Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012, Matches 7-8
With this post, we finish the first round of this year’s Tournament of Books, so here goes … next post will look at Round 2.
Like most Australians I’ve read Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. It’s probably one of Australia’s most anthologised stories so it was, really, a no-brainer for inclusion in the tournament. It would have been interesting to have seen this pitted against Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” but it is Baynton’s other well-known story, “Squeaker’s Mate”, that was chosen for the tournament.
Anyhow, the judge of this match, Canberra-based Indian poet Subhash Jaireth, gave the match “hands down” to Lawson’s story for, it seems, its power. He says Kennedy’s story is “a wonderful story composed by a writer who knows her craft, but I doubt if it would stir someone’s imagination to make a painting, a movie or a song” (as “The drover’s wife” has). I guess this is as good a criterion as any to choose between two respected pieces of literature but, as you would expect, the tournament’s comic commentators, Jess McGuire and Ben Pobjie, did poke fun at this judgement. As Jess wrote:
Sadly … the lack of a tie in with a celebrated paintbrush jockey [like Russell Drysdale for "The drover's wife"] has quite possibly cost Cate Kennedy more than she could’ve possibly imagined when penning her work of fiction…
To which all I can say is, Such is life!
The final match of the first round pitted one of the grand men of Australian literature, Peter Carey – he whom many love to hate – against the up and coming Tony Birch, whose book Blood was shortlisted this year for the Miles Franklin Award. Again, I’ve only read the older story, which was published in 1974 in the collection A fat man in history. Lucky me, eh, that yet another story I’ve read has progressed to the next round. The judge, Melbourne-based poet, Sean M Whelan, writes that “American dreams” deals with “themes of globalisation, cultural cringe, and that old chestnut ‘be careful what you wish for'”. We probably wouldn’t have described it as “globalisation” in 1974 but that’s what it is – and is part of what makes this story still work nearly 40 years after it was written. Moreover, the concept of “American dreams” still works as a metaphor for dreams of wealth and success, even though the real America these days may be a little tarnished.
I’m not sure that Whelan makes perfectly clear why he chose Carey over Birch except by saying “I love this story”. I understand why. It is a well-constructed story that gets you in from the opening line and has you guessing, has you expecting big drama, only to turn out quieter, subtler than that, but no less hard-hitting. An effective, satisfying story. In a strange twist, Carey ended up moving to America in 1990 where he remains still. Life imitating art perhaps?
And so, we are left with eight stories for Round 2:
- Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple”
- Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s mate”
- Peter Carey’s “American dreams”
- Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil”
- Elizabeth Jolley’s “Five acre virgin”
- Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”
- Nam Le’s “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”
- Josephine Rowe’s “‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing”
With several favourites of mine in the mix, this will be interesting. Watch this space …