Chris Somerville’s stories have appeared in literary journals including Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Paper Radio, Islet and Stilts. In 2003, he won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award and in 2009, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (Emerging Author category). His debut collection of short fiction, We are Not the Same Anymore, was released at the start of this month.
Chris discussed with us the mentorship he took with Kris Olsson, the unlucky animals in his stories and why, given his many siblings, he’d like to observe JD Salinger’s Glass family over dinner.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A short story called ‘I Guess I’m From Here’ which I wrote in my first year at university and it was published online in Retort Magazine. It was a pretty cold story about cold teenagers being detached and mean to each other.
What’s the best part of your job?
That there are a few people out there, people who you don’t even know, that take pleasure in something that you’ve made and then are genuinely interested in talking to you about it.
What’s the worst part of your job?
That it’s mostly up to me to pressure myself to work on something, and even then it can be hard, sometimes, to do this work without feeling guilty that I’m wasting time.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
In 2009 I was given a mentorship to work on my book with the author Kris Olsson. For almost a year we’d meet every fortnight and we’d go over what I’d done with each short story and what I was trying to do with them and so on. Without this my book probably would have never become what it is now.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice I’ve received was a while ago and it was that you should just get a first draft done and it doesn’t need to be the best thing ever.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
That animals seem to have a real string of bad luck in my book, which I hadn’t really noticed until someone pointed it out and I read through the whole thing again.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m not sure if I make a living from writing or if I ever will.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Even though I’m currently a creative writing teacher at a couple of universities I’m still entirely not sure myself. I think you can guide people, tell them what books they might enjoy to read, and above all be at least one person in their life that will take their work seriously.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read a lot of books and write a lot, like almost every day. Also, voice is important but isn’t everything – what you also need is some kind of tension in there. Something needs to happen.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Sometimes online if they’re out of print and if I really want them, but mostly in a physical bookshop. I still haven’t gotten around to buying an ebook at any point either.
I really enjoy going into a real bookstore, though. I’ve had a lot of support from bookstores over the last few years, especially at Avid Reader up in Brisbane, who have done a considerable amount for me, and was really the first place, outside of university, where I read my work out loud to an audience.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Though I did enjoy Catcher in the Rye, I’ve always preferred Salinger’s stories and novels and novellas that were about the Glass family. Coming from a big family myself, I’d much prefer to have dinner with all of them together, and I’d probably just let them do all the talking.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Probably the Dog of the South by Charles Portis, which is the funniest book I’ve ever read, all the way up to the end, until the last line which is sad and maybe heartbreaking a little bit, which I think is an incredibly wonderful thing to do, and a thing to keep up; the funny/sad balancing act.
Chris Somerville’s story collection, We are Not the Same Anymore, is published by The University of Queensland Press.
Last Sunday, we held our annual Children’s Book Festival (in partnership with the State Library of Victoria). From 10am until 4pm, the State Library Lawns, our Performance Space, Little Lonsdale Street and various venues inside the library were overtaken by an extremely busy programme of events and activities.
More than 15,000 kids (and their adults) joined us for the day – a record turnout! We slept well that evening.
Amongst the throng, you may have noticed a gentleman quietly observing, his wrist whipping across the pages of his sketch pad. That man was, of course, Oslo Davis – our artist in residence for the day.
Today, we’re pleased to share with you Oslo’s illustrations from the Festival. Were you there? Is one of those people you?
(Click on the thumbnails to enlarge them.)
We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.
Groundhog Dog is one of those quietly classic films – it’s not showily clever, it didn’t win any Oscars, but it remains much loved, and admired by contemporary filmmakers who do win Oscars. ‘I would give my left arm to have written that f—-ing script … It makes me mad because I would so like to make a film like that. Oh man, I could go on forever about that movie,’ says David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) in this anniversary tribute to Groundhog Day.
In a fun exercise that’s become an annual affair, The Millions compares the US and UK covers of their Tournament of Books contenders.
Esquire publish some truly terrible celebrity profiles, but they also publish some fine journalism that pretty much makes you forgive them. This week, there’s a long profile of the man who killed Osama bin Laden – simply referred to as ‘the Shooter’. He tells the inside story of the raid, his opinion of Zero Dark Thirty’s version of events, and (most importantly), the personal aftermath for himself and his family … and the startling lack of support from the US government.
The Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:
Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
The Occupy movement is about to get its own superhero comic series, courtesy of DC Comics. The Movement, to be launched in May, will be a chance to ‘Meet the 99%… They were the super-powered disenfranchised — now they’re the voice of the people!’ In the same month, a new series about teen trillionaires who use their riches to make people’s lives better is also being launched. The Green Team is being touted as ‘the adventures of the 1%’.
As the New York Review of Books turns 50, the Financial Times takes editor Robert B. Silvers out to lunch – and discusses the art of editing, the importance of long-form reviews in the digital age, and his renowned work ethic.
‘He is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours.’
We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.
Crikey’s Amber Jamieson has interviewed digital marketing staff at a number of Australian publishers to find out what they’re doing to sell books online, and what the costs and benefits are. A book trailer usually costs around $5000, but most don’t attract enough clicks to really make a difference. Brett Osmond, marketing and publicity director of Random House Australia and New Zealand, says ‘ young adult books aimed at female readers are the only trailers he’s found very popular’.
The book trailer for The Rosie Project is Text Publishing’s first foray into the medium.
A New York Times reporter was on set for the making of the micro-budget film The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), written by Bret Easton Ellis and co-starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen. This article chronicles the casting, star-wrangling and crowd-funding (the film was mainly financed by Kickstarter, and had a budget of roughly $250,000.
The Other Slant has interviewed Schrader about the NYT feature, and how the original angle changed (shifting the focus from the innovative funding model to the difficult celebrity) after Lohan was hired for the film.
In this fascinating essay, Jennifer Egan gives us the inside track on what it’s like to have huge success as a writer, and how that affects the writing process when it comes time to write again. She also admits that Goon Squad could have been better, that she’s afraid all the praise might make her afraid to take risks, and that her favourite book is not Goon Squad, but the ‘flawed’ Look at Me.
Everyone with a blog or Twitter account seems to dole out writing advice these days … but this no-bullshit list of 25 truths about the business seems pretty on-the-money. You’re not just competing against other books – you’re competing against all forms of entertainment (film, TV, games) when it comes to attracting eyeballs, and purchases. Don’t respond to bad reviews, no matter how much you may want to. Word of mouth is the only thing that reliably sells books. And Twitter followers do not necessarily translate to sales (and nor does blogging).
Neil Gaiman has teamed up with Blackberry to create a Twitter storytelling project, A Calendar of Tales. He’ll write a story a month based on Twitter prompts sent in by fans, with a different theme each month. This month’s theme is, ‘What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?’.
When you travel, you don’t become a whole new person – you carry your interests with you. That’s why some people plunge themselves into daredevil adventure travel and others plan their trips around wildlife-spotting.
Bookish travellers often go off on their own specific bent – whether that’s hunting out hotel rooms lined with books, going on literary pilgrimages to significant spots, or staying in places that are aligned with their favourite books or authors.
Here are just some literary travel experiences you might like to try.
Want a truly unique hotel experience? The Hobbit Motel in Waitomo, New Zealand, lets you enter the world of Bilbo Baggins, set deep in Tolkein (or Jackson) country. And though it looks like a film set from the outside, it’s surprisingly normal on the inside, with all the creature comforts you’d expect.
If you’re looking for a bookish base in New York, the Library Hotel might suit your tastes. Each of the 10 guestroom floors honour one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and the rooms are well stocked with books. There’s a Reading Room, a Writer’s Den and Poetry Garden, and the Bookmarks Lounge serves literary-inspired cocktails.
Or if you want to stay where the centre of New York literary action once was, try the Algonquin Hotel, home of the famous Round Table – the hub of literary industry and wit back in the 1920s. Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber and others gathered on a daily basis to exchange ideas and opinions. It was at the Round Table that the New Yorker was founded – these days, the magazine is available free to guests of the hotel.
The book-themed Rex Hotel in San Francisco is a perfect place to immerse yourself in books between exploring the city. Once a bookstore, it still hosts literary events – and the decor features lots of bookshelves, vintage typewriters, and portraits of great authors. Guests can opt to donate a dollar each night to Dave Eggers' non-profit 826 Valencia.
In St Petersburg, you can take various Dostoyevsky tours of the city, visiting the places he lived, wrote and studied. There’s also a half-hour walk in the area inhabited by his characters from Crime and Punishment, where you can ‘follow the murder route from Raskolnikov’s house to the house of the Pawn Broker’.
Sweden boasts the Stieg Larsson Millennium Tour, for fans of his bestselling Millennium trilogy. The two-hour starts on the island of Södermalm, at Bellmansgatan 1, the home of the main character, Mikael Blomqvist and you walk your way through key locations in the books: bars, cafes, and of course, past Lisbeth Salander’s apartment. The tour ends at the Stockholm City Museum, with a Millennium exhibition.
When in England, many literary enthusiasts with classic leanings choose to take tours of Austen, Shakespeare or Dickens territory. One enterprising tour operator has grouped some of tthose interests, with the Jane Austen/the Brontes/Beatrix Potter Tour. Travel from Chawton, where Jane Austen wrote her first four novels, to Beatrix Potter’s cottage in the Lake District, to Haworth Parsonage, where the Bronte sisters lived and wrote.
We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.
It was the two-hundredth birthday of Pride and Prejudice this week – and the New Yorker and the Guardian were among those who celebrated with retrospective appreciations of Jane Austen’s much-loved (and lauded) first novel.
Our favourite, though, is still Helen Garner’s earthy, witty commentary on reading Pride and Prejudice on a hot summer’s day (between cool alcoholic drinks) – told with style and relish. (From the Age a few weekends ago.)
God bless Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and the current of deep, warm, erotic attraction that flows between them. And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot.
Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbio is selling cans of fresh air to make a point about the toxic smog that is routinely choking North China. ‘If we don’t start caring for the environment then after 20 or 30 years our children and grandchildren might be wearing gas masks and carry oxygen tanks,’ he said. Already, manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand for air purifying machines and pollution masks.
(Not that Chen is the first to think of it – remember ‘Perri-Air’ in Mel Brooks' sci-fi spoof Spaceballs?)
Thanks to Bookslut, we’ve just stumbled on this video of comedian Louis C.K. talking about censorship and Huckleberry Finn. (In 2011, a publisher removed the ‘n’ word from Mark Twain’s classic.) Louis talks about the role of that word in the book, and the way that Twain portrayed racism in order to criticise it. Of course, he also says he didn’t want to read the book to his young daughters, because he didn’t want to be reading them the ‘n’ word over and over again …
There’s a new Australian literary publication in town – and it’s pretty impressive so far. The Sydney Review of Books is edited by respected critic James Ley, and board members include David Malouf, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Gail Jones.
Its first issue includes a fascinating essay on the question of book reviewing, the ‘epidemic of niceness’ especially prevalent in the online world, and the way thin criticism ‘turns reviewing into infomercial, allows established writers merely to churn out material, reinforces industry nepotism, and denies new authors the reception they need to flourish’. Ben Etherington sets the scene, then samples local reviews of Anna Funder’s All That I Am as a case study to illustrate his point.
In the UK, GPs will prescribe self-help books, to be borrowed from local libraries, to patients with ‘mild to moderate’ mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression and panic attacks. The project has been developed over the past year by the Reading Agency charity, whose chief executive says, ‘There is a growing evidence base that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better.’
By Andie Fox
Middle age can make you a more savvy audience for art … but also a lazier one, as it must be squeezed into an ever-more time-poor life. Andie Fox realises that she’s become so risk averse when it comes to books and films that she’s missing out on the unexpected pleasures and new ideas art can offer.
Last year there were at least a dozen books I started reading and did not finish. When I grew tired of the way a book was unfolding or the style of its writing, I didn’t persist, I simply put the book down regretfully and moved on to the next novel in my pile. Actually, in all honesty, I began to find myself gleefully discarding them. After the first few times you give up you discover a certain reckless abandon in subsequent disappointments.
Partly, I wasn’t picking the best novels and partly, I wasn’t in a generous frame of mind. The rejections were like a new freedom for me. Each one emphasized the importance of my own time. There’s so little of it, you see, that isn’t now claimed by work and family responsibilities. I never used to be like this – to be such a scanning, flicking, rejecting kind of consumer of the arts. It is not that my taste is particularly niche or peculiar now, it’s that through necessity I have attained ruthless efficiency in assessing the things I love. I have never surrendered so many loves at once as during my thirties.
Some of the things lost were smashed and chipped and pulled apart, but others were neglected so badly they stopped calling, or interrupted so many times I forgot how to do them or even, to want to do them. The sacrifices began to highlight the trade-offs. This book or more sleep, or this book or that film, or this book or seeing a friend, or this book or reading to my child (who will only be little for a couple more years). Occasionally, all the weighing up is paralysing and I simply can’t choose and so instead I miss out on everything.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in The Atlantic that at this stage of his life he no longer prioritises ‘difficult books’. Instead, he wants to read books that make him work, not so much as a reader, but as a thinker. My refusal to finish certain books last year was less about the difficulty of those books and more about an intolerance for frustrations of all varieties. But I relate to this sentiment of Coates. I’m tired and rushed, as I imagine him to also be, but I’m still hungry for thoughts. More than ever now. I am skipping breakfast, racing to catch a train, rewriting drafts, reading reminder notices on unpaid bills and arguing with my children about cleaning their teeth – so, I’m dying for big thoughts that will weave their way through my head for weeks or months to come.
In fact, if I had to pick a difference between me in my twenties and me in my thirties I would say that this is it. When I was young I looked to the arts for ideas about everything and anything. In a way, I asked a lot of what I viewed while bringing very little myself. In my thirties, I look to everything with particular puzzles in mind, hoping to find something to excite new ways of resolving them. This is what I think Coates referred to when he said he wants to work as a thinker. And when I find these insights in someone’s creation I am awestruck, because not only do I understand the hard work involved in its realisation, but through the artist’s astute observations I am released from some of my own struggle. Frankly, I am a better audience at this age than I was in my twenties. But there’s a catch.
