skype and while we talk, his face just a smudge, not one, not two, but three mice run across my bed, over my legs, but too fast for me to catch, and what would I do if I caught them anyway?

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Though not integral, study, institutional or otherwise, seems a fairly reasonable starting point for those who intend to write, or better, are already writing. Study is commitment to reading, writing, expanding knowledge and enhancing skills, familiarising oneself with debates and discourse around what one is writing.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read and write. Make the work first and then worry about getting published. If you feel weird about a job there’s probably a reason. Make everything cute so you can deal with it. Remember that editors and publishers are real people with biases and quirks.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

The books I read are mostly borrowed from libraries. If local council and university libraries don’t have what I want I check real physical bookstores. If I still can’t find, I look online. Actually also my friends and I frequently swap and share books and other publications amongst ourselves.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I would take Chevette Washington and/or Cayce Pollard to the Italian restaurant at the top of OPA in Kyoto, I think it’s called Capricciosa. I would try to ascertain why William Gibson’s strong female protagonists so often end up with the loser chump guy at the end of the book. I would introduce Chevette and/or Cayce to Rose from Michelle Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land, Bart Simpson, Princess Nokia, Grimes, Mookie from Do the Right Thing, Mack Evasion.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Honorable mentions go to the works of Hélène Cixous, Chelsey Minnis, Octavia Butler, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus etc but right now I’m pretty focussed on Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. This book feels like a nineties period piece written like five minutes ago by an extreme tumblr otaku going deep thru VFILES and The Face archives, uncovering long lost nineties tropes, but it’s all ‘authentic’, all written in the era. It’s supposed to be satire, poking fun at celebrity and consumer cultures of the time, but when I first read it I couldn’t get over the beauty and perfection of MTV and Mentos and confetti and melting ice and flies and fake tattoos and coloured sunglasses and Snapple and discarded and or broken cell phones as sinister motifs in a deeply sub- and pop- culturally nuanced long form gore-thriller. In fact, through the passage of time, Glamorama potentially becomes more powerful, now functioning as a nineties US alt-cultural encyclopedia for those not old enough to experience it all first hand. Written over an eight-year period in the 1990s, a couple of the hundreds of celeb names dropped throughout are spelt wrong because no Google back then. Time machine. Glamorama is actually so deep. Chloe mouthing Take … a … hike … absolute perfection.


No Limit is out now through Hologram Books.

Holly will be reading at The Next Big Thing at The Moat on Monday 28 April.

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nyc The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case recently attended an event at the NYC Teen Authors Festival in New York, which looked at the blurry line between writing for teens and adults – chaired by publisher and author David Levithan. On the panel were Rainbow Rowell, Jennifer E. Smith, Patrick Flannery and Eliot Schrefer.

They talked about what makes a book for teenage readers, how writing for teens affects the way a book is written, the much-derided category of ‘new adult’, and why it can be limiting to think too much about audiences when writing a book.

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Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds. Pictured: Patrick Flanery, Rainbow Rowell, Eliot Schrefer, Jennifer E. Smith, David Levithan.

David Levithan asked the panel – many of whom have written books for both teen and adult audiences – about how they know when they’re writing a book for teenage readers. ‘I try hard not to categorise my books as I’m writing them,’ said Rainbow Rowell, author of the bestselling ‘crossover’ YA book Eleanor and Park, and most recently, Fangirl. ‘Eleanor and Park wasn’t written as a YA book.’ She said that when she’s writing, she’s thinking about the characters and how their stories should be told, not who she’s writing for.

Focus on character and story

‘With YA books, I’m focusing much more on character and the story I’m telling,’ said Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered, about a girl who is swept up in a Congolese political rebellion and ends up living in a bonobo colony, and Threatened, about an orphan boy who finds refuge with chimpanzees. ‘I’m not indulging myself as a writer,’ he said. Meditations on sunsets and reflective passages are the kinds of passages he cuts in YA, because they get in the way of the story. He feels that writing YA has made him a better writer as a result of this approach. ‘It forced me to pare back my vanity. I’m grateful for that.’

Schrefer wrote his first YA book, School for Dangerous Girls, after David Levitahn took him to lunch and suggested he’d be a good writer for teenagers – and gave him the brief to write the book. He’s already published two adult books.

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Image from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

Nostalgia for teen years = adult book

Rainbow Rowell had written one novel for adults (Attachments) before Eleanor and Park, and her next novel (Landline) is for an adult audience. She said that when she first encountered her YA readership, she felt like she’d ‘found my people’. YA readers are a community in a way that readers in general aren’t, she explained. ‘Adults who read and love YA are openhearted and enthusiastic – they’re very passionate and supportive. It’s more fun for me to have a YA book.’

Jennifer E. Smith writes YA and works as an editor at Ballantine, working on adult books. ‘As an editor, I’m often in a position where I fall in love with a book I want to acquire and have to argue why a book with a 14 year old narrator should be published on the adult side,’ she says. The panellists agreed that a key difference in a book for adults with a teen narrator, and a book for teens, is perspective. David Levithan says that when the teenage years are written about with a sense of nostalgia, it’s for adult readers. ‘You don’t feel as in the story when you read.’

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Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

‘New adult’ category ‘a failure’

Levithan was scathing about the ‘new adult’ category, for readers in their early twenties. ‘It’s the first category of fiction I’ve ever seen that is purely created by marketers,’ he said. ‘It’s adult publishers trying to get a piece of the pie. It’s been a failure. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.’ Smith agreed, from the perspective of an adult publisher. Rowell said, as an author, the idea of a whole new possible category for her books was ‘exhausting’.

‘There aren’t 25-year-olds walking around saying where is my literature?’ said Levithan. ‘YA serves a purpose. Even though the books are very different, they have certain things in common – like an exploration of identity, sympathy for the characters.’

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Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

Don’t think about the marketing

Rowell’s latest book, Fangirl, could be said to fit the ‘new adult’ category – the narrator, Cath (who writes fan fiction about a Harry Potter-like character) is in her first years of college, and is figuring out where she fits in, and how much of herself to change. ‘My agent told me not to write it,’ Rowell said. ‘He said you can’t touch fan fiction and you can’t write about college students, because college students don’t read; they’re too busy studying. And no one wants to read about college students.’

‘We have this idea in popular culture that all the big things happen in high school. That everyone arrives in college having already had lots of sex, they’re drinking a lot. That’s not true. That wasn’t true of me and my friends. You’re becoming an adult and deciding what from childhood you’re taking with you.’

Rowell said she can’t think about who her books are marketed to, or who the audience is, or it would paralyse her.

‘As long as a book is entertaining, a general audience will read YA,’ said Levithan.

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02 April 2014

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It’s Sex Week at the Wheeler Centre this week, kicking off tonight with What Do Women Want? and finishing Friday with the latest instalment of our always-steamy (and generally silly) Erotic Fan Fiction.

Most of our Sex Week events are booked out, but you can still reserve a place at Thursday’s Lunchbox/Soapbox session with Dyani Lewis, Are We Too Promiscuous For Our Own Good?.

To set the mood, we’ve gathered some of the best bad romance covers we could find – a red-hot example of what some want, if the publishing industry is right.

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Animals and sex don’t go together for most … but there is a romance series, Animal Magnetism, especially for animal lovers.

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And for the kinky, or ridiculous, minded, there’s dinosaur porn

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A prospective husband in a leather trenchcoat, shirtless? Why not.

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Gay pirate werewolf sex literature is a thing.

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Why is there a little boy lurking under the table?


It’s Sex Week at the Wheeler Centre. You can still book for Thursday’s Lunchbox/Soapbox, Are We Too Promiscuous For Our Own Good?. #sexweek

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Paul Donoghue interviews bestselling author Alain de Botton on The News – his philosopher’s look at the newspaper stories that so many of us read, but so few of us really study … or question. Why we are so interested in stories about crime, celebrity and the like … and what does it say about us? How can we read the newspapers better?

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I remember the day, many years ago, when I first became aware of the world of news. My primary school teacher held up a copy of our state’s daily newspaper; we passed it around, we talked about the front page, we read some of the stories aloud. At the time I didn’t understand what this thing was and why we were supposed to care. My thinking, at that age, was essentially this: a newspaper is a boring, daily slog, like homework but for adults.

This is not an uncommon scenario, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, whose new book The News examines the daily flood of information and what it is doing to our lives. Though there is ‘no more powerful force in modern society than the news’, he says, we are more likely to study Othello than our local paper. One of De Botton’s aims with The News – in which he casts a philosopher’s eye over two dozen news stories covering business, crime and celebrity, among others – is to help realise a better version of this deeply important form of public education. And how timely the book is. As De Botton wrote, at home in London, the phone-hacking scandal, which has sullied the integrity of the British press, was unfolding a short distance away.

‘The phone-hacking scandal revealed a deep longing for a better kind of news, a news that wouldn’t be so cynical and so destructive,’ De Botton tells me. Across 200-odd pages, he gives us an idea of what might constitute, in his eyes, the ‘ideal news organisation of the future’. Rather than using stories about flu epidemics or political scandals to stoke our fear and anger, he argues, the news should instead place these things in perspective. We should be reminded that our species is imperfect: humans are not infallible, they are not above nature.

the-news When you spend a bit of time thinking about the news, you start to notice the repetition: the ‘David vs Goliath battle’, the ‘unsung hero’. These are the narratives to which the news business constantly returns. I had thought it was just a convenient way of framing a story; De Botton sees it differently. Consider a few recent headlines: ‘Auckland mayor Len Brown admits two year affair, accused of sex acts in Council office’; ‘Sexting MP Peter Dowling sent explicit images to secret mistress’; and ‘Thai Brothel Blackouts and Other New Secret Service Sex Scandals’. The stories behind these headlines, De Botton argues, are all the same. ‘It goes like this: Men in highly responsible positions are coming unstuck because their sexual desires lead them to do things that, when made public, are shameful.’ He says that addressing this underlying theme – telling us why these masculine indiscretions keep occurring – is the more important, though often untold, story.

De Botton’s book raises interesting questions about the nature of foreign news, which generally doesn’t match celebrity or crime for page views. The conclusion he comes to is that unless we understand what passes for normal for life in Aleppo, for example — how people travel to work or what they eat for breakfast — then we can’t know how much to care when a bomb rips through the local food market. ‘The ideal news organisation of the future,’ he writes, ‘would routinely commission stories on certain identification-inducing aspects of human nature which invariably exist in the most far-flung and ravaged corners of our globe…. We can be properly concerned about the sad and violent interruptions only if we know enough about the underlying steady state of a place, about the daily life, routines and modest hopes of its population.’ The problem here is obvious. Professional journalists are disappearing; the ones that remain are time and resource poor. How does an editor justify assigning a reporter to tell us about normal, boring stuff in far-away places?

