S.A. Jones ignored her creative writing teacher’s advice to never write about mental illness in a novel … but has spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of whether mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. And how do you write about a form of mental illness that defies the beginning, middle and end that the novel demands?
Image by Benjamin Watson, Flickr.
It is February 2011 and I am stuck. Comprehensively, wickedly stuck. The manuscript that I have pummelled, vivisected and re-wired refuses to assume an orderly shape so, in desperation, I enrol in the Advanced Year of the Novel course under the tutelage of the redoubtable Andrea Goldsmith. It is our first session and Andrea, in her magnificently peremptory way, dispenses some advice: ‘Be cautious of using the first person for an entire novel. And don’t write about mental illness. Ever’.
I look down at my opening paragraph:
‘My name is Isabelle, and I have decided to die’.
First person. Mental illness. Two strikes and I am out.
Fast forward three years and that troublesome manuscript – Isabelle of the Moon and Stars – is finally out there. A real book. I took Andrea’s advice regarding point of view but stuck with the mental illness theme. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with how, or if, mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. ‘Mental illness’ is a broad church, covering everything from bi-polar to schizophrenia to delusion to anxiety to obsessive compulsion. It is almost easier to say what it is not (normal, apparently) than what it is.
The tension between ‘normal’ and ‘aberrant’ has obvious thematic attractions for writers, driven as they are to look with a critical eye at what passes for unremarkable or ‘natural’. Who can forget the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, pawing over the walls; her ‘madness’ a perfectly rational response to the restrictions and repressions of ‘being female’ in Victorian England? Or Bertha Mason, an archetype of suppressed female sexuality, bursting out of Thornfield Hall in a halo of flames and fury in Jane Eyre?
Books set against an institutional backdrop can problematise the normal/abnormal construct particularly well. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted both suggest that the arbiters of health – doctors, nurses, administrators – can, in their despotism and omnipotence, be as deluded and certainly crueller than the patients they are charged with curing. It’s a trope I played with (and I use ‘played’ quite deliberately) in Isabelle. Isabelle’s ‘madness’ comes complete with convenient labels. But what of Jack, her boss, who throws himself with gusto at whatever management fad is in favour that week? Who glances at his management texts for comfort and exhorts his team to get behind the strategy du jour – P3 (People! Performance! Planning!).
Isn’t it ‘mad’ that such nonsense is not only taken seriously, but as evidence of competence? And what of Evan, Isabelle’s best friend who had a religious experience as a grieving child that now drives his sexuality and decision-making as an adult? Is that ‘mad’?
But if the novel as a form can effectively explore dualities like mad and sane, unhinged and rational; there was one limitation I kept butting my head against during the writing process. Isabelle’s particular malady is hyperthymic depression and anxiety disorder. If you are (blessedly, mercifully) ignorant about what this means, let me give you a primer. You function well for fairly long periods of time then there comes a crash. Inexplicable. Total. Remorseless. My heroine, Isabelle, calls it The Black Place.
There are many dread things about The Black Place: the physical pain of the attacks, the constant fear of the next haunting, the vicious tussle to keep her purchase on her body.
But the worst thing, absolutely the worst thing is how memory-less it is. Once in possession there is no agency, no goodness, no hope and no memory of what it is to be anything other than The Black Place. No matter how many times Isabelle suffers the experience, in the moment of it, it is impossible to recollect that it has happened before and that it passes. That there are good days on the other side.
Isabelle’s malady is characterised by repetition. By wearying, haunting sameness. But fiction needs to move. It needs light and shade, conflict and change to push it along. This was my central creative problem: how to honour the truth of the experience but shoe-horn it into the conventions of the novel?
I began to wonder if the particular strain of mental illness I was working with would always be best served by poetry: windows into physical and emotional states sufficiently brief and self-contained to stave off reader boredom. I kept returning to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems and to Wilfred Owen’s snapshots of shattered minds and bodies and wondering if I was working in the wrong genre. Or in the right genre but with the wrong illness.
It is surely no accident that among the successful novels about mental illness are the ones where the maladies generate their own drama. (Let me pause here. I am in no way suggesting that any particular mental illness is more or less ‘dramatic’ than any other. I speak of drama here as it relates to the novel as a form). The memoirs Running with Scissors, Madness: a Memoir and Touched with Fire take psychosis and mania as their subject. And there are novels that explore breakdown: the collapse under pressure of an unsteady personality edifice and its rebirth. It’s a conceit used in novels by Wally Lamb, Sylvia Plath, Maggie O’Farrell and others; the fault-line in the ‘old’ personality often caused by a trauma. I also used this device in my first novel, Red Dress Walking. It aligns neatly with the genre demands of the novel: inciting force, conflict, climax and denouement or – if you prefer – beginning, middle and end.
But what to do with the malady that just won’t change? That has neither the mystery of an onset story nor the ‘glamour’ of a breakdown? That just is. How to write about the everyday heroism of people who face down their own black place and get out of bed and make it into work and keep friendships going and refuse suicide as an option day after day after day after day. Can the novel do that?
Crafting an ending for Isabelle was particularly problematic. Endings demand that the loose ends are tied up and some closure is achieved. I often find endings the least satisfying part of a novel precisely because the form demands a resolution rarely achieved in life and certainly not with an illness that, while it may be treatable, is not ‘soluble’ (I confess to a particular antipathy for the suggestion in some books and films about mental illness that the afflicted are ‘cured’ by love).
I solved my dilemma by more or less hitching the plot to the cycle of the illness. In doing so, I hope to suggest that the cycle of the illness itself provides infinite beginnings, middles and ends.
S.A. Jones is the author of the novels Isabelle of the Moon and Stars and Red Dress Walking.
Novelist Jessie Cole reflects on the surprising self-exposure of writing fiction, the way it brings the submerged to the surface, ‘a little like posting a selfie that unwittingly reveals all your subconscious thoughts’ – unlike memoir, where the writer consciously mines and reveals their own subtext.
Image: matryosha, Flickr.
Nowadays, it’s a truism that we live in a culture saturated with self-exposure. The spectrum of possibilities runs from simple Facebook selfies, through blogs and feelpinions, and probably ends somewhere in the murky waters of uploading amateur porn. Never before have we had such access to ways of both communicating and controlling the parts of ourselves that others see. But what strikes me, as a fiction writer, is how much that control unravels once you begin to engage in the process of storytelling, otherwise known as ‘making things up’.
The mysterious workings of the creative mind mean that often (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) what comes to the surface when writing fiction might not be what was initially intended. Ideas or pressing issues can dissolve into nothing while the narrative picks up speed in an entirely new direction. There is something about the process that resists the interference of the rational self, and in this way what is revealed is often quite unexpected. Added to this strange phenomenon – and even more alarming – your fiction seems to say things about you that you didn’t even know, and perhaps can only faintly grasp after writing. It’s discomforting, a little like posting a selfie that unwittingly reveals all your subconscious thoughts.
Memoir – where we actively share what we know about ourselves – seems straightforward in comparison. And in a sense it is. We are picking and choosing the parts of our personal story worth relating, and we know where the story goes. There is still a sense of underbelly – a possible thread of meaning or narrative that might go undetected by the writer – but I suspect that the more aligned the writer is with the subtext of the work, the higher the quality of the work.
I’m not so sure this is true for fiction, which seems to involve – at least in the act of writing – a surrender to the unknown. I like to begin a story with several characters of interest in a difficult or precarious situation and then just watch how things go. These characters seem fully formed, separate from me, and they do their own thing. When I write in the voice of a character I feel they are speaking through me. I am listening to their story and waiting to see where they lead. Often I have an inkling or premonition of what’s to come, but it is similar to the feeling I get when a friend tells me a story and I guess at the ending. Even my best guess could be wrong.
Stories seem to lead to particular places, and then sometimes they take a left turn. What I find most confounding about the process is how to come to terms with all of this being a representation of my inner world. Who are these characters who people my novels? Some of them might have initially been based – at least partially – on people I know, but once inside the narrative they tend to take an authority over themselves. And in any case, characters are not real people, but a collection of words on a page. Since I imagined them and then wrote down their stories, are they – in some disturbing way – all just aspects of me? And if so, what private things am I unknowingly exposing about myself?
It might seem strange that in this age of unprecedented self-exposure writing fiction could feel so risky, but it does. When I got word that my first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was to be published I was in a car with my family driving home from Brisbane. For the first few minutes I was ecstatic, speechless and beaming, and then a sudden migraine struck and within fifteen minutes we had to pull over in the car park of a highway McDonalds for me to hunch, dry retching, over the gutter. It seemed the reality of publication was something my body wasn’t quite ready for. And, even now, those two opposing feelings seem to rock and swell in my belly. Excitement at the release of a new novel, Deeper Water, and a sickening fear of all the things I could be saying about who I am, of which I’m only half aware.
In this context it doesn’t surprise me that my girl Mema, the protagonist of Deeper Water, should be grappling so bemusedly with all the knowns and unknowns of her world – that her journey should involve an awakening to the secret things she has kept hidden, even from herself. Writing fiction involves a type of awakening, and I think sharing it is an exposure far more strange and discomforting than any other kind.
Jessie Cole’s latest novel is Deeper Water (4th Estate).
On the tenth anniversary of The Big Issue’s fiction edition, the magazine’s associate editor, Melissa Cranenburgh, reflects on the challenges and rewards of making (and selling) the edition. And she tells why it’s important that, unlike most short-story collections, it needs to sell copies in the thousands: because the magazine’s reason for existence is to enable homeless and unemployed people to make a living.
I bought my first Big Issue fiction edition on Boxing Day 2005. It wasn’t the first fiction-only edition of the magazine, but the second. And I bought it from a vendor outside Young and Jacksons – the iconic Melbourne pub doomed to lose the geographical face off with Flinders Street Station.
On the tram ride home I read half the stories. In bed that night, I flicked through again, pausing over my favourites – and just never threw it out. I’m in a new house, now. But it’s still there, stored in a tattered cardboard magazine file beside vintage copies of Meanjin and Granta.
This all happened way before I worked for the magazine. To paraphrase my job interview a couple of years later, it was one of the many reasons I resolved to work there.
For me, what made that edition memorable wasn’t so much that I liked all the stories. I didn’t. There was even one I actively disliked (a self-referential piece by Matthew Reilly in which a fictitious geopolitical thriller writer ends up in a ‘real’ military fire-fight). It’s just that some of the stories really resonated. And one in particular, lingered: Elliot Perlman’s ‘Good Morning, Again’. A story that, for me, perfectly captured the mixed emotions of a ‘morning after’ scene – a man still awake at 4am ponders a new, much younger lover, still imprinted with the memory of someone else.
I loved it then. I still love it. But a good friend whose taste I can’t fault said she thought it was creepy. A story about an older guy, a younger woman. Just creeped her out.
That’s how it works, though. The short stories, the ones that work, that get you involved, tend to evoke a strong reaction: for or against. Although in every collection there’s bound to be one or two that just leave you cold.
Which is why putting together any short-story collection, but particularly one in a magazine made for a general readership, can be such a vexed issue. So many tastes, perspectives, genre filters – so much subjective matter covered in such few pages. Each member of a selection panel has to think not just of the kinds of stories that she likes, but good examples of stories that – while not to her taste – may really resonate with others.
But The Big Issue has its own unique concerns, as I discovered when I finally got to drive my first fiction-only edition. Will the vendors – footslogging it through rain, rain and shine – be able to shift copies? Make enough money to get dinner that night?
That’s a hard one. At the last magazine launch, on news that the fiction edition was coming out again, one Melbourne-vendor groaned: ‘My clients say they don’t like fiction. “Is that the fiction edition?” they say to me. “Here, you can have it back.”’ Another vendor took me aside afterward, said he had the opposite experience. ‘It’s a great book, the fiction one. I always buy heaps and I always sell ’em.’
That latter experience seems by far the most common one. The fiction edition is one of the strongest selling editions each year. And the one that gets the most positive feedback from readers. But still. Perhaps more than any other publication, making sure the people who sell the magazine get the return they expect weighs heavily on all of us.
We can’t forget though, that there’s a reason vendors sell magazines and not… mugs. Which is why the fiction edition matters: it’s the kind of thing independent, culturally responsible publishing should do. Vendors need to make a profit. Equally writers, readers, and the broader culture, should also benefit.
In Australia, where a book that shifts 10,000 copies could be considered a bestseller, a short-fiction magazine that in a fortnight can sell upwards of 30,000 copies is no small thing. (A fact that has led to ongoing support from the CAL cultural fund – helping to bump the edition up 16 pages and make sure the writers and other contributors are properly paid.)
Then there’s this. In the flickering digital age, where content is consumed, and shared, and supplanted, in moments, The Big Issue is a papery anachronism. An unlikely encounter. Two people, a city street, a brief exchange. Smiles, greetings, fumble for coins. An act of charity. And on the train ride home, flicking through the impromptu purchase, perhaps an unexpectedly transportative moment. I can only hope it’s a story that lingers.
