By Shauna Bostock-Smith
Shauna Bostock-Smith reflects on her family’s past, and the way personal stories are shaped and interpreted – and the importance of acknowledging both the bad and the good in Aboriginal history. She asks: How can ancestral knowledge empower us in the present? And what are dangers do victimhood pose to collective Aboriginal self-esteem?
IN AN OCTOBER 2011 edition of The National Indigenous Times, Dr Chris Sarra called for ‘fellow Indigenous Australians to take control of their own lives.’ Dr Sarra has accused some Aboriginal community leaders of conspiring with mainstream Australia to cast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the role of victims.
He lamented that too many Aboriginal people ‘interiorised’ this to the extent that some consider the victim status as part of our culture. Both Dr Sarra’s statements, that mainstream Australia has cast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the role of victims, and that Aboriginal people have ‘interiorised’ victimhood as part of our culture, can be validated by the following experiences my father had.
My father is a Vietnam veteran who has worked tirelessly for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian Defence Force Veterans. He worked closely with the Returned and Services League (RSL) to organise an annual ceremony to honour and commemorate the active service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Defence Force members both past and present.
When interviewed by a newspaper reporter, my father was asked if he experienced any racism when he was in the army. In his usual larrikin vernacular he said, ‘There was no “black” or “white” in the army, because each soldier thought of himself as green. We were all mates. Occasionally someone would call you a black bastard or something like that; but it was nothing that a good smack in the mouth wouldn’t sort out!’
When the article was published, however, the journalist portrayed my father as the victim of racism by reporting that ‘when George was in the army, he was called a black bastard and smacked in the mouth’, rather than portray him as a strong Aboriginal man who stood up to occasional racism. This interview took place quite recently.
Another situation that again involves my father is a prime example of the ‘interiorised victimhood’ cited by Dr Chris Sarra.
My father also volunteered as a Murri Court elder (an Aboriginal elder who attended court hearings of Aboriginal offenders). On one occasion he attended the court case of an Aboriginal burglar who had broken into houses at night. A woman who was home alone awoke to find him ransacking a chest of drawers looking for valuables. In court, the man complained that he was being victimised by police because they were always checking up on him.
He added that he and his incarcerated brothers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by the continual round of institutionalisation they have experienced at the hands of whiteman. My father asked him, ‘What about the trauma that you have inflicted on that poor woman? How frightened is she when she locks herself in every night? Haven’t you institutionalised her?’
In The National Indigenous Times, Dr Chris Sarra stated that ‘While history has no doubt dealt Aboriginal people a questionable hand, there is no need to wallow in it such that it cripples us from acting. When one is busy being the victim or booting the victim, very rarely does one stop to ask: What am I doing to contribute to underachievement?’ Dr Sarra believes Aboriginal leaders must stop seeing Aboriginal people in the usual way and see what they have to offer. ‘We do have to be accountable for our actions. It’s time to assert our place in the nation.’
I am a novice historian researching family and Aboriginal history, and even at this relatively early stage of my academic path, I am constantly amazed at how ancestral knowledge can empower us in the present.
Before researching my family history, I had always assumed the lives of my grandparents and other Aborigines on missions were sad and miserable, governed as they were by white oppressors. Several archival discoveries, however, have completely dissolved this assumption.
Early in 2011 I travelled to the Mitchell Library in Sydney to view a collection of papers, photographs and personal items belonging to two missionaries affiliated with the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), Mrs Alma Smith and Mrs Alva Atkins. They were mother and daughter missionaries who spent many years of their lives ministering to my ancestors and other Aborigines at Box Ridge Mission, near Coraki in northern New South Wales in the early 1900s.
Searching through personal diaries, journals and address books I was surprised to find that Mrs Smith kept in contact with my grandmother well after she had married and left the mission. The collection also contained photographs my grandmother had sent to Mrs Smith of my father and his siblings at various times in their childhood. This tangible evidence of an obvious affection between these two very different women clearly contradicted my previous ideas.
Another assumption of mine was that Aboriginal people were powerless victims who had no choice but to accept the rules of the dominant culture. However, recently I discovered a letter my grandfather had sent the Aboriginal Protection Board that provided evidence to the contrary.
My grandfather became a single father with three daughters when his wife deserted them. He arranged to leave the girls at the mission with a non-related Aboriginal woman so that he could travel for work, and he sent money to her for their upkeep. In the letter dated 30 October, 1944, my grandfather informed the board he had taken his children away from Coraki to live with his brother and sister-in-law in a remote country town. He complained that his children were ‘being ill-treated and were doing women’s work such as scrub floors and so forth [sic].’
The woman was neglecting them and making false accusations to the board that she was not receiving financial support from my grandfather. My mother and her sisters would have stood out as prime candidates for removal, and my mother’s family firmly believe that my grandfather’s choice to take them from the mission meant that they avoided being part of the Stolen Generation. These defiant acts, plus his refusal to allow my Aunt to accept Aboriginal Protection Board assistance for her education, were clear indicators he was certainly not a powerless victim of the dominant culture. There is a well-known saying that ‘knowledge dispels fear.’ For me, researching family and Aboriginal history, investigating stories, unearthing facts and seeking knowledge has had the interesting effect of dispelling sadness.
Delving into the memories of my mother and sister raised questions about my own perception of the past, and an unexpected result was that I was able to put down the burden of sadness that I had carried for decades. Similarly, when the inspection of the individual lives of my ancestors yielded evidence of consensual accommodation, stubborn resistance, and choices that illustrate a degree of independence in the way that they lived their lives, the sadness that I had previously felt for them dissolved.
From my own personal life experience I now understand how important it is for Aboriginal Australians to ensure that future generations have a balanced view of our history, lest we perpetuate Aboriginal victimhood or negatively affect their collective self-esteem.
There are many good, ‘against all odds’ stories to be found about Aboriginal survival and resilience when researching Aboriginal history. Private stories from my grandparents’ time of Aboriginal peoples’ kinship and solidarity in looking after each other, to wider, more public stories of early Aboriginal activists like William Cooper and Jack Patten clearly illustrate a strength of character that we, today’s Aborigines, can take pride in. I am certain that by providing our youth with such stories we empower them.
In the closing paragraph of his book Telling The Truth About Aboriginal History (Allen and Unwin, 2005), Bain Attwood suggests that if ‘anyone is going to take pride in what is truly good about their nation’s past, they must also be prepared to accept what is truly bad in it.’ He went on to say that: ‘Acknowledging the bad does not diminish the good. On the contrary: telling the truth about Aboriginal history can actually help us to pinpoint what was good in the past, the conditions that enabled this good to be achieved, and the lesson this has for us today.’
Conversely, from an Aboriginal perspective, acknowledging the good in Aboriginal history does not diminish the bad. It just adds to the broader scope of knowledge that I believe is key to Aboriginal empowerment.
In a metaphorical, almost biblical way, knowledge provides a better view of the overall journey of Aboriginal people. Knowledge helps us to look back to see the rocky, exhausting road our ancestors have travelled, but it also places us on higher ground where we can see not just where we have come from, but also the best way forward.