De Botton has been leading the charge over the past decade for the return of philosophy to the popular consciousness. His books sell very well and he will next month bring his project The School Of Life, a kind of university for everyday living, back to Melbourne. But he has his critics. Last year, writer Victoria Beale published an essay called ‘How To Be A Pseudo-Intellectual’, in which she labelled De Botton the ‘self-help guru of the middle class’ and said he practiced ‘Philosophy Lite’. De Botton says that because he sits somewhere between academic and writer – he started a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, but dropped out to publish books – he tends to cop it from both sides. ‘It’s a very hard trick to pull off,’ he says. ‘Some people think you’re too heavy, others that you’re too light.’ De Botton says he is committed to being both popular and serious. He says big ideas – and there some big ones raised in The News – need to reach the widest possible audience. As a journalist – and one who started his career at that very newspaper that was passed around the classroom – I have to agree.


This article was first published in the Big Issue (Australia). Alain de Botton appeared at the Dallas Brooks Centre for the Wheeler Centre last week. We’ll publish a video soon, so check back (or subscribe to our video podcast).

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Against beautiful journalism

If you’ve been tracking the internet’s passionate embrace of longform journalism over the past couple of years, you’ll know that alongside the celebration of beautifully designed media-rich pages, deep investigative reporting and ‘future of journalism’ proclamations, the movement has also worn its share of criticism.

The latest voice to resonate amongst critics is Felix Salmon’s. This week in ‘Against beautiful journalism’, he wrote of his ‘soft spot for ugly’, his frustration with a ‘one-size-fits-all approach to stories’ and his appreciation for the role that newspapers' page designers play in communicating the importance of a story – through its relative size and positioning on newsprint.

Reading Playboy for the articles

dailies_pornstudies Claiming to be the world’s first ‘dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic’, Routledge this week launched Porn Studies. As Huffington Post reports, the first issue is open-access for a limited time.

(Coincidence? Let’s Talk About Sex begins next week at the Wheeler Centre.)

Buffalo soldiers

In the news this week were reports that Russia had, in reclaiming the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, inadvertently inherited the latter’s combat dolphin program.

That may sound outlandish to some, but as fans of War Horse know too well, humans have long made a habit of putting animals into military service. Read more in io9’s fascinating (and photo heavy) account of When Pets Get Drafted: The Bizarre History of Animal Soldiers.

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Hello, kitty.

‘According to science’

On the subject of animal instincts (and, maybe, minefields) – science has determined which dance moves capture women’s attention. Evolutionary biologists (who else?) from Northumbria University and the University of Gottingen found that ‘women rated dancers higher when they showed larger and more variable movements of the head, neck and torso’.

Keep that in mind when you hit the clubs this weekend, gents.

The article is worth a look for the videos alone, in which you can enjoy a ‘featureless, gender-neutral’ animated avatar demonstrating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dancing. Be warned, though. If you recognise yourself as the ‘bad’ dancer, you might be kicking the weekend off with a little soul searching.

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Arms don’t matter: ‘What am I doing here?’ (Image credit: Washington Post)

Night life

Let’s stay on the dancefloor to finish this week off. In a comprehensively researched piece published on music website Resident Advisor earlier this year, Luis-Manuel Garcia explores the history of club culture’s queer roots – and why we need to be reminded of them in an era when dance music has become part of the furniture.

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Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles. (Photo: Hannah Briley)

“The belief in the power of music to overcome differences can give us a lot of comfort and hope, especially in difficult times. But Thaemlitz warns against allowing this to blind us to the problems happening here and now: "Organizing around hopes and dreams is how we get to absurdly abstract notions like ‘love is the answer,’ and that dancing or making music is enough to change the world. We end up distracted by our own mechanisms of desire, while violence and murder continues. ”

You can check out this standout piece of music journalism in full at Resident Advisor.

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Journalist and Prisoner X author Rafael Epstein.

Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen, took his own life in Israel’s maximum security, ‘suicide proof’ Ayalon Prison in 2010. In this extract of his recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk on the Zygier espionage saga, Rafael Epstein explains that there were serious gaps in Australia’s handling of the case – both before and after his death.

I knew Ben Zygier as a young boy in primary school, when he was in my care in a Jewish youth movement called Netzer. He was a kind, and not overly gregarious boy, who grew up to be one of the more charming teenagers, hanging out in another youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair. There were just a few hundred of us in Zionist youth movements, university and high school students, in this small tribe-within-the-tribe of the Jewish community. We were committed idealists, reveling in self-empowerment and the allure of believing that we could really change the world.

Most of us did not go on to live in Israel, but Ben Zygier did. Two years into his law degree at Monash University, he decided he was going to become an Israeli citizen and do more than the bare minimum of service on Israel’s army. So Ben Zygier went to Israel, fought in its Army, and then joined its feared intelligence agency Mossad. While undercover for Israel, he worked inside a European company to try and penetrate Iran’s military and its nuclear program. He did this using Australian passports, one of which he’d used to get a visa at the Italian consulate in Melbourne. Later, on leave from his Mossad work, Ben Zygier returned to Melbourne in 2009, to once again study at Monash University.

It is what happened to Ben Zygier from this year onwards, and how he was treated in Australia and Israel, that are my core concerns in Prisoner X.

Concerned by Zygier’s misuse of his passport, he was followed in 2009 by Australian intelligence and his phone calls were monitored. One of the agents who tracked him on the streets of Melbourne later revealed his identity as Mossad agent to Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis. At the time, Ben Zygier told friends he thought he was being followed, but they dismissed his concerns.

As this was unfolding, I was told that Ben Zygier was talking to people at Monash, and this talk is what led to his downfall. I was told that he had let slip details of his work in Europe targeting Iran. He’d spoken with an Iranian businessman who was on the same campus. This Iranian knew that what he’d heard was valuable information and it was passed back to Tehran. Because Israel has good surveillance of communications in Iran, Mossad eventually found out that Ben had been saying too much to the wrong person, while studying in Melbourne.

So by the end of 2009, he was being monitored by intelligence agencies from three countries: Australia, Israel and Iran.


Mossad was concerned enough by Ben’s loose talk in Melbourne, that they asked him to return to Israel. He was arrested within a few weeks of his return at the start of 2010. Just two days later, the world was told of a spectacular Mossad assassination in Dubai. This is important because it should have given Australian authorities great cause to be discussing Ben’s case. He’d had nothing to do with the assassination in Dubai, but when the Hamas leader was killed in the Gulf state, the Israelis used three fake Australian passports among others.

Curiously, this audacious operation involved stealing the identity of three Melbourne Jews, who had gone to live in Israel, just as Ben had done. This misuse of Australian passports set up 2010 as a year of tension, with Australia’s national security establishment furious with Israel. Mossad’s man in Canberra was expelled and the ALP government confirmed for the first time that Israel had previously misused Australian passports. ASIO Chief David Irvine was sent to Israel to try and get some answers.

This should have been when where two disparate cases intersected. Despite ASIO’s position at the centre of this standoff over Dubai, and despite their concerns about Ben Zygier’s misuse of his passport, the agency does not appear to have pushed for Ben’s case to be discussed by our elected representatives. This is more than strange at a time when Israel’s misuse of passports in Dubai was “an abuse of our national sovereignty,” according to then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. As far as we know, Ben’s illegal use of his Australian passports – and his surveillance by Australian agencies – was never passed on to any minister other than then Attorney General Robert McClelland. Even more curiously, the A-G never raised it with his cabinet colleagues.

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Israel’s maximum security Ayalon Prison, where Ben Zygier died in custody.

Even if it is not the case that considerable Australian resources were used to track Ben Zygier in Melbourne in 2009 – and I am told this was done – when he was arrested in Israel, someone should have told then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or his successor, Julia Gillard. That this didn’t happen was odd – and that’s an understatement. In Opposition, Julie Bishop believed these were important concerns. “Interestingly, this was at the very time that the Australian Government was in a lather about Australian passports being used by Israeli intelligence agencies. So somebody must have thought maybe there was a connection, maybe there are questions to ask.

Those who were told of Ben Zygier’s arrest include our current ambassadors to China and Indonesia – who were Canberra bureaucrats at the time – and Dennis Richardson, currently the top public servant in the Defence Department. For various reasons, including officials’ lack of ‘recollection’, relevant ministers say they weren’t informed. And that’s despite paperwork detailing his arrest being sent to offices of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.


I tried and failed, formally and informally, to interview various politicians and bureaucrats about this curious lack of joining-the-dots at the very apex of Australia’s political and security establishment. I never received a reply anywhere close to an answer. Australians deserve better than the retort from Bob Carr when he was pressed about these strange facts: “Listen pal, I wasn’t in the Parliament at that time, I can’t shed any more light on it!” We only know about Canberra’s curious lack of curiosity because of an internal DFAT inquiry, instigated by then Foreign Minister Carr. He’d unknowingly misled the ABC, saying the government only learnt of Ben Zygier’s incarceration at the time of his death.

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Resting place: Ben Zygier’s tombstone.

Ben Zygier’s family never requested consular assistance, and any Australian discussion of his fate may not have changed the sad end to his life. But there were politicians and bureaucrats with access to Australia‘s most closely held secrets, and we don’t know if they asked the questions they should have. There is too much that the public just don’t know, and are simply not told.


This is an edited excerpt from Rafael Epstein’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk, of which we’ll post a video on this website soon. Epstein is the author of Prisoner X, published by Melbourne University Press. He hosts Drive on 774 ABC Melbourne.

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This past Sunday was that most exciting of special, annual occasions – our Children’s Book Festival (in partnership with the State Library of Victoria) took over the State Library lawns, our Performance Space, Little Lonsdale Street and various venues and galleries inside the library.

From 10 ‘til 4, over 15,000 kids and their adults took part in an exciting, rich and imagination-stoking programme of events and activities with a focus on children’s literature.

And, once again, we were very happy to welcome an artist in residence for the day (you may recall that last year, Oslo Davis was on the job). 2014’s artist in residence was Nicki Greenberg, and today we’re pleased to share her illustrations from the day.

See any familiar faces? We thought so!

(Click on an image to enlarge it to full size.)

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Check out our photo gallery from the festival, or see how the day unfolded on Twitter.