The Big Issue fiction edition will hit the streets this Friday 29 August. It will be launched at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday 29 August at 4pm.
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.
Rajith Savanadasa is writing a novel or collection of linked stories that re-interprets the semicircular stone slab known as a moonstone (or Sandakada Pahana) in Sri Lanka. It’s about a family living in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war in 2009. Each chapter is from the perspective of a family member. This is the mother’s chapter.
I was the only one in the lane to be awake all night, waiting. But the past few nights had been unusual. Everyone had been up lighting crackers, talking in happy voices, celebrating. It was like 1996 all over again, like when we won the World Cup and all of Colombo was excited. I almost couldn’t believe it. Not the cricket, I didn’t care about that. This time it didn’t make sense; somehow I wasn’t convinced things had changed. The North and East were quiet; a sheet pulled across their faces. I didn’t get the emails with pictures of the dead. No stories of devastation. There were calls but none from the people who wanted favours. I thought maybe now, all those who’d tried to lay their troubles on my shoulders would shut up.
In the morning the party continued on the street, acchis fed soldiers kiribath, seeyas played rabang, their fingers drumming the cowhide silly. Politicians congratulated the nation, the army and themselves as sarong-Johnnies danced on the backs of trucks and waved flags. That flag – with the lion and its sword against the marrow coloured background – it was everywhere. Lining the streets, sticking out of vehicles, flapping on top of every roof and waving from the top corner of every TV channel. The Perera family next door had put one on the aerial of their car. The Bandaras two doors up had stuck one through the metal grill covering their front windows. There was even one tied to bamboo scaffolding at the building site now owned by a Chinese businessman at the top of the lane. Only the Loduweikes didn’t have one, probably because those Burghers were too old to even know what was happening.
And us. We didn’t have a flag. That’s why I was surprised when Latha found one stuck in between the roof tiles and gutter outside my window. She came with the morning tea, saying, ‘Nona thé.’
I didn’t open my eyes. My headache was bad.
‘Nona,’ she said a little louder. ‘Nona, negitinna. Wedata yanna thiyanawa.’ She put the teacup on the bedside table and kneeled. ‘Nona,’ she said quietly into my ear. ‘Adath wedata yanne nedda?’
I knew it was a workday but I said, ‘Let me be.’
‘Nona, thaama asaneepada?’ She touched my forehead for the temperature with her turmeric smelling hands. ‘Una neh.’
‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Neh, mama condostara.’ The smile showed all her cracked teeth. It was a silly old joke that my children used to make but it made me laugh: ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m a bus conductor.’ Latha was full of that childish talk. She went over and pulled the curtains open. My eyes burned. When they got used to the brightness Latha was leaning out the window. ‘Nona kodiyak demmada?’
I got out of bed gingerly, walked across and looked out. The flag was fluttering lightly. It was a small one, paper and not cloth, not much longer than the length of my palm.
‘Who put it there?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Mang nemayi. Mahattaya-da?’
It couldn’t be Mano. Mano was too lazy. He asked me when he wanted anything done. Couldn’t even make a cup of tea himself. And Anoushka? She didn’t care about such things.
I put on my housecoat and slippers and went around to the front. Reached up and touched the shiny print with the tips of my fingers. I could have pulled it down but then the neighbours might have thought I didn’t support the country. I support the country. I’m proud.
‘Latha, did you see anyone?’
He was the only one tall enough to reach the gutter. Niranjan. Everyone else would have needed a stool. Latha would have needed a ladder. She looked as confused as I was.
‘Who did this?’ I asked her again.
‘We have to find who.’ I went back inside to call work and tell them I was still not feeling well.
Ever since he got back from America he’s been doing things to upset me. He goes round-gahanna and comes back drunk in the middle of the night, gets up late the next day, goes to work and does it all over again. On weekends he goes completely missing or returns just before the sun comes up and sleeps all day. I barely see him. I tell him, ‘Niranjan, what’s the meaning of this?’ but he just laughs, his perfect teeth making him look mean.
‘Where did you go? Why don’t you tell me anything anymore? I was very worried. And you know people will start saying things if you come back so late every night. They’re already talking.’ I tried this often. I showed him the results of his thoughtlessness. ‘Yesterday that fellow who sells lottery tickets near the park had asked Latha if you’re doing “night duty.” Can you believe? What shame! We have to hear things from average people. Think a little before you go and do these things.’
I keep trying; keep talking, hoping something will go into his head; but like everyone these days, he doesn’t listen to me – halfway through my speech he’s already walked outside to look at his car or into his room. That was how he escaped. Sometimes he came back, hands full of dirt and grease and when I said, ‘Niranjan, go wash your hands before you eat,’ he would pick up some food and put it in his mouth. He did these things to hurt me. That flag was confirmation. He knew I was the person who would be affected. He knew.
I ate a banana, gathered my strength and went into his room to see what I could find. It was like a pigsty. Like a cyclone had blown right through. He had left dirty underwear, a sarong and a couple of socks right in the middle of the floor. A shirt hung off the bedpost. A whole lot of clothes, crumpled, sat on the chair like they were trying to become a person. One sock on top of the mosquito net – how it got there, god only knows. Papers and files and books and notepads were all thrown around, not one inch of the desk could be seen. Only the computer was uncovered. Even that was filthy – the keyboard had a layer of brown dirt and the screen was black on the sides. I opened the drawers but didn’t look too much – there was no point. It was full of gadgets and knickknacks – wires, computer things, bead necklaces, gold chains and bottles of deodorant and perfume – so many things I couldn’t even shut it properly. Had to move a few things around and slide it back and forth. Finally closing the drawer I stepped back – as soon as I did that I stepped onto something. It was a packet of chewing gum. And when I bent over to pick that up I noticed a bottle under the bed. I left the chewing gum where it was and got on my knees to reach for the bottle. The label said Bacardi. Rum. I opened it and took a sniff. Fire water. That had to go.
I opened the cupboard and more clothes tumbled out. Took up a pair of jeans from the bookshelf and its pockets were heavy. They were full of coins, business cards, one for a Duminda Samarawickrama and one for Ramona Perera from something called CTP Associates. Who was this Ramona woman? What does she want with my son? I dug a little deeper and found a half-finished packet of cigarettes. That was no surprise – I knew he smoked. He learnt that from his father. But at least Mano did it secretly, elsewhere. Not this boy. He came home, shut his door, opened a window and smoked away. Denied everything if anybody asked. Blamed the smell on a neighbour or a passer-by. ‘What are you telling me for?’ he always said.
‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ was how I answered that. ‘You must be thinking I’m some kind of fool.’ He made me so angry, burned all the blood in my veins. I didn’t know what to do, slap him like a misbehaving teenager or hit my head against the wall. I took the bottle and the cigarettes and walked out of his room.
Rajith Savanadasa wrote this extract in his time as a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.
The majority of Australians accept the science of climate change these days. But it seems to have made little difference to the way we behave.
Jane Rawson is former environment and energy editor at The Conversation and author of the ‘cli-fi’ novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. She’s uniquely placed to ask the question: can climate change fiction make a difference, where scientific argument hasn’t? Can it get help us to truly imagine the future – and act to change it?
Last month, three separate scientific papers came to the same conclusion: the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting, and it’s too late for us to reverse the process. If you heard the news you’d have realised, at an intellectual level, that we’re in serious trouble and something needs to be done.
So what did you do? Did you quit your job and travel immediately to the Leard Forest Blockade to stop Australia’s massive coal exports? Did you call your bank and demand they pull all your money out of fossil fuels ? Did you move to New Zealand and buy a house a long way up a mountain? Maybe you did, but it’s more likely you felt awful for a bit, maybe even a day or two, then you got on with your life. I know I did.
There are two kinds of climate deniers. There is the small group of people who deny human behaviour is affecting the atmosphere in a way that is disrupting the climate. This group is beyond the reach of persuasion; their objection to accepting climate change is ideological, financial or both and facts don’t enter into it.
So let’s forget about those guys (and they mostly are guys) and focus on the much bigger group – the rest of us. We think humans are changing the climate, but live as though nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, we drive less, buy more efficient appliances and maybe even install solar panels, but it’s disproportionate to the size of the threat we face.
Why do we behave this way? Fear, distraction, convenience, busyness, conviction this will happen somewhere else to other people or species: they all play their part. But over-arching all of this is, I think, a failure of imagination. Climate change just doesn’t feel real, not like trying to get the kids to school on time or wondering whether you can afford a decent holiday this year or what that pain in your stomach is. Perhaps cli-fi is the answer. You know, cli-fi: fiction which explores what climate change will do to the world. Over the past year or so there’s been a surge of interest in cli-fi, a ‘genre’ which has arguably existed since 1962. The Conversation, NPR and the Guardian have all run features; Time magazine has looked at the rise of cli-fi in film.
Writer Danny Bloom blogs extensively on the topic at Cli-fi Central; he claims responsibility for classifying ‘cli-fi’ as a genre. New genre or not, climate change has definitely become a popular topic for novelists in recent years, with more than 100 books listed on Cli-fi Books. A lot of them are rubbish. Some of them are bestsellers, or at least critically acclaimed, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Australia got in on the action with Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and two of the Aurealis Award’s science-fiction shortlist for 2013 take place in a climate-changed world – Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong and my own A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Cli-fi may be headed for its biggest coup yet with Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book shortlisted for a Miles Franklin award, a prize not normally associated with speculative fiction.
A lot of is getting written, but will cli-fi make any difference? Will it give us the material we need to imagine a climate-changed world – and finally behave as though our future is under threat?
Researchers in a number of fields think it could certainly help. The Climate Outreach and Information Network recently interviewed leading climate change communicators (admittedly, a bunch biased toward storytelling) and concluded:
Stories are the means by which people make sense of the world, learn values, form beliefs, and give shape to their lives. Stories are everywhere [but] they are absent from climate change communication. The careful, considered science and statistics of the IPCC cannot compete with the siren stories of climate change scepticism … (where one man’s fight against a wind turbine trumps a thousand scientists setting out the case for decarbonisation).
Scientists working in climate adaptation have been planning for an uncertain future using ‘scenario building’. They collaborate with communities to imagine what will happen to their home in future decades under a range of different climate change projections; it prepares them better than statistical data could. John Wiseman, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute, says:
This process of using alternative futures and pathways to test strategic choices was originally popularised by companies such as Shell, which was famously well-equipped to respond to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo due to prior imagining and careful consideration of this scenario … Scenario planning techniques help open our minds to the future and hold it open.
Far more anecdotally, some of the people who have read my novel – set in a hot, dry and occasionally flooded Melbourne where the electricity is always going off, the trains barely run and the divide between the handful of rich and great mass of poor has become canyon-like – reckon it’s made climate change feel like a thing that happens here and now, not in the far-distant future to Bangladeshis and polar bears. For most Australians, climate change pops into their heads when their train gets cancelled or they have to slog their way up a city street on a summer day.
But there are plenty of readers who are alienated by any hint of a polemic when they’re reading fiction. While many thousands of readers loved Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘climate change is here and now’ book Flight Behavior, there’s no shortage of reviews such as ‘I don’t like to feel like I’m being beat over the head with it’, ‘one long, preachy slog to the finish line’ or, from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles : ‘Imagine if “most characters in most novels” lectured each other about climate change. I’d push the last polar bear off his melting ice floe to avoid that’.
Danny Bloom reckons if someone would just write the climate change equivalent of Nevil Shute’s anti-nuclear On the Beach, everyone would be convinced and everything would be solved. I don’t think that’s true. Fiction is great – it can help us really feel the horror of what we’re headed for, change our lives in a deeper way than scientific projections alone could do, and give us ideas to help us adapt to the change – but it’s up against entrenched interests, big money and corrupt politicians who love convincing us to vote against our best interests.
Some very powerful people have a lot invested in us mining and burning fossil fuels. Even a Margaret Atwood trilogy may not be enough to stop them.
Jane Rawson is the author of the Aurealis Award-shortlisted novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. She was environment & energy editor at The Conversation.
When pulp author Carl Ruhen died late last year, there was almost no mention of him in the press. Andrew Nette looks back on Ruhen’s prolific career, taking in some of literature’s seediest corners – and the forgotten history of Australia’s pulp publishing industry.
Most people think of pulp publishing as American. But for several decades in the second half of the last century, Australia had a significant pulp paperback industry that produced a large range of popular fiction.
By the mid-to-late sixties, Horwitz, Australia’s largest pulp publisher, was producing up to 16 titles a month with initial print runs of 20,000 copies. Black magic, hippies, juvenile delinquents, spies, bored suburban housewives looking for thrills, and evil Japanese and German prison guards – nothing was off limits. Local pulp publishers pounced on mainstream society’s fantasies, fears and obsessions and turned them into cheap, disposable paperback thrills.