Like Coates, I want the big, interesting thoughts but I don’t want to run a gauntlet for them. As I’ve described, I’ve become impatient. And it is not just books, I’m impatient with film, too. My current short-cut to an evening of thoughts comes via a diet of HBO and Showtime television series, that I watch for minimal cost in my lounge room, with a glass of cheap wine. In comparison, the cost of an evening at the cinema involves not only my painful awareness of the opportunity cost of other longings denied, but the ticket price must now include $80 worth of babysitting too. At this price, one does not need to try very hard to be cranky enough to find a film disappointing.
On the other hand, an evening watching Walking Dead or Mad Men is as cheap and reliable as a franchise restaurant menu. And for someone like me, struggling to keep up with much of anything at the moment, there is undeniable pleasure in seeing something current enough to have me re-join the dinner party conversation.
But like fast food, these television shows never quite deliver the complexity and spectacle that truly amazing films will when seen on enormous cinema screens. My consumption decisions have become so risk-averse that not only am I avoiding the so-so events and the tedious flops, I am also missing the chance happenings – those nights out when you are unexpectedly transformed by the art you see. And short-cuts can become ruts. I lack the conservatism to believe all the great books and music have already been made and I’ve seen them, but I worry I’m losing my skills to appreciate experimentation.
For instance, I have long adored surrealism but for those years when I had a toddler, my appetite for the surprise juxtaposition was significantly reduced. Toddlers are the original Dada practitioners – leaving utterly random items in your handbag and spilling out phrases of charming nonsense incessantly. They will exhaust you with the abstract, and in this state I found myself bored by any art trying to change its parameters. Possibly this problem is not exclusive to mothers.
Some of my childless friends work twelve-hour days, chewing through endless piles of 30 second email interactions, and say they now struggle with the attention span required for a one-hour episode of HBO television, let alone a languid three-hour film. Another friend of mine, a playwright and the father of a young child, says he finds it tough to summon the energy for seeing live performance now that he realises he is not also there to get laid or loaded. You can see how we become the kind of dreary consumers the art world hates, only able to cope with linear plots in bite-size format and wanting it all to be finished in time for an early night. One way or another my friends and I, like Coates, are all doing the equivalent of avoiding difficult books. It seems that we are being changed by the years entering middle-age.
Except, some out there make different decisions. Some art-lovers continue to prioritise the difficult books and choose the path less travelled into middle age. (I assume it is a path also involving less time with toddlers). And I’m grateful these people exist, because this year I made the resolution to prioritise similarly and I need their advice. I won’t see and read and listen to everything, as I used to – for I love my new life, too – but I will allow myself more of a chance to try the difficult things.
Because the problem with risk aversion in my art consumption is that I’d accepted a bargain with certainty, rather than possibility. After a time, I stopped questioning my sacrifices.
So, for a year I will read difficult books again, and see new art, and turn off the television sometimes to watch films on big screens. I have new puzzles to solve and I want very big, new thoughts.
Andie Fox blogs regularly about motherhood, feminism and what’s on her mind at Blue Milk.
The digital revolution has hit the book business in a big way over the past couple of years, with the rise of e-books, e-readers and online bookshops.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence was an early adopter – they’ve been running an online second-hand bookshop, Brotherhood Books, since 2009.
The enterprise began during a staff meeting, when someone suggested it as a way to do something useful with all the donated books the Brotherhood receives – more than they knew what to do with. In the past ten years, the organisation has received ‘in excess of 45 tonnes of books’.
‘The aim is mostly to raise revenue to support many programs and services we offer, but also to provide a constructive, green method of utilising our donated books,’ says Greg Simpson, business development manager of Brotherhood Books.
The website is searchable, making it easy to both browse and look for specific titles or authors. Freight is free for orders of three books or more.
Brotherhood Books is almost solely run by volunteers, who sort and price the books. One hundred per cent of profits go back into programs that help disadvantaged people to rebuild their lives.
This follows the success of Hunter Gatherer, the Brotherhood’s chain of vintage clothing stores (in Fitzroy, St Kilda and now the city), selling handpicked fashion selected from donations, as well as vintage-style clothes designed and made under its own label.
Damon Young is a philosopher, author and commentator. He is regularly published in the Age, the Australian, by the BBC and elsewhere. His first book, Distraction, has been published in the UK, the US and Mexico. His latest book is Philosophy in the Garden (Melbourne University Publishing).
We spoke to Damon about being a ‘so-called philosopher’, the surreal contrast between public applause and private penury, and why you have to be bored on behalf of your readers.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I wrote a poem in 2004, ‘Howard Watches the Oscars and Weeps With Joy’. That was published in Overland. I remember poetry editor John Leonard, in a handwritten note, calling it ‘neat’ – an adjective that surprised me.
My first published literary essay was ‘Facing Nietzsche’s Demon’, in Meanjin, 2005. It began as the introduction to a manuscript, and ended as a stand-alone work. The first paragraph still prods me to keep an intimacy with readers.
(My very first publications were in academic journals, from 1998 onwards. But they had a small audience.)
What’s the worst part of your job?
The surreal contrast between public applause and private penury.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
On the strength of Philosophy in the Garden, I was just invited to write a new book for Pan Macmillan UK, part of their popular School of Life series. Writing and rewriting a manuscript can be a prosaic and anxious business—this was a welcome slap on the back.
And I was recently chuffed to sign with UQP for two children’s books. The craft of the rhyming picture book – a cross between aphorism, poem and joke – is a real challenge.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
My Year 8 English teacher had a rule: “Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.” But I never took her seriously. (And now I write for a living.)
More helpful was my colleague, philosopher and author John Armstrong: ‘You have to be bored on behalf of your readers. You swallow all the tedium and banality so they don’t have to.’ I enjoy writing – as a career and as a daily discipline – but this reminds me to accept the dull days.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Angry readers of my journalism (often religious) sometimes call me a ‘so-called philosopher’. As if my profession were in doubt because I take a hammer to their idols.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I’ll be brief, but this is a Big Question. Writing is a craft, just like carpentry, medicine and the martial arts. These are all what the Greeks called techne: practical skills with predictable outcomes. Techne can be systematised, taught methodically and learned step-by-step. In short: yes, writing can be taught.
Will this guarantee students publication or literary excellence? No. The market is fickle, and the best artistry can’t be taught: it involves aesthetic and existential novelty. But if students have the right skills, and receive good feedback and criticism, this can help them educate themselves. English novelist Emma Darwin is very good on this.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read widely, charitably and patiently. Write in the same way. Do this daily.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
For out-of-print, hard-to-find and just-plain-expensive books, I do shop online. I also read on a Kindle.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Odysseus, from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. The so-called “man-of-many-sorrows” is a veteran raconteur – up there with Hemingway. We’ll trade anecdotes.
But Kazantzakis’ Odysseus is also a philosopher and ascetic. We’ll talk about the ambivalence of loyalty, the value of lies, and the role of savagery in civilised life. After a few red wines, we’ll do sprints. Perhaps Odysseus will teach me archery.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics rarely get too dusty. Nietzsche condemns my sentimental ideas, smug certainties; kicks me in the bum to create and destroy without fluffy idealism. Aristotle warns me to check my wannabe iconoclasm with adult virtues like courage, temperance, pride.
It’s a whole new year in publishing and reading – and if you’re already making up your ‘to read’ list, we can help. A plethora of publications have just published their lists of books to look out for in 2013. Here’s a taste of what’s out there, from Margaret Atwood to Anna Krien, Jonathan Safran Foer to John Safran.
In the Age, Jane Sullivan shares her reading research, covering both Australian and overseas titles. Her list is headed with two much-anticipated Australian debut novels that have already sold rights around the world and earned their authors advances of over a million dollars. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, in 1829 (Picador, May).
And Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project has gone from strength to strength since it won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year; it will be published by Text in February. This screwball romance about a 40-year-old man with Asperger’s searching for a compatible partner, with the aid of a comprehensive questionnaire and his mischievous Casanova best friend, is warm, funny and engaging.
Other Australian books to look out for, as identified by Sullivan, include Anna Krien’s book on the rape trial of a footballer, Night Games (Black Inc., May), John Safran’s account of the killing of a white supremacist, *Murder in Mississippi (Penguin, July) and Anne Summers‘ new book on feminism (NewSouth, April).
In the Australian, books editor Stephen Romei published his guide to 2013 on the weekend. He leads off with mention of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus (Text, late February). It’s the story of a boy, separated from his parents, who arrives by boat in a new country – and yes, there are obvious parallels to be drawn with the contemporary ‘boat people’ debate.
Margaret Atwood will conclude the dystopian trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake with her new novel, Maddaddam (Bloomsbury, September). Lionel Shriver tackles obesity in Big Brother (Fourth Estate, May), about a sister who puts her life on hold to help her morbidly obese brother. It’s a novel with personal resonance, following her own brother’s death from weight-related complications in 2009.
Chris Womersley’s new novel, Cairo, about art and murder (Scribe, September), follows his Miles Franklin shortlisted Bereft. And Krissy Kneen, writer of an erotic memoir and an erotic novel, will publish a ‘mainstream’ novel, Steeplechase (Text, April), about two sisters forced to confront the wounds of childhood.
The Daily Beast’s list of books to watch out for includes our own Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed (published here by Sleepers in 2011).
All publication dates quoted below are based on the US.
In February, Karen Russell (Swamplandia) will publish her second short-story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. And this month, Lawrence Wright expands on his New Yorker article on Scientology for a book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, drawing on more than 200 interviews to try to understand the religion’s appeal for the entertainment industry.
And The Millions has a long list of books to look forward to, including a new Sam Lipsyte short-story collection, The Fun Parts, the 14th book to be published in English by Spanish writer Javier Marais, The Infatuations (May) and a new book from Jonathan Safran Foer, Escape from the Children’s Hospital.
This is always a list well worth checking out.
Yesterday, Wheeler Centre staff shared our favourite books of 2012. Today, some of the writers who’ve been part of the Wheeler Centre programme this year – whether as presenters, website contributors or both – tell us what their favourite books of 2012 were. It goes without saying that we love the work of these writers. So, if you’re stuck for a holiday gift or a summer read, their publications come recommended from us.
I’ve been a fan of Michelle de Kretser’s for years, and Questions of Travel is her best yet. Every sentence is sharp as a crystal, yet this glorious novel is witty and compassionate. I rationed myself to a few pages a day because I didn’t want it to end.
Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text Publishing). She wrote one of our Long View series of essays in 2012, ‘Dry as a Chip: A Jounrey Through Humour in Australian Fiction’.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but the book that impressed me most in 2012 was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, although it’s billed as a novel, of sorts. The story, as such, follows the author’s investigation into an assassination attempt on Richard Heydrich, the Nazi SS commander nicknamed ‘the hangman of Prague’.
Apart from the very cool title (an acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich’ in German), and its previous even niftier title Operation Anthropoid, the big satisfaction to be had in this book is in how Binet deconstructs the usual tropes of historical reportage. In hundreds of short chapters he confesses to us the difficulties facing him in discerning fact from fiction, and the book works best when he outlines some thrilling piece of dramatic information he’s uncovered, only to later debunk himself. Binet’s honesty underpins the narrative and renders it all the more believable, allowing him to test your resolve as a reader late on when you begin to realize he too might be unreliable. Lying and exaggeration for the purposes of a good story might be par for the course in fiction, but HHhH makes you wonder how often it happens in non-fiction too.
Chris Flynn is outgoing books editor of the Big Issue. His debut novel is A Tiger in Eden (Text Publishing). Chris has chaired and participated in several Wheeler Centre events in 2012, including running our Winter Tales series.
Hilary Mantel made some fiction writers look like kids playing with finger puppets, with her second volume of extraordinary Thomas Cromwell ventriloquism, Bring Up the Bodies. American writer Justin Torres’ debut, We the Animals, is a beautiful little poem of a novel, based on his experiences as a half-Puerto Rican, half-white – and gay – youth. YA-wise, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Maureen McCarthy’s The Convent both made me cry on the tram, the latter with its Bechdel-test passing female relationships, familial and otherwise.
Speaking of Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? is a brave and compellingly drawn look at Bechdel’s difficult relationship with her mother. Benjamin Law’s Gaysia and Jeff Sparrow’s Money Shot were two of my favourite local non-fiction offerings this year: fascinating quests driven by personal inquiry and social importance. In Australian memoir: Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter and Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. American female comedians had a good line in personal essays this year, including my fantasy wives Mindy Kaling and Sarah Silverman.
I read some Australian classics for the first time this year, too: Wake in Fright, The Children’s Bach, Holding the Man, Taronga, all exceptional in their own way.
Estelle Tang is an editor and writer. Her blog is 3000 BOOKS. Estelle was a Wheeler Centre Zoo Fellow in 2012 and contributed to our Long View series with her essay ‘Pitying the Monster: Abuse and Empathy in Fiction’.
Two of the best books I read this year happened also to be the two books I was lucky enough to review for this very website as part of the Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards: Wayne Macauley’s The Cook and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia.
Because I’ve already explained within each review why these two works are extraordinary – read both books; don’t be a dolt – I’ll quickly highlight another work published in 2012 that I’m sure will stay with me in the oncoming decades: Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books (also listed for a VPLA, reviewed by Jennifer Mills). The book consists primarily of a novella that itself is broken up into 29 sections: 29 memories of books that have stuck in the writer/narrator’s mind, 29 books of which we are never told the title, 29 reading experiences that reached out from the pages into the writer/narrator’s very life, tentacle-like. A History of Books is a beguiling work of fiction that is really in all likelihood non-fiction, except no, it is actually probably fiction, maybe. For those in love with literature, this is a book that offers layer after layer at which a reader can appreciate both it as a standalone work, as well as appreciating the influence and affluence and fundamentalness of the act of reading: as an act of doing, and of becoming, and of being.
