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Monday musings on Australian literature: Looking back, looking forward

July 25, 2016

As some of you know, I have been involved recently in looking after my aunt’s estate. This weekend, my cousin and I checked out, again, the bookcase that contained old books, books that had belonged to my grandparents. One of the books that came to my attention was The golden treasury of Australian verse. It was given to my grandmother in 1914 before she was married, but it was, in fact, the 1912 revised edition of the 1909 edition, which came from An anthology of Australian verse first published in 1906. Got that?

I’m not, in this post, going to review the poetry, interesting though that is. Rather, I want to share ideas from the introduction written by Bertram Stevens. He was born in outback Australia, in Inverell, New South Wales, in 1872. His mum came from Queanbeyan, which is the city adjoining my own. The Australian dictionary of biography, to which I’ve linked his name, says:

A proficient, lucid critic, Stevens was pre-eminently a cultural catalyst and pioneer who perceived needs and lacunae. His An Anthology of Australian Verse (1906), although uneven, was the first seriously edited collection of its kind; improved as The Golden Treasury of Australian Verse (1909), it became a standard text.

It’s his perceptions on Australian literature that I want to share here, but first, a disclaimer. Like most people of his time, he saw Australia – and therefore Australian culture – as starting with white settlement. That’s just how it was then, so please read his comments in that context.

He starts by describing Australia because, he says, “the literature of a country is, in certain respects, a reflex of its character”. I found his framing of Australia’s development and how it played out in our literature fascinating. He said (and I’m going dot point them for ease) that Australia:

  • encompasses “all climates, from tropical to frigid” but that it is more liable to long droughts. He suggests that “the absence of those broad, outward signs of the changing seasons which mark the pageant of the year in the old world is probably a greater disadvantage than we are apt to suspect”
  • has few of “the conditions” that are found “in older communities where great literature arose”. Our early history, he says, has “no glamour of old Romance … no shading off from the actual into a dim region of myth and fable”. Instead, Australia’s “beginnings are clearly defined and of an eminently prosaic character”. By this he means that the early settlers were engaged in the struggle to survive, to establish industries, after which came “the gold period” with further expansion of industries. The implications of all this, he argues, is that “business and politics have afforded ready roads to success, and have absorbed the energies of the best intellects”. Moreover, “there has been no leisured class of cultured people to provide the atmosphere in which literature is best developed as an art”. Australians had consequently been happy “to look to the mother country” for its “artistic standards”.
  • has had “no great crisis … to fuse our common sympathies and create a national sentiment”

These are all interesting points, though he doesn’t expand on them with significant evidence. A little further on he suggests that the “large stream of immigration” during the gold period (1860s-1880s) had a major impact on the development of the colonies, not just in terms of industry/economics but wider culture as well. I was pleased to see a recognition of the importance of immigration to the development of culture!

He gives a brief history of writing and publishing in Australia, discussing the early poets, from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, but argues that Australia’s first genuine, albeit, crude poetry appeared in 1845 “in the form of a small volume of sonnets by Charles Harper”. Harpur was followed by poets like Henry Kendall (about whom I’ve written, briefly, before, and who attracted praise from English critics) and the problematical Adam Lindsay Gordon, about whom he writes:

his work cannot be considered as peculiarly Australian in character; but much of it is concerned with the horse, and all of it is a-throb with the manly, reckless personality of the writer. Horses and horse-racing are especially interesting to Australians, the Swinburnian rush of Gordon’s ballads charms their ear, and in many respects he embodies their ideal of a man. There are few Australians who do not know some of his poems, even if they know no others, and his influence upon subsequent writers has been very great.

You may remember a previous Monday Musings in which Gordon’s influence was discussed, again in not very flattering light. (I must admit, however, that I am one of those Australians who knows some of his poems!). Kendall died in 1882, having achieved some success, but, writes Stevens,

He lived at a time when Australians had not learned to think it possible that any good thing in art could come out of Australia, and were too fully occupied with things of the market-place to concern themselves much about literature.

Stevens also discusses the role of early – mid-nineteenth century – magazines and newspapers in promoting Australian literature, like Victoria’s The Argus and The Australasian, but argues (and few would disagree with him) that it was The Bulletin, established in 1880, which had the biggest influence on the development of Australian literature:

Its racy, irreverent tone and its humour are characteristically Australian, and through its columns the first realistic Australian verse of any importance, the writings of Henry Lawson and A. B. Paterson, became widely known.

Their work started to make an impression on the reading public by the mid 1890s, and Stevens concludes his introduction with

Australia has now come of age, and is becoming conscious of its strength and its possibilities. Its writers to-day are, as a rule, self-reliant and hopeful. They have faith in their own country; they write of it as they see it, and of their work and their joys and fears, in simple, direct language. It may be that none of it is poetry in the grand manner, and that some of it is lacking in technical finish; but it is a vivid and faithful portrayal of Australia, and its ruggedness is in character.