Carl Ruhen was at the centre of this industry and continued to ply his trade as a writer until the late eighties. AustLit, the Australian Literature Resource database, credits him with 78 books. He also penned numerous short stories and magazine articles.
On November 28 last year, Carl Ruhen died after a long illness, aged 76.
I’ve long been aware of Ruhen’s work. Unfortunately, I never got to meet to him. I found out about his passing in late December when an acquaintance who’d been in sporadic contact with Ruhen emailed me with the news. The only mention I’ve been able to find of his death was a short notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated December 2, 2013.
Carl Ruhen was born in New Zealand in 1937 and arrived in Australia in 1947. His father, Olaf, was a prominent Australian writer in the years after World War II, the author of a series of well-received books on local and Pacific history.
One of these, Minerva Reef, published in 1964, about a group of Tongan men shipwrecked on a reef for 102 days, saw him become something of a cult figure in that country. According to an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly in April 1966, Carl accompanied his father on a visit to Tonga, stayed six months and returned to Sydney with a Tongan bride. The relationship did not last.
Carl Ruhen got his start, like many aspiring local writers in the early sixties, submitting short fiction and articles for Man Magazine, a local version of what were known as ‘barber shop magazines’, popular in the United States at the time.
Import restrictions on foreign print material, in place in Australia since 1938, began to be lifted in the late fifties. Increased competition saw many local pulp publishers close. Others, such as Horwitz, readjusted their business model, stopped relying on reprinted overseas material and published more Australian books. Ruhen was part of a stable of authors put together by Horwitz. The group also included James Holledge, J.E. Macdonnell, W.R. Bennett, James Workman, Leonard Mears and Rena Cross.
Ruhen’s first Horwitz book, Curse of the Nekhen (1966), featured the playboy explorer Sigismund Flack. (‘A sophisticate who never allows the peril of the moment to upset his suavity’.) It was billed as the first of a series, but further Flack books never eventuated.
The Violent Ones, published later in 1966, was the first of several books by Ruhen dealing with out-of-control youth gangs, a theme popular with Horwitz and pulp publishers generally.
It was followed, in 1967, by The Rebels and Wild Beat. (‘They were only kids, but they were capable of murder – and worse. The story of today’s violent generation.’) The Crucifiers, the first of many biker novels Horwitz published, appeared in 1969.
Set amid the vice and crime hotspot of Kings Cross, The Rebels demonstrates Ruhen’s skill. The story is told in the first person by working class 17 year-old, Bernie. He spends his weekdays living a boring suburban existence with his parents and working as a storeman in a CBD department store, and his weekends in a blur of sex, alcohol, car theft and fighting.
During one of these weekend jaunts he meets Sandra. She challenges Bernie’s masculinity and understanding of women. She’s upper-class, from Sydney’s North Shore, is learning to speak French and wants to travel. But she also likes the wild life, including driving her mother’s car at dangerous speeds. She takes Bernie to a North Shore Mod party where a group of men beat him up. Swearing revenge, Bernie and his gang return the following Saturday, which is when things get out of control.
Like a lot of pulp, much of The Rebels now reads as clichéd. But the prose is clean and crisp and the story has a rough cultural authenticity. Also notable is the way Ruhen eschewed the heavy-handed moralising of similar juvenile delinquent stories that usually saw the characters realise the error of their ways and embrace mainstream society, in favour of a much more sombre, dark ending.
Ruhen was an editor at Horwitz from 1968 to 1969. Prominent expatriate Australian writer John Baxter, who worked as a manuscript editor at Horwitz around the same time, recalled, ‘In my day Carl made all the decisions.’ Presumably this included having a hand in establishing Scripts Publications, the subsidiary Horwitz used to release its more adult-oriented material, in 1969.
From 1969 to 1971, Ruhen edited Man Magazine. He also worked as a publisher for Ure Smith, from 1972 to 1973.
The size of the US pulp industry (by 1960 Americans were buying more than one million pulp paperbacks a day) meant many budding writers used it as a training ground before going on to make a name for themselves as mainstream authors. Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg and Marion Zimmer Bradley are just some that come to mind.
Like their American counterparts, many young Australian writers wrote pulp fiction to hone their craft with an eye to undertaking more significant literary pursuits. Many were ‘waylaid’ by the process, as a writer from the time once described it to me, and had to produce books quickly to pay bills and support families.
Four hundred dollars per manuscript was the going rate at Horwitz in the late sixties. Good money at the time, but a writer was only as good as their next book.
Australian pulp publishing in the fifties and sixties was a tough, fast-paced business, far more commercially minded than mainstream publishing at the time. Publishers like Horwitz turned books around quickly, sometimes in as little as a month, in order to take advantage of the latest media sensation or moral panic. For authors this meant long hours and high stress. Many lived in tough material conditions. Cigarettes and alcohol were often their only affordable escapes.
Very few local pulp writers I am aware of went on to mainstream literary careers. Some wrote for the burgeoning television industry. Most either gave up writing or resigned themselves to churning out pulp to make a living. Despite his talent, it appears Ruhen fell into the latter camp. Paper Empires: a History of the Book in Australia 1946 – 2005 cites Ruhen as one of Horwitz’s most prolific authors. In addition to writing under his own name, he worked under numerous pseudonyms, across all sub-genres.
The introduction of the ‘R’ classification in 1971 meant mainstream films, books and television increasingly dealt with subjects that were once exclusively the preserve of pulp. To compete, pulp became increasing salacious and sexually explicit.
Ruhen spent the seventies writing smut for Scripts Publications and another Horwitz offshoot, Stag Publications: titles such as Orgy Farm, Bar Stud, Sex Parlour, Saturday Sex Club, Wife Swap Orgy, Porno Girls and Society Stud. He also wrote horror under the pseudonym Caroline Farr, and romance as Alison Hart.
He wrote film paperback tie-ins, popular before the advent of VHS, for Alvin Purple, Mad Max 1 and 2 and Melvin Son of Alvin, and paperback versions of Australian television soap operas such as The Young Doctors, Neighbours and Sons and Daughters, for the UK market. He also wrote children’s books and local histories. He even wrote a book on baby names.
The last book credited to Ruhen on the AustLit site was the ninth book of the Neighbours series, published in 1989.
The passing of such a prolific local author without comment illustrates the extent to which Australia’s pulp publishing industry, once a huge part of our entertainment culture, has been forgotten.
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne crime writer, reviewer and pulp scholar. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications. His first novel, Ghost Money, was published in 2012. His online home is pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.
Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian and author of The Burning Library (Text), a reclamation of and introduction to Australian literature, has just been appointed the new fiction editor of Island magazine.
We spoke to him about his new appointment, his background as an editor for Duffy & Snellgrove, what he looks for in a story, and his approach to editing fiction … plus, tips for writers who might like to submit!
When did you come on board as fiction editor for Island, and how did the appointment come about? What attracted you to the role?
The appointment was suggested by email a few months back – Matt Lamb threw the possibility into the digital ether – but it was cemented in Tasmania three weeks ago. Island flew me and the new poetry editor (who shall remain mysteriously nameless until they are announced in May) down to Hobart and we passed a busy and social weekend, meeting the folks behind the journal and nailing down our shared vision for its future. It was like heading to Charleston, Sussex circa 1920 and finding Virginia Woolf and John Meynard Keynes muddling martinis in preparation for dinner – high-minded and well lubricated. Also, I went to MONA: a mid-life highlight.
You’ve selected and edited the stories for your first issue as fiction editor. Can you tell us a bit about your selections, and how you made them?
I was guest editor for Matt at the Review of Australian Fiction for its last series – issues that included Alex Miller, Frank Moorhouse, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Ashley Hay (the last two appeared in Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories 2013 for their contributions to the RAF) – so I knew the drill. He wanted the most beautiful, the smartest, the funniest, the darkest, the best fiction being produced in Australia today. It was all I could do to keep up with his finely targeted enthusiasm. Our first of issue of Island together rode on the strength of those associations: Ashley was present again and Tegan will appear in upcoming issues. Colin Oehring I happened across quite by accident but I could see the worth in his work immediately. Paul Griffith’s Noh stories blew me away when I happened across them in a monograph put out by the American University in Paris. It was a fine list of contributors and I’m grateful to them.
You’re making the transition from being a prolific and high profile critic to an editor commissioning work and shepherding authors through the editorial process. Are there any challenges along the way? Do you think your background as a reviewer will influence the way you approach this role at all?
I’m still reviewing, still chief literary critic at the Australian, so it’s more an addition than a transition. I actually started out as an editor, albeit fairly unofficially, at Duffy & Snellgrove in the late 90s. Peter Robb, Les Murray, Robert Gray, Ashley Hay, John Birmingham, Simon Leys – a fantastically eccentric and talented list of writers and poets – so I’m not entirely ignorant of the editor’s role. The challenge is mainly in filling the space with good work – and good work (here’s the hack in me coming out) tends to arrive as clean copy requiring little editorial intervention. As for my background as a reviewer: if there is any job that prepares you to back your own judgement, to be conscious of relative merit and proclaim it, it is reviewry.
How would you diagnose the health of Australian literary magazines (and their role in nurturing and discovering new fiction) right now? What do you see as the challenges and opportunities of your role in the current landscape?
Australian literary magazines are the most dynamic and vibrant aspect of our current literary landscape. I’d go so far as to claim that no other Anglosphere nation has a little magazine scene like ours, factoring in the relative size of our local audience. When the then-editor of Granta, John Freeman, came to Perth Writer’s Week last year he couldn’t believe the depth and breadth of our magazine culture. And as Matt Lamb points out, it’s not just the established journals. Upstarts such as Kill Your Darlings, Seizure and The Lifted Brow are changing the game. I sold rare books in London for years and spent a lot of time cataloguing runs of little magazines like The Dial or Blast or The Egoist – insurgent organs that broke Modernism during the teens and twenties of the last century, at a time when the official publishing scene was still obsessing over John Galsworthy’s latest novel. These new Australian journals are doing a similar job today.
What’s your approach to editing fiction? Do you believe in a light touch, solid intervention to help the writer make their story better, or something in the middle?
Happily my editorial approach and my constitutional indolence are in perfect accord. If a story is any good, it is likely because it sustains an idea or a voice over several thousand words. What value is there in an editor inserting his or her own vision or style as a means of improving the piece? So I’m happy to suggest possible alternatives but very reluctant to rummage about myself. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, of course – they’re technical aspects and can be neutrally deployed if need be. I don’t mind pruning either, since we all use more words than we really need. And then Island has its own copy-editing process to go through.
What kinds of writers and stories will you be looking for, as fiction editor of Island? What excites you in a submission?
All that excites me is good writing. I don’t care where the story comes from. I don’t care about its setting, subject matter, length or use of the semi-colon. I don’t care about the age, ethnicity, gender, educational attainments of the author, or the political, religious or philosophical positions they hold. I just want to be delighted, frightened, instructed, awestruck.
Do you have any tips – dos and don’ts – for writers looking to submit to the magazine?
Don’t be afraid to mail something off to me – you may be sick of the story or the latest chapter of your novel, having read it a million times. But I’ll be coming to it fresh.
And don’t hold back your story from Island because you think a) it’s a Tasmanian literary magazine, or b) Island has a relatively small circulation, or c) that the recompense is negligible. Yes, Island is based in Tasmania, and is proudly Tasmanian, but two-thirds of its circulation is outside the state, and its pages are open to all-comers, whether they’re from Tassie, the Australian mainland or overseas. And while all Australian literary mags have relatively small circulations, if you can impress me in its pages then you can be sure that there will be a thousand words cleared in the books pages of the national broadsheet for your next novel or short story collection to be reviewed. Finally, payment. I don’t have much money but I do have a measure of discretion when it comes to distribution. If a submission knocks my socks off then I will sell my children for medical experimentation in order to pay decent money for the piece. Also, we’re in talks with local Tassie vineyards and distilleries – as a good New South Welshman I’m comfortable using alcohol as top-up currency.
What’s the last great thing you read?
I’m just finishing Elizabeth Harrower’s long-lost final novel, In Certain Circles. It is so good that I feel superlatives would be a vulgar waste. Let’s just say that it was worth every moment of the 40-year wait.
The new edition of Island, Geordie Williamson’s first as fiction editor, is out 15 March. You can subscribe now.
We share a slice of summer short fiction, by acclaimed New Zealand writer Emily Perkins, author of Novel About My Wife and The Forrests.
A man’s wayward grandson is sent to stay with him on his retirement haven of Waiheke Island, a place where people come to connect with something they have lost. The old man has a task for him – one that his neighbours are fiercely opposed to.
THEY were worried about the boy so they sent him to me. I needed a job done. You’d think he was eighteen from the way they talked but he was twenty-seven. He turned up with combat boots, shorts, a hard bare chest, those earrings that stretch your lobes into some kind of saucer, and his soft voice. Good teeth; I’ve always treated family for free. His emails had come with exclamation marks and ‘lots of love’ – what is this I thought – this is my grandson? Ha. His dad harbours something against me, but the mother – my daughter-in-law – arranged the deal. She’s a communicator. After she left the island I saw her Xeroxed image up in a café, tear-off strips with her phone number underneath. Her bleached pineapple leaf haircut, her clenched fist. How to communicate effectively.