I picture myself empowering my daughter by taking her by the hand and leading her to the higher ground, where she can tread sure-footed and confident, with an unobstructed view of where she is going.
This is an edited extract from the essay, ‘At That Time in History: Aboriginal Stereotypes, Victimhood and Empowerment’ in Griffith Review: Women and Power, which is published this week and available now.
Dr Chris Sarra will be delivering a Lunchbox/Soapbox on Indigenous Education on Thursday 11 July, at the Wheeler Centre.
Matthew Lamb, the new editor of Island magazine, is also the editor and co-founder of the digital short-story publication Review of Australian Fiction. This makes for an interesting and varied perspective on the world of literary magazines in Australia.
We spoke to Matthew about the changes afoot at Island, his approach to editing a publication, the fact that submissions to literary magazines far outweigh subscribers … and the fact that there’s a lot of boring writing out there in Australia, because boring equals safe. ‘Don’t be boring’ he says. ‘It may not lead to immediate publication, but at least your integrity will be intact.’
You’ve recently come on board as an editor at Island –what drew you to the magazine?
In terms of becoming an editor of Island, I honestly don’t know what drew me to the magazine. I guess it was partly the challenge, partly a sense of curiosity. I am interested how the infrastructure of our literary culture is put together, in particular the role that lit mags have to play in that environment. I wanted to see how that worked from the inside.
I moved to Tasmania from Queensland in February 2012. Supposedly for the quiet life. I had actually known about Island long before, as being one of the stalwarts of Australian literary magazines. I had even submitted a few stories to it over the years, and been rejected every time.
Soon after moving here I fell in with the Island crowd. Dale Campisi had also recently come down to Tasmania, so we were both strangers in a strange town. He was the new editor and change-manager of the magazine, tasked with steering it through what was a difficult year. Its course righted, Campisi left, like The Littlest Hobo. Then I came on board.
I like to tell people I won it from him in a poker game. But that’s not true. It was a craps game.
Island has a new look this year – how did that come about? And has the content and approach of the magazine changed at all, too?
The format of the magazine itself has changed, yes. It is now A4, so larger than the previous A5 format. And that necessitated a new design. We needed to make it more visually appealing, more accessible. Make it stand out on the bookshop shelf, or on your coffee table.
There is a new website coming, too. It is going to be more consistent with the print mag. Stripped down, more accessible.
That said, the new format is not coming at a cost to content. We are still committed to publishing quality fiction, essays, and poetry (it helps that our poetry editor is John Kinsella). There is actually an increase in content, which is exciting.
But there are a few changes in scope.
First, we’re doing away with themed issues. The focus now is on producing good, general issues, showcasing diversity. The aim is to try to attract a strong, general readership, which we can build over time. We need to build a stronger circulation.
Second, Island is partnering with the Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society, from The University of Tasmania. The Director of this Centre, Natasha Cica, was co-editor of the recent Griffith Review: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? From this partnership, there will be an essay in each issue, The Tasmanian Papers, examining a question of national policy. The first paper is by Julianne Schultz, on our national cultural policy. Other essays in each will be exploring this idea of Australia as a civil society, and the role that literary culture has to play in that.
Third, Island is also broadening its scope and trying to engage with work from international, national, as well as Tasmanian writers.
These changes were inevitable. And it was a long time coming, long before I came on board. It just needed somebody to make them come about. If it succeeds, then it will be because of the work of many people, some of whom have come before me. If it fails, then it will be because of me.
Island is distinctive as being Tasmania’s literary magazine. Your website describes it as, ‘Grown in Tasmania, Island writes for the world.’ How is this reflected in your pages? And what are the opportunities and challenges of this identity?
That tagline has actually been removed in the current reformatting of the magazine. It has outlived its usefulness. In many ways, it has often been a hindrance. Of course, it is Tasmania’s literary magazine, but it is not solely a Tasmanian literary magazine. It started life as such, in 1979, as The Tasmanian Review. But by 1981, and after only five issues, it became Island Magazine, reflecting the fact that its interests and scope were much broader. Two-thirds of our circulation is outside the state. Australia is an island, too, you know? As such, Island has always been national in scope, often with an international flavour. But it has always done this so from a Tasmanian perspective, and it tries to introduce Tasmanian writers and concerns to this broader readership.
Coming from Queensland—another peripheral state—I’ve always been aware of a peculiar provincialism that operates within metropolitan states. Victoria and New South Wales, to a large extent, don’t need to know what is happening in the rest of the country. But the rest of the country needs to know what is happening in those states, as well as in their own. And I’ve always found that situation to be more interesting, more full of possibilities.
Island has always tried to harness those possibilities. Only difference now is that we are consciously, and systematically, pursuing such possibilities, and pushing their limits.
You’re also editor of Review of Australian Fiction, a very different kind of publication – RAF is a small, very new digital publication that focuses on two authors per issue, whereas Island has many contributors and is a print publication that’s been well established since 1979. What differences have you noticed between the two publications?
There is an often overwhelming sense of responsibility being involved with something like Island. In terms of tradition, working out where I fit within that, whether or not I am adding value to, or diminishing, that tradition. But also in terms of the management and financial responsibility. I’m playing with somebody else’s money here, with state and federal money, as well as with the money of our subscribers.
So I need to approach Island differently.
The Review of Australian Fiction, however, is part experiment. I co-own that with a friend. It is our money. There is no tradition to speak of. If it folds tomorrow, we’ll be out of pocket, sure, but no one will much mind (including ourselves). But we hope it doesn’t fold, as there are other things we want to try with RAF in the future.
RAF is also focused on Australian fiction. One of the advantages of Island is that it has a much broader scope, and so allows me to explore my other interests, especially in terms of non-fiction, topics like politics and culture, more broadly construed. There is also room for international fiction.
There are also challenges with Island being a print mag. One of the reasons we wanted RAF to be digital is so that writers would be unconstrained by word limits. But I have had to take such limitations into consideration with Island. Also, there is more time-management involved with a print mag. With RAF—despite my best intentions to the contrary—I am often putting the next issue together within minutes of its being published. With Island, I need to be more organised have the issue sent to the printers a month before publication.
Working on both has provided me with a good perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The digital landscape has changed the way many literary journals work – websites and social media offer increased opportunities for community-building, for instance. And there’s the question of whether to publish online – and if so, how much of your content to put online, whether to keep it subscriber-only or make it free, or whether to offer different material from the magazine online. How does Island work with these challenges and opportunities?
I don’t have any clear answers to these questions. I wish I did. But we will be experimenting with them over the next year with Island. That said, I’ve watched closely what other lit mags in Australia have done.
I still think that the main focus of Island is the print mag. The focus of the new website is going to showcase the print mag. The associated blog is going to focus on providing supplementary material to the contents of the print mag. Some of the contents of the print mag will be available online, sure, and will be rolled out during the months between publication of each issue. We’ll play around with it, to see what works best. But I really don’t know what will happen.