There’s still some cultural cringe here but, nonetheless, I enjoyed reading his assessment of the first century or so of Australian literature – and may come back to it and his anthology in another week when I’m less tired!

Helen Garner on writers and writing (in Everywhere I look)

July 24, 2016

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookAs I promised in my main review of Helen Garner’s engaging book of essays and jottings, Everywhere I look, I am here doing a little follow-up post on her discussions of other writers. I enjoyed reading her thoughts about specific writers, but even more I liked that in talking about these writers she gave away her own writing preferences.

So, what did I know about Garner’s writing before this? One is that she tends to write from her own life and experience. This is why, I’m sure, she moves so comfortably between fiction and non-fiction, but it’s also something that has got her into trouble at times. Some critics argued that her first, generally applauded novel, Monkey grip, was just her diary; others suggested that The spare room is not really a novel either. Garner has retorted – and I take her point – that when she writes novels drawing from her life, she selects, orders and constructs a narrative and that that is art.

The other main thing I’ve noted is that her writing is on the sparer side of the spectrum. She can be highly evocative but she doesn’t go much for metaphorical flourishes. I’ve quoted her before as saying that Thea Astley’s writing “is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk”. I was reminded of this when I read her piece in this collection on Tim Winton. She says about first meeting him at a writers’ weekend in 1982. She had not long before written a review of his first novel:

Stabbed with panic, I scoured my memory for what I’d said in my review. I liked the novel and had said so; but from the lofty eminence of a minimalist who’d published  fully two books, I’d drawn attention to what I saw as his overworked metaphors …

Fascinating, because as much as I love Winton, I clearly remember thinking something similar about his second novel, Shallows.

But now, with that introduction, I’ll get to what I really want to share. Her discussions about writers come mainly from two (“Notes from a brief friendship” and “The journey of the stamp animals”) of the book’s six sections. The writers she talks about include Australians Tim Winton (“Eight views of Tim Winton”), Elizabeth Jolley (“My dear lift-rat”), and Barbara Baynton (“Gall and bare-faced daring”), the American journalist Janet Malcolm (“The rapture of first-hand encounters”), and the English novelist who needs no introduction here Jane Austen (“How to marry your daughters”). Each of these gave me little insights into Garner, and I’m just going to tease you with a smattering because – well, you know why, because you should read the book yourself.

Although I’ve already mentioned Winton, I’ll share one more thing. It relates to Garner’s interest in (and reputation for) sentences, and is an exchange from their ongoing correspondence:

I sent him a jubilant letter: ‘Hey! I’ve just written a 200-word sentence which is syntactically perfect!’ ‘I couldn’t care less,’ he replied, ‘about that sort of shit.’

For all this, though, she likes Winton!

Garner loves Elizabeth Jolley for her ability “to strike a note of mortification and inject it with the tincture of the ridiculous that makes it bearable.” That’s Jolley alright, and I can see that both she and Garner, while very different writers, do both look at the world, at people’s relationships in particular, with a sort of self-deprecating sense of absurdity that can lighten darkness. Does that make the sense I think it does?

I was surprised by her piece on Barbara Bayntonabout whom I have written frequently here – not because I was surprised to find she admires Baynton but because I didn’t know she did! Her piece starts:

I was well into my forties when I came upon Barbara Baynton’s story “The chosen vessel”, and I have never got over it.

Yep, I know what she means. I was late to Baynton too, and equally stunned. Garner is impressed, of course, with the power of Baynton’s stories, with their lack of romanticism, particularly about women’s lives. But what I want to share here is her comment on Baynton’s writing.  She recognises that some of Baynton’s sentences can seem “clogged and heavyhanded” to modern ears, but, Garner writes

… my God, when she hits her straps, she can lay down a muscular story […]

At their height, her dry, sinewy sentences stride forward, powered by simple verbs.

You are probably getting a picture of the sort of writing Garner likes – direct, clear, fearless, like Jolley, like Baynton.

And then there’s the American journalist Janet Malcolm, of whom I’ve heard but not read (to the best of my knowledge). Malcolm, she says, has been her greatest teacher. I’ll just share a comment from her opening paragraph:

I have never met her, or heard her speak, but I would know her voice everywhere. It is a literary voice, composed and dry, articulate and free-striding, drawing on deep-learning, yet plain in its address, and above all fearless …

Need I say more?

And finally, Austen. She surprised me when, describing herself sitting down to read Pride and prejudice in 2013, she said that she wasn’t sure when, or even whether, she’d read it before! What? However, she writes,

I sharpened a pencil and sat down at the kitchen table.

Just how I like to read, with a pencil in hand. Garner goes on to describe her experience of reading Austen – providing wonderful writer’s commentary on the style, the narrative arc, the characters – and how she became hooked:

I lowered the blinds against the heat, unplugged the phone and moved operations to my sopha, where, dispos’d among charmingly group’d cushions, I settled in for the duration.