They came on the ferry and we crossed the lawn towards the cliff, holding our take-out coffees. My daughter-in-law saw the flying birds as a sign of an earthquake coming – I said they were a sign of spring. Kākā, four of them, in one of those tight, fast groups – birds that seem too big to fly so swiftly and so close to one another. Boom, incredible, jostling across my arc of sky. She admired the pohutukawa. I hadn’t told them the plan. Lew was silent, seemed to be happy to go along.
My grandson, same name as me. When I asked what it was that worried his parents he shrugged, smiled a cracker of a smile. Perhaps he is a bit simple. Chronic unemployment, a bad crowd, who knows. He had a mate on the island with an excavator and a loader. We’d get the glyphosate from the hardware store. It would be a long job, taking these trees out, a few weeks, and I wanted to get it done before they flowered again and those scribbles of red gave me second thoughts. I promised myself to landscape after, no row of unsightly stumps, not when the whole point was that glorious view. The thought of stumps disturbed me. Root systems spreading below the ground, abrupt vanishings above. He’d live in the shed halfway down to the beach. Called it a boat house but it was too far to drag the kayak, so I had another little lock-up down by the water. He brought a camp bed, a pillow, his sleeping bag, backpack, chessboard. I gave him citronella candles. We ate together on my deck.
AT THE ISLAND get togethers, when they still invited me, women in long dresses the colours of a sunset, straw-hatted men, those people used to say, a dentist – how interesting? All day in the mouths of others? We’ve all got a mouth, I’d say, which shut them up. Early retirement: I got lucky with the markets, although the investment thing was just a hobby and I don’t know why it went so well. ‘When everybody’s leaving the burning building, that’s when you have to walk in.’ But I wasn’t brave. It was timing, not mine but the decade, and once I had that haul I got out, the flames licking my ankles. Moved to this place, where people come to connect with something they have lost.
The only thing I miss, aside from my hygienist, the kindest woman I’ve ever met, is touching the frightened patients. Not in that way. (!!!! lol xxxxx, Lew would say.) There was something farm-like about it. I’d be close enough, working over a molar or tamping down a filling, that my belly would press, evenly, against the side of the patient’s head or shoulder. Just human contact – you could feel their heart rates drop. Eyes drift closed.
Some on this island are for the marine reserve but as many are against it. The optimists believe in saving fish. The pessimists warn of overflowing car parks, the ferry queues, the – what? Hard to know why they mind. They think the island will be repopulated, like some alien invasion movie, by space-takers waddling down the central road with snorkels, flippers slapping from their feet. It won’t be ours any more. ‘Ours,’ they say.
And these same ladies stopped me, shaking, in the service station forecourt and said, ‘Those trees! Our privacy!’ because Lew let slip somewhere on his amorous kayak trips with the local maidens – I’ve seen candles burning yellow outside the boat shed at night, I’ve heard the music floating up the cliff – what the excavator was for. ‘They’re eucalypts,’ I told them, which was not a lie if they knew half as much about botany as they should. ‘They house possums and mar the view.’ It’s true, the pōhutukawa were pest-damaged. Possums hissing as they stalked the grass at night. Not that I needed a reason, I just wanted my horizon. When I bought this place the first thing I got rid of was the old turning clothesline that would creak in the wind. That noise interrupted the sound of the sea like those scraggy branches blocked the sight of it. People had opinions then too: there’s a sort of nostalgia built up around white sheets stretched out on the breeze. The concrete pour at the base was rough to get out, like a skin lesion on the lawn. With the trees gone, if anyone forfeits privacy it’s me – yachts in the bay see straight to my house now, I can’t stop them. I’m prepared for the council fine. It’s worth every cent. There’ll be money for an upgrade to the art gallery but the shaking ladies won’t think to thank me then.
WE COULDN’T GET hold of a stump grinder – the golf club wouldn’t lend theirs, I’ve never been in with that crowd – so young Lew was grubbing out the stumps by hand. His strong shoulders, brown in the sun, a streak of red across the tops. I chucked him sunscreen and he squinted up at me with a grin. He was having a ball here with the girls, the water, taking the dinghy out for fish a few times a week. It was a bonding time, I told his mother when she rang. We worked together on our devilish task. I’d thought he might resist, with his earrings and tattoos, his greenie stance. Another man would have tried to talk me out of it but there was something passive about Lew. We were different animals, but I like to think he enjoyed it as I did, the spree in slow motion, two of us wielding blades in our protective goggles, earmuffs, boots, gloves – a pile of broken up tree wherever there had been a growing one, the same matter, different form. The council man came and shouted at me and I let him watch as the buzz saw took the last amputee trunk down. Tell me that wasn’t a thrill, the righteousness I handed him.
Oh the grief I got about birds and erosion. The possums were more danger to those tui than the loss of a few feeding spots. And if you’ve ever walked below a beach cliff you’ll see hanging roots, the dry clay crumbling around them, the pale system greedy for space, pushing the earth away – maybe trees prevent collapse but boy they cause it too.
Anyway they’re gone. Seven trees, chopped into bits and burning long and hot. The stumps are a problem. Poison isn’t working, the hand grubbing is a bastard, we’re going to have to wait for rain and get some diesel in there to burn them out. I patrol them for new shoots, and as I walk amongst the stumps I breathe it all in – the perfection of that ocean beyond the frame of the rocks, the haze over its lip, the low sweep of cloud. When the sun comes down shadowed ruffles will form on the water, the skin of the sea will swell and come closer, solidify, it will seem to look at me with its million invisible eyes. Lew is out there, in the orange kayak, a tiny figure on its surface. I stand beyond the place where the trees were, watching him. As I walk right to the edge of the slope to get closer a few loose stones skitter down the beach path, there’s a fast trickle of dust. I wonder if he’ll look back.
This story was first published in Griffith REVIEW 43: Pacific Highways, edited by Julianne Schulz and Lloyd Jones.
Join Lloyd Jones, Alison Wong, Anton Blank and Julianne Schulz for our panel Pacific Highways: A Spotlight on New Zealand, Wednesday 26 February at 6.15pm.
Next Tuesday, the winners of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards will be announced, in five categories: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, writing for young adults and drama.
Each day this week, we’ll focus on one category, sharing excerpts of our reviewers' responses to the shortlisted titles.
Today, it’s fiction.
Reviewed by Angela Savage
The book’s triumph is the character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who despite grief and hardship, remains desperate to live. ‘I am still warm,’ she laments after her execution date has been set, ‘my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself.’
Even after I finished reading Burial Rites, I felt Agnes linger, as though she was sitting in the room with me, knitting her socks, telling her devastating stories.
Reviewed by Sam Cooney
The true heart and the heartfelt truth of this novel is its depiction of the suffering and death of the Australians condemned to build the impossible railway. The passages – some which go for many brutal pages – that lay out in detail exactly how life was in the POW camp, are examples of merciless writing, writing that gives no shadow or murk under which a reader can hide.
… Flanagan’s wonderful novel tries to do away with hate, positioning it as a misunderstanding or as circumstantial – or even as not-yet-realised-love – but ultimately it is not love nor hate that governs this book, but an honesty that sits above or below or inside the muddiness of human emotions.
Reviewed by Thuy On
Miller’s description of the unforgiving scrubs of the ranges is masterful, as is his control of Bobby’s voice – a rather stylised vernacular. He may be, as Miller describes him, ‘semi-literate’ but there’s a certain beauty in his language – terse and spare and occasional lyrical: ‘Them Old People knows things us whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us. We are like germs to them Old People.’
… Though fictionalised, Coal Creek draws on Miller’s own experiences as a stockman in the outback when he was younger, and as such, there’s a mark of verisimilitude to his words.
Reviewed by James Tierney
The ruse Wright is playing at here is that of fiction, in particular the idea that an imagined future is always about the present. The Swan Book is an excoriating attack on the easy materialism of contemporary Australia, its selective blindnesses. The black swan is still a trespass, a symbol of displacement, ‘…a paragon of anxious premonitions, rather than the arrival of a miracle’.
Often fixed with bindi-eye burrs of laconic humour, Wright’s prose is an agile blend of the colloquial, the lyrical and the precise, with rhythms often closer to the balladry of poem and song than to much contemporary Australian fiction.
Reviewed by Bethanie Blanchard
The protagonist of Tim Winton’s Eyrie notes that his behaviour was once characterised as ‘florid and manic. As if he thought he were a character in a Russian novel. It was creepy. It wasn’t normal.’ Tom is indeed like a character from a Russian work. Throughout the novel one is reminded of Dostoyevsky’s manic, bitter and isolated protagonist from Notes from the Underground, the infamous Underground Man. Set in a towering, low-rent apartment building in Western Australia, his own ‘seedy little eyrie’, Tom Keely is Winton’s perversion of Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero, a sort of Overground Man.
Reviewed by Rochelle Siemienowicz
We’re all travellers now. Whether we physically fly around the planet for work, pleasure or to escape political turmoil; or simply graze on connected screens, consuming information and entertainment that has no national borders, there’s a rootlessness and restlessness that characterises (post) modern existence. ‘What are you doing here?’ is a question that recurs often in Michelle de Kretser’s stunningly clever fourth novel, Questions of Travel, and the answers are complex and multilayered for the two characters at the heart of her story.
… The book is written in dense, epigrammatic prose that requires full concentration. Slipped in amidst an accretion of beautifully rendered detail might be the plot twist that changes everything, or the almost elusive mention of a devastating detail.
By Julianne Schultz
In this edited version of the introduction to Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project, editor Julianne Schultz tells us what’s so special about the novella as a literary art form – and why it’s on the rise again.
As well as producing suffering, adversity can spark genius. And works of genius – paintings, writing, music, science, even buildings – endure long after calamity has been chased into the deepest recesses of memory, to become an inchoate fear passed from one generation to the next.
So the devastation of the plague in the hill towns and plains of mid-1300s Italy not only planted the seeds of the Renaissance, the demise of the church’s unquestioned authority, and the creation of Siena’s shell-shaped, sloping Piazza del Campo – where countless bodies were lain according to a contemporary writer, like ‘a giant lasagne’ – but The Decameron, its thousand novellas distilled from ancient tales of many civilisations, to create the foundation of literature as we know it.
The calamitous progression of the plague from east to west was understood, but its cause remained mysterious. Survivors wondered whether it was ‘disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities.’
Giovanni Boccaccio pondered the cause with these words in framing The Decameron. He described in graphic detail the effect of the ‘deadly pestilence’ as it struck his beloved city of Florence in 1348 and the ‘exodrium of woe’ that descended:
Despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent.
Boccaccio described the physical progression of the disease with shocking detail, its passage from people to person and from humans to hogs, the impact on family and social relations and the place of women and men, with an exemplary reporter’s eye.
With the city beset by such devastation, a strategic retreat seemed wise for the survivors in the ‘well nigh depopulated’ city. Thus the seven well-connected, intelligent young women, who tell most of the tales in The Decameron, met ‘one Tuesday morning after Divine Service’ at the ‘venerable Church of Santa Maria Novella’. Confronting catastrophe they wisely agreed to leave the city and create a ‘separate and secluded life’.
With three young men, and several maids, they ‘sought refuge from care and fear’ making their home in the Villa Palmieri on the slopes of Fiesole just far enough away from Florence. For ten days, Boccaccio writes, each told a story – every evening building to a crescendo of saucy, witty, engaging storytelling entertainment. The tales they told, in contrast to the devastation they escaped, embody a satiric cosmopolitan sensibility: quick wittedness, sophistication and intelligence were ‘treasured and the vices of stupidity and dullness cured or punished’.
And in this act of genius by Giovanni Boccaccio, in response to the most hideous and inexplicable catastrophe, the novella was born. Its name derived from the spectacular church where his characters began their journey – itself named for the brilliance of a ninth century storyteller – which is now, thanks to Project Gutenberg, available at the click of a mouse.
Storytelling is as important now as it was in plague-devastated Italy. Stories are the best way of exploring lands, ideas and fantasy, of interrogating character, personality and motive, of making sense of complexity, human relations and disaster. Stories have probably never taken so many forms – there are the stories we read, those we listen to, those we watch on the countless screens at our disposal – those we tell to make sense of things, and those we listen to and laugh, forget or just imagine.
While the ubiquitous screens have created new platforms, and demanded new styles, they have also profoundly disrupted the economics of publishing as it has functioned for centuries. Books can now be downloaded, transmitted around the globe and copied, at the click of a mouse; they no longer need to sit in warehouses for months, or to be obtained only from bookshops or libraries. They no longer need to be fat and beautifully presented, with elegantly designed hard covers and thick pages with rough edges, or monochromatic or salacious paperbacks with porous paper and small print.