Despite being also the editor of a digital-only lit mag, I do have my reservations about digital publishing. I question whether social media really does produce any substantive ‘community’ around a particular publication. As RAF manager, Phil Crowley, keeps reminding me: Twitter followers are not subscribers. And the reality is that—for a publication like the Review of Australian Fiction—its existence is wholly dependent on people valuing the work of Australian writers enough to be willing to pay for it. If not, then you are just paying lip-service to it.
Other magazines—like Island, but also many other lit mags—are sheltered from this reality to a large extent by ongoing government funding. The question is: how secure will this funding be in the future? And should we feel entitled to it? Speaking only for Island, recent years have made these questions more necessary to ask.
The reality is that—regardless of if a publication is digital or not—it all comes down to our subscribers, which is really the litmus test of whether or not you really support our literary culture, or if you just want to be supported by it.
What are some of the literary publications (digital or print) that you admire? Are there any that have inspired you as an editor?
I actually don’t think I am cut out for being an editor, and this is not something I see myself doing long-term. I lack all the requisite qualities. But I can recognise and admire these qualities in others.
I was living in Brisbane when The Lifted Brow first started. I even had my first story published in their second issue. I’ve watched its evolution ever since, and I would have to say that Ronnie Scott has been a great inspiration for me. Particularly with the creation of the Review of Australian Fiction. Although very different publications, The Lifted Brow showed us that it was possible to start a lit mag with nothing but sheer will.
In terms of being a literary editor, however, I’d have to say that Stephen Romei is the best we have. He sets the standard by which I measure my own paltry efforts. He has been very patient and supportive of me over the years. But what I particularly respect about the way he operates is not so much that he has published some of my stuff (which is always good thing), but it is in the way he has also rejected much of my work. That’s kept me honest. Even when he didn’t know who I was (way back when he was editor of the now defunct Australian Literary Review) he never discouraged me, and he later gave me opportunities. And so what I have learned from him is that being a literary editor is mainly about creating opportunities and supporting other people to be their best.
So I’ve actually formed a strange attachment to all of the writers I’ve published in the RAF, and already with some forthcoming in Island. Particularly the emerging writers. I don’t like it so much, but I feel it. It is a sense of responsibility, like I am now an advocate for their work.
In terms of other lit mags I admire: I subscribe to about twelve Australian lit mags, and they are all good, they all have something different to offer. I don’t think that our literary culture is the preserve of any one magazine, but rather it exists in the intersection between them all.
If you could publish any writer on any subject, who (and what) would it be? Dream big!
I do dream big, and this is why I am not going to tell you! Because I always act on my dreams, and I am currently in negotiations with several writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, from Australia and overseas, whom I am trying to persuade to publish in Island. Like me, you’ll have to wait to see what happens!
That said, I have tried, first as editor of RAF, to get David Ireland to publish a story. I have even offered to publish his supposedly unpublishable novel, Desire. All to no avail. As an editor of Island, I have recently made fresh overtures to Ireland. But I am not optimistic of the outcome. If Randolph Stow was still alive, I would also stalk him.
Outside of my own personal preference (although not completely independent of it), I would like more established writers to publish in Island. I’ve read through its backlists, and there are many writers—like Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Peter Goldsworthy, and so on—who published in Island in the 1980s, when they were fledgling writers, cutting their teeth. Island is, of course, not unique in providing a platform for many of our now-established writers. But I think it is absolutely essential that such writers support our lit mags, and to publish in them, if only to ensure that the next generation of fledgling writers have the same opportunities to be published, and to cut their teeth.
What would be your advice to aspiring writers dreaming of being published in Island? Do you have any dos and/or don’ts?
At the risk of repeating myself, I would say the most important piece of advice for aspiring writers is to subscribe to the magazine you want to publish in. We are actually going to have a new submissions policy at Island: that we are only going to publish the work of subscribers. This is not to discourage non-subscribers from submitting, or even to limit who we commission work from, but for every non-subscriber published in the magazine (even if they are commissioned), we are going to deduct the cost of a subscription from their contributors fee. So they will be paid, part cash, part subscription.
I recently did a survey of all the lit mags I subscribe to, and I found that the ratio of submissions to subscriptions leans more toward submissions, by a factor of between two- to ten-times more submissions than subscriptions per annum. What this means is that most writers in Australia want to be supported by, but they do not, in turn, want to support the sources of their own publication. How is that sustainable? This doesn’t make sense to me. Writers are readers, too, and they ought to be the first readers of the publications they aspire to publish in.
In terms of content, my only advice is: don’t be boring. That is the advice that an established writer and critic has given to me, and I think they are right. There is a lot of boring writing in Australia, in fiction, but particularly in non-fiction, and I think there are many reasons for this. Boring equals safe, which equals publishable. Don’t be boring. It may not lead to immediate publication, but at least your integrity will be intact. And if you compromise that, then you lose the core of your writing.
Island 132 is published on March 23. www.islandmag.com
Novelist Charlotte Wood launched a new publication this week, The Writer’s Room Interviews, taking its inspiration from the famed Paris Review interviews with writers, by writers. We spoke to Charlotte about the hopes, goals and driving force behind it.
What is The Writer’s Room Interviews?
A bimonthly e-magazine focusing on the creative lives of writers in Australia.
What inspired you to start this project?
I have always loved long-form, Q&A interviews such as the Art of Writing pieces for which The Paris Review is renowned. Not long ago, a painter friend gave me an old Artist Profile magazine interview with the painter Euan Macleod, conducted by another artist, Steve Lopes. It was about the former’s work, and was a wonderfully detailed, fascinating interview about the artist’s process. I came to think its complexity and restful tone was because the interviewer was a fellow painter; at its base there seemed a quiet knowledge of a lot of stuff about painting. So they didn’t muck around on the surface but moved straight into a really rich discussion of how Macleod works. I just loved it, and I returned to it several times over a few weeks. Then I got into a little blue funk, wishing there were something like that for Australian writers, especially given the shrinking literary space in traditional media such as newspapers.
So then I just thought, well if nobody else is going to do it, I will! I have a background in journalism, have done a little basic design work over the years, and I have a huge enthusiasm for this project, so I figured it was a way for all my skills to come together as well as giving me an opportunity to develop my own writing life. I am always learning from other writers.
The interviews will be produced in PDF format and emailed to a subscriber base. How did you decide what format the project would take?
The Writer’s Room Interviews is an unashamedly old-fashioned publication – the interviews are long – and while I think it will be a great resource for serious students of writing who may be young and very tech-savvy, many of my colleagues in the writing world aren’t very technologically adventurous, so I didn’t want to go down the proper e-book route. Some of those I contacted as a sounding-board exercise early on told me they would love to subscribe to something like this but wanted to be able to print it out, which is another plus for the PDF format. I like the democracy of PDF; it will work for just about anybody and can still be read on an iPad or other reader as well as good old-fashioned paper. And it’s cheap and incredibly easy to produce.
The big drawback of PDF format for me is that my readers could forward it to non-subscribers, which could really ruin my chances of its success in the long term. But I’m banking on the honour principle and my readers’ goodwill, I guess, at least in the early stages, and will be asking subscribers not to share it beyond their households. I think the price of $27.50 for six issues is pretty good value – so I hope that fact, combined with a literary community desire for quality interviews, keeps me afloat for a while.