I can’t in good faith not mention another book, a book that, like much of Murnane’s work, pushes at the edges of our understanding of literature, like an animal trapped in a hessian sack. Also published by Giramondo, Pat Grant’s Blue is what is widely known as a ‘graphic novel’ although it’s different and more than what that label connotes. Grant marries his magical illustrative powers with his ear for vernacular and an innate understanding of story, and the end result is a work of fiction that I actually wanted to climb into. If you’re of the gambling persuasion and tend to fancy a real roughie (I’m looking at you Murnane), perhaps lay a few bucks down on Blue to be the first ‘graphic novel’ to win the Man Booker Prize? As Jason Steger has pointed out, this might be the year …
This year my favourite book was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? A comic drama. It’s an intriguing exploration of girlhood, sexuality, and creativity. Bechdel’s deconstruction of her own psychology and her relationship with her mother is as enigmatic as it is charming.
This book got me thinking about my own relationship to creativity and writing in a way I never have before, putting me in a strange mood that took a long while to shake. It also made me wish I could draw!
The companion piece, Bechdel’s 2006 Fun Home, is equally brilliant and should be read first. So buy them both.
Monica Dux’s new book Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting), will be published by MUP in March 2013. She tweets as @monicadux. Monica will be one of the writers appearing in our 2013 Gala: Where the Wild Things Are.
James Boyce’s 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia might have been published in 2011 but it’s just won the Age Book of the Year for 2012, which gives me leave to include it here. Really, this is a model for how history should be written: simultaneously accessible and scholarly, Boyce provides an account of early Melbourne overtly sympathetic to indigenous people yet one still presenting the complexities of the colonisers’ motivations without any descent into retrospective demonisation.
Speaking of demons (or at least demonic wizards), Black Spring is the latest work by Alison Croggon, the insanely prolific critic, essayist and poet (and, full disclosure, a friend). Her book’s marketed as young adult, but Croggon’s authorial intelligence and elegant prose produces a very adult novel, a mash-up of Wuthering Heights and magic that makes you rethink both Emily Bronte and the fantasy genre.
I also very much enjoyed Andrew Croome’s recent Midnight Empire. In an earlier novel, Document Z, Croome explored the Cold War politics of the Petrov affair; in the new book, he tackles the clinical killing facilitated by drone warfare, in a thriller about technology, paranoia and gambling.
Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman begins with a knockout premise. An asteroid hurtles toward Earth; everyone accepts that humanity’s entirely doomed. Why then should Detective Hank Palace bother investigating a single suspicious death? Palace’s dogged pursuit of the case in a world about to fall apart raises fascinating questions about justice, morality and the nature of duty – and it’s also a great crime novel.
Finally, David McNally’s Monsters of the Market analyses the economic crisis underpinning the apocalyptic sensibility of Winters’ book (and, to an extent, Croome’s). It’s a project that begins by taking seriously the gothic imagery running through Das Kapital – Marx’s repeated invocations of blood-drinking vampires and flesh-rending werewolves, often dismissed as rhetorical excesses.
In a whirlwind tour across centuries and continents, McNally links the rise of capitalism to the bourgeoisie’s obsession with human dissection and the so-called ‘corpse economy’ of early modernity, and shows how tropes of monstrosity have reflected oppression and resistance, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the vampire myths of contemporary Africa. If you’ve ever doubted that scholarship can be simultaneously learned, politically committed and page-turningly fascinating, read this book.
As I was re-reading Proust…..nah, everyone says that. My best books of 2012 filled a shameful gap in my reading. Of Richard Yates, I had only ever read his first and most famous novel, Revolutionary Road. I set out to read everything else: A Special Providence, Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, A Good School, Young Hearts Crying and Cold Spring Harbour, plus the short story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love*. I read them with a mounting sense of excitement, and could read them all again now, for they convinced me that the sublimely talented and personally benighted Yates is the outstanding American realist fiction writer of the twentieth century.
My favourite Australia book of the year was Ginger Briggs' Staunch, a tour de force of imaginative non-fiction.
Gideon Haigh’s latest book is On Warne. His essay on the tribulations of writing the book before it, The Office, ‘The Highs and Lows of Writing a Book’, was extracted on Dailies this year (taken from Kill Your Darlings).
My top 13 are:
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
The Australian Moment – George Megalogenis
May we be Forgiven – A.M. Homes
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
HHhH – Laurent Binet
Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling
Meanjin / Overland / Griffith Review / the Monthly / Kill Your Darlings
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon
Tarcutta Wake – Josephine Rowe
The Watchtower – Elizabeth Harrower
Good Night Sleep Tight – Mem Fox and Judy Horacek.
Perhaps because it’s the end of a long year of programming (curating, grouping, sorting, looking for connections and similarities), and perhaps because I got married this year, my favourite books of 2012 have fallen into neat little pairs:
Two brilliant China books came out in English this year, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words.
Two novels exploring wartime Germany (although one by a Frenchman and about as different from each other in tone as you can imagine) transported me, Laurent Binet’s breathless HhHH and Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful Visitation.
Two brilliant non-fiction collections put the lights back on in my brain: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Siri Hustvedt’s Living, Thinking, Looking.
Two Aussie short story collections – Jennifer Mills’ The Rest is Weight and Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart reminded me that well-crafted beautiful things are sometimes more powerful for being miniature.
Writing about the past – Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies was the most vivid novel I’ve read since … well, Wolf Hall, and nothing else really came close for me (so I’m counting that as a pair).
And finally two for the future – Lauren Groff’s commune dystopia Arcadia made me start to prepare for the apocalypse and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One made me stop because resistance (to the zombies) will most likely be futile. Happy Christmas!
At the beginning of 2012 I picked up Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and my, how could I have waited so long to read it? Hazzard is an exquisite writer and this story of two orphaned Australian sisters creating lives for themselves, on their own terms, in London and beyond is intricate and affecting. It also features one of the most wonderfully awful characters I’ve read in ages, the women’s half-sister Dora. A classic.
I couldn’t help but have The Transit of Venus in mind as I read Michelle de Kretser’s latest, Questions of Travel, an absorbing and hugely satisfying novel. The twin storylines of Laura, an Australian of independent means and temperament, and Sri Lankan Ravi, forced to remake his life as an asylum seeker in contemporary Sydney, are interwoven with care and craft. Ranging across continents and spanning several decades, I loved this book for its complexity, intelligence and deep compassion.
Can I squeeze in a couple more? Briefly: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz for stop-you-in-your-tracks sentences; and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green for making me cry in completely inappropriate places.
Lucy De Kretser
Gillian Mears' Foal’s Bread is an ode to a world that Mears loves and knows intimately, a tribute to the old souls of the horse high-jumping circuit, country fairs, gingernut biscuits. This is a tale of family, shared language, horses, vulnerability and regional Australia, which though very beautiful, is never sentimental. Mears' eye, lyricism, and turn of phrase, not only make her unique, but draws her reader into this world so that you find yourself laughing and crying with and for these ever stoic characters.
I was both astonished and excited to discover that Past the Shallows was Favel Parrett’s first novel, and can’t wait to devour her next book. I loved this book primarily because of the relationship portrayed between two young brothers. Parrett’s description of Tasmania rang grittily true, whilst also capturing my imagination, but the love, care, tenderness, caution and selflessness inherent in the relationship between the siblings is what I found so special about this book.
I just finished Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel and can’t stop thinking about it. If a day went by when I couldn’t delve into its pages, it was a bad day, as far as I was concerned! There were many moments after reading a single line that I had to close the book in order to savour or think or cry. It is a leisurely read, and yet difficult and horrifying at times. Full of poetry and symbolism, as well as fascinating, complete, and well-drawn characters. The plot takes you around the world and back and turns travel on its head.
Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows is an exquisite little gem of a novel. As beautiful as it is heartbreaking, its undertow of menace constantly threatens to drag you under. A reviewer recommended some months ago: ‘If you read only one book this year, make sure it’s this one!’. Although my reading habits of late haven’t been quite that dismal, Past the Shallows has sustained me in a relatively slight year.
This year, my most challenging read by a mile has been …. 4.5/5 of the Edward St Aubyn Patrick Melrose series (I say 4.5/5 because last night I feel asleep with the light on, again, and woke up at 2.15am face-planted in the final book in the series.)
The collective whole of the five novels is, thus far, excoriating and witty, in equal measure, there’s quite a deal of ouch and oooh did they really say that?. There have been times when I’ve had to skim over small sections because we’re getting into the way-too-much-information territory.
The characters are, on the whole, wholly unlikeable, but the writing is rich in observational detail and has at times wonderful insight into the human condition. The premise of each book is centred on a pivotal event or time in Patrick Melrose’s life, which allows characters to reappear throughout.
Having read through 4.5 books, I am very much looking forward to the remaining .5 – and also, to finishing reading about this dysfunctional bunch and moving on to a less awkward holiday novel.
Whilst reflecting on this year’s reading, I came to the realisation that my reading in 2012 seemed to have a particular YA flavour to it. I fell head first for the Patrick Ness series, Chaos Walking (I realise they’re not actually 2012 books, but they’re the books I loved in 2012, if that counts?). Picture me on an exotic holiday in Langkawi, so absorbed in the first book of the series that I was sitting on a ferry, completely oblivious to the fact that I was surrounded by fellow tourists, with tears streaming down my face! This was followed by a feeling akin to panic and an urgency to get back to the mainland so I could buy book two in the series!
I love a big AMERICAN NOVEL, and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding fit that brief this year. I identified with every one of his characters and made a stuttering fool of myself trying to explain this to the author when we hosted him as part of our Big 10 series.
To cap off my YA year, I just finished John Green’s The Fault in our Stars … what a devastatingly beautiful read. It’s been a while since a book has touched me so much that I have found myself messaging its sentences to the person who loaned me the book! Maybe I just love books that cry, but this one saw me sobbing on the bus to work, and days later, I am still thinking of its characters and wishing different endings for them.
Some of 2012 found me buried in reference books for practical inspiration (Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production, edited by Jonathan Kern, the favourite). Reading for pleasure, though, I like to rely on a pot pourri of old, new and not-quite-new writing to keep my eyeballs out of trouble. I revisited Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, let Romy Ash’s excellent first novel Floundering drag me in by the collar, and thumbed through Bad Idea: The Anthology, a brilliant collation of some of that magazine’s finest creative non-fiction – published in 2008, roughly around the time that wonderful periodical began to disappear. I recommend all of those titles, and especially Fahrenheit if you live for suspenseful ellipses …
(You don’t. Nobody does.)
I didn’t think I’d fully take to the motor-mouthed depresso-futurism of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (despite the hilarious book trailer that you’ve probably seen), but ultimately I found it a deeply tender, affecting and funny novel – not shy of the big questions, nor of serving them wry answers. And, in the course of a whole book, it succeeded where Jennifer Egan’s otherwise incredible A Visit from the Goon Squad stumbled awkwardly in its future-gazing final chapter (what a shame). I read Egan’s 2001 book Look at Me early this year, and it was so disappointing that I had to re-read parts of Goon Squad. (Yes, you picked it – that dizzyingly poignant chapter. If you hated it, we’re not friends.)
I might also recommend Reinventing Your Life by Young, Klosko and Beck (not the Scientologist, obviously). Make sure you get Plume’s 1994 edition; the cover design is inspiring.
My very favourite book I read this year was a trilogy (cheating, I know) of memoirs by Mary Karr: The Liar’s Club, about her crazy childhood with her alcoholic parents, including a (six times married) mother who once stood over her with a kitchen knife; Cherry, a dreamy memoir of an adolescence of not-quite-fitting-in; and the astonishing Lit, about her years as a literature professor and alcoholic (friends include Tobias Woolff and flames include an arsehole-ish David Foster Wallace) – ending with her writing her first memoir. This is how good writing is done.
This year’s new releases I loved included another brilliant (genre-bending) memoir – [sic] by New York composer turned cancer patient Joshua Cody, whose writing resembles music in its patterns and poetry. I love creative non-fiction, especially good reportage, and was thrilled to discover the journalism of the compassionate master stylist Katherine Boo through her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the compelling story of Annawadi, a slum in India, and its inhabitants. And like everyone else, I was hooked by Gillian Flynn’s suspense-packed, twist-a-minute Gone Girl.
I’m currently reading Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, a truly amazing labour of love. Over seven years, Solomon has interviewed many families where parents have children vastly different from themselves and explored how they came to love and accept children who were not what they expected. The result is split into ten chapters by category, including deaf, dwarves, autistic and criminal children. (Released Feb 2013 in Australia, but I got an imported copy from Readings.) Hugely resonant in the context of the weekend’s events.
Australian books I loved in 2012 included Paddy O'Reilly’s warm, funny and beautifully written (and characterised) novel The Fine Colour of Rust, set in a dying country town and featuring a feisty, flawed and loveable single mum with a sharp tongue and bone-dry wit. And I was utterly won over by Deborah Robertson’s beautiful second novel, Sweet Old World, about a man who longs for fatherhood and love, and comes achingly close to getting what he’s always wanted, in an unexpected way. The characters and relationships in this book are so beautifully drawn and nuanced – they feel very real. And I was hugely impressed by Amy Espeseth’s haunting, immaculately crafted Sufficient Grace.
And one last quick mention – I finally read Maggie Mackellar’s memoir When it Rains (2011), about grief and recovery, and was so moved and affected that I thought about it for days afterward.
Mortality – Christopher Hitchens
The Dinner – Herman Koch
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
All That I Am – Anna Funder
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
Why Be Happy When You Can be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson
In a year that started out with the best reading intentions I found myself falling short of my planned ‘at least one book a month’ goal. I’m notorious for not finishing books for no particular reason, and as 2012 was the Dickens Bicentenary, I began tackling Dombey and Son with gusto … only 658 more pages to go.