In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.
Publishers have traditionally shied away from the form – the price required to justify getting a book into print could leave customers feeling shortchanged if they were asked to spend the same on a 400-page book as one with just 90 (feel the quality not the width).
The digital age has disrupted publishing in what many consider to be a calamitous way. But by providing an opportunity to revive the novella – for delivery to the device of your choosing – it may also revive one of the richest and most rewarding literary forms.
We are excited to play a role in the revival of the novella. Some of the best-known and most-loved novels are really novellas: Death in Venice, A Clockwork Orange, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Christmas Carol, Goodbye Columbus, Heart of Darkness, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to name a few.
We hope to continue this project for a few more years, to help foster a new golden age with an antipodean perspective.
Those of us with a literary bent can rattle off the titles of great novellas, talk with some assurance about the complexities of the form, its development over the years and its place in the constellation of publishing.
On the streets of the global village novella has acquired its own contemporary meaning. Novella, according to Urban Dictionary, whose website boasts of receiving thousands of new words every day, is ‘some super jucey (sic) gossip and rumours that usually concern people you know’. The super jucey gossip is likely to include news of ‘smooching, cheating and unashamed flirting’ and generally occurs ‘under the influence of alcohol and is extremely difficult to keep to yourself’.
In keeping with the age, Urban Dictionary will sell you a novella tattoo (temporary or permanent), cap, calendar, mug (single or two-toned), greeting cards, shirts and mousepads (with free packaging and postage).
More traditionally and in keeping with the practice of the best dictionaries, Urban Dictionary illustrates usage:
-OMG I have some jucey novella!
-What is it?
-No, I can’t tell.
-You have to, I’ll hurt you.
-Oh please don’t. OK, I’ll tell you …
And the story is out and on its way to a new life of its own. People are entertained and maybe even distracted from pressing calamities.
Six hundred and sixty-four years ago, Boccaccio was onto something. His was an act of genius that endures – and happily, what is old is new again.
Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project is out now.
We’ve recently welcomed our second round of Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, to the Wheeler Centre.
We bid a sad farewell to our first round of fellows: Luke Ryan, Mel Campbell, Julien Leyre, Lorna Hendry, Caitlin Henderson, Christie Nieman and Lorin Clarke. We’ll be looking out for their published work.
But on the happy side, please meet our current Hot Desk residents: Peter Bakowski, Tom Trumble, Adrian Murphy, Ronnie Scott, Melinda Harvey and our Melbourne PEN fellow, Matt Hetherington.
Peter Bakowski is working on a series of city portrait poems, Personal Weather, to be published by Hunter Publishers in 2013.
Peter has written poems set in St Kilda, Richmond and the Australian outback; during the fellowship, he will be observing (and eavesdropping on) Melbournians in the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queen Victoria Market, the State Library and other public spaces in the CBD.
These observations will serve as ‘seeds’ for a series of portrait poems.
Peter says, ‘These Melbourne portrait poems would complement Melbourne’s vitality as an UNESCO City of Literature and would add to the canon of city poetry as exemplified by Jacques Prevert, who wrote about Paris and Parisians, and Charles Reznikoff, who wrote about New York and New Yorkers.’
Peter has published three collections with Hale and Iremonger. His most recent collection, Beneath Our Armour, is published by Hunter Publishers. He won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry in 1996.
Tom Trumble is working on his second book, Trapped on Timor, about his grandfather’s involvement in a secret rescue operation that took place in 1942. It’s contracted to Penguin, who published his first book, Unholy Pilgrims.
By the end of March 1942, the Japanese laid claim to one of the largest empires in human history. The speed of Japan’s southern thrust left hundreds of Allied soldiers trapped behind lines. One such group, a party of 29 Australian airmen, left behind to keep operational an airbase in Dutch Timor, had their evacuation plans thwarted by the raid on Darwin.
After Timor fell to the Japanese, the group hid along Timor’s rugged northwest coast with little more than emergency rations and a portable radio in the hope of arranging a flying boat rescue. Every man contracted malaria, dysentery and jungle rot, four eventually dying of illness. After several abortive rescue attempts, contact was made with an American submarine at the very moment Timorese villagers betrayed the group to the Japanese. A party of 300 elite Japanese paratroopers was dispatched to hunt down the fugitives. What ensued was a frantic race against time and the most extraordinary escape of displaced Allied servicemen in the war in the Pacific. My grandfather was the 23-year old officer in charge of the airmen.
Adrian Murphy is working on the first draft of a crime novel, Stained Promises.
It’s the beginning of a series, with the hero living in Melbourne. Adrian says it is ‘a hero’s journey of protagonist against antagonist, all set in Victoria’. The plot involves town corruption, drug and meth labs, and girls imported for prostitution.
‘I’m a driven writer and a very fast one,’ he says. ‘That is, when I am in the groove of concentration and becoming at one with my fictional characters. The plot drives my characters forward and who knows what they will do or say next.’
Adrian says that working in the Wheeler Centre, in a books and writing environment, he’ll be able to concentrate on driving that narrative forward.
Ronnie Scott is working on a memoir about pop culture and adultness, beginning in the year 2000 and extending to the present day.
You’ll Never Wake Up looks at twentysomething experiences particular to this century – mainly the web 1.0 to 2.0 shift and the mixing of high and low culture. It traces a decade in the life of a group of young people who are being changed by this new world in unexpected ways.
Ronnie’s book was originally ‘a mix of researchy, cultural essays threaded together using bits of memoir’. He showed it to several publishers, looking for feedback, and they unanimously recommended he turn it into ‘a Gen Y Monkey Grip’.
In his time at the Wheeler Centre, he’ll be turning his document into ‘something that feels like … well, a book’.
Ronnie Scott’s long-form non-fiction has been published in The Believer, Meanjin, the Big Issue and elsewhere. He is the founder (and former editor) of The Lifted Brow.
Melinda Harvey is working on a creative non-fiction essay called ‘Lip Service’, part memoir and part literary criticism.
It will explore the experience of being pregnant and a cancer patient at the same time, using this strange happenstance to ponder the truism that literature offers consolation.
Here’s a taste of the essay’s contents:
Last September Adam and I finally got married. Iris made us do it. She was the size of a lime at the time, so the pregnancy books said, but no less persuasive for being diminutive. We caught the tram to the registry. I held a $7 post of violets in my hands. Adam wore a $15 suit he bought at Savers. Our photos of the day – affectionate, beaming, silly – were taken on our phones. In all of them I have my face turned slightly to the right, for the lump under my lip, more like a blueberry than a lime, was there then too. In fact, we joked about it. ‘C’mon, George Michael, show me your good side,’ Adam said. ‘Lucky I’m no Bridezilla,’ I said.
But the honeymoon was a six-month shuttling from maternity hospital to cancer hospital. At one place ultrasounds showed that everything was going swimmingly considering I was an elderly primigravida, At the other place I was told I was too young and too healthy to have this kind of old man’s cancer. When I should have been counting fetal kicks and moderating my caffeine intake I was googling ‘lip reconstruction’ and doped up on opiates.
I teach literature at university. In a world in which we struggle to account for the value of literature I tell my students novels are like rest areas along a highway, places where you can ‘Stop. Revive. Survive.’ Literature, I told them, offers consolation, never having needed it to give me any. Now, though, was the moment of truth. Was literature going to help me through the bewilderments of growing a child and losing my face that could smile in those wedding photos? What role could literature really play while life had its way with me?
Melinda has been published in the Australian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Book Review and many other outlets.
Matt Hetherington is one of our Melbourne PEN fellows. He will be working on translations from the Turkish poetry of Hidayet Ceylan, as well as poetry for his next collection.
‘Over the last five or six years of friendship, Hidayet and I have together translated nine or ten of his poems,’ he says. ‘He has also recently translated one of mine into Turkish.’
Matt has recently written for Cordite about his working relationship with Hidayet:
Despite the fact that we are both ‘amateurs’ at the art of translation, we still manage to satisfy the other in the end. After all, the word amateur itself comes from the root of the French word ‘to love’. We work together in such a way that it’s not truly work at all: I’m learning his language a little – as I don’t speak Turkish at all – but am at least bringing an affinity of his sensibilities to the process, and the ability to write poetry in English. Plus, there’s a mutual discovery in the intricacies and delights of each other’s world-view and the way it’s expressed.
We take a look at our five favourite links from around the internet this week.
Some believe we should tread cautiously with our children’s books, being careful not to startle young minds. Others, such as the late Maurice Sendak, believe that children are naturally drawn to dark tales, and we shouldn’t coddle them with pastel sweetness. The French are certainly in the second camp, if their recent literature is anything to go by.
The Guardian has recently published ten terrifying children’s picture books from France, with topics including My First Nightmare, The Rabbits' Revenge, The ABC of Anger, and a book in which death visits a little girl and kills her. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hide under the bed.
Ben Law’s moving and insightful essay on Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man and AIDS in Australia has had an overwhelming reader response over the past week (with good reason). Many have commented on how his piece has made them want to discover (or revisit) Holding the Man. Others have expressed a desire to find out more about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and how it affected the individuals caught up in it.
Last Sunday night, ABC2 aired a terrific documentary on AIDS in San Francisco in the early 1980s, during the days a diagnosis meant almost certain death. When We Were Here interviews five people who lived through that time, including a man who survived the deaths of two lovers and countless friends (and his own diagnosis) and a nurse who worked in the first AIDS ward. You can watch it on iView now.
Meanjin has just published a brilliant essay looking at Australia’s mining boom from the inside – and it’s fascinating, mind-boggling reading. Gillian Terzis channels Michael Lewis, as she travels to the Pilbara and visits the mining communities at the heart of the boom, where a three-bedroom house in the middle of nowhere rents for $1650 to $1900 a week, workers live in caravans in the driveways of houses with yachts in the front yard, the backpackers' accomodation is booked 12 months in advance, and a council street sweeper earns $91,000 plus per year.
Naturally, when you walk into Karratha McDonald’s and discover the cost of a single Big Mac is $9.65, you are forced to recalibrate your understanding of economic bubbles. The Big Mac index, invented by the Economist in 1986, is a light-hearted attempt to compare purchasing-power parity (what you can buy for your dollar) in different economies. My Victorian dollars did not take me very far out west.
Some authors I read and loved as a boy disappointed me as I aged. Bradbury never did. His horror stories remained as chilling, his dark fantasies as darkly fantastic, his science fiction (he never cared about the science, only about the people, which was why the stories worked so well) as much of an exploration of the sense of wonder, as they had when I was a child.
Bradbury himself has a piece in the current New Yorker, a science fiction special, in which he writes about his own childhood inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs:
I memorized all of ‘John Carter’ and ‘Tarzan,’ and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, ‘Take me home!’ I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.
Looking for some long weekend reading? Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It was the pick of 2010 for many reviewers; her latest short story, ‘The Proxy Marriage’, is available for free on the New Yorker’s website. Here’s a taste:
But Monty made a mistake. He sat Bridey down in his parents’ living room, two days after the dance, and told her that he’d wanted three things out of high school: to be captain of the tennis team, to get into Berkeley, and to have a serious girlfriend. The first two had already happened, and Bridey would be perfect for the third. She reported the conversation to William, laughing. ‘He was so earnest,’ she said. ‘About his goals.’
Stella Rimington, former director-general of MI5, has been called Britain’s most famous spy. She’s also rumoured to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s character M, in the James Bond franchise. But Rimington is not a fan of Bond; she says it’s ridiculously unrealistic and that anyone who tries to join any intelligence service inspired by 007 ‘should be rejected at the first hurdle’.
John Le Carre’s George Smiley is more her style. ‘The intelligence service of John Le Carre’s Cold War books really is quite reminiscent of the MI5 I joined,’ she told Kerry O’Brien on her last visit to Australia, in 2009. ‘There were people around quite a bit like Smiley … And the closed nature of the community he creates is also something that I can relate to.’
Rimington was ‘tapped on the shoulder’ to join the MI5 (as a clerk) while living in India, with her husband. The invitation came at a cocktail party, which sounds impossibly glamorous. She accepted because she was bored, passing her time doing ‘amateur dramatics and running jumble sales’. When she moved back to Britain, she approached an MI5 recruiter and asked for a job, which she got.
It was a ‘two-tiered system’, she recalls, with very separate careers for men and for women. ‘The men did the sharp-end intelligence work and the women’s job was to sit at the desk and deal with the papers.’
Things changed in the early 1970s, when the women mounted a ‘quiet revolution’ and asked why they couldn’t do the same work as the men. ‘Our bosses of the day had to scratch their heads for an answer, because there wasn’t one,’ she told a Dymocks Literary Lunch in 2009. ‘If you think about it, some of the skills you need to deal with human beings who are often in difficult and dangerous sitations requires just those skills we think of today as ‘female’ skills: warmth, empathy, the ability to encourage and bring people along, an understanding of people, and a certain degree of ruthlessness, which I think is also a female quality.’