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When pulp author Carl Ruhen died late last year, there was almost no mention of him in the press. Andrew Nette looks back on Ruhen’s prolific career, taking in some of literature’s seediest corners – and the forgotten history of Australia’s pulp publishing industry.

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Carl Ruhen’s first book for Horwitz: Curse of the Nekhen, 1966.

Most people think of pulp publishing as American. But for several decades in the second half of the last century, Australia had a significant pulp paperback industry that produced a large range of popular fiction.

By the mid-to-late sixties, Horwitz, Australia’s largest pulp publisher, was producing up to 16 titles a month with initial print runs of 20,000 copies. Black magic, hippies, juvenile delinquents, spies, bored suburban housewives looking for thrills, and evil Japanese and German prison guards – nothing was off limits. Local pulp publishers pounced on mainstream society’s fantasies, fears and obsessions and turned them into cheap, disposable paperback thrills.

Carl Ruhen was at the centre of this industry and continued to ply his trade as a writer until the late eighties. AustLit, the Australian Literature Resource database, credits him with 78 books. He also penned numerous short stories and magazine articles.

On November 28 last year, Carl Ruhen died after a long illness, aged 76.

I’ve long been aware of Ruhen’s work. Unfortunately, I never got to meet to him. I found out about his passing in late December when an acquaintance who’d been in sporadic contact with Ruhen emailed me with the news. The only mention I’ve been able to find of his death was a short notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated December 2, 2013.

Carl Ruhen was born in New Zealand in 1937 and arrived in Australia in 1947. His father, Olaf, was a prominent Australian writer in the years after World War II, the author of a series of well-received books on local and Pacific history.

One of these, Minerva Reef, published in 1964, about a group of Tongan men shipwrecked on a reef for 102 days, saw him become something of a cult figure in that country. According to an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly in April 1966, Carl accompanied his father on a visit to Tonga, stayed six months and returned to Sydney with a Tongan bride. The relationship did not last.

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Olaf Ruhen, Carl’s father, became a cult figure in Tonga following the publication of Minerva Reef.

Carl Ruhen got his start, like many aspiring local writers in the early sixties, submitting short fiction and articles for Man Magazine, a local version of what were known as ‘barber shop magazines’, popular in the United States at the time.

Import restrictions on foreign print material, in place in Australia since 1938, began to be lifted in the late fifties. Increased competition saw many local pulp publishers close. Others, such as Horwitz, readjusted their business model, stopped relying on reprinted overseas material and published more Australian books. Ruhen was part of a stable of authors put together by Horwitz. The group also included James Holledge, J.E. Macdonnell, W.R. Bennett, James Workman, Leonard Mears and Rena Cross.


Ruhen’s first Horwitz book, Curse of the Nekhen (1966), featured the playboy explorer Sigismund Flack. (‘A sophisticate who never allows the peril of the moment to upset his suavity’.) It was billed as the first of a series, but further Flack books never eventuated.

The Violent Ones, published later in 1966, was the first of several books by Ruhen dealing with out-of-control youth gangs, a theme popular with Horwitz and pulp publishers generally.

It was followed, in 1967, by The Rebels and Wild Beat. (‘They were only kids, but they were capable of murder – and worse. The story of today’s violent generation.’) The Crucifiers, the first of many biker novels Horwitz published, appeared in 1969.

Set amid the vice and crime hotspot of Kings Cross, The Rebels demonstrates Ruhen’s skill. The story is told in the first person by working class 17 year-old, Bernie. He spends his weekdays living a boring suburban existence with his parents and working as a storeman in a CBD department store, and his weekends in a blur of sex, alcohol, car theft and fighting.

During one of these weekend jaunts he meets Sandra. She challenges Bernie’s masculinity and understanding of women. She’s upper-class, from Sydney’s North Shore, is learning to speak French and wants to travel. But she also likes the wild life, including driving her mother’s car at dangerous speeds. She takes Bernie to a North Shore Mod party where a group of men beat him up. Swearing revenge, Bernie and his gang return the following Saturday, which is when things get out of control.

Like a lot of pulp, much of The Rebels now reads as clichéd. But the prose is clean and crisp and the story has a rough cultural authenticity. Also notable is the way Ruhen eschewed the heavy-handed moralising of similar juvenile delinquent stories that usually saw the characters realise the error of their ways and embrace mainstream society, in favour of a much more sombre, dark ending.


Ruhen was an editor at Horwitz from 1968 to 1969. Prominent expatriate Australian writer John Baxter, who worked as a manuscript editor at Horwitz around the same time, recalled, ‘In my day Carl made all the decisions.’ Presumably this included having a hand in establishing Scripts Publications, the subsidiary Horwitz used to release its more adult-oriented material, in 1969.

ruhen_manmag From 1969 to 1971, Ruhen edited Man Magazine. He also worked as a publisher for Ure Smith, from 1972 to 1973.

The size of the US pulp industry (by 1960 Americans were buying more than one million pulp paperbacks a day) meant many budding writers used it as a training ground before going on to make a name for themselves as mainstream authors. Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg and Marion Zimmer Bradley are just some that come to mind.

Like their American counterparts, many young Australian writers wrote pulp fiction to hone their craft with an eye to undertaking more significant literary pursuits. Many were ‘waylaid’ by the process, as a writer from the time once described it to me, and had to produce books quickly to pay bills and support families.

Four hundred dollars per manuscript was the going rate at Horwitz in the late sixties. Good money at the time, but a writer was only as good as their next book.

Australian pulp publishing in the fifties and sixties was a tough, fast-paced business, far more commercially minded than mainstream publishing at the time. Publishers like Horwitz turned books around quickly, sometimes in as little as a month, in order to take advantage of the latest media sensation or moral panic. For authors this meant long hours and high stress. Many lived in tough material conditions. Cigarettes and alcohol were often their only affordable escapes.

Very few local pulp writers I am aware of went on to mainstream literary careers. Some wrote for the burgeoning television industry. Most either gave up writing or resigned themselves to churning out pulp to make a living. Despite his talent, it appears Ruhen fell into the latter camp. Paper Empires: a History of the Book in Australia 1946 – 2005 cites Ruhen as one of Horwitz’s most prolific authors. In addition to writing under his own name, he worked under numerous pseudonyms, across all sub-genres.


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One of Ruhen’s horror titles, published pseudonymously.

The introduction of the ‘R’ classification in 1971 meant mainstream films, books and television increasingly dealt with subjects that were once exclusively the preserve of pulp. To compete, pulp became increasing salacious and sexually explicit.

Ruhen spent the seventies writing smut for Scripts Publications and another Horwitz offshoot, Stag Publications: titles such as Orgy Farm, Bar Stud, Sex Parlour, Saturday Sex Club, Wife Swap Orgy, Porno Girls and Society Stud. He also wrote horror under the pseudonym Caroline Farr, and romance as Alison Hart.

He wrote film paperback tie-ins, popular before the advent of VHS, for Alvin Purple, Mad Max 1 and 2 and Melvin Son of Alvin, and paperback versions of Australian television soap operas such as The Young Doctors, Neighbours and Sons and Daughters, for the UK market. He also wrote children’s books and local histories. He even wrote a book on baby names.

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(Source: eBay)

The last book credited to Ruhen on the AustLit site was the ninth book of the Neighbours series, published in 1989.

The passing of such a prolific local author without comment illustrates the extent to which Australia’s pulp publishing industry, once a huge part of our entertainment culture, has been forgotten.


Andrew Nette is a Melbourne crime writer, reviewer and pulp scholar. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications. His first novel, Ghost Money, was published in 2012. His online home is pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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25 March 2014

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Luke Horton looks at how a ‘perfect novel’ published to general indifference in 1965 is now being hailed as a masterpiece by everyone from Bret Easton Ellis to Tom Hanks, to Ian McEwan.

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John Williams’ Stoner is one of the most highly and widely praised novels of recent times. Hailed as a ‘perfect novel’ by New York Times critic Morris Dickstein, it has collected high-profile endorsements from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (‘a great American novel’), Ian McEwan (‘a minor masterpiece’), and even Tom Hanks, who wrote in Times Magazine: ‘It’s one of the most fascinating things you’ve ever come across’. It was recently a bestseller across most of Europe. It is also 48 years old. Which begs the question: how does a largely forgotten American novel become a bestseller 48 years after its initial publication?

The short answer seems simple enough. A long history of hushed, underground reverence – writers pressing it upon other writers, the occasional piece popping up in literary journals about the criminal neglect of a masterwork – then, over the last ten years, a flurry of new editions and translations, and a canny European marketing strategy that made Stoner the word-of mouth literary phenomenon of 2013. By July, Stoner was sitting in the bestseller lists in Spain, France, and had hit number one in the Netherlands, displacing Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The longer answer begins with the indifference with which this lost American classic was greeted upon its release in 1965. Williams won the National Book Award for his next book, Augustus, in 1974, but Stoner, a quiet novel about the ‘uneventful’ life of a university professor at a Midwestern University in the first half of the 20th century, received good reviews and poor sales before falling out of print just a year later. And yet, by 1973 it was already being championed as an overlooked masterpiece. In the Financial Times, English novelist and critic C. P. Snow asked, ‘Why isn’t this book famous?’

The conventional explanation for this is cultural historical. That, no matter how beautifully written, a novel about the life and loveless marriage of a poor Missouri farmer’s son who discovers a love of classical literature was never going to be a hit in the mid-60s, a time when the Beats were gods and the counter-culture was gathering momentum. And maybe there’s some truth to this. Despite its promising title (it’s the protagonist’s surname, not a drug reference), Stoner couldn’t be more at odds with the tenor of the times. Another young realist writer of this period, and the writer to whom Williams is most often compared, Richard Yates, similarly attracted critical acclaim but meagre sales in this decade. Like Williams, Yates’ popular success, with novels such as 1961’s Revolutionary Road, has been largely posthumous.

And yet, in a piece in The Millions recently, critic Claire Cameron reminds us that with 54,378 books released in 1965, it might be misleading to suggest it’s some sort of tragedy Stoner was overlooked at the time of its release. Instead, Cameron argues, this is simply the fate of most books. The fact that Stoner has been remembered and resuscitated so spectacularly she suggests, especially without making an initial splash, is the exceptional thing about this story. She writes, ‘This is a story about a novel that is so extraordinary that it’s been remembered’.

Others remain shocked. In an interview for BBC Radio 4, Ian McEwan said he was, ‘amazed a novel this good escaped general attention for so long’.