A regular reader of The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar advice column I was both surprised and intrigued when they announced they’d reveal the identity of the anonymous writer behind it. Back in February this year Cheryl Strayed was outed and conveniently it coincided with the publication of her new memoir Wild. I rushed to Amazon.com to purchase it straight away. Her advice column was full of intimate and personal advice delivered to you in a no-B.S. way, like a slap in the face by your straight-talking friend. ‘Write like a Motherfucker’ is just one of her now-famous lines. I was looking forward to getting to know more about her.
The book came in the mail a few weeks later. In one sentence, the plot involves Cheryl’s attempt to make sense of her life after her mother’s death by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. But that sentence doesn’t even begin to capture what this book is about. Cheryl had no hiking experience at all. Experienced hikers die on the PCT and at several points in the story you think she will, too.
Parts of the story were too sad for me to read; I actually had to stop and pick it up again a few months later. There’s no cornball journey of self-discovery here – it’s raw, heart-wrenching and the ultimate exposure of just how far you can fall, yet still find something from within to drive you to keep going.
Cheryl is able to articulate in words how much it hurts to lose someone you love. How angry, sad, confused and lost in sorrow you can get – and what it means to confront that, so you can begin again.
I’m completely positive I’m not doing it any justice. Just read it before the movie comes out.
Throughout 2012, I’ve read about fifteen and a half books (in two languages).
All of the books were great – not a million words would suffice to describe the many voyages my mind took this year. I hereby highlight my favorite four books and a quote from each of them.These books helped me discover how much more there is that I have not the faintest idea about.
The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives – Leonard Mlodinow
‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.’
(Quoting IBM pioneer Thomas Watson)
Candide – Voltaire
‘ It’s a sort of noise, that whiles away the odd half hour, but if played for any longer bores everyone though no one dares to say so. Music nowadays is merely the art of executing what is difficult to play and in the long run what is merely difficult ceases to amuse.’
The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan
‘It is not the function of our government to prevent its citizens from falling into error, it is the function othe citizen to prevent the government from falling into error.’ (Sagan quotes US supreme court justice Robert H. Jackson, 1950)
Leviathan – Thomas Hobbs
‘Love and desire are the same thing, except that by desire we always signify the absence of an object and by love, we most commonly signify the presence of an object.’
We share five of our favourite links and articles from around the internet this week.
Wired senior writer Mat Horan was famously targeted by cyberhackers earlier this year, who managed to crack the password for one of his (linked) Apple, Gmail and Twitter accounts – and then had access to all three. The hackers wiped his iPad, iPhone and Macbook – including all his messages, documents and photos. Since then, he’s been looking into the world of online security. His conclusion? Our passwords are essentially useless.
Just as the end of bookshops was being declared (this was right before they declared the end of book publishing itself), author Ann Patchett decided to put her time and money where her mouth was … and opened her own bookshop in Nashville, where both local bookshops had closed down. She writes about Parnassus Books in the Atlantic.
The New York Times published a dig at irony and the hipster generation last week, taking an Attenborough-style approach of identifying the characteristics of a species: ‘the hipster haunts every city street and university town’. Gabrielle Carey (aka ‘the serious one’ from Puberty Blues, also an acclaimed author of essays and memoir) has taken a more philosophical approach to the same subject on Meanjin’s blog this week, where she asks whether irony has gone too far – and whether its co-opting by advertising and corporations has rendered it meaningless.
Oslo Davis is one of Melbourne’s most recognisable and loved illustrators. This year, he’s been hard at work on Melbhattan, a short film that mimics the opening sequence of images at the start of Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan – both an homage to and a pastiche of our beloved City of Literature. Melbhattan is screening before each feature at the Rooftop Cinema this summer. You can read more about Melbhattan at The Design Files.
It’s that time of year when publications start gathering their choices for the best books of 2012. The New York Times has a hefty list of 100 books – worth checking out to see if there’s something obscure worth adding to your ‘to read’ pile. Publisher’s Weekly has put together a snappy top 10. Slate staffers have chosen their favourite books of the year. Justine Jordan of the Guardian has compiled her favourite novels, short stories and graphic fiction. And coming back from the US and UK to Australia, Melbourne bookseller Readings has posted a fistful of top 10s (and a couple of top fives) in a range of categories, chosen by their staff, including the stalwarts of fiction and non-fiction.
By Sam Cooney
The publishing industry is a tough arena, and never more so than now. Sam Cooney looks at the weird, annoying and sometimes puzzling things publishers (and writers) do to promote their books – from packaging them in mountains of styrofoam as if precious flowers, to shooting themselves for the press coverage.
A few weeks ago, one of Australia’s leading newspaper literary editors posted the below entry on his Facebook page:
This photograph and semi-tongue-in-cheek remark had me instantly thinking about the sometimes silliness of publishers and the doltish nature of book hustling in general. After a few seconds thought I posted a wisecrack comment on the Facebook post, ‘Feature idea: review the behaviour of publishers in regards to press releases, PR hustling, and book delivery methods’, and in the manner of most online activity, I moved on. Then someone mentioned to me that maybe the joke article pitch could actually be interesting, and so I decided to write a small piece that in some vague way discussed the concept, and here we are.
Somewhere buried in all those styrofoam nuggets in that image above is a single new release book, one the publisher deems so precious that it needs to be protected as though it’s an ancient artefact. This literary editor (we’ll give him the initials S.R., predominantly because they are his real initials) was pointing out a practice that seems to be too common amongst Australian publishers; arguably if it even occurs once a year then it’s too common. S.R. identifies such over-packaging of books as just about his number one bugbear:
When I receive a box filled with those styrofoam pellets containing ONE BOOK – and this happens at least once a week – I feel like sending that book straight to the reject pile (I don’t, however, because that would be unfair to the author). Ditto when I receive a box of books ‘protected’ by those segmented plastic pillows, AKA turtle chokers. It makes me mad. And then you have the books in those specialised sealed cardboard envelopes that you need a chainsaw to open. FOR GOD’S SAKE IT’S JUST A BOOK! Please just put it in an ordinary envelope and post it to me.
A local novelist who has worked across the publishing, bookselling and reviewing industries has less problem with over-packaging, instead finding more fault with the conventionality and unimaginativeness of publishers. She says that:
It’s possible to invest in more creative, less blatant ways of promotion. Book trailers for example are something interesting, and a creative, beautiful thing in their own right (i.e. Electric Literature’s single sentence animation) rather than some standard fare. Promotion doesn’t have to so predictable and obvious and churned out.
It would seem obvious that the less innovative promotional efforts slide by without much of a blip on the radar; endeavour by publishers, especially that which seeks to match the creativeness of authors, is much less likely to go unrewarded.
Our mate S.R., the one with a severe distaste for styrofoam, mentioned that he is sent about different 200 books every week from publishers, week in, week out. He has space to review, in one shape of another, no more than 20 of these titles. The rest go ignored, probably unread. This is the harsh reality of the reviewing industry, which mirrors the publishing industry as a whole: lots of exertion across a great range of titles, with only the occasional success. Still, copies of reviewed and unreviewed books sent in to publications are usually given away, either to op shops or secondhand bookstores. The fate isn’t so blessed for unwanted copies that take up warehouse space. As a friend of mine who has worked in different publishing houses says:
Gratuitous packaging and paper wastage is certainly common, especially in large publishing houses, but it’s peanuts compared to other industries, literally a blip, and probably not as wasteful as all the books that get pulped – one of the worst things about modern publishing.
Even now, having worked for a while in the industry, she is still wowed by the pulping of books. Below is a photograph she quickly snapped a couple years ago of the once-a-year pulping that occurred at the large publisher she worked for. Box after box after box of books, pallet after pallet, all to be turned into literary purée.
Book publishers aren’t the only ones to flub up promotional opportunities. Writers can do a damn good job of doing it just themselves. Take Ray Dolin. In June of this year American would-be author Dolin reported to authorities that a stranger with a rifle shot him in the arm for no apparent reason, whilst he was out researching his memoir-in-progress, titled The Kindness of America. The memoir was to consist mostly of photographs, seeking to document the kindness of Americans as he travels from state to state. The irony of the incident didn’t escape the many news outlets that reported it, and a man was soon arrested and charged. However it didn’t take long for investigators to realise that Dolin had in fact shot himself in the arm as an act of self-promotion. He was ridiculed, but interest in the book skyrocketed, although a direct sales relation hasn’t yet been witnessed, as Dolin is taking his time publishing the book. Maybe he shot himself in his camera-clicking/word-writing arm.
Dolin’s effort — and if nothing else, shooting oneself to publicise an as-yet-unfinished book is an admirable effort, in its own way — is only one instance in a long history of misguided attempts at promotion. In 440BC, Herodotus, on a book tour that he paid for out of his own pocket, took to the rostrum during the Olympic Games at the temple of Zeus and staged a reading of his book Histories. Imagine an author doing such a thing now (I can actually imagine many of today’s [mostly old and male] authors trying to do this, because egos will always be egos, though their chances of success would be minimal).
French food writer Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere, who wanted to give some readers a truly memorable experience while promoting his book, Reflections on Pleasure, invited them to dinner, locked them in a hall, and insulted them personally for hours on end while black-robed waiters placed plates of food on top of a catafalque-turned-table. His book enjoyed multiple printings. Guy de Maupassant had the text of Le Horla written on the outside of a hot-air balloon and sent it flying over the Seine. Le Horla is about a man going mad, and shortly after its publication Maupassant himself was confined to an insane asylum. Even Walt Whitman was a notorious self-promoter; in fact, he wrote many of his own reviews under different names (does this mean Amazon isn’t 100% to blame for this practice? Surely it still is). Book promotion has been ugly in parts for a very long time.
Publishing is largely a commercial industry and as such it features some unlovely moments and elements. Boxes of styrofoam nuggets and pallets of books on death row and packs of publicists and authors willing to debase themselves for the sake of sales and recognition: it’s the reality. Still, we can think of these kinds of dodgy practices and low behaviour as the ‘Kardashian level’: if nothing else, they exist solely so we can have a laugh, and a bit of a cry too.
By Tim Coronel
Tim Coronel, former publisher of Bookseller and Publisher magazine, looks at the dramatic changes in ways of doing business over the past five years in the Australian book trade – and predicts what the future might hold, both positive and negative. This an edited version of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address delivered at the Wheeler Centre last week.
When I first worked behind the counter of a chain bookshop in a suburban Canberra shopping mall in 1990 (yes, I am that old), there were two cash registers, one telephone, a microfiche reader for Books in Print and, in the back room, the latest tech: a fax machine. We memorised the stock on hand, and would do stock-checks and write up reorders by hand on carbon pads, faxing them to publishers and distributors where a small army of ‘customer service’ employees would be keying the orders into green-screen computers. While there was a head office and some central buys of major titles, the store manager (the lovely Meredith Wright who is still selling books in Canberra) spent much of her week seeing publishers' sales reps and she had autonomy on ordering most of the stock for the shop.
In the ensuing 20-ish years, many things have changed drastically, but, other than a few hiccups such as the introduction of the GST in 2000 and the collapse of Collins Booksellers in 2005 (quickly reborn phoenix-like as a successful franchise network), the Australian book industry developed, matured and grew steadily in the 1990s and 2000s. (Not that selling books has ever been that profitable – publishing is gambling writ large, and the returns are modest: single-figure net profits and market growth are thought of as ‘good’, but if they are viewed as compounding over 20 years, then the trade certainly has grown)
One of the main catalysts for the development of the Australian book industry were the 1991 changes to the Copyright Act which enshrined the parallel import restrictions that have been in contention so often since. By creating a solid, protected market for local editions of overseas-originated books, a ‘portfolio’ model for publishing companies became the norm. Both locally owned indpendent publishers such as Allen & Unwin, Text, Scribe, Black Inc., Hardie Grant and many others, and the local branches of the big international publishers – Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, PanMacmillan, Hachette and Simon & Schuster – developed businesses that combined ‘buy-ins’ of overseas-originated titles alongside their publication of local books.
And as these companies grew, they were better equipped to participate in international rights markets at events such as the Frankfurt, London and Bologna Book Fairs and to sell rights to Australian books to many other territories and languages. (There is a downside to this model, however. It is estimated that for many of the larger companies, they are reliant on sales of overseas-derived titles for up to 55% of their revenue. If, as we get to shortly, a growing proportion of Australian readers are buying these books online and offshore, a crucial part of Australian publishers' business model is being eroded.)
Bookselling was pretty healthy as well through the nineties and 2000s. Independent bookshops maintained a substantial market share; chain stores served the mass-market well; and the massive discounting wars that distorted the UK and US book trades and moved much of bookselling there into supermarkets and discount mass retailers were largely averted.
But then, a few years ago, something happened. Or rather, a few ‘somethings’ coincided. It wasn’t sudden, and to be honest we’d all known it was coming but still weren’t prepared for its impact.
Amazon started selling books online in 1995, and others, local and global, followed. The momentum took a while to build among the general public, but before long it was easy to look up any book online and do price comparisons. It was no longer an automatic choice to buy books at your local bricks-and-mortar bookshop. But, much of the time, even if an individual title seemed much cheaper overseas, exchange rates and shipping costs meant that it wasn’t all that much cheaper by the time it got to your door.
But once the Australian dollar got to parity with the US, and then some, and stayed there (and got to 60p against the UK pound), the massive scale and loss-leading discounting of Amazon and the Book Depository meant that the sort of book that was $30 in your local bookshop (and which really needs to be $30 to cover costs – but that’s a detailed argument for another time) could be had, at your door in a matter of days, for half that.
Ebooks also were a slow-burner, and have been talked about since the 1990s. But until the rise of the Kindle and similar inexpensive, always-online hand-held devices, there wasn’t much of a commercial argument for them. But again, the speed of take-up of ebooks since 2007 has been phenomenal. Amazon jumped in and dominated the ebook market and the ereader device market with Kindle and drove the perception that ebooks should cost $9.99 or even less. (And remember, while Dymocks tried to start selling ebooks in 2007, Australians only got access to the Kindle store in late 2009, to Kobo in May 2010, Apple iBooks and Google Ebooks both in Nov 2010, and local start-up Booki.sh in January 2011. This is all very recent.) In Australia, ebooks are currently about 10% of publishers' revenue, but in the US ebooks now make up a quarter of mainstream publishers' revenues and there are many titles, especially in genre and popular fiction, that are ebook-dominant or ebook-only. The proportion of books sold as ebooks will continue to grow. Will it plateau? We don’t know.