Rimington was the first woman allowed to go on the training course that taught the skills needed for on-the-street work, with ‘human sources’. The course was geared for men, she says: the trainees were assigned pubs, where they had to create a cover story for themselves, then engage patrons in conversation and find out about them. Her pub, she recalls, was a ‘sleazy dump’ full of ‘men in dirty macs leaning on the bar’. She duly chatted up one of the men, who was ‘very surprised by the approach from a seemingly respectable lady, who he then thought was something other than a respectable lady’. That was the beginning of her career as an ‘agent runner’; it got better from there, she says. For one thing, she could pick her own venues to meet agents.
The MI5 heroine of Rimington’s four espionage novels, Liz Carlyle, is partly drawn from Rimington’s own experiences, but is operating in a very different world. ‘Liz is a modern MI5 officer,’ she says. ‘She didn’t have to wait to be tapped on the shoulder; she could look on a website (which now exists), see what jobs are available and apply online. And she did.’ Like her creator, Liz’s adventures in espionage are juggled with a private life that always seems to come off second best.
While Liz finds it hard to hold onto her lovers, Rimington divorced in 1986 and brought up her two daughters as a single mother. It was the kind of life where she got phone calls about umbrella stabbings while cooking dinner and was faced with decisions like whether to rush to hospital, where her young daughter had been taken seriously ill, or meet a defecting Eastern European agent at a London safe house (in the latter situation, she did both – ‘the safe house was quite near the hospital’).
‘All working mothers – and nowadays many fathers too – find themselves struggling to juggle things and I suppose I did have a few dilemmas like everyone else,’ she told the Australian.
Rimington began writing novels after the publication of her 2001 autobiography, Open Secret, a publication her former employer tried to stop. The MI5 still vet all her novels, to ensure she’s not revealing state secrets.
It’s ironic, given that it was MI5 who outed her in 1992, when she was the first director-general to be publicly named (resulting in the tabloid nickname ‘housewife superspy’), with little warning given. It was the only time Rimington ever felt her life was in danger, she says; the IRA were still active in London at the time, and the media quickly found out where she lived. She had to move house, along with her younger daughter, who was still living with her.
Liz Carlyle’s latest adventure is Rip Tide, involving Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists. What next for Liz, and Rimington? The 77-year-old author says she’s not sure how much longer she wants to keep it up, though there will definitely be at least one more novel.
Her many fans will be hoping that idleness appeals as little now as it did when, many years ago in India, she was tapped on the shoulder at a party …
Stella Rimington will be appearing in a double bill with Hisham Matar on Wednesday 16 May at 6.30pm, at the Comedy Theatre. Tickets are $35 for the two back-to-back events. Book now.
What’s bigger news than the awarding of a major prize? The decision not to award a major prize. The literary world is agog with the news that the Pulitzer prize for fiction will not be awarded in 2012, for the first time in 35 years.
Why? The Pulitzer board couldn’t reach a consensus on the three books nominated by the judges: Karen Russell’s idiosyncratic, wildly imaginative debut Swamplandia, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously completed The Pale King, and Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams (first published, in full, in the Paris Review in 2002, first published in book form in 2011).
‘I don’t think any decision like this is a statement about literature or fiction in general,’ Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, told ABC’s PM yesterday. ‘I don’t think you should extrapolate from that some sweeping statement about the nature [or] condition of fiction in America.’
‘Most readers will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction,’ writes Ann Patchett in the New York Times today. ‘As a novelist and the author of an eligible book, I do not love this. It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one.’
Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, was released in 2011. (She may take some comfort from the fact it was included in this year’s Orange shortlist, announced today.)
Former Pulitzer fiction judge Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon, believes that the result may say more about the the state of American reading in 2012 than the quality of American fiction published in 2011 (she calls it ‘an exceptional year’).
The Pulitzer is unusual in that there is an extra tier of decision-making above the level of the three judges (usually an academic, a critic and a writer), who come up with three titles to recommend to the Pulitzer Board, who pick the actual winner.
The board consists not of literary insiders, but of working journalists and journalism professors, ‘most with a deep respect for literature but relatively little familiarity with the literary world’.
While this is one of the prize’s strengths, says Miller (including its ‘excellent record at singling out literary works that also appeal to a lot of readers’), it is also a limitation.
‘Past boards might have been able to settle on a title that most of them had read even if it wasn’t offered as a finalist by the jury; reading at least a few of the ‘big’ novels published during the year was something a lot more people did before the internet and cable TV came along’.
Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian, agrees. ‘What’s happened is a disconnect between … reading communities and the people who actually it falls on to decide the award,’ he told PM.
Miller concludes that the fact that the board – representatives of the average educated American reader – don’t read widely enough to agree on an alternate choice when they disagree with the three books put forward, is the really worrying thing about this year’s lack of a Pulitzer winner.
The fiction jury was comprised of Michael Cunningham (who won a Pulitzer for The Hours in 1999), former books editor Susan Larson and critic Maureen Corrigan.
‘When I heard, the first word that went through my head was “inexplicable”. Then the second reaction was just anger on behalf of those three novels,’ Corrigan told the New York Times.
Susan Larson told NPR that all three judges are ‘shocked, angry and very disappointed’. She said, ‘This was a lot of work … I think we all would have been happy if any of [the three] books had been selected’.
There was speculation that the Pulitzer board might have considered the selected titles to be too unconventional to be worthy of a Pulitzer.
Reacting to this, Corrigan said, ‘If they didn’t think these three nominations were somehow within the regulations that they have set out, then they should have made that clear at the time we nominated them.’
John Mullan, a former Booker prize judge, told the Guardian that withholding the UK’s top literary prize is ‘absolutely never an option’. He said, ‘You go into it with the knowledge that some years are better than others. Some are very good, some are duff, and you just pray you get a good year.’
The Pulitzer for fiction has been withheld ten times since its inception in 1917, and three times during the 1970s.
Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin, has been withheld twice, in 1973 and 1983. There was also controversy over last year’s uncharacteristically short shortlist, of just three novels (out of a longlist of nine.
‘If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,’ said Ann Patchett, who opened a bookshop, Parnassus Books, in Nashville last year.
She pointed out that the Pulitzer sells books like no other literary prize – and that with both the bookselling and publishing businesses increasingly under pressure, it’s particularly bad timing to withhold the prize.
‘I can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it creates in readers.’
‘The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction.’
‘This was the year we all lost.’
In the absence of a Pulitzer-picked fiction winner, many commentators are stepping in to suggest their own picks.
Ann Patchett’s favourites include Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award – and Dennis Johnson’s Train Dreams, one of the three titles nominated by the Pulitzer fiction judges.
Ron Charles, fiction editor of the Washington Post (And Totally Hip Book Reviewer), tweeted, ‘I think it’s an outrageous insult. Only one finished real novel among the finalists, AND they can’t pick a winner. DO YOUR FRAKKIN' JOB.’ He added, ‘Incidentally, I would have been perfectly happy with SWAMPLANDIA! winning. Wasn’t my absolute favorite, but would have been a reasonable choice.’
His top picks were Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River or Mary Doria Russell’s Doc.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot was seen as another worthy alternative by both Patchett and Charles.
Publisher’s Weekly has published a list of ‘the good books the Pulitzer didn’t pick’.
What are your picks? What do you think of the decision to award no prize?
Who are your favourite literary sleuths? Sherlock Holmes is a perennial favourite, but after that the field opens right up. The Guardian has come up with its top 10 literary sleuths. The list is sure to provoke debate among crime fiction’s loyal fans. Compare it to some others and you begin to appreciate how broad the field is. If lists aren’t your thing, try this alphabet.
Taken broadly, this most ancient of genres arguably traces its origins as far back as the Bible, but the first undisputed tale of detection is found in the Arabian Nights, in a story called ‘The Three Apples’. The genre’s Golden Age is considered to be the early 20th century, although it still boasts some remarkable writers, including one of the genre’s foremost contemporary practitioners, Henning Mankell. Earlier this year, Andrew Nette took us on a tour of Australian pulp detective and crime fiction.
Learn more about the genre here.
In a Crikey report published earlier this week, Guy Rundle lamented the fall from grace of the Man Booker Prize. Rundle compared the prize’s first jury in 1969, consisting of the standard-bearers of high literary culture, and its current jury, headed by Stella Rimington, a former spy chief who’s gone on to writing spy novels, and comprised in the main of names associated in one way or another with genre fiction. He concluded that this year’s Booker, with its emphasis on “readability”, signalled the death of a certain kind of culture:
“What was that culture? It was, for want of a better term, one ruled by the notion of ‘reflexive humanism’ – that modernity posed a series of existential challenges to us, personal, ethical, political, and that the novel was not only a way of thinking those things out, it was a form that experimented with new ways of thinking about how that thinking might occur, i.e. not wild aleatoric experiment, but innovation in form produced and producing innovation in content. That is not only a manner by which the novel matters, it is, these days, the only way by which the novel matters.”
Is the highbrow literary novel dead? Joe Fassler, writer of an essay on the subject in The Atlantic magazine, seems to think so. Fassler argues that literary fiction is being cannibalised by genre fiction.
Fassler’s essay traces a brief but compelling history of the rise, and rise, of genre fiction. The origins of the shift, writes Fassler, are the publication in 2003 and 2004 of two McSweeney’s anthologies of genre fiction by a mixture of genre bestsellers and highbrow auteurs. But there’s a broader shift going on, too, writes Fassler, which he sums up as follows: daily life resembles science fiction more than ever; pop culture is at least as important an influence on writers now as literary culture; literary tastes are more global than ever; stories with mythic dimensions are timeless; and genre is more lucrative, while financial returns on literary fiction are diminishing.
Despite all the gloom and doom, the latest ebook sales figures indicate that that sales of fiction ebook titles is way ahead of every other book category. And of all the different kinds of fiction, literary fiction, here defined as a genre, outsells all the other genres. The figures may be masking a grimmer truth, however, as literary fiction also includes, in this case, sales of classic titles that are no longer under copyright.
Many of us have a favourite Big Issue vendor. Ours sits outside our local supermarket, is on speaking terms with all the locals, knows all the dogs' names and whether or not you can pat them, and every minute or so hiccoughs, “Het! your Big Ishoooo…” as if he had a rare, altruistic form of Tourette’s syndrome.
Once a year at about this time, the magazine the vendors are spruiking is filled with nothing but utter fabrications and shameless lies. Beginning today and for the next fortnight, the entire magazine will be a complete fiction. Featuring well-known and emerging writers, Twelve Tales, the 2011 edition of The Big Issue’s annual fiction edition, will – as the name suggests – include 12 short stories. Authored by a combination of of up-and-coming and established authors (think Chris Womersley, Frank Moorhouse, Nick Earls, Charlotte Wood, Peggy Frew and Amanda Lohrey), the stories cover a range of themes, from advertising culture and ageing, to the art of people-spotting and the laws of desire. The fiction issue has become an annual fixture – this is the seventh – and it’s played a part in fostering local talents like Chris Womersley, author of Bereft.
As always, this edition (16 pages longer than the usual Big Issue) will be $5, half of which will go into the pockets of the vendors, all people from a homeless or marginalised background.
Imagine you are a publisher of serious literature and you receive a submission for a novel that goes something like this:
“Cesar is a translator who’s fallen on very hard times due to the global economic downturn; he is also an author, and a mad scientist hell-bent on world domination. On a visit to the beach he intuitively solves an ancient riddle, finds a pirate’s treasure, and becomes a very wealthy man. Even so, Cesar’s bid for world domination comes first and so he attends a literary conference to be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes.”
Aira, who will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, is a contrarian of the highest order. He takes a remarkably carefree approach to his literary work. And yet his output, which consists of more than 50 short, surreal novels, has somehow managed to find a small but loyal global audience – not least due to the fact that he has been championed by figures such as Roberto Bolaño. One doubts whether such a writer could publish even a single novel in Australia, but Latin American literature is a very different beast. (Here’s an introduction to the writer at Quarterly Conversation.)
Today we’re republishing an interview with Aira that first appeared in this month’s issue of The Victorian Writer, the magazine of the Victorian Writers' Centre. His ideas about writing as improvisation challenge the dominant aesthetic of a literature that is highly-wrought and oft-redrafted. The interview begins with his notion of the ‘flight forward’, a technique he uses to improvise his way out of tricky situations. Please note that any awkwardness in Aira’s responses are due to the fact that they were written in English.
Can you discuss the processes of your writing? What is the ‘flight forward’ (fuga hacia adelante) style – which seems to suggest that editing works in opposition to the art of writing, rather than to enhance it. Is this the case?
‘Flight forward’ is not a big deal. It is just going on writing and not worrying if it is not as good as it should be. To edit, correct, etc. is an illusion, or rather the abject obeisance to a social mandate of quality in the product. Art is not a matter of products; as I see it, it is a matter of artists. Why do you have to write better than how you write? A writer should be him/herself, and not another one better than him/herself, some kind of ghost. He is enough a ghost as he is.