But whatever the reason for its initially subdued reception, Stoner has certainly hit a vein now. Its resuscitation began in earnest in 2006 when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) bought the US rights to the novel, which had been languishing for nearly fifty years. Although reissued in the UK by Random House’s Vintage Classics in 2003, it was the NYRB Classics edition that saw the novel attract high-profile endorsements like those from Ellis, McEwan and Hanks.

But it was when bestselling French novelist Anna Gavalda translated it into French in 2012 that Europe began to go crazy for Stoner. The European marketing for Stoner was overseen by Oscar van Gelderen at Lebowski Publishers, whose inventive approach to the marketing of the book has a lot to do with its sudden success there. Knowing it would be a challenge to make a novel by a relatively unknown mid-century author a bestseller in 2013, especially with no author to help promote it, Gelderen had to eschew traditional marketing strategies. Determined to push the readership for Stoner beyond the existing market for ‘classics’, Gelderen avoided the term. Instead, he turned to social media to start a conversation about the book, and sold the idea of the book directly to booksellers. This approach turned out to be more successful than he could have possibly imagined.

Yet it’s Stoner’s status as a lost classic that’s forging its readership here in Australia. High-profile endorsements are nice but it’s word-of-mouth buzz that will seal its fate. The fact that it comes in a comparatively cheap $12.95 paperback can only help sales. A sticker on the latest edition reads ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read’, but the truth of the matter is that this book does brilliantly live up to the hype as those who read it will no doubt discover for themselves.


This article was first published in the Big Issue (Australia).

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24 March 2014

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Literary criticism: art, science or both?

‘Should literary criticism be an art or a science?’, asks Joshua Rothman in his piece for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. In other words – should criticism be about close, insightful particular readings (art) or should it aim to trace general trends and patterns in literary culture (science)?

As Rothman continues, it’s a question that Franco Moretti is trying to answer definitively: ‘he thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science’. Find out why and explore what this entails in this fascinating profile: ‘An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature’.

Say my name

On the topic of criticism – last week, we looked at the debate surrounding anonymous book reviews (in the Saturday Paper and beyond) – and that’s a subject we’ll be exploring further in coming weeks.

But what if it weren’t just books being reviewed anonymously; if it were your personality, your work ethic or your place in an unusually competitive community? The answer is being played out in the real world. From the New York Times:

highlight A five-week old social app, Secret, is testing the limits of just how much sharing Silicon Valley thinks is a good thing. That’s because the sharing is done anonymously. And, as it turns out, much of the chatter is about Silicon Valley itself – offering a rare, unvarnished look at the ambitions, disappointments, rivalries, jealousies and obsessions of the engineers who live and work there.

The app’s website proffers the opportunity to ‘share with your friends, secretly’ and ‘speak freely’. Is anybody else getting the shivers?

A lesson in persistent privilege

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, for short) have been a hot topic in the world of education for the past couple of years – flagged by many as a democratising revolution in access to quality, specialised learning for anyone with access to the internet.

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But while popular sites like Coursera ‘envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education’ – a future which Thomas Friedman has hoped might ‘unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems’ – a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania has revealed a less than revolutionary beginning. From Slate: ‘Who Takes MOOCs? Educated, Employed, First-World Guys.’

Stay classy

Class in Australia: it’s a discussion that’s well and truly on the minds of writers and artists of late, and it’s never escaped the interest of the politically minded. Over the past few weeks, The Conversation has been exploring the topic in detail – covering how your living environment affects your health, whether the way you speak affects your future, how bogans and hipsters are linked to class, and much more.

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Aussie battlers finding their place: the cast of The Castle (1997).

Bee eternal, big bang

It’s the sweetness that lasts forever… almost. Smithsonian.com reports that honey has a near-eternal shelf life; archaeologists have often found unspoiled pots of honey, thousands of years old, whilst excavating ancient Egyptian tombs. What’s the secret to honey’s extraordinary staying power? Pretty simple, mostly: keep the lid on.

Of course, we couldn’t let this week pass without making mention of what – if independently confirmed – will be remembered as a monumental discovery in the history of science. The physics world lit up as astronomers announced they had detected a signal from the beginning of time.

If the scientific detail escapes you, check out the moment when an emotional Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde is delivered the news that his inflationary universe theory appears to be true.

‘Let’s just hope that it’s not a trick.’

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highlight Emily Gale is the author of several pre-school books and the YA novel Girl Aloud, which has been published in the UK, Germany and the US. Her first book set in Australia was last year’s Steal My Sunshine. Her latest books are My Explosive Adventure: Eliza Boom’s Diary and My Fizz-Tastic Investigation: Eliza Boom’s Diary. Emily has worked as a children’s book editor and is a specialist children’s bookseller at Readings.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was 19, and studying English Lit at the University of Sussex, I joined the student magazine editorial team. I was an extremely nervy editorial assistant and madly in love with the charismatic editor. Tragically, my love was unrequited, but on the upside he did publish a piece I wrote on feminism. It was a truly dreadful piece of writing but it was a start. The magazine won a Guardian award that year for best student magazine in the UK. My piece would have played no part in that decision but I like to think that my dotting of the i’s did. By the following year I was editor, but please note that no bunnies were boiled during the takeover.

What’s the best part of your job?

eliza_b I have two jobs: children’s author and children’s book buyer. It’s the actual process of writing that I love most – simply the sitting-down-and-doing-it part. I find the being published part really nerve-wracking. Since working full-time at Readings I’ve had to fit writing around a 40-hour week, not including reading time, with two small(ish) children, which is a pretty good commitment test. When a book is going well I wake up at 5am and write for an hour before getting ready for work. I never thought I’d be that disciplined but those hours are precious and pure, when it’s just me and the story.

There are lots of things I love about being a book buyer. There’s another precious hour I have between 8 and 9, before the shop opens, when I dust and do window displays and make everything look pretty in the children’s section before the customers walk in. It’s the only kind of housework I enjoy. I love the reading, obviously – I’ve never read so much in my life. My colleagues are great fun and I love the atmosphere. On Christmas Eve the queues went right to the back of the shop, snaking through the children’s section, and that was very uplifting.

What’s the worst part of your job?

With the writing it’s the moment my author copies are delivered. I fly into a panic, which I try to internalize because it’s very dull, so my insides are pickled in angst. Bad reviews aren’t very enjoyable either. And then there’s the negative royalty statements. That’s probably enough worst parts to be going on with.

The worst part of being a book buyer is the returns process. It has to be done but I feel like I’ve failed every book I have to send back. Except for the crap ones.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

My writing career has been bumpy to say the least. It’s certainly no glamorous story. I found my first agent very quickly, off the back of some picture book manuscripts and three chapters of a children’s novel. A year later she hadn’t sold anything for me and I’d just delivered my first YA novel to her. I was feeling pretty chuffed with it and proud that I’d managed to finish it in time to have my first baby, whose arrival was imminent. Then a letter came: it was my agent telling me completely out-of-the-blue that she could no longer represent me. I nearly gave birth on the spot. I called my mum and cried down the phone. After a period of feeling very sorry for myself, those two essential words came to me: Fuck. You. Just over a year later I’d written another YA novel and signed with a new agent.

But the moment that I’ll never forget for the opposite reason is receiving an email from Jaclyn Moriarty telling me she’d enjoyed my first published YA novel, Girl, Aloud. That was magic because I admire her writing so much.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

It’s simple and came from a friend who isn’t a writer: just get on with it. Best delivered with an eye-roll and a pfft immediately after a writerly whinge. I’m sorry if it sounds too simple but I think of my friend saying that to me all the time and it works. He’s a grafter, he doesn’t make excuses, and ultimately that’s what is needed in this game: there’s a lot of raw talent around but it’s only the people who get on with it who are in the running.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Well, there is a review of one of my books that says ‘this is the worst book in the whole world’, which I thought was quite some claim.

I’m always surprised when people say that I come across as confident or that I’m good at public-speaking because of all the sleepless nights and anxiety that happens behind closed doors.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think anything else I did would be temporary; I’d flit from one thing to the next. Being a primary school teacher might come into it for a while, but I think I’m too greedy about alone-time and I’d be awful at dealing with parents. I could have been a lawyer, too, which always seems like a missed opportunity when I look at my bank statement. Am I allowed to have my own bookshop in this terrible working-without-words world? How about if I promise not to read any of the books? (At least until you’re not looking.) It might turn out to be a bit too much like Black Books.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’ve never been to a writing class or taught one, so my opinion is pretty groundless I’m afraid. I hasten to add that I’d love to take writing classes, it’s just that you need time and money for that and I’ve been short of both. Authors I know who’ve taken courses have gone onto to produce novels that I adore, but I don’t know what they would have produced without that teaching.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I’d have to refer back to what works for me: just get on with it. Lots of people talk about writing a book ‘when I have more time’, but you have to make the time and it’s bags of it you need to make because most writers’ first efforts are awful. Rewriting is the thing. Sending out your first attempt and then feeling flattened when you’re rejected is a common mistake. Feeling angry with the publishing world because doors aren’t opening fast enough is another. I don’t like the sense of entitlement I see with some writers. I think it’s really important, if you want to be published, to find out as much as you can about the industry you’re trying to become a part of, and I’ve met lots of people who believe they should be published who are very ignorant of the processes and some of the realities.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

The staff discount at Readings is one of the many good reasons to work there. But I buy books everywhere I go. I love bookshops and I’m terrible with (my own) money, so I’m not a likely candidate for seeking out online bargains.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

This feels like an odd choice even as I write it down but I’d pick the sea-witch Misskaella from Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I completely surrendered myself to that book and came out feeling deliciously bewildered. Dinner with Misskaella would be the same deal. I’d be terrified and wouldn’t be able to eat a thing but it’d be worth it. I’d grab a burger on the way home, with Eeyore.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I think career-wise it would be Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty. I was 26 and working as a children’s book editor. I’d never properly considered writing for young people, even though I was pretty sure that somewhere down the line I’d write novels (if only I could just get on with it), until the moment I finished that book. I just knew I wanted to write about teenagers, and bring up all that old stuff that was lurking deep down – all that good angsty material.

It’s all Jaclyn’s fault.


Emily Gale was recently credited by Mark Rubbo as being instrumental to the creation of the Readings Children’s Book Prize. The inaugural shortlist will be announced on Wednesday 2 April.

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9780307977618 For a book-loving kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s, no trip to the supermarket was complete without angling for a foil-spined special treat, in the form of a Little Golden Book.

Diane Muldrow, editorial director at Golden Books, has put together a nostalgia-inducing gift book of the collective wisdom she’s taken from the books over the decades, illustrated with images from the Golden Book archives.