The 2011 collapse of REDgroup, the private-equity funded owner of Borders and Angus & Robertson, wasn’t directly due to online competition or ebooks. The business model and culture of REDgroup was really at fault. But the aftermath has been very instructive. REDgroup’s market share – at least a high-teens proportion of mainstream Australian book sales – just hasn’t been replaced. That proportion of the retail market was already gone – gone online and offshore. Local publishers are suffering, of course, and many have reported that their sales are 20% or more down.
I’m going to move away now from the historical explication and get dot-pointy with some assertions and predictions about where things are headed. It’s important to note that all the following assertions are ‘and’ statements, not ‘or’. There will be print books and ebooks. There will be large publishers and small ones. There will be bookshops on our streets and there will be online sellers delivering to our doors or to our devices. There will be authors who do exceedingly well by self-publishing and handling their own affairs, and there will be authors who will benefit from having a traditional publisher back them. But what is clear is that the established ways of doing business in bookworld have changed forever.
‘Book culture’ in Australia is currently very healthy: there are writers festivals all over the country that draw crowds into the tens of thousands; most nights you will find a book launch or author event being held at a local bookshop; children’s authors are out and about in schools and libraries; literary magazines are going gangbusters; and genres such as romance and sci-fi/fantasy, with their passionate fans, are holding more and more and bigger and bigger events.
Australians currently read as much as ever, but their buying patterns have changed dramatically already and will continue to change.
Nielsen BookScan’s pie that shows 1/3 market share for each independent bookshops, chain stores and Discount Department Stores such as Target and Big W doesn’t include local online sellers, let alone overseas ones, and doesn’t measure ebook sales. The pie is more likely split five ways, Amazon and Book Depository combined (now under common ownership, remember) have almost as much market share as any local sector – worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is where the ‘missing 20%’ has gone from the local market. Their share will continue to grow, and we won’t get it back. More and more of the bestselling titles will be bought online as ebooks or in print, and many consumers' default online choices are offshore. We are now dealing not just with Amazon but with Apple and Google: the global book industry is utterly tiny in comparison to these behemoths.
While ‘book culture’ in Australia is very healthy (and diverse, not just literary), there are no real signs that the pool of readers is increasing, and it may well shrink as babyboomers die off and the next generation’s reading/consumption habits change. While there is a lot of book buzz, is it all preaching to the converted?
The 1991 parallel import legislation is dead next change of government, but might not even be necessary by then. Readers are doing their own importing, and publishers have been forced to move closer to simulataneous release for many titles (although is 14 days any better than 30 in a ‘want it now’ online world?)
Global English-language rights will become more and more prevalent, as will simultaneous world-wide publishing. Where this leaves author tours, writers festivals and associated marketing, which until now has been staggered with territory-by-territory release dates, is a key problem.
(Near-)parity pricing will be essential, even if it seems commercially suicidal, and will need to move quickly with currency fluctuations.
The local offices of global publishers have already contraced and will continue to have to ‘rationalise’ and restructure as the market shifts. One or more may leave this market altogether, or may even cease to exist globally The ‘Random Penguins’ will likely be the first of a number of mergers: will it be Harper & Schuster next?. Almost all the biggest trade companies are part of diversified international cross-media businesses: how much longer will these companies – News Corp, Viacom, Lagardere, et al – want to own a book publishing arm?
It’s possible that one or more of the well-known Australian independent publishers won’t be able to weather the changes and will have to close or merge
More bookshops will close, I suspect in suburban high-streets and regional towns next, both indies and franchise-owned chain stores. However, existing inner-city stores, mainly indies, will prosper if they continue to be smart and proactive with their connections to reader communities.
Among the online-only retailers, will there be more diversity, or will Amazon eventually steamroller everyone? (and/or also diversity as niche, online genre specialists and ‘social reading’ sites hook into communities – but utilise affiliate revenue rather than being ‘retailers’ per se).
‘Showrooming’ may well be legitimised, with publishers paying for (even more) display space in prominent stores, yet content to see customers buying online.
Book distribution will need to shrink, physically, yet improve service levels and tech smarts dramatically. In Aust, we can’t maintain all these ‘sheds’ owned by individual publishers (however, indie publishers are reliant on this third-party distribution …).
A consolidated distributor (maybe B&T, maybe Ingram) will emerge (athough it might be offshore: NZ or S-E Asia).
Prizes as publishing (aka the Vogel model) will become even more common; advances (and even royalty income) will be much less of a sure thing for authors. Getting a second and subsequent book published will be harder and harder, the semi-career of being a mid-list author is in severe danger.
‘Worthy’ publishing will be even more subsidy-reliant, but as reaction to the recent BISG report has shown, the book trade will have a hard time convincing government to give more funding. Mooted OzCo changes may well enshrine a number of subsidised publishers as ‘the keepers of OzLit’.
In many cases, Australian publishers will have to accept more of an ‘incubator’ role for local authors and be prepared to lose authors to big international players.
Australian publishers will increasingly need to base their lists on titles for local consumption and learn to live without many sales of O/S-originated books.
The local industry will be more ‘Australian’, with less of its energies focussed on promoting the O/S-originated titles that have been their bread and butter.
Authors/books with obvious global potential will get there, and probably quicker.
Lit mags and small publishers are flourishing and will become even more important, as incubators and as the home for adventurous publishing (they also have less of a financial imperative … passion over profit).
There will be more use of agile technology: ebooks, apps, PoD; books will be made successful by appealing directly to communities of readers, online, and less so by mainstream media.
Where’s the money? What size of local industry will be financially viable? I suspect it will be considerably smaller than what we have now. What will happen to skills? Will authors, and freelance/part-time bookmakers, be able to afford to continue? If we lose even moderate economies of scale, will local books be even more expensive to produce and even less likely to return a profit?
Whatever the shape of the Australian book industry in the future, it will be small and independent local publishers keeping the flame burning.
This an edited version of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address delivered at the Wheeler Centre last week.
There was a suitably festive atmosphere at the Regent Ballroom for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last night, as writers swapped their standard work wear of tracksuit pants and pyjamas for cocktail frocks and dapper suits.
Premier Ted Baillieu was in a jocular mood, beginning by pointing to the ‘Premier’s 21’ banner on stage and thanking the crowd for attending his 21st birthday, then joking that he would try to match MC Casey Bennetto, who introduces the awards categories in song, with interpretive dance. (For the record, there was no interpretive dance.)
In marked contrast to his colleague in Queensland, who removed all government funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards this year, Baillieu remarked warmly on the ‘strong bipartisan support’ the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards have always enjoyed. He said the awards are ‘a core characteristic of this state – and long may it be’.
In a refreshing display of that non-partisanship, he personally thanked former premier John Cain (who was in attendance, at Baillieu’s table) for starting the awards in 1985, and name-checked him frequently throughout the night.
Baillieu began by mentioning two biannual awards that were given out earlier this year, congratulating Anita Heiss on winning the Prize for Indigenous Writing for Am I Black Enough For You? and Graeme Simsion for winning the Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript.
Simsion’s novel, The Rosie Project, will be published by Text Publishing in 2013 and had earned him ‘comfortably more than $1 million in advances’ from 12 countries when the Age profiled him in September.
Baillieu reported that at last week’s Frankfurt Book Fair, that number of countries buying rights to The Rosie Project, reached 30. Baillieu said that the Unpublished Manuscript Prize is important because it ‘helps build careers’.
He concluded his introduction by saying that the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000, was ‘deliberately’ conceived as the richest literary prize in Australia.
‘It’s a statement about the value we place on writers and books in our city.’
The first award of the night was the one voted by the Victorian public – the People’s Choice Award. It went to Aidan Fennessy for his intensely personal, deeply political play National Interest.
‘This means my mum has been hard at work on her computer,’ he said.
One of Casey Bennetto’s best lines was in the first general award category, young adult, where he sang, ‘I don’t understand how the best in the land can have no vampires at all. Don’t they understand how fiction works?’
John Larkin won for his (fang-free) novel The Shadow Girl, and gave a moving speech.
‘This is the second literary prize I’ve won,’ he said. ‘I won one in 1971, the Sydney Morning Herald Young Poets’ Award. That was two dollars. This is better.’
He thanked the Premier for keeping the awards alive ‘when some states have none’ and bemoaned the idea of state coffers being held by ‘faceless accountants’.
Larkin spoke about the inspiration for his book, which tells the story of a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, a girl who loves books and sees school as a refuge. In the novel, the girl meets an author at a school talk, who agrees to tell her story.
In real life, John Larkin did meet a smart, engaged homeless Year Eight girl while doing a school talk. At the end of his visit, he announced her as the student who’d had the most impact on him; the girl threw herself at him and ‘wrapped herself around me like a limpet’, he reported. He asked the teachers what he should do and they told him to just hug her. ‘So, I just hugged her,’ Larkin told the awards crowd, ‘my tears falling on her head’.
Baillieu told Larkin that his daughter is reading his book right now.
‘Thank you Mr Premier, for saving me from financial devastation,’ said Lally Katz, as she accepted her Award for Drama for her play A Golem Story.
She acknowledged the writers of the other ‘brilliant’ shortlisted plays – Aidan Fenessy’s [National Interest] and Daniel Keene’s Boxman – as ‘great mentors to me’.
Katz told the story of being approached to write A Golem Story by Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong of the Malthouse Theatre, partly because of her half-Jewish heritage.
‘They said, You know what a golem is? And I said, Yeah, it’s that creature from Lord of the Rings. They told me, You’d better go away and do some research.’
Her research was helped by John Safran, who lent her ‘all his books on golems’.
John Kinsella won the Award for Poetry for Armour. He plans to donate part of his prize money to an indigenous community in WA who are confronting a ‘rapacious mining company’.
‘For me, a poem is an activist thing, and every poem is an act of responsibility,’ he said.
Ted Baillieu called Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, winner of the Award for Non-Fiction, ‘A book set to change the history of this country.’
Gammage won over the crowd from the start, with the self-deprecating remark, ‘Well after three very good talkers, it’s fair enough you get a wanker now’.
He said the stars of his book are ‘the people of 1788’.
‘They gave us a great gift in this country they had taken from them. And they still have much to teach us today.’
Gammage said that the terrible bushfires of February 2009 – and the waves of bushfires that preceded them (like the Black Friday fires of 1939 and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983) – did not occur when the original Aboriginal inhabitants were taking care of the land.
‘If Aboriginal people had been in the midst of those fires they couldn’t possibly have survived them. Those fires didn’t occur. They had ways of preventing it.’
He also commented on the original inhabitants’ methods for managing wetlands, salination and ‘so many other things’.
‘I hope this country becomes a better country by being willing to learn from them.’
Introducing the Prize for Fiction, Casey Bennetto sang, ‘They’re all top shelf, you should read them yourself’. Indeed.
Gillian Mears won for Foal’s Bread, her first novel in 16 years. She was unable to attend the ceremony due to her ongoing battle with MS, and so asked two friends, photographer Vincent Long and writer Jessica Huon, to accept the award on her behalf.
Huon spoke of Mears’ ‘acute perception and borderless sensuality’ and the way she writes ‘on the edge’. She called her friend ‘a true artist’.
She also shared Mears’ original vision for Foal’s Bread: she expressed ‘a wild hope of writing a novel as round and as lovely as a showman’s ring’.
‘It has been a determination of hers to write this book,’ said Huon.
Bill Gammage won the final prize for the night – the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000 – to resounding applause.
He seemed surprised and overwhelmed, but was as quick-witted as when he won the Award for Non-Fiction.
‘It’s the third time tonight I’ve shaken your hand,’ he said to Baillieu. ‘Maybe I should enter your electorate.’ Then he paused. ‘I don’t know what to do with this prize. It’s not enough to get into your electorate.’
He said that the prize was ‘life-changing’.
Hilary Mantel has won the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies, making her the first woman – and the first British person – to win it twice. (The only other writers to win the prize twice have been Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee.) It is also the first occasion where a sequel has won the prize.
‘You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and two come along at once,’ were Mantel’s first words, on accepting the prize. Her last win was in 2009, for Wolf Hall.
‘I have to do something very difficult now,’ she said. ‘I have to go away and write the third book in the trilogy.’
Mantel modestly added that she’s sure she won’t win again for her book-in-progress, though other observers don’t share her certainty. ‘There’s every possibility she might pull off a unique treble when she completes the trilogy,’ Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles bookshops told the Guardian today.
Bring up the Bodies is set over nine months in 1535, leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII – who broke with Rome and set up his own church in order to marry her. Like Wolf Hall, it is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to become the king’s chief minister.
‘It is a bloody story, but Hilary Mantel is a writer who thinks through the blood and uses her art and power of prose to create moral ambiguities,’ said chair of the Booker judges Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
He praised Bring up the Bodies as having ‘utterly surpassed’ the achievements of Wolf Hall, though he also stressed that the judges did not discuss the earlier book during their deliberations. ‘It is an extraordinary book in its own right but it is tighter, I think she has learned lessons from Wolf Hall in the way that the prose is written.’
In his speech before presenting the prize, Stodhart gave an especial mention to small publishers, ‘who this year gave us great things’. Half of the six publishers on this year’s shortlist were published by small, regional publishers.
Stodhart seemed to emphasise the contrast of his panel’s approach to the Booker with last year, when chair of the judges Stella Rimington announced she was looking for ‘readability’ (and, concluded the Guardian’s Robert McCrum, came up with ‘the worst shortlist ever’).
‘Someone accused me last week of not selecting novels they could read on the beach,’ said Stodhart. ‘I merely wanted novels they would not leave on the beach.’