That said, I doubt this will ever be a money-spinner (at last estimate my rate of pay was anticipated at $7 an hour if I get a healthy subscriber base!) but I have already gained so much personally from my first interview, with Amanda Lohrey, that I really don’t care.
How did you choose your first subject, Amanda Lohrey? What was it that appealed to you about her?
I am a real admirer of Amanda’s work. She’s a very interesting writer – a respected essayist as well as fiction writer – and has a long career on which to draw. I had met her once before at a festival and found her refreshingly frank and forthright, as well as warm and funny and just engaging to talk to.
I want to talk to writers when they’re not in the midst of promoting new books, which is mostly the only time they are interviewed at length. I hadn’t seen Amanda in public for a while – she’s deep into work on a new novel of course – so the timing was right in that sense, although as it turned out she won the 2012 Patrick White Award the day before we spoke.
One of the reasons I want to talk to writers ‘between books’ is that – speaking personally at least – I am always very anxious around publication time, which can lead to one being a bit self-protective in interviews, or just very quickly tiring of hearing your own voice. You’re also very tired at that stage of coming out of a long work. You can get sort of stuck in an interview rut, where you find yourself going over and over the same ground.
I wanted my interviews to feel quite different from that. I am approaching writers at a time when their focus is not publicity but the real work of being a writer – the day-to-day tinkering at the desk, and the private world of their book.
I am asking writers about their body of work rather than just the latest book, as well as nerdy questions about routines and strategies and how they face familiar obstacles, and then much broader questions about creativity which never really get addressed in mainstream media interviews – quite rightly, as mainstream audiences are not necessarily writers and general readers can find technical talk about writing very boring. Not me.
What will your selection process be driven by? Will you be choosing writers based on your own curiosity about their work and processes, a desire to promote their work to readers – or something else entirely?
Entirely and utterly by my own curiosity about their work, and my own whims of the moment. The idea of being allowed to approach anyone I like and interrogating them for a few hours about how they work just seems like the greatest luxury to me. I do, though, want to get an interesting spread of different kinds of writers – my next interviewee is a male screenwriter, for example. Some will be well known, but lots won’t. Some will be people I’ve met through my writing career – like Amanda – and some will be people I don’t know but whose work I admire. I feel that I have an instinct for sniffing out whether people might have interesting things to say. I hope that as we go on, the magazine will develop its own standing, and become a record of writerly creativity in Australia. I will be really proud if I can achieve that.
You’ve embarked on this project as a one-woman show – you’re producing, promoting and distributing the interviews yourself. What made you decide on this approach? What are the challenges or advantages of doing it this way?
It’s so liberating to just be able to run the whole thing myself, with nobody else’s agenda driving it. I’ve worked on mainstream magazines in the past, so I think I have a reasonable idea of what’s involved in terms of schedules and production and planning and so forth. I am sure it could get exhausting, but my plan is to do it thoroughly and professionally for the first year, and see what happens. If there’s enough interest I’ll keep going for another. But the truth is that I find talking about writing and hearing about others’ creative practice so completely riveting that I expect I could do it forever. It’s just lovely to be able to have these conversations in a more formal way than I would be doing anyway.
As an author, you’ve been interviewed many times yourself. What do you think makes a good interviewer?
Anyone who listens well, reads well, thinks deeply, is genuinely interested in their subject and who is prepared to sit back and let the interviewee really speak can be a good interviewer.
What do you dislike when you’re reading an interview – what makes you cringe?
As a reader I find superficial ‘entertaining’ questions – the ‘if you could be any character in a book who would it be’ kind of thing – I find a bit tedious as they never really go anywhere or reveal much. When interviewers feel the need to step into focus and show that they too are interesting and clever, that can unbalance an interview I think. I’m actually just quite old-fashioned – most interviews are way too short for my liking; I find I’m just getting interested and then it’s all over. One thing I find mystifying about the internet is how often one is directed to write to a maximum length of 800 words. Surely the joy of the internet is that it provides the freedom to create really long, interesting conversations – but instead you get 500 words from the person you’re interested in, and ten thousand words of banal or insulting comments. Actually, I’ve just realised another great advantage of The Writer’s Room Interviews: no comments section!
Pip Smith is currently poet-in-residence at The Lifted Brow. She has had her poems and stories published in HEAT, Meanjin, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Island and Pan Magazine, and also runs the monthly short fiction night, Penguin Plays Rough, for which she has just compiled and edited its first book: The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. She was a co-director of the 2012 National Young Writers' Festival, and has a chapbook of poems, How to Reason with Snakes, available through Picaro Press.
We spoke to Pip about battling self doubt, writing and publishing a poem a day this summer (at the Brow) and why the idea of turning your writing into a small business makes her vomit.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I think I had a very earnest poem about capital-R Racism published in the school magazine when I was in Year Seven. Some obsessions, it seems, never change.
But the first piece I published that had any chance of being read was a short story called ‘Double Magic Girl, Pheromone Man, and the Many Half Lives of Madeline’, which Voiceworks agreed to publish after re-writing half of it (I think the original version had every section starting with a chemical equation of the half-life of uranium, but after checking the story with a Real Chemist, the editor found that none of the science actually made any sense). It was a weird, messy story. I am now trying to kill off the perfectionist in me, and reach back towards some of the energy contained in that messiness, even if the story was not super great.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Battling with my own self doubt. I’m currently undertaking a Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney, which is both the most incredible opportunity (it’s basically a three-year grant to write that One Ambitious Project), and a terrifying attack on a person’s confidence. Every day I stare the fact I really have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, right in the ugly face. This is made more uncomfortable by my constant and unnecessary reinvention of the wheel, and my stubborn refusal to model my project off anything that has come before. So I spend my days committing to chunks of the thing, when I know that there is an 80% chance I’ll have to throw that particular chunk out. But really, I love the challenge. So the worst part of my job is also the most invigorating. Right now, I am circling around the challenge by writing a poem a day for the Lifted Brow until summer runs out.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
There have been a few, and I refuse to make them compete for your affections! So I will tell you about two of them:
1) The decision to do a M Litt (creative writing) at the University of Sydney in 2007. Not everything about the course was helpful, but being given permission to write, make mistakes, and keep writing was exactly what I needed to kickstart what has been six years of jerky momentum.
2) The residency I am currently doing with the Lifted Brow has been excellent. It came about quite accidentally one afternoon when I texted Sam Cooney with a pitch: would he let me post a poem a day on the Brow website throughout all of summer? He took a few hours to reply, and in that time I was worried he was flashing my text around, laughing at how narcissistic the suggestion was. Strangely enough when he did reply it was with an emphatic yes.
Not only has he let me post a poem a day, but he has been committing the poems to a rigorous editorial process, changing all my ampersands to proper ‘ands’, challenging me with his own suggestions (which I reject most of, but it’s good to be challenged) and giving me encouragement when I need it. He is the most generous of editors!