Besides, flight forward for me is the same as flight backwards, or flight sideways, or not flying at all. I seek freedom and I don’t know any other better way that an artistic practice made by way of escape from commands and conventions. Even if they are good commands or right conventions. It is a completely individual matter.
I have not very much to say about my writing process. It is mostly improvisation and whim, not worthy of as serious a word as ‘process’, and I am not so sure it is ‘writing’, as true writers do. I could never, not even in my wildest dreams, sit and write a whole page. I play (toy) a while, mid-morning every day, in a café, with a pen and a notebook of plain white paper, and jot some words and phrases that come out of the blue sky. And that is all. After some months this adds up to something that looks like a little, strange book and someone wants to publish it.
What feelings/emotions do you seek when you read fiction; where should good fiction take you?
I don’t look so much for feelings and emotions, as for alternative ways of thinking. Emotions happen in life; art should give us instruments to handle them in the most productive way. But it does not do it. Every day I convince myself more, at least from my personal experience, that art and life take parallel roads and do not interact, except thematically, that is, superficially. It may seem nihilistic from a writer, but it is what I think: art has no effect on a person’s life, nor on society, nor on history. It is just a method to occupy time, like crosswords or watching TV, just more prestigious (and better, I can’t deny it).
What fuels your writing? Do you have your readers in mind?
You cannot generalise with the readers because reading – being an act of freedom – is so gratuitous and inconsequential, readers are all very different from one another. If you guess rightly how one reader is going to react, you will be wrong with the next one. So it is useless to think about a reader when you write. But, being useless, it is inevitable too. Writers are also readers, more readers than writers in fact, and the two things – reading and writing – are the same thing in some moments; the most creative moments. I think I create my own special kind of reader.
This is a cross-post of a piece published on the blog ‘Alephantine’ by Alex Landragin.
The ABC Radio National’s ‘Book Show’ yesterday broadcast a panel discussion called ‘The fact versus fiction debate’, on the merits of reading fiction and non-fiction. The panel included Dr Anthony Macris, an academic, novelist and memoirist; Meanjin editor Sally Heath, and consultant Jason Clarke. The discussion, chaired by Peter Mares, hinged around a recent interview with Philip Roth that quoted him as saying he doesn’t read fiction anymore.
The panel may as well have been called, Why read fiction? Because, in a sign of how much things have changed since fiction’s heyday in the 19th century, no-one is ever going to ask the question from the other side – why read non-fiction? It’s a given that we should read non-fiction. There is so much good truth out there – why would we want to give up any of our precious truth-reading time on reading somebody’s lies? Somebody’s second-rate lies, what’s more, because after all according to the conventional wisdom the truth is stranger than fiction. And why shouldn’t we throw poetry into the debate too? Because there was a time, in the history of our culture (and to this day in some others), when poetry was the most highly regarded of the literary forms.
Art forms have life cycles. They exist in relation to other art forms and technologies. The birth of the modern novel is often considered to have been the publication of ‘Don Quixote’ in 1605 and 1615 – about the same time as Shakespeare was turning his tricks further north. The novel, and Shakespearean drama, where quintessentially modern in that they focussed on the subject. Cervantes' novel took an old, ossified form – the chivalric romance – and turned it into a timeless comedy of the essentially deluded nature of human experience, and the duality between fantasy and reality. The words ‘quixotic’ and ‘Shakespearean’ have become adjectives, as have ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Proustian’, because these writers and their works were able to describe what it is like to be alive in a way that many of us find useful – more than useful, indispensable. I am quixotic; my family Christmas was Shakespearean; my job is Kafkaesque; my lunch is Proustian – all of these words tell us something no other word can tell us.
Fiction’s apogee was the 19th century. This was when the novel came into its own in a quite new way: as vicarious experience. The 19th century was when the European bourgeoisie asserted its moral supremacy, or at least its aspiration to moral supremacy, and in so doing asserted its right – and its intention – to colonise the entire world (chicken, meet egg). It was the century European culture developed its forensic obsession with otherness – within and without itself. But fiction had the edge on non-fiction: an imagination could travel further, more quickly and safely, than any individual could in the real world.
Two things changed in the 20th century: the written word was superseded by the image, and mass travel and mass media became more efficient means by which we could feed our thirst for knowledge. The response was modernism: non-fiction forms might be able to describe the objective world, but the novel – and poetry, music and the filmic and visual arts – would remain the favoured forms of the subjective world. In the course of that century, the arts relinquished to varying degrees their claims on reality, focussing almost exclusively on subjectivity – nowhere more so than in the novel. In modernist novels, subjectivity was endlessly dissected so that it seemed at times to be the catch-all form for playing out the latest psychological, philosophical and/or political theories. By the century’s seventh decade, the obsession with subjectivity seemed completely exhausted, while the torrent of information becoming available to us in the realm of non-fiction was becoming a flood. We were finally at the point where we could legitimately ask the question we are still asking, why continue to read fiction? Still, great novels continued to be written and published, and it began to be apparent to many readers that part of the greatness of a novel was the very way in which it addressed this question.
I’ll admit there have been times in my life when I would have found it difficult to answer that question at all. And there are times even now when I wish more novels would try to answer it. Because that’s where the novel is at now: every novel must address the question, why continue to read fiction? In the case of too many novels, their answer is either escapism or ornamentation. Neither, I think, is satisfactory for very long. Then there are those novels that answer the question by reverting to seriousness, or to cliches of what ‘serious’ art ought to be. They can be spotted a mile off and must be avoided at all costs because they’ve contributed more than any other kind of novel to the form’s so-called demise. But every now and then I read a novel that answers the question with another question: what does it mean to be alive? And it asks this question in two ways: what does it mean to be alive right now? And also, what does it mean to be alive, ever?
And that is precisely why we should read fiction: only fiction can find the forms to be able to answer those questions, and really only a tiny sliver of fiction, the best of fiction, probably (as Nabokov reckoned) only a handful of writers every generation, can do that. Poetry’s scope is too intimate and fragmentary, and too constrained by its continuing unease with meaning. Only the invented story can continue to roam far and wide, unconstrained by budget and form, creating collages of competing structures and images and ideas and characters that together simulate the chaos, the fun, the exhilaration, the wonder, the horror and the heartbreak of what it is to be alive – right now, and forever.
Alex Landragin is the Wheeler Centre’s online content manager.
The Wheeler Centre recently hosted an event in our series, ‘The Late, Great…’, on Ruth Park. Today, as we publish the video/podcast, Marion Halligan reminds us we must preserve the legacy of Ruth Park, and other pioneers of Australian writing.
“One boiling day I was writing in my garret when the murderer knocked on the door below.”
This is the opening sentence of Ruth Park’s second volume of autobiography, Fishing in the Styx. She goes on to describe the murderers who lived in the vicinity, including “the rabbity women who had done in their newborns but got off on a plea of insanity. In those days of the second World War it was widely believed that women who had just delivered could reasonably be expected to be off their heads.” It’s a bit of a worry for the pregnant Ruth. “I was outa me mind,” the women say. “All me milk went to the brain. I suppose it curdles.”
The murderer knocking at the door runs a few girls but is mainly an enforcer, the most feared underworld figure in Sydney. He has come to inquire, courteously, if Ruth’s landlady can put a few stitches in the torn lining of his coat pocket.
This keeps you turning the pages. It is full of energy, is funny, and wonderfully black – like a lot of Park’s writing. She began as a journalist and was on her way from New Zealand to a job in San Francisco when the bombing of Pearl Harbour put a stop to Pacific travel. So she went to Sydney instead and married D’Arcy Niland, another writer. They resolved they would make their livings by writing, a near-impossible task then, as it is today. But they managed it, by putting their heads down and just doing it. Not for them the luxury of sitting in despair in front of a blank sheet or suffering the anguish of writer’s block. Park sat at the ironing board, with children underfoot, at the kitchen table with the onions and the carrots, churning out anything and everything. Articles, plays, radio scripts (more than 5000), serials, children’s programs. When, after the war, the Sydney Morning Herald offered a £2000 prize for a novel, Park knew she had two subjects: journalism and the slums of Surry Hills where she was living. She was afraid she might be sued for libel if she wrote about journalism, so that left the slums.
When The Harp in the South (1948) won the prize it was a scandal. I was a small child at the time, and I remember it. The problem seemed to be a woman writing about such things, and one from New Zealand at that. Drunkenness, wife beatings, abortions, prostitution, sly grog, all the life of the streets about her, not from a judgmental point of view but as an inmate, the details intimate, comical, forgivable. Slums? said authorities, there are no slums in Sydney, and then proceeded to clear them away and move people out west, which filled her with guilt. The priest of her church preached a sermon against the novel, saying that the Virgin Mary in her lifetime would never have stooped to write a book of any kind, let alone one published in the Herald.
Park made her dream of living by writing a reality. The Harp in the South has never been out of print. She has won a Miles Franklin and an Age Book of the Year for non-fiction. The Muddle Headed Wombat was a long running and beloved radio serial. Playing Beattie Bow has been devoured by generations of children, in print and on screen.
Park was 93 when she died in 2010. She spent her life spellbinding her readers with her story-telling. We need to make sure we are the grateful heirs of her legacy, something we are not always good at in this country. When writers get old we tend to forget them, and when they die they pass from our consciousness. Park showed us our world as it was, and we must not forget either the writer or her subjects.
He’s written 24 novels and created two of crime and mystery fictions best-known contemporary heroes, Harry Bosch and Micky Haller. In Australia alone, as of early 2011, he’d sold 1.25 million books. His novels now sell an average of 85,000 copies. He’s Michael Connelly, a colossus of his – and indeed any – literary genre, and in this video he’s in conversation with the Wheeler Centre’s head of programming, Michael Williams.
How did it all begin? “I got interested in crime when I was 16 and I was witness to part of a crime, and I spent a night in a police station dealing with detectives… After that night I started reading crime news and newspapers, I started reading non-fiction books about crime, and then I got to fiction.” Connelly attributes the start of his literary crime obsession to Raymond Chandler, whom he came across at university: “Something about reading those books was like an epiphany or a light going off.” He read all of Chandler’s novels in little more than a fortnight, and a career was born.
The Wheeler Centre, in partnership with the Melbourne International Film Festival, will be hosting UK film critic Adrian Wootton in five events, in one of which he’ll be speaking about Raymond Chandler on the silver screen.
It’s Bloomsday. People all over the world – including Melbourne – are attending public readings of the novel Ulysses, despite the objections of James Joyce’s descendants. Why, even Joyce himself was recorded reading it aloud – and why not? It is a very read-out-loud-able kind of book.
So Bloomsday gets us to thinking about Ulysses, which gets us to thinking about Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, which you can read here and listen to here. This gets us to thinking about our favourite last lines in novels.
Here’s how Molly Bloom ends Ulysses: “… I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ending sentence for The Great Gatsby is a thing of beauty: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And Samuel Beckett’s ending to The Unnameable is a conclusion in both senses of the word – an ending and a summation: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The debate over Philip Roth’s legacy continues following his win of the Man Booker International Prize last week, honouring his overall achievement. One of the prize judges, Virago founder Carmen Callil, quit her position following the announcement, as we reported last week, saying, “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.” On the weekend, Callil explained in the Guardian that her reservations about Roth were not political but literary. “Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there,” the report quotes Callil as saying. “His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”
In her overview of the story, Salon’s Laura Miller says that although it’s unfair to presume Callil was motivated by ideology, her reaction was inappropriate: “insulting an author (any author) by name in such a context is uncalled for. There are enough readers who love Roth’s work to make him a reasonable choice for an important award, even if Callil can’t personally endorse that choice.”
An even more interesting reaction is by Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post, who connected the story to an older story about the resistance of the Nobel committee to US writers on the basis that American literature is too introspective. The permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, Horace Engdahl, recently said, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature…That ignorance is restraining.”
Shivani agrees, adding, “Our publishing model, like that of the lapsed auto industry, is a failed one. It survives only because of our gigantism – mere volume is sufficient to ensure a certain amount of financial success, but it is not producing a worthwhile cultural product. Just as we might have 500 television channels but not one will ever offer the challenging movies of Buñuel or Godard, or a Wagner opera, we might produce 175,000 books a year, but quality is elusive.” Shivani says US readers overestimate the importance of the recent greats – Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon – but that because these writers restrict themselves to an American version of reality their global significance is limited. “What recent American novel – by an American, not an immigrant, writer – accepts or even acknowledges the new global reality, even with America at its center?” asks Shivani, answering, “There is none.”
US author Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Home at the End of the World, The Hours, Specimen Days and, most recently, By Nightfall, is appearing tonight at the Wheeler Centre from 7:30pm. Tickets are free.