He spoke of the Man Booker winners coming together over the years to ‘form a catalogue and unfashionable as it may be, a canon’.
The full shortlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber), Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories), Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate), The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt), Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury), and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books).
Readings books division manager Martin Shaw praised the shortlist to Bookseller+Publisher, along with ‘the judging panels’ apparent cool-headedness in the face of a prize culture – the Booker included in some years – that seems skewed to the book or author with the highest public profile, rather than judging by the words on the page alone.’
A six-hour BBC adaptation of Mantel’s Booker-winning double is planned for 2013. The third book, which she has already begun writing, is to be called The Mirror and the Light.
Melinda Harvey is one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellows, supported by the Readings Foundation. She’s working on a creative non-fiction essay called ‘Lip Service’ (part memoir, part literary criticism), which will explore the experience of being pregnant and a cancer patient at the same time and ponder the truism that literature offers consolation. Since she’s taken up her fellowship, she’s been approached by publishers who are interested in her project – and in turning it into a book.
We spoke to Melinda about what she’s working on, her strange relationship with memoir, her passion for literature, and writing both within and against the ‘Big C’ genre.
What made you decide to write your essay?
I’ve always had a liking for the third-person essay as a genre. I like its ability to talk about a personal experience, but also the way it creates bridges that connect personal experience to bigger questions. I also like its size. I like the way that it can disappear more readily than a book: It gets published, people read it and find it, but then ..
It’s not out there on bookshop shelves for a long time.
Exactly. This is how I imagined I would deal with the bizarre set of circumstances that happened to me. I felt the need to make a private sense of it, and on a complete whim, I put this application in. I didn’t really know if I wanted to write this essay or not. Getting this fellowship gave me the incentive, and the encouragement I desperately needed, to see where it went.
The fact that my cancer diagnosis and treatment became my pregnancy; the two things have been extremely hard to separate. My experience of a pregnancy is now the experience of an illness.
What is striking me now, trying to write this essay, is how little I actually asked my doctors. Or how little I actually know about what happened to me.
I was just in a kind of shock. Maybe this leads into the difficulties of writing this essay, but I’ve been shocked at how much of a good girl I was during that time. I let the expert tell me what I needed to do and I did it.
What I’m finding, writing this essay, is that I’m actually quite bored by my own story. It’s not that I don’t want to go over it; I’m actually someone who likes to talk about things as they happen to me. I don’t feel reluctant to reveal things. But I’m bored by my own story. And I’ve also discovered I have a terrible memory. So I’m actually the worst possible person to be writing anything that involves an account of my own past. I swore off writing a diary as a teenager because I thought it was too self-indulgent.
And you’re writing a memoir?
I know! But, that said, I don’t know how much of a memoir it is. It’s an excuse to write about something I do feel rather passionate about and that is, I guess, the uses of literature in a world in which we might not think it has any anymore. I’m discovering that I’m in a genre of cancer patients who talk about reading.
You’ve read the Brenda Walker book, Reading by Moonlight?
Yes I have. I read it while I was sick. But I’ve since discovered that there are other books too. The one I’m reading right now is Susan Gubar’s book, Memoirs of a Debulked Woman. She’s a feminist literary scholar, she co-wrote The Madwoman in the Attic. She had ovarian cancer. These narratives seem to be ones of reading giving patients solace in a time of crisis. But my own experience is that it didn’t.
So, while I’m having this daily conversation with people like Brenda Walker and Susan Gubar in my head, and they’re terrific company, I feel like I might be challenging some of their assumptions about how useful reading might be.
The personal is my excuse to write about what is a challenge for me on a daily basis: to supply justifications for the place of literature in the academy where it’s getting squeezed out. This essay is a sort of a swan song, before I get kicked out of universities, because I don’t know how much longer literature’s got in these kinds of places anymore.
Because of the focus on things being directed towards finding a job afterwards?
Exactly. The discourse around universities is all around skills. Literature tries to make that argument, but that makes us no different from history or from philosophy – they’re kind of teaching very similar skills. So the specific kind of knowledge that we might be discussing or offering, not many arguments are made about that. And the ones that are made aren’t very convincing.
Is it difficult that you’re writing this to argue for the worth of literature and yet your own experience is that it wasn’t a consolation?
Yes, it is. But I think I’ve decided that the piece is more a pondering. It’s not a polemic about the use of literature. I’ll ask the question of why we think literature should have a use. And who has said that it does? And why has it worked for them? So, at the moment, the essay is structured around little scenes where I do some kind of empirical research on this theme.
One thing that I do in the essay is that I have bibliotherapy. You know, Alain De Botton’s School of Life, they offer a service, a one-on-one service where you can go and see a bibliotherapist. He or she is basically a therapist who hears about your problems, then offers you a reading list. And it costs 80 pounds. Is prescribed reading better than the kind of things you seek out for yourself?
So yes, I’m trying always to link what happened to me to something I can say about reading. And that’s the way that I am hoping that I won’t be simply navel gazing and also I won’t bore myself stupid writing my story.
Do you think you’re bored with your story because it’s the kind of experience that you do have to retell to people?
I think it’s my natural predilection not to be very interested in myself, or at least it’s a trained disinterest in myself. As a teenager, I didn’t know about Susan Sontag, but I think I had a very similar attitude to her. I think she was someone who wanted to be interested in things out there, and didn’t want to be interested in herself. There was this kind of decision not to be that kind of a woman. I think that’s why we get books like her AIDS book and her cancer book. Illness as Metaphor: she is processing her own her own illness, but at a remove.
But I do realise that what is enticing about readers for my story is not, in the first instance anyway, my thoughts on The Magic Mountain. Rather, it’s the anomalous set of circumstances I found myself in, where I got married, fell pregnant and had major surgery for cancer all in the space of just over a month.
You’ve been approached by three different publishers to turn this into a book. How did that come about?
I think it’s because the Wheeler Centre put something on their website, because I have not approached anybody. My friends know what’s happened to me, but I’m not out there in the world telling people about it or what I am writing.
Have you read the Joshua Cody memoir, [sic]?
Yes, I read it while I was sick, actually. I liked it because I liked how aggressively he was trying to run against some of the usual tropes of the Big C genre. So it did appeal to me at the time.
I wished I could have been as wild as him. Being pregnant and also the particular nature of my cancer – having surgery on your lip doesn’t allow you to have much intimacy, not spoken intimacy, not physical intimacy either. I had to learn to talk again. And to eat again and drink again. I was almost jealous because his cancer was hidden.
This is a theme of what I’m writing: the visibility of what happened to me. People tell me ‘it’s not that bad, you’d never notice if you didn’t look closely’. I know that. But tomorrow is exactly a year since my last surgery. It looked a lot fiercer than this for a long time; there were a lot of bandages. I didn’t know whether I was going to be stuck inside my house for the rest of my life or not.
So I was jealous of him. I thought, you have what I have, but you go out in the world and nobody knows that you do.
So it was both about the visibility of it and the fact that it was impeding how you communicated with people.
What I’ve noticed while writing this essay is that what I’m totally hung up on (and was during my pregnancy too) is the disfigurement my cancer has caused. That I was told that I’d potentially have a brain tumour within months was nothing! Compared with the thought that I would forever be marked by this experience.
Which is why having a baby at the same time was so strange. Pregnancy is marked on my body forever, but in the most bizarre kind of a way. It’s on my face. I find that I always tell people immediately, so they’re not wondering what has happened to me. I confess immediately.
And going back to Joshua Cody, I was pleased to be reading something that doesn’t make the ill person a saint who learns something through their experiences.
I don’t agree that having an illness and emerging from an illness makes you a better person, or somehow you’re more tapped in to the meaning of life. In fact, for me, the opposite has happened. I feel an even stronger sense that life is absurd. And that there are no reasons for things.
I feel confirmed in my earlier opinion, which is sort of an ancient Greek one. What does Shakespeare say in King Lear? ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’
I never had a problem with the question why me? I thought, why not me? Bad things happen to good people all the time – in fact, worse things happen.
I guess the thing is that there’s not a universal experience of illness, or of any kind of disaster that happens to you. You bring who you are to any experience. So, if you’re a religious person or a person who thinks everything happens for a reason, maybe you’re going to be more confirmed in that. Whereas for you, if you already had that belief that was the opposite, maybe it’s natural that you were confirmed in that?
You’re further forged in the fire of whatever it is that you are? Yes.
I never read memoir. It wasn’t a genre I particularly liked. I believed in fiction. I thought people should make up more stuff and stop putting their lives out there. I saw that interview with Chris Flynn, where he said, you should only write a memoir if you’ve gone to the moon or climbed a mountain legless. That was me. I read that interview really guiltily, thinking he’s saying exactly what I used to believe. And I still kind of believe it.
One of the things I noticed about my reading habits when I was sick was that fiction didn’t do it for me anymore. I wanted fact suddenly. I was certainly looking for things that would talk to my experience and I couldn’t find anything. My doctors couldn’t point to someone of my age who has had what I had. Old men get it.
Memoir, I wasn’t interested in it and didn’t read it, so this has been a huge learning curve for me.
When you say you were drawn to fact, were you drawn to looking at memoirs then?
Any kind of fact. I was online, looking for accounts … listservs and discussion boards. Anyone who had this kind of experience. Reading blogs by people who had things taken off their face. But also doing really morbid stuff as well, like fixating on acid victims. Feeling like their stories were the stuff I needed to be reading right then.
Because you were in the world of your experience, so you didn’t feel you needed to escape somewhere else, you needed to understand what you were going through?
I tried to escape but I couldn’t. The book I tried to escape with was The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. These people, with names like Daphne and Cecil, I couldn’t do it. That’s one of the things I’m interested in. Why is it, when we’re going through something, we want to hear or read stuff that is the same? Why don’t we want to disappear in something that will get us out of our experience? Why do we want to remain in it?
That is interesting. I wonder if that’s partly about wanting to feel not alone. And seeing how other people deal with experiences. Maybe you might see something you haven’t thought of – so you might learn something. Or that you’ll find something that is exactly what happened to you, so you won’t feel weird or alone. What do you think?
Yes. It’s a return to adolescent reading in a way. As a teenager, you’re looking for stuff that will tell you you’re not mad. Or you might be the black sheep in your family, but you’re not weird. In tutorials, I say to my students, who say things like ‘I don’t like the character’, that that’s juvenile, that’s not what reading is about. You don’t only read to find yourself; reading can do other things. But in illness, or extreme situations, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re reading to find yourself again.
It’s a different kind of reading, isn’t it? It is reading for a purpose. Have you read the Maria Tumarkin essay in Meanjin, on reading for a purpose?
Yes. I’m hoping to talk to her one day. I like that piece a lot, but I think I’m arguing against her, and that’s fine.
I’m curious. What is it you’re arguing against?
I read that essay, and have read other things that have shown me that people in dire situations have found reading to be quite helpful. But for me, it wasn’t – even though I’m someone who should find literature helpful in such a situation.
Even though I should know my way around a bookshelf enough to choose the right things to read, I found that I didn’t. I’m wondering why we think it should. Why do we think that literature should serve that purpose? Why make that argument?
It’s interesting that you say that, but you did look for consolation in literature.
I did, yes. But I didn’t find it.
In the stage of recovery I’m in now, it’s helpful. But just in that moment, the moment of crisis, it does not help. It did not help me.
The Readings Foundation supports the development of literacy, community work and the arts through annual grants. Applications are welcomed from Victorian individuals and organisations with Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status.
Applications for The Readings Foundation 2013 grants must be lodged by 5pm on October 31, 2012. You can contact email@example.com to find out more.
Scriptwriting professor John Glavin told the Washington Post recently that turning a book into a film works best when the writer is willing to reinvent the book to suit the film medium, rather than attempt to be too faithful to the original.
‘That’s why there are very few great movies made from great books, but any number of great movies made from deeply forgettable books,’ he said. ‘We can’t forget Vertigo, and we can’t recall D’Entre Les Morts, the book it adapted.’
Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a film classic, while the pulp fiction original by Mario Puzo is largely forgotten.
But of course, great books are usually more attractive to filmmakers than mediocre ones, despite the challenge of doing justice to the books – and the risk of alienating or angering fans. When it works, the payoff is well worth it.
Here are just a few great books making the transition to a cinema screen near you in the coming months.
The trailer for Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski siblings, the creators of the Matrix trilogy, are about to release their version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, one of those books that’s often labeled notoriously unfilmable. We’re about to see if the Wachowskis can turn the label around.
‘In all honesty, I’m amazed that of all my books, this is the one that filmmakers of that calibre and reputation would want to make,’ David Mitchell himself has said.
‘We actually weren’t sure it could be done,’ said Andy Wachowski. ‘We were skeptical going into the writing process. That was a sort of exploration, just to see if it was even possible.’
Cloud Atlas will hit Australian cinemas in early 2013.
The trailer for Les Miserables
An all-star version of the hit musical Les Miserables (itself based on Victor Hugo’s novel) will open on Boxing Day in Australia, with local stars Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman alongside Ann Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and others. Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) will direct. All the actors were apparently required to sing their parts live
The trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson’s first film of The Hobbit is about to be released. And New Zealand, where it was filmed, has banked on it delivering another tourism boost. The national tourism slogan ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ has become ‘100% Middle-earth’, reports the Guardian, while in the days leading up to the premiere, Wellington will be ‘renamed’, ‘Middle of Middle-earth’.
The film will be released in Australia on Boxing Day. It is the first film in a projected trilogy.
Christmas is here! Yes, we know it’s October … but in bookselling, October marks the beginning of the Christmas period, with publishers releasing their under-the-tree hopefuls onto the shelves. It’s when the big-name authors (like Salman Rushdie, to name just one) bring out their books.
We spoke to some Australian booksellers to ask them which books they’re most looking forward to – and recommending – this summer.