This random experiment has given me a kick up the backside, and has helped me let go of things I would have otherwise fussed over for a year. Posting links to the poems on social media has helped bridge the often gargantuan divide between writer and reader, and the speed with which the poems are accessible online means they can respond to current events as they happen.
It has me thinking about the gated community we often put poetry in. Journalists are expected to churn out articles on a daily or weekly basis. Why shouldn’t we encourage our poets to do the same? Imagine if Fairfax published a poetry daily! Reportage on factually true, subjective experience! That’d be so great. I’d actually read that, and not just pretend that I do.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Write because you love good writing and need to write, not because you want to get published.
Turn your writing into a small business. (urgh! vomit, vomit)
Don’t ever write dreams into a story. (WHY? Dreams are the best movies our brains can come up with in the dark. Why would we deprive our stories of such good material?)
Worst comment I have heard made to emerging writers:
‘If you write a bad cover letter, people will remember your name and you will never get published again.’ (This is simply hairy bollocks.)
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
The most surprising thing I have ever read about myself was actually said by myself, when, after giving a 40 minute interview, the only quote the journalist selected was something along the lines of ‘what the f*** is a real story anyway, man?’ I felt slightly ridiculed. By myself, and the journalist.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Oh so many things! Things I still want to do! Before I started this DCA I was teaching English as a Second Language at Sydney Uni, which is something I found hugely rewarding. More recently I’ve been thinking about studying medicine and researching mental health systems more effective than our own hulking beast choked on red tape. I’d also like to be a theatre director, or a foreign correspondent. There’s still time for all this, right?
If there isn’t, then I will take solace in the fact that out there in the multiverse infinite Pips are doing all these things and more. This way, I can keep this writing caper going until the scholarship and then the grants dry up, and I’ll know that the other fantasies are being taken care of elsewhere.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I think it depends on what you understand by the word ‘taught’. You can be self-taught, but even then you are probably reading articles about writing, or interviews with writers you admire, or are talking about writing with friends. Choosing to study writing is just like doing all of this in a structured environment where you pay for someone to invent tasks and deadlines for you. Some people (myself included) need this. I like being bombarded with opinions and ideas on how to capture the world on the page.
If you choose to study creative writing, you are also paying for someone more experienced than you to give you their honest opinion on your work. For this reason, if you choose to study, I think it’s really important to study under someone you respect, who both challenges you and is respectful of what you’re trying to achieve. I had this in Judith Beveridge, who read my poetry and offered considered feedback for three years. She helped bring out my own voice, and did not impose her own on me. For this reason, and many others, I think she is an exceptional teacher.
The downside of studying creative writing at university is the increased likelihood you may end up treading water in a kind of writing that does not reach out to anyone beyond the walls of a tertiary institution. I think all kinds of writing are vital and necessary, but I hate seeing brilliant writers never publish anything outside an academic journal. It’s like never leaving your desk for fear of not being understood by the outside world.
Surely this is why many of us write: to swim around in the world, to try to understand it, and be understood.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Write, fail and write some more.
Make the most of every opportunity.
Send stuff out to get published even if it isn’t 100% perfect.
Read at Penguin Plays Rough!
Always have more than one project on the boil, so that if something fails, it isn’t the end of the world.
Follow your pedagogical bliss.
Write about what obsesses you most.
Study and read what interests you the most at any given time, not what others tell you to study.
Sharpen your bullshit meter.
Always be honest.
Cut out all the frilly bits.
Know when your fears are getting in the way.
Don’t listen to people who tell you what their rules are.
Every writing rule has been broken brilliantly by someone, and if it hasn’t yet, it will.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both! Most of the hardcopy books I buy are poetry books, and the only bookshop I’ve come across in Sydney with anything vaguely resembling a halfway decent poetry section is Gleebooks, but even they don’t have all the latest and greatest titles. It turns out to be much cheaper and efficient to order through Book Depository.
Otherwise, if I can, I always try and download an e-book version of a title. Books are chunky. I’m sick of losing them and lugging them around with me when I move. Unless a writer or publisher has made an effort to make a beautiful book that screams CHERISH ME, I probably won’t.
Also, you can highlight and take notes in e-readers, and travel with a gazillion books right in your backpack. E-readers make sense to me. The point, for me, is to absorb the ideas communicated by the writing, not to get nostalgic over objects, unless the object factors into the reading experience the writer is trying to create (Chris Ware’s Building Stories, for instance).
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Ye gads. ANY fictional character? Um. The guy wearing the cape made out of radios in Donald Barthelme’s ‘The Dolt’? I would ask him how he wove the 200 transistors together, and he would probably respond by tweaking the knobs on his radios so that they said the words he wanted to say at all the right times.
OH NO WAIT! Orlando. I would ask her how she managed to be alive for so damn long, what was the Russian princess like in bed, and how on earth did she manage to change her gender without getting attacked by journalists at the Guardian.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I’d say the most significant works have been plays. Does that count? When I experience an incredible play, I feel high for days. Most recently I had that experience with Declan Greene’s Pompeii, LA.
It might be a bit naff and predictable to say so, but I think studying Shakespeare at school, and then playing Ophelia in Hamlet for the Australian Theatre for Young People when I was 19 were the most significant exposures to what written language can do to a person’s nerve endings. I love the irreverence with which Shakespeare treated the English language. If there wasn’t a word for something he wanted to say, he’d just make one up. In Hamlet, my favourite of his plays, there is a perfect synthesis between the wordplay he so clearly got off on, and a dark, existential current tugging at the words, which makes many of them still resonate with us today. There are still so many lines in that play that I turn over in my head from time to time. This is still so romantic, it gives me chills:
‘What wilt thou do for her? … drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I’ll do it!’
Crocodile? Why on earth was Hamlet thinking about crocodiles at a funeral in Denmark?
Shakespeare, your imagination is weird and I love you for it.
Pip Smith is currently poet-in-residence at The Lifted Brow, where she will publish a poem a day throughout summer.
When Dave Eggers first started McSweeney’s Quarterly, the iconic US literary magazine, he sold lifetime subscriptions for $100 – the same price as a two-year subscription.
‘That was as long as the magazine was meant to last,’ McSweeney’s managing editor Jordan Bass told a Wheeler Centre audience last night.
Next year, McSweeney’s will turn 15 years old. (In retrospect, those lifetime subscriptions were great value.)
These days, a huge range of interests sprawl beneath the McSweeney’s umbrella, from the bookish The Believer to stylish sports quarterly Grantland. The form is varied, too, ranging from daily humour website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency to old-fashioned literary journal McSweeney’s Quarterly, which boasts cutting-edge design and content.
In the past year, McSweeney’s has started published a food magazine, Lucky Peach, which is now ‘the hugest thing we’re doing’.
And of course, there’s the book publishing arm of the business, where the authors include big names like Eggers himself (of course), Michael Chabon and Nick Hornby, along with next-big-things like Sheila Heti.
Bass started his internship at McSweeney’s in 2004, when issue 13 had just been published.