It’s probably a good idea not to take the traditional-flavoured ‘wisdom’ in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Golden Book too seriously (the advice ‘be romantic’ is illustrated with a princess being carried off on a horse by her prince, for example). But as a novelty item designed to transport grown-ups down memory lane, it works.

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Judith Ridge reflects on the characters who nurtured her childhood love of reading – and passionately argues that we need to recognise, reward and nurture great children’s writing, as separate from great writing for young adults.

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Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie in the 2005 film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

When I was eight years old, I fell in love with a book.

This in itself was not unusual, for me or perhaps for any eight-year-old like the one I was − precociously and insatiably bookish, could read before school, you know the type. I’d been in love with lots of books by then: Harry the Dirty Dog (especially when he Didn’t Like Roses), The Magic Faraway Tree and its cousin, The Wishing Chair. I hadn’t yet met the girls who were to become touchstones in my young reading life − Lucy Pevensie, Judy Woolcot and Harriet M. Welsch − but I was well on the way at eight, when I read a book about another girl, called Teddy Truelance, and fell in love.

The book was Longtime Passing by the Australian author Hesba Brinsmead. It’s little-remembered or read now, I expect, but in 1972 it won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award, and my heart.

Longtime Passing is Hesba Brinsmead’s fictional memoir of her childhood, spent growing up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Brinsmead was born in 1922, and Longtime Passing describes The Truelance family living in their hand-built slab hut, their father making their living from cutting down the very timbers of the forest that sustained them; their mother, who ‘felt as though she and the children were the only inhabitants of a lost world,’ working to maintain standards, raise her children and then disappear at night into endless re-readings of Pride and Prejudice. And the children lived out their adventures in the bush of the Blue Mountains, a place I knew well, because I too had lived there as an even younger child than I was when I read the book.

It is, I think, very likely true that Longtime Passing was one of the first novels I ever read that had a distinctively and recognisably Australian setting; the first novel that described places I knew intimately, and that used language and portrayed human characters and experiences that were unmistakably Australian. (It may also well have been the first book I read that included Aboriginal Australia in its discussion of the Australian landscape and history; alas, it also recounts an almost certainly fictional account of the ritual sacrifice of a young Aboriginal woman. And so it may be just as well that the book is little remembered, and I am sorry that my childhood affection for the book is irrevocably tainted by this stain.)

7_little_australians Although I mention Teddy as one of the earliest in a long line of literary heroines who made their mark on me, it wasn’t that I fell in love with her so much as the world she inhabited − a world I recognised, but also yearned for. I felt the way the following year, when a television series brought the Woolcot family into my life, those Seven Little Australians, ‘none of (whom) were really good, for the excellent reason that Australian children never are’ (and whose home, Misrule, I would years later borrow to name my blog and social media profiles …) Turner is quite explicit about the nature of the Australian character and the effect of the country’s history and the ‘sunny brilliance of our atmosphere’ on its children, and I recall quite clearly the surprising pleasure of reading about my own country, my own child compatriots.

I developed the same fierce attachment to American and English books, and the characters within them, and a deep and almost painful desire to somehow enter into the world of those characters and books. Lucy Pevensie, already mentioned, is an obvious one − who wouldn’t want to go to Narnia with her? Especially when, like Lucy, you’re the youngest of four siblings, who sometimes felt so grown-up and beyond interest in the games of an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old. But it wasn’t just Lucy. I so badly fell in love with Harriet the Spy that I played Town in the dirt in my backyard and made a spy route around the streets of Auburn − a suburb in western Sydney about as far removed as the upper east side of Manhattan as it is possible to imagine and still be in the urban, western world.

And what on earth did these books have in common? Sharp-eyed, street-wise, nascent mean girl Harriet M. Welsch bore little resemblance to gentle Lucy Pevensie, and probably neither of them could have stood to be around Judy Woolcot for long. I’m not a great believer in the idea that kids require ‘characters they can relate to’, as the old saw would have it, in order to find themselves lost deep within the pages of a book, although I also think it’s true that I saw − or wanted to see − something of myself in many of my childhood fictional heroes (including Harry the Dirty Dog − and I was a cat girl through and through). It was more than that. When I truly loved a book, it became a kind of yearning to enter fully into that world and somehow live in it. For me, I suspect, it was a wish to cram in as much experience as I possibly could, a kind of platonic pre-adolescent romance with the unattainable, which in my teenage years transformed into crushes on pop stars and boys I was too afraid to actually speak to.

There is something particularly intense, pure (and in many respects, deeply private) about the way a child enters into the world of a book that is completely different from the way a teenager, and certainly an adult, reads. I’m not trying to set up an oppositional position between kids and teenagers and their reading, because I know that teenage readers feel equally passionate about the books they fall in love with. But there’s a certain − I won’t say innocence − but an utter absorption into the world of a book for the dedicated child reader that I think few of us experience post-adolescence. (Francis Spufford, in The Child that Books Built, describes this experience of ‘reading catatonically’ as an airlock: ‘It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside. The silence that fell on noises of people and traffic and dogs allowed an inner door to open to the book’s… script of sound.’)

I’ve written at length in the past about my frustration with the way that YA fiction has attracted the vast bulk of media and critical attention over the past decade or so. I know I am not alone in groaning in frustration whenever I see yet another ‘Best books for teens’ list that is largely made up of the great classics of children’s literature, or when I hear people speak about children’s books as ‘young-young adult’ or any of the equally ugly and tortured descriptors to apparently give respectability to a category of literature that absolutely no-one need make apologies for. The great danger in subsuming children’s books into YA in both public discourse and in the literary pages and blogs, is already, I fear, having an impact on writing and publishing. Since the splitting of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards into Book of the Year: Younger Readers and Book of the Year: Older Readers some 20 years ago, we’ve seen a steady decline in the recognition in those awards, and of recognition in the publishing industry itself of great, substantial, literary fiction for older children (the 8-12 year old range, that golden age of reading). And where there are few awards (the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, for example, only has a prize for Young Adult fiction), and little recognition, there’s little incentive for writers to take on what most children’s authors and publishers agree is the hardest thing to write, and write well: the truly great children’s novel.

We have those writers in this country; people following in the footsteps of the likes of Patricia Wrightson and Ivan Southall, but unlike the bestselling YA authors and those writers of high-selling, popular, commercial children’s fiction, I wonder how many of them you can name?

So it’s not the teenagers I am worried about, nor even the kids for whom reading isn’t their first choice of leisure activity, or for whom reading is a struggle. The truth is, all those young readers are actually very well catered for, with a wider range and variety of books that we’ve ever seen in the history of publishing.

It’s the kind of child reader I was, the kid who wants to follow a Teddy Truelance into the bush, or a Harriet M. Welsch around the block, or a Lucy Pevensie through the back of the cupboard, that I worry about. These kids are great readers, and they need great books. Let’s make sure they’re there to give to them.


Judith Ridge has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, Australian Book Review, Publishers Weekly (US), Australian Bookseller and Publisher, The Horn Book (US) and The Age. She has been a judge four times on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, is a Churchill Fellow and has an MA in children’s literature. Since 2007, she has been Project Officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project.

Join us for the Children’s Book Festival this Sunday 23 March, on the lawns (and in the building) of the State Library.

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Are creative writing courses a rip-off, a factory churning our same-y writers … or a valuable experience that might enhance your chances of publication – or at worst, give you an avenue for creative expression? Annabel Smith defends creative writing courses against Hanif Kureishi’s recent dismissal of them, and speaks to Australian writers, publishers and creative writing lecturers.

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It’s rare for literary goings on to be considered news, but last week an article in the Guardian, which reported Hanif Kureishi denigrating creative writing courses as a ‘waste of time’, caused quite a splash.

Danielle Wood, who teaches creative writing at the University of Tasmania, and whose debut novel The Alphabet of Light and Dark (written as part of a PhD in creative writing) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, expressed bewilderment at Kureishi’s rant. ‘In my experience (three years of being enrolled in one, ten years of teaching in one), creative writing courses are quite innocuous things, giving pleasure to many and doing no harm to anyone, really.‘ She says that criticism of creative writing courses often ignores context; for many undergraduate students, creative writing may simply be an elective – a career in writing is not necessarily the desired outcome. Ryan O’Neill, who teaches writing at the University of Newcastle, agrees. ‘I don’t know if the necessary end-point of a creative writing course is publication. That’s like saying the end point of taking piano lessons is to cut an album.’

Angela Meyer, who recently completed a PhD in Creative Arts through the University of Western Sydney, acknowledges that it’s a tough industry, and it’d be a very small percentage of any class who would go on to be working writers, but maintains that if students graduate ‘as better readers, better communicators, with enhanced empathy skills, and a broader mind, then that’s a success.’ She has no doubt that creative writing courses can be enriching, but Meyer would also encourage people to explore ‘other humanities courses (literature, languages, history, social science), or even self-study and work experience as ways to develop your ‘voice’ and to find out what your interests are as a writer.’

Ryan O’Neill believes that while studying creative writing isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a writer, the odds of getting published are higher for someone who takes creative writing classes than someone who doesn’t. Author Kirsten Krauth is convinced her debut novel just_a_girl would not have been published without the framework of her Masters in creative writing, which gave her the confidence and time to write, as well as access to publishers and agents.

Georgia Richter, fiction editor at Fremantle Press, says that manuscripts developed in creative writing programs tend to have a ‘degree of polish’ that is often lacking in those that come from the general public. And in an industry where publishers are less and less willing to invest in extensive editing, that degree of polish may be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Terri-ann White, director of UWA Publishing, complained that many of the submissions she receives are characterised by ‘an obvious lack of broad, deep and diverse reading by the writer’, something she finds especially perplexing in manuscripts that have come through formal writing courses. On Twitter, Matthew Lamb of the Review of Australian Fiction asked ‘Why do Creative Writing courses need defending? They aren’t in any danger. How about a defence of creative reading? That’s under threat.’

Indeed, the importance of reading was echoed by many of the writing graduates and teachers I interviewed. Short-story writer Laurie Steed is currently completing a novel-in-stories as part of a PhD in writing at the University of Western Australia, and has also attended the prestigious Graduate Fiction Workshop at the University of Iowa. He argues that a creative writing course acts similarly to the reading of quality literature, and should be considered alongside it.

Dr Donna Mazza, whose TAG Hungerford Award-winning novel The Albanian was written as part of a PhD in writing, now coordinates the creative writing program at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury. Mazza rewrote the program to become a major in ‘literature and writing’, adamant that it is studying literature that gives you an awareness of the things you do as a writer.