Get out your pens and make a list. There’s plenty of time to check it twice before you do your Christmas shopping …
Chosen by Warren Bonett
One that has just come out I have yet to start, is Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton. The title of this memoir is the alias Rushdie took on when he went into hiding many years ago as a result of the fatwa placed upon him. This is his account of the time he and his family lived under this threat, and, in my sneak peek inside, it also looks to be a strong defense of the ideas behind free speech.
In a similar vein, my next pick is Mullahs Without Mercy by Geoffrey Robertson QC who actually defended Salman Rushdie years earlier against a prosecution for the ancient crime of blasphemous libel. This latest book by Robertson is on the scramble for nuclear weapons by Iran and its ruling Mullahs, which he argues is contrary to international human rights law. The silver lining, if there is one, is that this action by Iran, may force the international community to develop stronger responses to countries that contravene these laws.
Next comes Australia’s answer to Alain De Botton, Damon Young with his latest, Philosophy in the Garden. I’ve been a fan of Damon’s writing on ABC’s The Drum for some time now, and his last book Distraction was excellent. His work sits somewhere in the space between De Botton and A.C. Grayling, being deeper than the former and more accessible than the latter.
Readings Books Music and Film
State Library of Victoria
Chosen by Tom Hoskins
I’m very much looking forward to Chris Ware’s book (box!) Building Stories. What a fantastic way to re-establish the immediacy and vibrancy of print as an artefact and medium and not just a conduit of information.
Also Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, to be read immediately after I finish Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, and Barney Hoskyns’ new Led Zepplin bio Trampled Under Foot!
Yeah, I’m partial to a good rock story …
The Sun Bookshop
Chosen by Deb Force, Sarina Gale and Ellen Spalding
I recommend The End of Your Life Bookclub by Will Schwalbe, a remarkable memoir about a mother and son and their love of books and reading. When Will Schwalbe’s mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he decides to start a book club with only her. What unfolds is a celebration of literature, relationships, family and life. Heart-warming, inspiring and beautifully written. One I will be hand-selling for sure.
My 22-year-old son, who has not read a book since he was 17, is racing through Life after Death by Damien Echols, the extraordinary memoir of a young man who spent 18 years on Death Row for a crime he has since been exonerated of. Damien Echols is one of the West Memphis Three. Well written, tragic and absorbing.
And I loved Flight Behaviour, the latest novel from Barbara Kingsolver. It’s the story of a woman dissatisfied with her small farming life, who married too young , too poor, too unchallenged. Her life is changed by a strange phenomena of migrating butterflies and a scientific team who come to study them.
I’ll be coaxing customers in the direction of Lily Brett’s new novel, Lola Bensky. It’s a beautiful combo of self-deprecating humour, late 60s rock gossip and sharp moments of terror, as we get flipped back to Lola’s parents’ Holocaust experience. Lola’s blend of innocence and worldliness makes her so appealing. Her meandering conversation with the fascinating Jimi Hendrix character is a highlight.
Chosen by Chris Currie
The Queen of Katwe by Tim Carruthers is the true story of a young girl’s extraordinary rise from the slums of Uganda to become one of the best chess players in the world. I’m a sucker for chess books at the best of times, but was recently captivated by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, with which this book shares much of its humanity and detail.
I desperately want to read Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace (Penguin, November), a collection of his best non-fiction of David Foster Wallace, not only because I know it will be brilliant, but also because I know Ronnie Scott already has a copy.
A successor to Rufus Butler Seder’s Scanmation books, Dan Kainen’s Safari takes lenticular technology to the next level. Along with information about eight different animals, you are able to watch full-colour Photicular images of each animal move across the page. It’s hard to describe, but you have to see it.
Albert Park, Victoria
Chosen by Kris Humphries
We can’t wait to get our hands on a copy of Flight Behaviour, set in the Appalachian mountains by the author of the very successful The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.
I greatly enjoyed a proof of The Happiness Show by Melbourne author and social commentator Catherine Deveny, earlier this year. It’s essentially chick lit, but written in a snappy and smart fashion perfect for the beach this summer. It’s set in Melbourne, London and Bali and looks at what happens when you stumble across the ‘other’ love of your life.
A couple of staff have started on The Laughing Clowns by William McInnes again, set in Melbourne, in the questionable world of property development.
The very bookish Ramona Koval’s biographical opus, naturally titled, By the Book, looks at how books have shaped and informed her life.
Grace: A Life in Fashion by the uber stylish Grace Coddington is already garnering interest and promises to be a riveting read – essentially, this is a cultural history of the last half century populated by the beautiful people of the world of fashion.
We have read enticing snippets of the biography of Frances Birtles by Warren Brown, a man who crossed Australia more than 70 times in the early part of the 20th century – by bicycle and car, pioneered early filming then went gold-mining and retired prosperously. As you do.
And there’s so much to look forward to in children’s books! Aside from the obvious crowd-pleasers: The Third Wheel: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #7 from Jeff Kinney, All the Wrong Questions from the delightfully named Lemony Snicket and the second Ruby Redfort: Take Your Last Look from Lauren Child. We are really keen to read Under Wildwood from Colin Meloy and Ellis Carson (the follow up to Wildwood), as well as Grimm Tales: For Young and Old by Philip Pullman (of Dark Materials trilogy fame).
We bring you our favourite links and articles we’ve found around the internet this week.
Apple maps has to be the most embarrassing product launch in Apple history (and a landmark in the history of products, generally). The ‘most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever’ is so seriously defective that Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued a public apology and Apple has taken the extraordinary step of instructing users how they can use other mapping products while Apple maps is fixed.
What’s a disaster for the most successful company in the world is a gift for satirists, though. Check out the latest cover of Mad magazine: a spoof of an iconic New Yorker cover, with a map of the city wildly distorted (‘now using Apple maps’). 10th Avenue has become the Champs Elysees, the Hudson River has become the Sea of Galilee and Canada has become Chad.
The New Yorker’s David Denby is the latest in a line of film critics to write about the dearth of movies for grown-ups these days, in amidst all the Judd Apatow gross-out comedies and chick flicks about shopping and weddings (the only things girls care about, don’t you know?). He is depressed about the way that opening weekend grosses get more and more important, meaning that the the types of viewers drawn to see movies straight away are the ones who increasingly determine what gets made.
Since grownups tend to wait for reviews or word from friends, they don’t go the first few days the movie is playing. That means, as it has for years, that people from, say, fifteen to twenty-five years of age exercise an influence on what gets made by the studios way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. My friends under about forty-five accept this as normal: They don’t know that movies, for the first eighty years of their existence, were essentially made for adults.
The Awl has a nifty little humorous piece on the stages of grief after publishing your first book, from denial (‘If they want to low-ball me on the film rights, that’s fine, but in that case I will need a piece of the back end and final say on casting’) to acceptance (‘Remaindered? You mean I can buy my own hardbacks for a buck twenty a piece? Oh. Hell. Yes.’)
And on the ‘thinky’ side of the same subject, Australian writer Rachel Hills has written about the challenge of book writing – and the serious hunkering down in a quiet room, alone – it involves, particularly to the fragile writerly ego of a long-time freelance writer, addicted to the rush of being regularly published. ‘It is countless hours spent alone, perfecting ideas that are too complex to explain to strangers you meet at cocktail parties. It is enforced humbleness (or at least enforced daily stomping on that ego and desire for affirmation).’
Hardly a day goes by without another article about the plague of sexting (particularly teen sexting) and the perils of mobile and internet technology when it comes to privacy. But, as an Atlantic article points out, before there were mobile phone ‘selfies’, there was the Polaroid camera, which also lent itself to the kind of pictures you wouldn’t want your photo lab technician to see. Mia Farrow sprung Woody Allen for his affair with her adopted daughter Soon Yi after she found some naked Polaroids. And Robert Mapplethorpe experimented with Polaroids when he was just starting to play with photography, much of it homoerotic.
It’s tough times in the publishing world. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Penguin are suing several authors for failing to deliver contracted books for which they’d already received an advance. Among them are Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, darling of the grungey nineties, for a book to help teenagers deal with depression that never materialised (the contract was for $100,000 and she was paid $33,300 in advance) and New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, for a collection of her journalism (which seems odd – had she lost her press clippings or her laptop since she signed the contract?), who owes $20,000; Penguin also wants $2000 in interest.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is negotiating a major campaign obstacle, after a secret video was released of his candid remarks to a donor gathering, who he told that it’s not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who vote for Obama. The Obama camp is already finding all kinds of ways to use this slip-up against him, including with this clever graphic.
This week at the Wheeler Centre, we talked about our love of American television as part of our ongoing AMERICA series. For those of you who share that love, here’s a little treat for you – a sneak peek at Lena Dunham’s Girls Season 2 (which will premiere in 2013).
The search for ‘authentic’ Mexican food may seem like a new fad, localised in the hipster enclaves of Brunswick and St Kilda – but in fact, it’s been going on for centuries. While people have been eating corn tortillas wrapped around meat or beans for more than a millennium, the idea of ‘tacos’ is a twentieth century one, and it’s deeply bound up in the messy history of American colonisation and globalism.
Italian artist Federico Pietrella has found a novel use for library date stamps: he uses them in his paintings, made from thousands of densely stamped ink dates. ‘In his enormous ink artworks Pietrella always stamps the current date, thus each of his pieces contains a clear timeline of the days he worked on it, often spanning two months.’
The latest classic to get a graphic novel adaptation is the much-loved YA novel, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Take a peek at Hope Larson’s striking interpretation.
Looking for a literary rest-stop on today’s tour of the internet? Sit back and have a browse at these weird and wonderful libraries from around the world, from the Michaelangelo-designed Laurentian Library, to a home bathroom library, to Diane Keaton’s personal reading room.
Florence’s Laurentian Library was designed by Michaelangelo. So, why are you surprised that it’s a work of art?
[via Art Trav]
This home library, shaped like a map of the USA, is more weird than wonderful. And not very practical either … (but certainly inventive).
[via Beautiful Libraries]
Diane Keaton’s memoir has been much-praised. So, it’s not a surprise that the quirky actress, an early muse to Woody Allen, has an inviting-looking personal library that just begs you to sit down, pick up a book and stay awhile.
[via Beautiful Libraries]
If you like the idea of reading in the bath (perhaps with a lazy glass of red), then you’ll love the idea of this handy bathroom library.
[via Beautiful Libraries]
The gorgeous Abbey Library (Stiftsbibliothek) is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It’s famous for its superb baroque interior and its collection of rare books and manuscripts, but it also functions as a lending library.
[via Thinking Shift]
Designer Karl Lagerfeld is batty about books – so much so, that he’s designed a perfume, Paper Passion, that takes its inspiration from the smell of printed paper. His personal library houses over 300,000 books.
[via The Hairpin]
What to do when you have so many books, you don’t know where to put them? That’s where this staircase library comes in – making use of every available space.
[via Beautiful Libraries]
The library and Gothic suite from Hearst Castle, built by twentieth century media mogul William Randolph Hearst, said to be the model for Citizen Kane’s main character.
[via Beautiful Libraries]
If you need to get hold of a book and can’t find it anywhere, Nigella Lawson may have a copy on her shelves. Her personal library is as voluptuous as her, um, cooking.
[via Beautiful Libraries]
This week’s Friday High Five is a visual spectacular, as we bring you five fabulous sculptures, all made out of books. Enjoy!
By Robert The.
By Nick Georgiou.
‘A wonderfully crafted and cleverly folded lamp springs to life from the hardy white pages of the bound book, powered by a simple low voltage adapter.’ Created by Takeshi Ishiguro for Arctecnica. via Gizmodo.
By Robert The.
Artist Alex Queral carves his sculptures directly into the phone book. He says, ‘In carving and painting a head from a phone-book directory, I’m celebrating the individual lost in the anonymous list of thousands of names that describe the size of the community.’
Ford’s Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, is still operating. And they must be carrying around some serious guilt, because they’ve recently invested in a (literally) towering monument to Lincoln’s legacy: The Lincoln Book Tower.
This awe-inspiring sculpture represents (and resembles) the tower of books written about the man. Though it looks like it’s built from actual books, they’re actually bent aluminum book replicas, with covers printed on.
Roughly 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln. Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, says this makes Lincoln the most written-about person in world history, apart from Jesus Christ. Nearly 7000 books (or, book replicas) are contained in the tower.
205 titles are represented, most of them still in print. Because the tower was designed in 2010, there are no books published after that year.
‘There are books here for people of all ages,’ says Tetreault. ‘There’s young people’s books, there’s an Abraham Lincoln stickers book, there’s an Abraham Lincoln coloring book. And then of course there’s all of the bestsellers: David Herbert Donald’s great book about Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals — all of these major scholars who’ve written about Abraham Lincoln, they’re all contained in this stack.’
If you love books and love design, then this Thursday’s free event, How to Design an Australian Classic, with W.H. Chong, is for you.
Join us at the Wheeler Centre from 6.15pm. You can book here.
The Australian Publishers' Association celebrates the best in Australian cover design once a year, with the APA Design Awards. This year’s winners were announced last week; here’s some of them.
The full list of winners is available at Bookseller and Publisher online.
In the first of a new event series on the art of book design, multi-award-winning cover designer W.H. Chong will present an illustrated talk on how he turned much-loved Australian classics into art for Text Publishing’s Australian Classics series.
Beautiful Books: How To Design an Australian Classic with W.H. Chong will be held at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 31 May at 6.15pm. Free, but please book.
In person, Jeanette Winterson has a somehow otherworldly appearance. Small and lithe, her short hair curling over her ears and at the nape of her neck, she resembles an elf or a pixie.
Light-footed, she strides the stage at the Comedy Theatre as she greets her audience, brandishing her book as if talismanic object. She reads – or, more accurately, performs – the first chapter in full, but barely glances at it and rarely seems to turn the page. It’s as if she knows the story by heart – and she should; she lived it.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal tells the true story partly covered in her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: living with her eccentric adopted parents, devout Pentecostals, growing up with books and language as her refuge from an arid emotional life. It picks up where Oranges left off, too, with her mother discovering her in bed with her female lover and kicking her out of home, aged just 17 – and goes on to take snippets from her literary career, and to follow her discovery of her birth mother (or ‘bio mum’, as she calls her). Threaded throughout are meditations on the nourishment of books and art, the way they offer solace, discovery and growth.