Four years ago, I started writing my first novel, set in colonial Rangoon of the 1930s. In my writing I explore what it was like to be a young woman of mixed race – a sexual icon – in a place ruled by European men. In the private space of my imagination I was interested only in the truth of things – those ways of being in the world obscured by familiar and unchallenged worldviews. I wanted to mess with modern perceptions of how men and women belong: to show that things were never as rigid as they seemed. I wanted to subvert things. I wanted to redirect the discussion. In other words, I did my best to write like a woman.
My novel will be published this September by Text and I am currently working towards the final draft with my editor, Mandy Brett. One of the things we’ve been talking through is the title – in the rush to finish the book I was happy to leave it until last. Text has suggested The Monsoon Bride. They love it. My writing and reading friends think it has a certain ring to it, the hint of a satirical edge. Brian Castro, my PhD supervisor at the University of Adelaide, reckons ironically that it is a title that will sell. But I have all kinds of reservations. It’s the word ‘bride’. It seems too girly. You see, while I write like a woman I find that I am worried about being read as one.
This is not some exercise in self-loathing, or a wringing of hands over my political marginalization. My misgivings are all about avoiding pigeonholes. I want to sell lots of books. But I also want my work to be part of the literary conversation – the main conversation, not an alternative sidebar. I think that my novel has something to contribute to debates around race and cultural belonging; that it is worthy of the conversation. So will the word ‘bride’ in the title limit the way it will be read and reviewed? Will being read like a woman also mean being sidelined or dismissed?
None of this was an issue when I was writing the book. I didn’t even think about it. But now that my novel is finished, I find myself treading carefully. Instead of cutting through entrenched and biased worldviews, I have to take them into account as I negotiate my way through the marketplace. Four years of hard work is at stake. And I am wondering, how do you get in the game without playing the game? How do make sure you are part of the conversation and yet keep your self-respect?
I’ve seen the pie charts from VIDA showing how only a fraction of women are reviewed in the major literary magazines compared to men. I’ve read Kirsten Tranter’s take on the corresponding Australian magazines. I am tuned in to Leslie Cannold’s campaign for 51% representation. I saw the fallout when the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced (including one respondent to Alison Croggon’s piece in The Drum Opinion who maintained that “men do write better books”). I am sensitive to the suspicion that writers who complain about being overlooked are simply not good enough to be published.
It strikes me that this bias masquerades as ‘commercial reality’. Editors responsible for putting together the literary section of a newspaper or a magazine – major marketing vehicles for books – know that reviews of titles by men will be read by the broadest audience as a matter of default because, as Eileen Myles writes in her essay ‘Being Female’, “female reality always contains male and female”.
Readers also want to be part of the literary conversation. They are more likely to engage with books that are brought to their attention by taste-makers. If the majority of literary fiction reviewed is written by men, then of course it will seem like books by women are not as critically interesting – hence the partiality, unconscious or not.
But what seems equally important is not to get stuck in the narrative of winners and losers. The way this issue is reported, it can seem as if women writers and men writers are two teams playing a football match and ours is the dud side. It’s depressing.
No writer – female or male – can control how she or he is read. I know this. I also know that my name on the front cover and my photo on the back will raise certain expectations of what is on the pages inside. All I can do is: write as well as I can; be aware of my own blind spots not only in my writing but also in my reading; think critically about what is before me; acknowledge the fact that this is a complex issue, that all sorts of things get mixed up together (like, what is quality? what type of writing belongs to women?); and try to have some integrity and expect it in others.
Besides, my first novel is about to be published by a publishing house I admire. I should be happy, right? That is what irks me most; I have to think about this instead of just rejoicing in getting my work out there.
So in the end I went with The Monsoon Bride. It does have a certain ring to it. It does have sales appeal. And I really like it. I’ll just have to leave it up to readers to get the irony.
Michelle Aung Thin’s first novel, The Monsoon Bride, will be published by Text in September. This is the third and last in our series of essays by the 2010 shortlisted Unpublished Manuscript Fellows.
The comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen is making a film based on a book by Saddam Hussein. The film, due to be released in May 2012, has the working title of The Dictator, and is based on a book written by the former dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Agence France Presse reports that the creator of the comic characters Ali G, Borat and Brüno will be adapting a novel believed to have been written by Saddam – if not actually by the man, at least by ghostwriters under his supervision.
According to Wikipedia, Zabibah and the King was first published anonymously in 2000, but its true authorship was easily divined when, soon after publication, it was announced that the novel would be adapted for the stage and screen (a 20-part television series, no less). One Amazon reviewer describes the plot as being about an “intimate friendship between a lonely, unhappy king and an unusually perceptive and spirited peasant girl [that] paves the way for the abolition of a decadent monarchy and the establishment of a popular government.”
As well as occasionally turning his pen to poetry, Saddam Hussein is commonly believed to have written and published four novels. In a 2004 review of Be Gone Demons!, Iraqi novelist and critics Ali Abdel Amir concluded, “[Saddam] was completely out of touch with actual reality, and novel writing gave him the chance to live in delusions.” Saad Hadi was one of the ghostwriting team who helped Saddam write. He says Saddam was deeply influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The dictator had a peculiar method: “He’d sit in his state room and recount simple tales, while his aides recorded his words.”
For one writer, the novels speak volumes about dictatorship and its failings. US conservative Daniel Pipes, for whom Saddam Hussein was at one time an obsession, has written that hubris and ignorance are hallmarks of dictatorships. “Both these incapacities worsen with time and the tyrant becomes increasingly removed from reality. His whims, eccentricities and fantasies dominate state policy. The result is a pattern of monumental mistakes.” Or, as Guardian journalist Leo Benedictus put it, “No matter how powerful they become, it seems there is one thing that no despot can ever have: an honest editor.”
There’s no body. The body was hastily dumped. The photos are too inflammatory to be released. He resisted. He was unarmed. The death of Osama bin Laden is proving as fertile a ground for conspiracy theorists as the 9/11 tragedy. No longer can conspiracy theories be easily dismissed as white noise on the fringes of political debate – in fact, they play an increasingly central role in public discourse. There are dozens of them. Most of them are harmless, but some can fuel the flames of hatred. Two conspiracy theories in particular have loomed large in recent times.
Some climate change sceptics see a conspiracy theory lurking behind global warming. This conspiracy theory sees a cabal of researchers overplaying the causes and effects of climate change, angling for more grants, while government apparatuses hungry for more control seize the opportunity presented by the scientific cabal to extend the tentacles of their power. Of course, this conspiracy theory cuts both ways.
And recently, US property tycoon Donald Trump launched a high-profile presidential bid by weighing into the birther controversy that has plagued President Obama since his election. Trump’s bid proved short-lived after the White House finally released Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. President Obama took the opportunity at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner to roast Trump: “No-one is happier – no-one is prouder – to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focussing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Trump responded to the certificate’s release by moving the focus of his attention to President Obama’s academic record, suggesting he got into Harvard University on the grounds of skin colour rather than merit. This led various celebrities to accuse Trump of racism – a Hollywood version, perhaps, of dog-whistle politics.
University of New South Wales mathematician James Franklin yesterday asked why the human mind is such fertile ground for the seed of conspiracy. Powerlessness and the joy of revealing ‘hidden’ truths are chief among his reasons. Another is the ultimate unprovability of conspiracy theories, which sometimes turn out to be no less fanciful than actual conspiracies – like Castro’s exploding cigars or MKULTRA. If, in the words of David Foster Wallace, truth and fiction are equally strange, then we are plunged into a world where they are indistinguishable – the paranoid world, in psychoanalytic terms, of psychosis.
Psychologists have tried to explain the phenomenon. Belief in a conspiracy theory may well be a desperate attempt to escape the logical cul-de-sac triggered by cognitive dissonance, when the gap between what we want to believe and the evidence before us can no longer be spanned. Or maybe it’s just a normal part of trying to understand an increasingly complex world: “humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe”, according to political commentator Daniel Drezner.
Ultimately, a conspiracy theory survives for as long as it is useful – and the best conspiracy theories survive because they’re useful to everyone. They cast a spell on adepts and sceptics alike. The scorn of non-believers is just grist to the mill for the believers, reinforcing rather than corroding their certainty. And sceptics find them useful too, using them to marginalise dissent and prop up their own world-view.
But here’s a conspiracy theory for you, the biggest one of all: in this one, we’re all conspiracy theorists. You want proof? Here’s proof: our insatiable hunger for stories, for narratives and fables, for theatre, literature and cinema. There are countless books and films that feed on conspiracies, from The Thirty-Nine Steps to Foucault’s Pendulum – but we’re talking about something bigger. Much bigger. Something so big, the government doesn’t want you to know about it. Maybe, just maybe, the part of the human brain that knows that seeing isn’t always believing, that power is corrupting, and that categories like history, facts and even knowledge itself are fluid and manipulable, is the same part of the brain that we use to build stories – stories that have us always wanting to know what happens next, turning the next page and the one after that, ever deeper into the infinite night.
Politician, pensmith, (ex-) prisoner – there are many ‘P’ words that come to mind when Jeffrey Archer is in the house. Archer toured Australia recently to promote his latest book Only Time Will Tell. He was joined by Jennifer Byrne for a conversation which turned out, for all intents and purposes, to be more of a soliloquy.
In his hour-long appearance, Archer discussed his resilience and the lessons he learned in jail, as well as his relationship with the media and the challenge of having his personal history portrayed and discussed in an even, proportionate manner. He touched on his first love — politics — and his respect for Margaret Thatcher, whom he describes as one of three women who have profoundly affected and influenced him. In the tug-o'-war he imagines between writers and storytellers, Archer comes down heavily on the side of the latter, describing himself as “an old fashioned storyteller”, with a loathing of ebooks to boot.
With over two dozen books and international sales passing 250 million, Jeffrey Archer is a publishing and cultural phenomenon. Former Deputy Chairman of England’s Conservative Party, he served five years in the House of Commons, fourteen years in the House of Lords and two in Her Majesty’s prisons.
Congratulations to Launceston writer Rohan Wilson. The 35 year-old University of Melbourne PhD student was announced the winner of The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award last night for his tale of a murderous expedition in colonial Tasmania, The Roving Party. Citing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as a literary antecedent, Wilson’s novel is set during what has been called the Black War.
Based on historical events, the eponymous party, sanctioned by colonial authorities, is hunting indigenous Tasmanians. The 1830 paramilitary campaign this story is based on has come to be known as the Black Line. The party is led by a character named John Batman, based on the historical figure of the same name. Sydney-born Batman settled in northern Tasmania in 1821 and was a participant in the Black Line. He later became involved in land speculation on the mainland, making deals of dubious legality with local indigenous groups, and in the process founding the settlement we now know as Melbourne.
The novel provocatively revisits the intellectual terrain of the History Wars of a decade ago. That debate was triggered by claims by conservative historian Keith Windschuttle that Tasmania’s colonial history was much less violent than portrayed by historians like Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds, and certainly not genocidal, as claimed by historians including Tony Barta, John Docker and Ann Curthoys.
In a novel twist, the ebook version of Wilson’s novel was made available on the Readings ebook website immediately following the announcement, and the book is available in print today. Here he blogs about the novel’s background.
Last week, we reported that Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. We also reported on the kerfuffle prompted by the announcement of the shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award – a very short shortlist, consisting of three rural, historical stories, all written by men.
Jennifer Egan has prompted more debate about women and letters following comments she made in a Wall Street Journal interview shortly after receiving news of her Pulitzer win. Asked whether women writers tend to understate the importance of their own writing, Egan replied, “Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them … I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.”
In her response, Egan referred to Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Though initially well-received, the novel was subsequently accused of plagiarising widely from chick-lit authors like Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella and Megan McCafferty, authors whose work Egan described as “very derivative and banal”.
Egan’s comments drew opprobrium from various bloggers (“Oh, wow am I pissed. I’m so pissed off I don’t even want to use cutesy exclamation marks to illustrate how pissed off I am”) who argue that chick-lit shouldn’t be dismissed as a second-class form of literature. Writes one defender of the genre: “Is there derivative, poorly written chick lit? Sure. But there’s also derivative, poorly written literary fiction. Slamming an entire genre of novels written by women is unsavory, inaccurate, and akin to the kind of girl-on-girl crime that women should be trying to stop, not perpetuate.”
The stoush takes up an exchange in the Guardian last year which began when DJ Connell called the label “chick-lit” offensive: “When you call a woman a chick you diminish her as a human being and dismiss her as something less than intelligent”. Michele Gorman replied with a defense of the genre: “saying that chick-lit can’t be well-written is a little like saying that pretty girls can’t be smart. It’s ludicrous. And it’s wrong.”
The winners of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize were announced overnight. The winner of the prize for fiction was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad, a “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed.” A glowing review in the New York Review of Books called it “a moving humanistic saga, an enormous nineteenth-century-style epic brilliantly disguised as ironic postmodern pastiche”.
In journalism, the prestigious award for Public Service went to the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of “corruption in the small California city of Bell where officials tapped the treasury to pay themselves exorbitant salaries, resulting in arrests and reforms.”
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