Amanda Curtin is the author of three novels, the first of which, The Sinkings, she wrote as part of a PhD in creative writing. She credits her writing studies as being directly responsible for her becoming a published author. ‘I was a lifelong reader and a publishing professional with more than 10 years' experience when I took up creative writing units at university, initially with the intention of becoming a better editor through greater understanding of, and exposure to, the creative process. I could have continued on forever, reading, analysing, editing – these things did not lead me towards becoming a writer; a creative writing course did that.’ Curtin points to inspiration and support from other writers (both teachers and fellow students) and having to work to deadlines as two of the key benefits to a formal writing course.

One writer I interviewed (who earned an MA from Sydney University) said that though he was ambivalent about some aspects of the course, the act of going to university made him focus on writing and got him into good habits of writing daily. Donna Mazza agrees that it is the discipline and deadlines that allow talented writers to reach their potential. She also cites the mentorship inherent in most creative writing courses as essential for aspiring writers to learn ‘the difference between self-indulgent crap and good writing.’

‘It takes an educated and critical eye to point out the flaws in a work with kindness and an awareness of keeping the student going – unlike an editor or publisher who will slice into work without feeling the need to be nurturing.’

Emily Paull, a recent graduate of a BA at the University of Western Australia which included creative writing units, echoed this sentiment: ‘a good teacher provides a safe space in which to write and share what has been written.’ Mazza says one of the aims of her course is to teach students about the business of being a writer, sending them after opportunities that sometimes lead talented students to their first publishing success, in story competitions and so forth.

Ryan O’Neill emphasises the benefits of understanding and experimenting with technical aspects of writing, such as point of view, structure, setting or style, which allow students to get to a better place in their writing more quickly, admitting that studying writing himself might have ‘saved me from writing hundreds of thousands of words of rubbish in my twenties’. Laurie Steed believes that what’s important in a creative writing course is not so much the program as the input from a knowledgeable, well-read facilitator. ‘Each teacher is only as good as the books, thoughts, and people that shaped them.’ Danielle Wood says her modus operandi involves ‘asking questions, being picky when necessary, and keeping up the encouragement’; Donna Mazza perceives her role in terms of ‘lighting the fire’ for her students.

Natasha Lester, whose debut novel What Is Left Over, After won the TAG Hungerford Award and who is currently writing a third novel as part of a PhD in Writing at Curtin University, teaches short writing courses for the University of Western Australia’s extension program. Though Kureshi’s article was particularly dismissive of ‘weekend’ courses, Lester is confident that, like good undergraduate programs, her courses provide students with inspiration and an appreciation of aspects of craft, as well as information about the publishing industry. Lester also points to the benefits (which last long after the course has ended) of meeting a network of other aspiring writers who can provide encouragement and feedback, as well as sharing information about opportunities.

Aspiring writer Melissa Davies was extremely positive about Lester’s course, describing it as ‘motivating and supportive’ and enthusing that ‘she’d do another one in a shot’ if she had time. Such responses indicate that for the majority of those who study writing, the introduction to craft, the discipline of making time to write and meeting deadlines, the support from a network of other writers, the mentorship of experienced teachers and the insights into industry make creative writing courses far from ‘a waste of time’.


Annabel Smith’s latest book is Whisky Charlie Foxtrot.

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17 March 2014

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Andrew Solomon interviews Adam Lanza’s father

In his extraordinary book, Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon interviewed hundreds of parents from ten categories of identity, about how they connected with and dealt with children who were significantly different to them. One of those categories was criminals; his sensitive, insightful interview with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers, was a highlight of that section of the book.

After reading that interview, the father of Adam Lanza (the teenager who perpetrated the Sandy Hook massacre, two years ago) approached Solomon to interview him, as a way of sharing his experience in a controlled way. The resulting profile is published in the New Yorker, and it’s a compelling read. ‘I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them,’ he told Solomon.

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Andrew Solomon

Obama interviewed by Zach Galifianakis

If you haven’t already seen Zach Galifianakis’s funny (yet insidiously serious) interview with President Obama on his cult internet chat show Between Two Ferns, take a coffee break, put your headphones on, and watch it now. The interview has had 13 million views, and boosted visits to healthcare.Gov (which was the objective) by 40%.

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama from President Barack Obama

Keith Richards writes children’s book

Yes, you read that right. Keith Richards – best known for embodying the fabled sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle, and surviving – has written a children’s book. Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar is about his grandfather, a jazz musician who introduced him to music as a child. It will be illustrated by Richards' daughter.

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Alice Munro short story becomes movie: Hateship Loveship

Alice Munro’s short story ‘Hateship Loveship’ (from her collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) has been adapted into a movie, starring Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce and Hailee Steinfeld. You can watch the trailer below.

Silicon Valley’s Culture Divide: Useful vs Cool

In Silicon Valley, there’s a growing divide between the old guard and the new. What that means in practical terms, suggests a New York Times article, is that what’s being produced is often more cool than it is useful.

In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests … The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps.

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Are anonymous book reviews a brave new enterprise or a dubious exercise? Is it possible to guard against score-settling when only the editor knows a reviewer’s identity? What makes good criticism, and does anonymity help or hinder it?

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When Erik Jensen, editor of the new Saturday Paper, announced their plan to publish anonymous book reviews, he said it would be a way to do them differently and do them better – and to correct some of the problems he’d noticed on the book review pages while working on newspapers.

By publishing reviewers under a regular set of pseudonymous initials, he claimed the paper would enable readers to follow those reviewers regularly, if they wanted to, but without the ‘baggage’ that a real-world name entails.

That baggage? ‘The relationships writers and reviewers have with each other, particularly on books pages, where writers are often reviewers themselves,’ he told Jonathan Green on ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra. ‘I feel sometimes, reading the weekend papers, that there’s a timidity there and critics – particularly critics who are also book authors – are not necessarily saying all they’re thinking.’

The only criticism he’d received about the proposed model had been from other literary editors, he said. ‘Every significant book author in the country I’ve offered this opportunity to has jumped at it … I haven’t seen any book critics or authors complaining about this.’

That was last December; in the past fortnight, with two issues of the Saturday Paper on newsagent shelves (in selected states), debate has erupted among the literary community in general about the value or otherwise of its anonymous reviews. And not just among literary editors.

False freedom?

‘For me, anonymous reviewing offers reviewers a false freedom,’ says Patrick Allington, a literary critic whose novel, Figurehead, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin. ‘A reviewer should be prepared to fess up to his/her opinions. That said, a reviewer’s public language will inevitably be more measured than his/her private language: I might (hypothetically) call Tim Winton’s Eyrie ‘crap’ from the privacy of my bar stool, but in print I would hope to find a more constructive way of saying it isn’t his best book.’ Allington is careful to point out the difference between a timid review and a respectful review – he advocates the latter.

Alison Croggon won the Pascal Prize for Critic of the Year in 2009 for her theatre criticism; she’s also a poet and novelist, and intermittently writes book reviews. ‘I suppose the Saturday Paper’s assumption that reviewers have to be protected from possible blowback in writing their honest responses mostly makes me wonder about reviewing culture,’ she says. ‘Is literary culture really as bad as this suggests? Surely anyone who is concerned about that aspect of criticism shouldn’t be reviewing in the first place?’

Thinking twice ‘before being overly critical’

It’s true that, behind the scenes, literary editors often report approaching local writers who say no to reviewing their Australian counterparts – because they don’t want to openly say what they think. It is a small scene. But is it necessarily a problem that those who aren’t willing to say what they think will turn down the job of making a public assessment? As Stephen Romei, literary editor of the Australian, reports, those same editors also have no trouble filling their pages with writers who are willing to make those assessments.

‘As for the argument that being bylined might make some people think twice before being overly critical: that’s a good thing,’ says Romei. ‘You should think twice before tearing into something another person has devoted years of their lives to.’

Alison Croggon believes that critics should be accountable for their opinions. ‘I think it’s important that I put my name beside what I publish, especially in the case of reviews (and even more especially, when I write a negative review). After all, I am responding to another person’s work. It seems to me only fair that I should put myself out there, just as the artist has. It’s a question of good faith.’

Australian literary culture ‘somewhat insular and not particularly robust’

Andrew Nette, a crime writer, reviewer and publisher of Crime Factory, believes that Australian literary culture is ‘somewhat insular and not particularly robust’ when it comes to reviewing – that when authors review as well as publish their own work, it can make it hard for reviewers to say what they think. But he doesn’t believe anonymous reviewing is the answer. While it does offer the reviewer freedom to say what they think, the lack of information on who is doing the reviewing – and the context, knowledge and history they bring to the review – is ‘a major issue’. ‘If I read a review of a crime novel by a reviewer who I think doesn’t like or get crime or genre writing, I’ll filter it accordingly. I can’t do this if I don’t know who the reviewer is.’ Fellow crime writer Angela Savage (Nette’s partner) points out that the identity of the reviewer is also important to authors – and that the assessments of some reviewers (like Graeme Blundell, when it comes to crime writing) carry extra meaning for writers as well as readers.

Savage does acknowledge that the small world of Australian writing and reviewing can result in a reticence to be critical in reviews – as if you’re writing with the author standing in the room looking over your shoulder’. She says social media makes that small world ever smaller, and that thanks to the medium, ‘most of us know each other virtually, if not actually’.

But she doesn’t think anonymity is likely to help. ‘It might be better to provide reviewers with clear guidelines on reviewing policies and make those guidelines publicly available. To encourage a climate of public dialogue about books, even if it sometimes takes the form of respectful disagreement.’

‘Context is everything’: Lisa Dempster

Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, believes that Australia does need better, more robust, and more critical literary discussions – but, like Nette, she doesn’t think anonymity is the path to achieving that. ‘Context is everything,’ she says. ‘Erik Jensen has said that readers need to trust the publication, but that’s a big ask and also kind of misses the point. Even if I do trust the publication, I do not always necessarily agree with its editors (in fact, being challenged can be the best part of reading a good paper or journal). I would prefer for everything to be open and to decide myself how to regard the review based on what I know about the critic, the publication, etc. Any thoughtful reader would, surely.’

Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, also believes that context is important for readers. ‘I am often asked to provide more information about reviewers rather than just a name,’ she told the Daily Review. Jason Steger, literary editor of the Age, agrees that while anonymous reviews were once unexceptional, these days readers want to know whose opinions they’re reading.