But Jeanette doesn’t like to call it a memoir; she prefers ‘cover version’, as she told Salon. In Why Be Happy, she writes, ‘Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.’
She tells her Comedy Theatre audience that the book is ‘an experiment with experience’.
Reflecting on Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she channels the first chapter of the book in her hands, her memoir-of-sorts:
1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir – and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James misunderstood Jane Austen’s comment that she wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody?
Not everyone has embraced this experiment, nor her acknowledgment of the shifting border between fact and fiction.
In a recent First Tuesday Book Club, Germaine Greer called both Oranges and Why Be Happy self-serving and ultimately unfair to the characters portrayed in them, particularly Mrs Winterson, Jeanette’s adopted mother, a larger-than-life ‘monster’. Greer said the books belong to ‘a strangely female genre … the lying autobiography’. She declared that she wasn’t ‘buying’ Jeanette’s story of feeling unloved from birth, because ‘adoptive parents DO love children’.
An audience member asks Jeanette, during question time, for a response to Germaine’s comments – which she handles with dignified aplomb. She says she won’t ‘hear a word said’ against Germaine Greer, ‘mother of feminism’, but adds, almost as an aside, ‘I think it’s rather touching that she’s standing up for Mrs Winterson, who died in 1990.’
‘I think it’s a very affectionate portrait of her,’ she reflects. ‘I began to have a lot more sympathy for her, a lot more understanding.’ She concludes that her mother, Mrs Winterson, had none of the chances she did, coming of age when she did, before the 1960s changed the options available to women. ‘She was clever and she was trapped.’
Indeed, Jeanette is openly admiring as she recalls that her mother read her Jane Eyre as a child, but changed the ending, so that Jane didn’t end up marrying the dashing Rochester, with his mad wife in the attic, but her cold clergyman cousin St John instead. Jeanette didn’t discover what her mother had done until she found a copy of Jane Eyre in the library and read it herself. She’s now impressed by Mrs Winterson’s ability to make up her own alternative story as she turned the pages, fluidly inventing in the prose style of Charlotte Bronte.
Jeanette credits Mrs Winterson and her upbringing with making her who she is; surprisingly, though she has confessed both a longing to be loved and an innate inability to do so, she says she wouldn’t change her circumstances if she could.
‘I was never going to be a nobody,’ she tells the Comedy Theatre audience, with a bright confidence. ‘That wouldn’t have suited me.’ She believes if her circumstances were different, she’d have a suburban house, kids, a Range Rover, and a high-flying corporate job. ‘I’d have had the energy but not the poetry.’
Her isolation, she says, meant that ‘I thought of myself as the hero of my own life.’
‘If you think of yourself as a fiction instead of a fact, you learn an important truth: you can change the story. You can rewrite yourself.’
Jeanette Winterson, it seems, is as passionate about her chosen religion as her mother was about God. Hers is art, literature, words.
Gesturing at the audience below her, at the blue velvet curtains at the sides of the stage, Jeanette Winterson laughs and says, ‘It’s the gospel tent, isn’t it? I’m hoping I’ll have saved some souls tonight.’
Jeanette Winterson appeared in a double bill with Chad Harbach at the Comedy Theatre as part of the Wheeler Centre’s Ten series of events, presented in partnership with the Sydney Writers Festival.
A terrific new coffee table book by the art director of the New Yorker, Françoise Mouly, collects her favourite covers that were either rejected (often for being too controversial) or have an intriguing story behind them. Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See comes with commentary by Mouly – and the images range from the shocking to the hilarious, to the absurd. Here’s a taste:
At the height of the Lewinsky affair, Art Spiegelman proposed this sketch titled ‘Clinton’s Last Request.’ ‘When a word like “blow job”, which you never dreamt of finding in the paper is on the front page every day,’ he explains, ‘I had to find a way for my image to be as explicit without being downright salacious.’
Sometimes it looks like an artist is poking fun at the more sedate New Yorker covers. This was proposed by M. Scott Miller, years before Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. He claims that the inspiration for this jeté is an experience familiar to anyone who follows classical ballet.
Fans of Wire and Treme, rejoice! David Simon, creator of what is generally agreed to be the Best Television Series Ever, is now blogging. Simon was a writer of journalism (and books) before he turned his hand to television, which means that his writing is well worth reading. What’s more, he’s opinionated and loves to share his opinions. The posts so far vary from an impassioned article on journalism, prize culture and the Pulitzer to bite-sized observations from the streets of Baltimore, or his own lounge room. Bookmark this one.
A Belgian not-for-profit, Responsible Young Drivers, has hit on a brilliant strategy for teaching teens that texting-and-driving is insanely dangerous. They tricked student drivers into believing that in order to pass their driving tests, they also had to demonstrate proficiency in texting while driving. The responses? ‘I’ll stop driving if this is introduced as law’, ‘People will die’ and ‘This is dangerous’.
It’s a bit like that urban myth, where a parent catches their kid smoking and forces them to chain-smoke an entire packet of cigarettes (and they never smoke again). From the looks on these kids' faces, the message has sunk in. This video is genuine car-crash viewing – almost literally.
Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, has written optimistically for the former about why he believes ‘actual’ books will survive the digital age (as will bookshops and libraries), and will coexist with digital books:
Few technological victories are ever complete, and in the case of books this will be especially true. Bookstores will not disappear but will exploit digital technologies to increase their virtual and physical inventories, and perhaps become publishers themselves. So will libraries, whose vast and arcane holdings will soon be available to everyone everywhere.
All book lovers are fond of the idea that books are art. Chinese artist Lui Wei has taken the idea literally, creating intricate cityscape sculptures from stacks of schoolbooks, held together by steel rods and wood clamps. His sculptures include a range of iconic buildings from the Pentagon to Saint Peter’s Basilica, and depict cities in a state of metamorphosis, a concept familiar in his native Beijing.
Spain’s Librería General de Arte Martínez Pérez, open since 1890, is one of those bookshops that looks like it’s always been and always will be. So when Ailsa Piper received word of its closure, it felt like more than simply the demise of a business.
One morning not long ago, I opened my Inbox to find an email from a favourite bookstore – the Librería General de Arte Martínez Pérez in Barcelona. There’s nothing unusual in that. I’ve received updates from them for months. They remind me of the one visit I made there, a chance discovery of a place I’ve been hoping to see again.
Yesterday’s email was unusual: a missive with no details of upcoming events, no photographs, dates or times. It contained words like dificultades and tristeza. Yesterday’s email said that after 121 years, the Martínez family’s bookshop and recital space would close.
I cried. I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I only spent a couple of hours there.
I walked in off a hot Barcelona street, enticed by a leather edition of Cervantes in the window. I had no intention or budget to buy; it was just that the shop had a ‘feel’. The wood around the doorway was polished. The metal knocker gleamed. Inside, the shop smelled of leather, musty paper and good coffee. It was silent. Cool.
Bookshelves climbed to the ceiling, and volumes of prints and old letters were stacked on tables in the centre of the room. All were in Spanish or Catalan, and beyond my conversational Español. But oh, the tug of the place.
Stay, it whispered. Run your fingers over those spines. Consider the previous reader, and the reader before them. Lift the Cervantes and let your eyes run over the copperplate print. Pretend that your simple Spanish is good enough to savour the words. One day maybe it will be…
A man appeared, wearing a grey cashmere cardigan, and extended a hand to me. ‘Bienvenida a nuestra tienda,’ he said. Welcome to our shop.
He wasn’t phased by the dirt on my hiking boots or the tear in my khaki pants. Even my bursting backpack didn’t trouble him as he took it from my shoulders, telling me the store had opened in 1890, and had been in his family ever since.
He told me that in recent times he had had to branch out to survive, but that had given him a new pleasure. His other love was music, and he had found a way to support musicians. Would I like to see the Sala – the room where he had been hosting small concerts?
We walked past his paper-piled desk, down a few stairs, and through a narrow doorway.
I gasped. He smiled.
We stood at the entrance to a space that was almost as long as a netball court. To my left was a centuries-old wooden statue of a saint. I forget which one: there are so many in Spain. Two black pillars lined up behind the anonymous santo before the space opened out, its polished concrete floor gleaming under skylights that refracted light from the hot sky I’d escaped. My eyes travelled to a heavy wooden door in the distance, opening onto ferns in terracotta pots against an ochre wall.
‘Venga,’ my host whispered. Come.
Our steps click-clacked toward a refectory table. We passed a grand piano, a floral sofa, a wooden bench-seat, and three oil paintings, all lit from wall-mounted lights.
You need rest, Senor Martínez said. And perhaps a coffee? I can play for you some music too.
At the other end of the beeswax-scented table was a painting of St John the Baptist, his lush red robe clearly of more interest to the painter than the light streaming from heaven. To my right were the door and a shuttered window opening to the courtyard. A bird trilled. I sat. Yes, rest would be nice.
Coffee came in a modern white espresso cup, with a single almond biscuit and a choice of CDs – recordings he’d made of his concerts. Choral chants, flamenco, the jazz of Cole Porter, blues, Bach and tango…
I made my choice, and as the first notes from a quartet insinuated themselves into the space, Señor Martiñez handed me the volume control, and a note on which was written the password for his wifi. If you want to write to your family at home, he said, as he walked away.
I stayed for an hour. Then another. I wrote. I listened. I read a little Cervantes, wondering who first turned those yellowed pages. I studied the patina of window and picture frames, and I inhaled the scent of polish and care.
When I left, Señor Martiñez would only accept a euro for the coffee. I added my name to his mailing list before thanking him and walking out into the day.
Back in Melbourne, I was always excited to open one of his emails. In our clear southern light I’d be transported to that mellow place, imagining myself sitting in company with thirty others as the sun set, sipping our included glass of cava as a cellist or blues guitarist warmed up for a fifteen euro concert. In my mind I wore smart clothes and spoke perfect Spanish!
His emails always radiated possibility; all except yesterday’s.
All the hard work and efforts to maintain financial equilibrium have been insufficient to ensure continuity, he wrote. It is a considered decision, taken with profound sadness.
Even that note, full of bad news, was restrained and dignified.
Of course, there are worse stories in the world. Bigger losses. Harder. But I mourn the passing of that place. With it goes something civilised and civilising: history, grace and a beauty that cannot be bought with re-issued bonds, or re-built by the next wave of developers. Some things are losses to all of us, and no bankers or politicians can ever give them back. Tradition is one such thing. Kindness to strangers, no matter how humble they may be, is another.
My Spanish is not gracious enough to reply in the style of Cervantes, or even of Senor Martínez, but I do know how to write that I’m sorry.
In Spanish, it also translates as ‘I feel it’.
In another Friday High Five themed edition, we share five bookish videos from around the web that made us giggle, including looks at the art of pencil sharpening and the smell of old books, a quirky promotional book video featuring Hangover star Zach Galifianakis, various Go the F**k to Sleep performances and our own Unexpected Passions.
Think you’ve read everything? Think again. The latest hot how-to book is How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Art of Pencil Sharpening, by David Rees, a former political cartoonist turned artisanal pencil sharpener.
‘With an electric pencil sharpener, a pencil is meat. It’s this thoughtless, Brutalist aesthetic,’ says Rees. ‘Nobody else is doing what I do. I guarantee an authentic interaction with your pencil.’ He also guarantees to get your pencil ‘really freaking sharp’. Rees charges his mail-order customers $15 per pencil, which he sends back in a sealed tube, with with a signed and dated certificate ‘authenticating that it is now a dangerous object’.
This Picador book trailer made the rounds of the internet a while ago. Actor Zach Galifianakis interviews John Wray about his novel, Lowboy. So far, so normal, right? (Albeit with a sprinkling of celebrity stardust.) Galifianakis and Wray swap roles – the actor plays the writer. (It’s made even funnier by the fact that Wray interviewed Galifianakis for a New York Times profile in 1999, so this really is role reversal.)
Highlights include the visual gag of a manual typewriter with two enormous keys, a confession to playing Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 as writing inspiration (‘it’s good for morale’) and the story of having written a previous novel in alphabet pasta. (The novel no longer exists; he ate it.)
This isn’t Wray’s first claim to internet-video fame though; before his Galifianakis outing, his performance at an ultra-hip book reading was enjoyed by literary types. In this video, Wray unveils a giant back tattoo of New York Times reviewer Michiko Kukatani, with her face and the legend ‘KAKUTANI 4 EVAH’. (And no, it’s not real: it’s drawn with what the Americans call ‘Magic Marker’, and we would call a texta.)
It’s a cliche (and sometimes a truism) that fetishists of what publisher Zoe Dattner now calls the ‘p-book’ like to rhapsodise about the smell of books. This video, made by online second-hand bookseller Abebooks, goes one step further, explaining the science of the smell, which is summed up as: a ‘combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness’.
Go the F**k to Sleep is well known as the book that not only took the internet by storm, but was created by the internet: it started on Facebook as a joke circulated by novelist and tired parent Adam Mansbach, who was urged to create and publish it as a real picture book.
It’s been performed by former Play School host Noni Hazlehurst and godfather of cool Samuel L. Jackson (in his most memorable recitation since Pulp Fiction’s ‘I will lay my vengeance upon you …’). Samuel L.’s version has also been set to music.
Sam Pang’s Unexpected Passions series is a favourite here at the Wheeler Centre. Past guests have included Noni Hazlehurst and musician David Bridie. Tonight is another (free) instalment in our series, with comedian Lawrence Mooney (on his love of Vanity Fair) and Tom Elliott on World War II fighter planes. It’ll be at the Wheeler Centre, 7pm – 8pm.
You can whet your appetite with this video of the first Unexpected Passions, with guests Kate Langbroek (on op-shops) and Adam Zwar (on cats).
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