‘I spent the first hour of my internship standing outside the building because I didn’t realise the gate was locked,’ he said. ‘Every hour after that was really, really great.’
One of the first issues he worked on came with a comb. He spent a lot of time looking at 30 different sample combs sent by manufacturers, ‘figuring out which one would be funny to find inside a literary magazine’.
After his internship, he went back to school to finish his degree. After college, his friends all moved to Brooklyn ‘to become food stylists or dominatrixes’. But Bass had a different dream.
‘I wanted to move back home and work for free in book publishing.’
He joked about McSweeney’s reputation as a hipster publication (‘despite my employer’s critical lack of fashion sense’). A profile in the Australian recently likened the publisher’s niche appeal to ‘artisanal pickles’, which amused him.
‘We definitely don’t spend most of our time thinking about font size and subtitles and eating Thai food off someone’s desk,’ he told the Wheeler Centre crowd.
McSweeney’s has 15 employees, maybe half of those working in editorial roles. ‘You sort of have to accept that you’re going to be doing everything’. Bass likes the fact that instead of editing a story, sending it off to the designer and never seeing it again, everything happens in one place.
The current issue, McSweeney’s 41, features four stories by Australian indigenous writers: Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Ellen van Neerven-Currie and Tara June Winch. It follows previous nation-themed issues on Kenya and Iceland; local novelist Chris Flynn pitched the idea while on a visit to New York last year.
Bass said he was really impressed by the quality of the stories, and that all four writers struck him as ‘world-class voices’.
He’s been impressed by the Australian literary scene too, saying the incredible sense of community here is one that ‘lots of people in the States would be envious of’. He particularly admired the Queensland Literary Awards, staged by a conglomerate of writers and literary folk (‘people with incredible moxie’) after Campbell Newman cancelled the government-sponsored Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards earlier this year.
Almost all of McSweeney’s short fiction is unsolicited. In the current issue, only the four indigenous Australian stories (curated by Chris Flynn) were commissioned. ‘We try to react to the currents – see what comes in the door,’ said Bass. How many submissions come through the door (or in the inbox) each year? Approximately seven to eight thousand, vetted by McSweeney’s interns.
‘I was very obsessive for a long time. I didn’t trust any of my volunteers. I’d let them read things, then I’d read everything they rejected and get angry. These days I try to trust people.’
Bass says the McSweeney’s gang thought about whether they should produce a politically focused issue to coincide with the American election, but decided against it, deciding Obama probably didn’t need their help.
‘It was exciting when Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair,’ he joked, deadpan. ‘Because our logo is an empty chair.’
Asked about the impact of the downturn in publishing on McSweeney’s, Bass reported that things haven’t changed all that much – part of the advantage of being a small press, used to running operations with more dash than cash.
‘We never had the fat years of rolling around in our expense accounts,’ he said. ‘It’s always been about connecting with dedicated readers. That same kind of audience is the audience that’s surviving, that’ll be around a bit longer.’
McSweeney’s has long been known for its innovative approach to design. How does that contribute to the cost of producing it?
‘When we’re putting together an experimental book, it doesn’t cost five dollars more per copy,’ said Bass. ‘It costs twenty-five cents more. Dave realised there are lots of ways you can make your book stand out from everything else in the store.’
Bass says that while the form of McSweeney’s( has often been wildly inventive – for example, one issue came in a cigar box, with content in the form of letters and postcards, while another was in the format of a Sunday newspaper (it took a year to produce, ‘not a good sign when you’re trying to argue for the future of newspapers’) – the company has never messed too much with the page layout or typesetting. The content has always come first; the design a way into the stories.
On the other hand, ‘Dave has always talked about wanting to print an issue on glass,’ shared Bass. ‘That’s his dream.’
What’s the secret to good writing? Voice, says Bass. And good sentences. ‘Don’t not care about your sentences.’
‘You can ask it to be beautiful and funny and weird at the same time.’
Join guest editor Chris Flynn, McSweeney’s managing editor Jordan Bass and contributors Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko and Ellen van Neerven-Currie for the launch, at the Wheeler Centre of McSweeney’s 41, the Australian Aboriginal Fiction Edition on Thursday 13 September, 6.15pm.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland literary magazine, and has authored and co-edited several books. His latest book is Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, co-edited with Antony Loewenstein.
Jeff spoke to us for our Working with Words series about why writing a book is like an illness, the best thing about editing Overland and eating Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Probably something in Farrago at Melbourne Uni, about a million years ago. Almost certainly, a denunciation – hopefully, of someone who deserved it.
What’s the best part of your job?
I work as editor for the literary journal Overland. The best part is being constantly confronted by new ideas and new writing, as well as collaborating with some very interesting and talented people. That’s what inspired Left Turn, actually – a sense that there were lots of progressive writers with interesting ideas that weren’t getting a hearing.
What’s the worst part of your job?
At literary magazine with very limited space, you spend a lot of time saying ‘no’ to writers. That’s not much fun – and it’s a good way to lose friends and irritate people.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Orwell says that writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. For me, the most significant moment is always finishing the project, though sometimes that feels less like recovering from a sickness and more like succumbing to it.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
‘Write about what you know.’ Simultaneously inane and reactionary, it entirely misses the point of creativity. We’re inevitably wrong about the things we think we know, precisely because we think we know them. If you write about what you don’t know, you have a chance to say something interesting.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
There’s another Jeff Sparrow, who writes books about beer. Once or twice, I’ve been praised for my knowledge of brewing.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Shouting angrily at the television.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Painting can be taught, music can be taught and so can writing – indeed, there’s courses doing precisely that in every university in Australia now. Really, the more interesting question is whether reading can be taught. Certainly, if everyone writing stories or poems today was equally interested in reading them, there’d be a lot more opportunities for Australian writers.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
The older I get, the more I think Kenneth Koch’s warning to writers is as accurate as it’s depressing:
You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Oh, Norman Linday’s Magic Pudding, of course. We’d begin the evening singing some of his songs (‘Oh, who would be a pudding/ a pudding in a pot…’). Later on, we’d eat him.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The current project was influenced early on by Mark Fisher’s brief but fantastic book Capitalist Realism.
More generally, I see something of my own writing in Ignatius Reilly’s description of his efforts in A Confederacy of Dunces: ‘I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.’
Jeff Sparrow and Anthony Lowenstein, co-editors of Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, will talk about their book and the ideas behind it with a panel that includes Margaret Simons and Kim Bullimore.
Hannah Kent, deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings, has spent time living and writing in Iceland, the setting for her forthcoming debut novel, over the past eight years.
The Australian visit of one of Iceland’s leading literary lights, Sjón, is just days away. Hannah provides a perfect introduction to Icelandic literature – and Sjón in particular – in this passionate appreciation.
There is an Icelandic riddle that asks: ‘What in the house keeps silent and yet speaks to all?’ The answer? A book. It is a maxim that is revealing of Iceland’s profound respect for and love of the written word. A small island, its coast of black sand washed on all sides by the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland’s nationhood has, in many ways, been built on a reverence for language; its heritage is unquestionably literary.