Alison Croggon believes context is important too – and that anonymous reviews imply ‘some kind of magisterial and necessarily invisible objectivity’, which she calls ‘a very tired concept’. She continues: ‘Interesting reviews come from interesting subjectivities, so there’s a way in which insisting on anonymity seems to me to miss the point of critical response.’

On responsibility: ‘I know who these people are’

Anonymous reviews traditionally place the focus on the publication rather than individual writers; as Peter Craven points out, they allow a paper to impose a house style. In this way, they’re not dissimilar from a newspaper editorial, which implies that this is what the paper itself thinks. Though the opinions in the Saturday Paper’s reviews are not purporting to be those of the paper itself, a publication does take on an extra responsibility when it asks the reader to place extra trust in its curation of reviews, as the Saturday Paper explicitly has – and places an extraordinary burden of omniscience on its editor.

Many observers have raised the question of how readers will know what vested interests an anonymous critic has, and how the paper will guard against that influencing reviews. ‘That seems kind of mad to me,’ Erik Jensen told Jonathan Green in December. ‘I don’t know what these people think editors do, but the relationship is not Batman and the Commissioner. I know who these people are. I will be scrutinising their work.’

But is it realistic to expect that one person, however knowledgeable, can keep track of all the myriad relationships and biases that every writer has with every other writer? ‘How do we know if a friend or enemy of the author is reviewing the book? I’m sure the Saturday Paper will do its best to prevent this, but all literary editors are occasionally caught out, and this provides no checks,’ says Susan Wyndham. It’s common knowledge in reviewing circles that reviewers often alert literary editors to potential conflicts of interest when asked to review particular books, and thus avoid them. But what about when a reviewer doesn’t do that – and no one but the editor can possibly spot it?

A recent example, pointed out by more than one interviewee for this piece, was Cameron Woodhead’s online run-in with crime writer Tara Moss over gender bias in book reviewing. ‘I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but this is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me,’ he wrote. Later in the exchange, he said it was beneath his ‘dignity to argue with children’, then tweeted to Moss that he would ‘await your next novel with interest’. Later, he reviewed Moss’s novel Assassin in the Fairfax literary pages. Because his name was attached to the review, readers were able to read his opinion in the context of their earlier stoush.

Anonymity, gender and ethnicity

Sydney-based reviewer James Tierney points out that anonymity makes it impossible for outside observers to measure the gender and ethnicity of reviewers within a publication’s review pages – issues that have gained real currency in recent years. For example, conversations about (and accounting of) gender balance in literary pages contributed to the founding of Australia’s Stella Prize for Women’s Writing, now in its second year. It has also caused literary editors to think about the way they commission reviewers, and make extra efforts to achieve a balance.

Opening up a dialogue'

‘Good criticism should open up a dialogue – between critic and author, critic and reader – and anonymity shuts down any serious dialogue, as the review can’t then be read in any broader context,’ says Lisa Dempster. ‘Basically I think that an anonymous review can only ever be that – a review. But any serious critic should be striving for something better: to write good literary criticism, to engage with literary issues and to encourage discussion and debate. Any publication that doesn’t aim for this is cheating its audience of the opportunity for serious engagement on literary topics.’

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highlight Fiona Scott-Norman has always worked in the arts – for 15 years as an arts journalist, and theatre/cabaret/comedy critic for the Age, the Australian, and the Bulletin Magazine. She currently works as a columnist, satirist, comedian, deejay, cabaret director, and broadcaster. Her latest book is Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School (Affirm Press).

We spoke to her about prioritising variety and freedom over being deskbound, the delight of taking silly things seriously, and having Tim Winton as a creative writing teacher.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Yikes. Going back a ways now. I’m pretty sure it was a review of the Sydney-based cabaret troupe Castanet Club, in my uni paper. It was Perth in the 1980s, so any performers who deigned to cross the Nullabor were very big news. I am fairly sure my critique was ecstatically positive.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of being a freelance writer/performer/writing teacher etcetera is, actually, not having a job. I’ve always prioritised variety and freedom over being deskbound, and the independence I enjoy because of that is a key element of how I like to live. Clearly superannuation and home ownership are not high on my priority list.

It’s also about the sheer delight of being able to take silly things very seriously. I once spent an entire afternoon co-writing a TV comedy sketch about a dodgy magician who was shoplifting large pieces of meat from a supermarket. I mean, what? Best afternoon ever. There is great joy to be found in finding exactly the right metaphor for the job, tinkering with language, going into the creative trance, expressing myself cleanly.

Writing, in the end, is who I am. So when I write, I’m home. And, ooh, that feeling you get when you’ve finished something and you know it’s good? That is also pretty sweet.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The loneliness, which I suppose is why I’ve chosen to explore performing, directing, broadcasting, teaching, reviewing, DJ’ing, comedy, you name it, anything where I’m connecting directly with actual people. Ultimately I’m a communicator, and if I spend too much time on my own I get depressed. So I choose not to write all the time.

And, lord, it’s arduous. It feels as though the better I get, the harder it is. I’m with Dorothy Parker – ‘I hate writing, but I love having written’.

bully_for_them What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Just after I moved to Melbourne I walked past a poster tacked to a telephone pole which read ‘writers needed for Doghouse, a new comedy/arts magazine’. I rang the number, and was immediately offered the job of editor. Doghouse lasted one edition, probably because the publisher offloaded the editorship to a random person off the street, but it offered me a divergent path from my burgeoning hospitality career.

Another key moment was, after working as a freelance arts writer for several years, I received a postcard from Tim Winton. Tim had been one of my creative writing teachers at Curtin Uni in Perth, and I spent most of classes arguing with him about the length of what constituted a short story; he said 40 pages, I said two was plenty. The postcard read ‘Wonderful to see a good writer in work’.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

There’s so much good advice out there. ‘Write’, ‘read’, and ‘edit’ would be the mainstays. Tim Ferguson once said to me, ‘Keep those huskies mushing’, and I love that. What it comes down to in the end is ‘do the work’. He also advises putting the punchline at the end of the sentence, and there’s many a paragraph that’s been improved by employing that nugget.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Hmm. Not sure. I suppose this would be surprising to some, in that critics don’t usually get a good rap, but I know I had a good reputation as a reviewer. I was known for being fair. In these days of clickbaitery, being clear and measured isn’t necessarily a virtue, but I was proud of playing the ball, not the man.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Most everything I do employs getting jiggy with language. But if I put all of that to one side, I’d go into interior design/re-upholstering furniture/upcycling old things into sporrans or bookshelves. I’m a bit crafty, on the sly.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Well, I teach non-fiction writing, so in the name of keeping my sweet gig at RMIT I must argue in the affirmative. So, yes. But within reason. If you’ve got a tin ear for language, you don’t read, and no curiosity about life, you’re in the wrong room. I can’t open someone’s mouth and breath in the divine spark.

But, what can be taught is skills, structure, and most importantly, confidence. Most wannabe writers are crippled with low self-esteem. If that can be kicked to the kerb, miracles can happen. I’ve seen one young writer go from ‘meh’ at the beginning of semester to excellent by the end, and full-time employment six months later. He may have got there regardless, but it would have taken years on his own. A writing course thrusts you into close proximity with other aspirant writers, and the value of that cannot be underestimated.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I am pretty much addicted to Book Depository. It’s very difficult for me to go into a bookshop and not walk out with something, but for a known want I’ll go to Book Depository. It’s cheap and to the door.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

You know what? I think most fictional characters would be unbearable in person. Catch 22 is a work of genius, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with Yossarian.

I’d say Phryne Fisher. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time admiring her clothes, and then we’d go out dancing. Plus, being well-to-do, there’s a more than even chance she’d pick up the tab.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I suspect it was The Great Gatsby. I went through a huge F.Scott-Fitzgerald stage (I tend to binge-read once I’ve hooked into an author. I’ll just work my way through their catalogue), and I clearly remember looking up from a page where he was describing a room. I was 15 or 16 at the time. And I thought, ‘This is perfect. I could never write this well’, and at that moment part of me just gave up.

Every word I’ve written since then has been in defiance of that belief.

My other advice to people who want to write is ‘don’t believe the voices in your head’.


Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School (Affirm Press) is available in bookshops now.

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Paul Mitchell wonders why we habitually ignore the second verse of our national anthem … the one that promises to share our boundless plains with those who come across the seas. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to share these days? He calls for those of us who don’t paint our faces with the Southern Cross to sing the whole song … or refuse to sing it at all.

Despite the huge numbers of young Australian men and women wrapped in the Australian flag every Australia Day, Anzac Day, Grand Final Day and Grand Prix, there are some of us who remain skeptical about all this nationalism. We think Australia’s a nice place to be, but so is Austria. And England. And many Asian countries and even parts of the United States and South America. In short, we think the world’s an oyster and Australia is a bit of grit in its shell that, given enough time, might become a pearl of a place.

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Image: Adrian R. Tan

But we’re not going to wrap ourselves in the flag. The most we’ll do is stand up, if asked politely, and sing our national anthem: Australians all let us ring Joyce, etc. Yes, the words are difficult. No one really goes about rejoicing these days. They might be stoked or feeling sick, mate, sick. And no one is ever girt by sea. (There’s sand by the sea, not girt. Everyone knows that much about geology and the anthem.)

And many of us seem to know about our mysterious second verse. The one that never gets sung. And yet it’s on the official Australian Government website as the official second verse of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, our official national anthem:

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross

We’ll toil with hearts and hands;

To make this Commonwealth of ours

Renowned of all the lands;

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

Before I get started on those emboldened lines above, it’s interesting to note that there was a girty battle over many decades about what should be the final lyrics of Advance Australia Fair, a song that ended up having multiple composers, many different and now discarded verses, and a royal brawl with God Save the Queen to become our official song. But, since 1984 (officially), it’s been our anthem. And it has two verses, the Joycey Girty one, and this one above. It’s official. It’s on a Government website with one of those important emu/roo logos on it.

But, as mentioned, we don’t sing this one. If the song is too long to sing at official functions, why not combine the verses into one? Or lop the second verse from our official records officially? It hasn’t happened. We still have a song that, when sung at events, consists of a verse and a couple of refrains. It’s a bit like playing the piano bit of Bohemian Rhapsody, but leaving out the choral and heavy metal bits. Wayne and Garth would not approve.

Yet we seem to approve. And many of us, perhaps not those with the Oz scarf wrapped round our Southern Cross-tattooed necks, point out the irony that our official second verse appears to give a hearty anthemic welcome to refugees, while our official government policy is singing from a different hymn sheet. We titter and tut-tut: “Look at our second verse, but look at our policy!” Then we stand up and sing the young and free verse when we’re told to.