Books, reading and storytelling have not only long been part of Icelandic cultural traditions, but arguably comprise its cultural landscape. The Icelandic sagas (Íslendingasögur), medieval prose histories relating the lives of the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland in the tenth and eleventh centuries, form the nation’s cultural backbone. Landmarks of world literature, with many of the manuscripts preserved to this day, the sagas are ‘the great foundation myths’ of Iceland; singularly responsible for threading the country’s mythologies and historical traditions through the generations.
For hundreds of years Icelandic households gathered in the evenings during the dark grip of winter for kvöldvaka, where a member of the family would read aloud to amuse the others as they turned their hands to chores: knitting, fulling wool, mending tools. Recitation and contemplation of the sagas, many of which were known by heart, and readings of devotional books, newspapers and – in later years – published books of folktales, not only helped pass the snow-locked hours before sleep, but cultivated the education of Iceland’s people.
Unlike its European and Scandinavian neighbours, Iceland’s population achieved almost total literacy before 1800 – a remarkable feat for a country that, even after 1800, possessed only one school. As Uno Von Troil, a traveller to Iceland in 1772, remarked in his journal:
‘You will seldom find a peasant who besides being well-instructed in the principles of religion, is not also acquainted with the history of his country, which proceeds from the frequent reading of the traditional histories (sagas) wherein consists their principal amusement’.
This sentiment was supported by Sir George Steuart MacKenzie, who travelled to Iceland in 1810 – ‘the literary character of the people is doubtless the most extraordinary and peculiar’. He was struck by the fact that literature could thrive amongst a community ‘so oppressed by all the severities of soil and climate, and secluded amidst the desolation and destructive operations of nature’.
In modern times there has been little sign that Icelanders’ love affair with the book and with storytelling is diminishing. Reykjavík, the country’s capital, was appointed as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011, in recognition of its ‘outstanding literary history with its invaluable heritage of ancient medieval literature’, and ‘the central role literature plays within the modern urban landscape, the contemporary society and the daily life of its citizens’. Despite the fact that these citizens amount to only 317,000, the country continues to publish the most books per capita in the world – the equivalent of five books each year for every 1,000 citizens – and has produced a vast number of internationally known writers, including 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Halldór Laxness. Other, more contemporary Icelanders to achieve international acclaim include Arnaldur Indriðason (2005 winner of the Golden Dagger Award) and Yrsa Sigurðardottir, both crime writers, and Nordic Council Literature Prize winners, Thor Vilhjálmsson, Einar Már Guðmundsson and Sjón.
Sjón (born in 1962 as Sigurjón Sigurðsson) is perhaps most emblematic of the vibrancy and originality that can be found in the contemporary Icelandic literary scene. At only 16 years of age he published his first poems, and a few years later he formed the surrealist poetry group, Medusa, with other artists. Now the author of seven novels and many collections of poetry, Sjón has applied his creativity in other areas: establishing the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and collaborating with Lars Von Trier and Björk on the lyrics for Dancer in the Dark. His literary abilities and interests are manifold and reflected in the style of his work; from the precise, controlled lyricism of his novel The Blue Fox (Skugga Baldur, 2005) – where a priest hunts an enigmatic blue fox through a wintered landscape and a naturalist finds a young girl shackled to a ship wreck – to the stream-of-conscious surrealism of his most recent publication, From the Mouth of the Whale.
From the Mouth of the Whale (Rökkurbýsnir, published in Icelandic in 2008, and translated into English by Victoria Cribb in 2011), is, like Sjón, representative of the way in which Icelandic literature today coalesces the country’s rich history with modern sensibilities. It is the story of Jónas the Learned, a self-taught naturalist and healer who has been sentenced for sorcery and necromancy, outlawed to Gullbjörn’s Island in 1635. Shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, From the Mouth of the Whale is a portrait of seventeenth-century post-Reformation Iceland: a bleak island shrouded in poverty, mysticism and superstition, just as the bright light of science is dawning upon the world. It is a novel where tradition is amalgamated with discovery.
The Iceland represented by Sjón, as Jónas narrates his story to a lone sandpiper, similarly teeters between the magical and the known: ravens’ heads are roasted and their brains picked apart in search of bezoars; a solar eclipse drives peasants to despair and madness; the ghost of a parson’s son runs riot until it is exorcised with poetry; whalers are massacred; and corpses are invaded by the Devil, who ‘rides the deceased like a cruel jockey driving his horse’. Sjón’s prose is at once intensely surrealist and peculiarly charming, and – like so many Icelandic authors – he plays with the myths, history and folktales of his country. Just as Jónas breathlessly exclaims, ‘Every book is imbued with a human spirit,’ so are Sjón’s novels imbued with a spirited appreciation and exploration of language and Icelandic literary culture.
In a 2011 interview with David Shariatmadari from the Guardian, Sjón acknowledged Icelanders’ need for storytelling: ‘In a small country, you really feed your identity with stories. Nobody else is … looking at you, so the only people you can assume are interested in who you are, and where you come from, and where you’re going is yourself and your people. So you’re very much reliant on the story of your origin…’ It’s a philosophy and a recognition that, as Reykjavík’s City of Literature site suggests, ‘the art of the word is the strongest thread in Iceland’s cultural history’. It is what holds Iceland together as a nation, what connects it to its past. As Jónas exclaims in From the Mouth of the Whale:
‘And so it is with all the far-fetched tales […] of this world with their uncouth exclamations about endless nights, burning snow, whales the size of mountains, trumpet blasts of the dead from volcanoes and icebergs, witches who can sell sailors a favourable wind or send their sons to the moon; in some strange way they come close to the stories that we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.’
Hannah Kent is deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings, and teaches at Flinders University. She recently received the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her manuscript, Burial Rites, which tells the story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.
Late last year a US-based organisation advocating for women in the literary arts, VIDA, surveyed major UK and US literary publications such as the London Review of Books, The Atlantic and The New Republic. They counted how many women wrote for the publication, how many women reviewed books, and how many books by women were reviewed relative to books by men. The numbers show what many of us have suspected or known for a while: women are underrepresented on every level in these publications.
The stats are published online in the form of pie charts, and there’s something peculiarly poignant about seeing them broken down in this way: the small blue female slice, often scandalously slim, in a big red pie. The New York Review of Books last year published 79 women and 462 men; The Times Literary Supplement reviewed books by 330 women and 1036 men; The Paris Review interviewed one woman author and seven men. That’s a small slice.
Australian publications don’t fare much better. Books editors from The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed on a recent episode of The Book Show were all surprised to discover that their pages showed a comparable bias. If you picked up the Australian Literary Review last week you would have been faced with an illustration of a cranky John Curtin staring out from the front cover, surrounded by a list of highlights inside the issue: without exception, they take the form “male writer on male writer”. A glance at the contents list inside reveals two women contributors out of fifteen overall, and one review of a book by a woman writer. I wrote an open letter to Luke Slattery, the editor of ALR, last week, asking for his views on the issue.
Editors of the VIDA-canvassed journals have been mostly defensive. Ruth Franklin at The New Republic faulted presses for not publishing enough books by women. TLS editor Peter Stothard articulated an attitude similar to the one critiqued by Jodi Picoult last year, when Picoult complained about the attention lavished on white male literary writers in the pages of The New York Times: “while women are heavy readers,” Stothard admitted to The Guardian, “we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS” which simply publishes, he claims, “the best reviews of the most important books.”
Since the beginning of the novel, women have been closely associated with it as readers and writers of the genre, but attached to the most derogated and supposedly corrupting forms of fiction such as romance (think Emma Bovary). It’s a persistent form of sexist thinking, mixed up with value judgments about what kind of books count as important literature, but it’s still rare to see it so openly and uncritically expressed.
TLS aside, it’s hard to imagine to that editors are sitting around congratulating themselves on successfully excluding women from the literary world. Some of the most sophisticated discussion of the issues raised by the VIDA stats has taken place on the literary site Bookslut, where two of the editors, Jessica Crispin and Michael Schaub, initiated an exchange of ideas on the topic, exploring the complexity of the unconscious biases that shape our gut reactions to books, without recourse to a rhetoric of blame or shame.
Editors like to complain that women writers and reviewers pitch less than men. This may well be true: after all, what woman in her right mind would look at the ALR each month and think “I belong here”? There’s no way around it: if we want a bigger slice of the pie, we need to ask; it will not be handed to us any other way. The ALR is one of the few outlets that actually pays decent money per word; it’s national, with a huge distribution: it should be obvious that women are entitled to be an equal part of the public intellectual conversation to which its editor aspires.
My first novel was published last year (it was widely reviewed) and I started paying a different sort of attention to these questions. In particular, I noticed with dismay how few women are nominated for major literary awards. In the past 20 years the Miles Franklin has been won by only four women. Several state Premier’s literary awards last year included no women writers on their fiction shortlists. The exception is the recent Prime Minister’s awards, where Eva Hornung won the fiction category with her novel Dog Boy. It’s not all gloomy: I like to think the future belongs to the young women starting to shape the literary landscape, such as Angela Meyer’s super-sharp Crikey blog LiteraryMinded and the editors of the new little magazine Kill Your Darlings. And now after all these metaphors I’m seriously hungry for a decent sized piece of pie.
Kirsten Tranter is a Sydney writer. Her first novel, The Legacy, was published internationally in 2010.
For a long time, literary magazines have been the lifeblood of books, writing and ideas. With Harpers in trouble, the recent hiatus of Heat, and the whole industry in flux, here’s an overview of good reading on the subject.
We begin with a mythbuster. The myth is that a literary magazine or journal is less likely to survive in the marketplace than a general interest title. Wrong, it turns out, according to a study published on Bookslut. Here’s some analysis at Poetry Foundation.
Another myth: often assumed to be at the vanguard of progressive thought, it turns out that literary magazines continue to be dominated by men. A recent survey has shown that men are disproportionately represented at every literary periodical of note. Again at Bookslut, Alizah Salario considers the dominance of men among New Yorker critics: “Why don’t I submit my work and pitch stories more often? I know I should. I just don’t. I hesitate. I do the dishes. I come back to my computer and my idea has soured. Is it because I’m a woman, or is it just because I’m me?”
Bad reviews can be traumatic: here’s Emily St. John Mandel on the subject. Reviewing and reviewers have been the subject of much discussion lately, including here at the Wheeler Centre. Zadie Smith’s appointment as Harpers‘ new fiction critic has prompted some chatter, such as this defence of 'middlebrow’ and this (both from the New Yorker): “Smith [said] that reviewing was having a fascinating moment. The book review is currently tasked with reinventing itself, thanks to the Internet, where the most inconsiderate reader could post a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review on sites where they could wreak considerable damage.”
Finally, the Paris Review has pleased fans of the late, and highly prolific, Chilean master Roberto Bolaño. The quarterly has announced it will be publishing a “lost” Bolaño story called ‘The Third Reich’ over 4 issues, beginning with the forthcoming spring issue. Here’s an excerpt.
The venerable literary journal the Paris Review has had something of a makeover and to celebrate they’ve put together a video preview of their latest edition that puts the hype in hyperactive. Galleycat speculates that the over the top voiceover from “an announcer that should be narrating monster truck shows”.
We’re also enjoying the South Park-inspired animation of Jonathan Franzen repeating the word “pleasure” and the way the editorial philosophy that “it’s dessert or it’s nothing”.
Looking for a bookish gift that’s not a book? Soho!, a literary board game could be the answer.
The game revolves around collecting “6 pieces of rashly commissioned copy [that] need to be retrieved from a somewhat motley bunch of recalcitrant writers… And, being writers, all 6 are currently holed up in 6 Soho pubs, cadging free drinks, chatting up people half their age (but with, oddly, twice their looks), and complaining vociferously about their agents”.
The characters themselves are drawn with the same cheeky humour including such writing stalwarts as “travel blogger and author of ”Leicester: City of Crisps“, Toby D’Azure” and “Girl-about-town and sparkly-heeled chick-lit tyro Sophie Blush”. Players are required to corral copy from these various literary geniuses. The game is apparently “suitable for all ages, though under-12s might not get some of the jokes and under-8’s will probably throw tantrums. Also, any taxi-drivers will have a built-in advantage, but there’s not much we can do about that – they have enlarged hippocampi, you know”.
The game is a fundraising drive for Smoke, a London-based literary magazine that’s currently on a “short sabbatical to consider its options and work on other projects” including Soho!. As we look to the future of literary journals in Australia, could board games be the new e-books?
Subscribers to Australian Book Review would have opened the magazine to find that the Calibre Prize was awarded to two outstanding essays.
Dr David Hansen’s “Seeing Truganini” looks into the European silent generation who witnessed the last public display of the remains of the ‘last Australian Aborigine’. Hansen looks says Australians find themselves “not in embarrassed silence, but in the equally regrettable white noise of pious post-colonial cant.” As a curator of Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hansen’s piece balances personal insight with gutsy writing in an essay written specifically for the prize.
“On Being Odd” is Lorna Hallahan’s look at the marginalisation of those who look different and their stigmatisation in literature and society. She sends a salute “to Aristotle: ‘Happiness is born in connection to others, not just in beauty’”. Hallahan draws on her background as a theologian and social worker to put forward a compelling argument in favour of the stigmatised.
Part of our job here at the Wheeler Centre is to keep you up-to-date with what's happening in the literary online world.
Amongst the thousands of blogs devoted to all things books, writing and ideas, some of our favourites include Reeling and Writhing, a chatty blog about books by Genevieve Tucker, a newsy blog called Still Life with a Cat by Kerryn Goldsworthy and Perry Middlemiss' extensive literary blog Matilda.
If you're looking for the inside tip on literary Australia, you could do worse than to pay a visit to the Meanjin blog Spike, from the literary journal of the same name, or visit Overland. And as a handy example of just the kind of thing we're aiming to do here at the Centre, the two journals will be teaming up for our Meanland event in February, Reading in a Time of Change.
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