I’m not an expert on official songs. But I played football when I was younger and our theme song was based on AFL club Hawthorn’s song. We sang, ‘We’re a happy team at Belmont, we’re the mighty fighting Blues. We love our club and we play to win …’ The whole thing seemed to be about giving the team a sense of identity and a bit of motivation for how we played. I’m guessing they’re basically the reasons to have a national anthem. But our happy team didn’t leave out any of the verses. We sang/chanted them heartily.

Could it be no accident that we have omitted the second verse of our national anthem? Perhaps it’s that we’re symbolically shy about ‘toiling with hearts and hands’, not too keen on being ‘renowned of all the lands’ … but, hang on, we’re proud of not being bludgers (mate!), and our spending on both Olympics shows we’re keen on being renowned, thanks very much.

No, let’s face it, we’ve likely subconsciously shelved the verse because of those two lines about sharing with and welcoming those who’ve come across the seas. I haven’t seen much of that welcome since Malcolm Fraser toured the country in the early 1980s, telling us how important it was, for compassionate and economic reasons, to take in Vietnamese refugees. Just before the national anthem became official.

I don’t like singing the national anthem. (Not because I’m an anarchist. I also like singing. It’s just a crap song.) Yet I do sing it when I’m asked to. But I think it’s time to stop.

Those of us without the Aussie flag painted on our faces should consider, as a protest, not singing our national anthem until that second verse is reinstated. Until the spirit that compelled us to choose a song that promised to share our ‘boundless plains’ with ‘those who’ve come across the seas’ is strong in us again, and we can sing the whole song like we mean it.


Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer and poet.

Join us for the first in our new events series, Words and Music, where writers share the music that inspires them and musicians share inspiring writing. Michael Leunig and Katie Noonan will be our first guests, at The Substation in Newport, on 24 April.

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highlight Wendy James is the author of six books, including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime fiction and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie Award for women’s writing. Her latest novel is The Lost Girls (Penguin).

We spoke to Wendy about working in her pyjamas, writing to discover the new, and why she wouldn’t mind a date with the protagonist of her work-in-progress.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Probably the first ever was in Manly Girls High School magazine when I was in year 7 … I remember it involved an unlikely union of cavemen and The Manly Pie Shop, which was some sort of local hangout. I think it may have been an early (and never to be repeated) attempt at satire. My first ‘real’ publication was a story called ‘You In Your Small Corner’, and it was published in the National Library’s beautiful journal Voices, which is now sadly defunct. It was hugely exciting – and also paid very well. I find it impossible to re-read the story now –an attempt at lyricism that shall never be repeated.

What’s the best part of your job?

Pyjamas.

What’s the worst part of your job?

My rather restricted wardrobe – which consists largely of variations on a pyjama theme.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Winning the Ned Kelly Award for Out Of The Silence was a wonderful – and totally unexpected – moment.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

‘Write what you know’ – Writing for me is always about discovering and uncovering things I didn’t know – or perhaps didn’t know that I knew: new voices, new ideas, new directions. It keeps the process interesting.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

One reviewer of my short stories said that the stories were humourless. That really hurt! Perhaps the humour is a bit sidelong, but I like to think it’s there. The reviewer was male, so perhaps it was just a weird gender miscommunication thing.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’m currently studying to be a secondary English/Drama teacher – so eventually I hope to be working with words in two very different, but equally exhilarating, ways.

lost_girlsThere’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

At a higher, that is, ‘professional’ level, I think writing can be taught in much the same way that music or art can be taught – it’s to do with direction and encouragement as much as rules, and mostly relies on the engagement of the student. No one ever learned to write well by listening to a teacher, just as no one learns to play an instrument by taking notes. You can know all the theory in the world, but if you don’t actually practice – hard and with all of your heart and soul – you won’t learn.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Always my first advice is to read. Reading should be as essential to you, and as automatic, as breathing. And then write.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Right now I wouldn’t mind a date with the protagonist of my work-in-progress – she could give me a few tips about how she’s feeling, and most importantly, what happens next!

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I probably reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion more than any other novel. I don’t know how significant it is in terms of my own work, (though perhaps the concern with family life is shared), but not only does my admiration for her artistry increase on every re-reading, I still find it incredibly moving – even though I know so well what’s coming up. When I was a teenager – devouring romances by the dozen – any scenes of love and loss would always induce a terrible/wonderful physical response, what I always thought of as a heartache. Persuasion still gives me that mild chest pain – although for very different reasons now. (Well, I hope it’s the book and not actually my heart.)


Wendy James' novel The Lost Girls is in bookshops now.

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highlight Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian and author of The Burning Library (Text), a reclamation of and introduction to Australian literature, has just been appointed the new fiction editor of Island magazine.

We spoke to him about his new appointment, his background as an editor for Duffy & Snellgrove, what he looks for in a story, and his approach to editing fiction … plus, tips for writers who might like to submit!

When did you come on board as fiction editor for Island, and how did the appointment come about? What attracted you to the role?

The appointment was suggested by email a few months back – Matt Lamb threw the possibility into the digital ether – but it was cemented in Tasmania three weeks ago. Island flew me and the new poetry editor (who shall remain mysteriously nameless until they are announced in May) down to Hobart and we passed a busy and social weekend, meeting the folks behind the journal and nailing down our shared vision for its future. It was like heading to Charleston, Sussex circa 1920 and finding Virginia Woolf and John Meynard Keynes muddling martinis in preparation for dinner – high-minded and well lubricated. Also, I went to MONA: a mid-life highlight.

You’ve selected and edited the stories for your first issue as fiction editor. Can you tell us a bit about your selections, and how you made them?

Cover-Island-136 I was guest editor for Matt at the Review of Australian Fiction for its last series – issues that included Alex Miller, Frank Moorhouse, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Ashley Hay (the last two appeared in Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories 2013 for their contributions to the RAF) – so I knew the drill. He wanted the most beautiful, the smartest, the funniest, the darkest, the best fiction being produced in Australia today. It was all I could do to keep up with his finely targeted enthusiasm. Our first of issue of Island together rode on the strength of those associations: Ashley was present again and Tegan will appear in upcoming issues. Colin Oehring I happened across quite by accident but I could see the worth in his work immediately. Paul Griffith’s Noh stories blew me away when I happened across them in a monograph put out by the American University in Paris. It was a fine list of contributors and I’m grateful to them.

You’re making the transition from being a prolific and high profile critic to an editor commissioning work and shepherding authors through the editorial process. Are there any challenges along the way? Do you think your background as a reviewer will influence the way you approach this role at all?

I’m still reviewing, still chief literary critic at the Australian, so it’s more an addition than a transition. I actually started out as an editor, albeit fairly unofficially, at Duffy & Snellgrove in the late 90s. Peter Robb, Les Murray, Robert Gray, Ashley Hay, John Birmingham, Simon Leys – a fantastically eccentric and talented list of writers and poets – so I’m not entirely ignorant of the editor’s role. The challenge is mainly in filling the space with good work – and good work (here’s the hack in me coming out) tends to arrive as clean copy requiring little editorial intervention. As for my background as a reviewer: if there is any job that prepares you to back your own judgement, to be conscious of relative merit and proclaim it, it is reviewry.

How would you diagnose the health of Australian literary magazines (and their role in nurturing and discovering new fiction) right now? What do you see as the challenges and opportunities of your role in the current landscape?

Australian literary magazines are the most dynamic and vibrant aspect of our current literary landscape. I’d go so far as to claim that no other Anglosphere nation has a little magazine scene like ours, factoring in the relative size of our local audience. When the then-editor of Granta, John Freeman, came to Perth Writer’s Week last year he couldn’t believe the depth and breadth of our magazine culture. And as Matt Lamb points out, it’s not just the established journals. Upstarts such as Kill Your Darlings, Seizure and The Lifted Brow are changing the game. I sold rare books in London for years and spent a lot of time cataloguing runs of little magazines like The Dial or Blast or The Egoist – insurgent organs that broke Modernism during the teens and twenties of the last century, at a time when the official publishing scene was still obsessing over John Galsworthy’s latest novel. These new Australian journals are doing a similar job today.

What’s your approach to editing fiction? Do you believe in a light touch, solid intervention to help the writer make their story better, or something in the middle?

Happily my editorial approach and my constitutional indolence are in perfect accord. If a story is any good, it is likely because it sustains an idea or a voice over several thousand words. What value is there in an editor inserting his or her own vision or style as a means of improving the piece? So I’m happy to suggest possible alternatives but very reluctant to rummage about myself. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, of course – they’re technical aspects and can be neutrally deployed if need be. I don’t mind pruning either, since we all use more words than we really need. And then Island has its own copy-editing process to go through.

What kinds of writers and stories will you be looking for, as fiction editor of Island? What excites you in a submission?

All that excites me is good writing. I don’t care where the story comes from. I don’t care about its setting, subject matter, length or use of the semi-colon. I don’t care about the age, ethnicity, gender, educational attainments of the author, or the political, religious or philosophical positions they hold. I just want to be delighted, frightened, instructed, awestruck.

Do you have any tips – dos and don’ts – for writers looking to submit to the magazine?

Don’t be afraid to mail something off to me – you may be sick of the story or the latest chapter of your novel, having read it a million times. But I’ll be coming to it fresh.

And don’t hold back your story from Island because you think a) it’s a Tasmanian literary magazine, or b) Island has a relatively small circulation, or c) that the recompense is negligible. Yes, Island is based in Tasmania, and is proudly Tasmanian, but two-thirds of its circulation is outside the state, and its pages are open to all-comers, whether they’re from Tassie, the Australian mainland or overseas. And while all Australian literary mags have relatively small circulations, if you can impress me in its pages then you can be sure that there will be a thousand words cleared in the books pages of the national broadsheet for your next novel or short story collection to be reviewed. Finally, payment. I don’t have much money but I do have a measure of discretion when it comes to distribution. If a submission knocks my socks off then I will sell my children for medical experimentation in order to pay decent money for the piece. Also, we’re in talks with local Tassie vineyards and distilleries – as a good New South Welshman I’m comfortable using alcohol as top-up currency.

What’s the last great thing you read?

I’m just finishing Elizabeth Harrower’s long-lost final novel, In Certain Circles. It is so good that I feel superlatives would be a vulgar waste. Let’s just say that it was worth every moment of the 40-year wait.


The new edition of Island, Geordie Williamson’s first as fiction editor, is out 15 March. You can subscribe now.

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