… as did I, to read more of her (first?) impressions! She continued, still with her writer’s eye:

In order to keep my eye on how Austen was actually doing things, I was having to work hard against the seduction of her endlessly modulating, psychologically piercing narrative voice, her striding mastery of the free indirect mode.

She describes how Austen “gives us five enthralling pages of Elizabeth thinking“, she provides commentary on how the story proceeds, but best is her perspective on that “piece of trash” Lydia and her role in ensuring that the loose ends aren’t quite so perfectly wrapped up as Garner feared they would be. It’s a delicious piece of writing – Garner’s I mean – about a delicious piece of writing. I laughed.

And now, I must get Garner’s previous collection of essays, The feel of steel …

Helen Garner, Everywhere I look (Review)

July 21, 2016

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookI was very sad to come to the end of Helen Garner’s latest essay collection, Everywhere I look. It was such a joy – such a joy – to read. Garner ranges across a wide variety of subjects from a kitchen table to Russell Crowe, from some of the darkest things humans do to each other to the beauty of ballet dancers in rehearsal, and she does it in a natural, warm voice that makes you almost feel as if she’s sitting across that kitchen table from you. While it would be cheeky of me to say that I now understand her, this collection provides wonderful insight into the way she thinks, how she goes about the business of living, why she writes the things she does. We come to know her as a human being who muddles through life, making mistakes, questioning herself, confronting challenges, rather than as the literary doyenne she in fact is. In other words, as she always does, she lays herself open.

I call these essays, but some are probably better described as articles or perhaps even columns, and there are a few which read more like collections of jottings or diary entries. Form isn’t the important thing here, it’s the content. The collection comprises 33 pieces, all but three of which have been previously published. Three date back to the 1990s. Many were published in Monthly, and some others in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s not always obvious why they were originally written, but in this collection they have been loosely grouped into six broad thematic groupings, starting with “Part One: White paint and calico”, which is all about homes and things domestic, and ending with “Part Six: In the wings”, which I’d describe as comprising reflections about life and self. The cover, designed by the award-winning WH Chong, is just gorgeous, and I found myself looking at it several times as I read, opening it out to look at the whole front-and-back panorama.

But now, that common challenge of writing about a collection: what to discuss, what to leave out. I am going to leave out one thing, and that’s her discussion of writers and writing, because want to save that for another post. Perhaps I’ll start with some “yes” moments, not that I have to always agree with writers to appreciate them, but affirmation can be nice. There’s her jotting in “When not writing a book” in which she expresses elation over the election of Obama. What an exciting time that was, even for we antipodeans. Her statement – “To think I’m alive when this happened” – is one many of us shared. I remember popping a bottle of bubbly with my patchwork group for the occasion.

There are delightful, often humorous, anecdotes about family life, especially about her grandchildren who now live next door to her, and there are little jewels of description, such as this perfect one of Christmas mornings:

The unnerving silence of Christmas morning. No sound of traffic. Sun lies fresh on everything. Birds sing with unnatural sharpness. The air is still.

And I did love her reference to a criticism of Muriel Spark in “Funk paradise”, another diary style piece:

Apparently her letters make no reference whatsoever to current events. So?

This accusation is also levelled at Jane Austen – for both her novels and letters – the implication being that to be valid you have to be political. I contest that. Austen and Spark write compassionately but incisively about human nature. Let others do politics if they will!

However, the section that grabbed me most was “Part Four: On darkness”. Here she explores the dark sides of human nature through five stories/cases about people who have done terrible things to others. This is subject-matter that many readers shy from, and those who do this tend to make those of us who don’t feel a bit ghoulish. Garner writes in this section about some well-known cases in Australia including the rape-murder of Jill Meagher (“The city at night”) and the murder of Luke Batty by his father (“The singular Rosie”). The fifth and last piece in this section is called “On darkness” and it’s about the Robert Farquharson trial which is the subject of her book, This house of grief (my review). In her opening paragraph she writes:

When the book came out I was struck by the number of interviewers whose opening question was ‘What made you interested in this case?’ It always sounded to me like a coded reproach: was there something weird or peculiar about me, that I would spend seven years thinking about a story like this.

She continues, describing how she would try to come up with “sophisticated explanations” for her curiosity, but eventually tired of being defensive. She outlines the complexity of the case – the ordinary people who behave in ways that even they can’t understand or explain – and asks why this is not worth exploring. She says:

People seem more prepared to contemplate a book about a story as dark as this if the writer comes galloping out with all moral guns blazing. A friend of mine told me that the woman who runs his local bookshop had declared she would, under no circumstances, read my book. Surprised, he asked why. ‘Because’, she replied. ‘I know that nowhere in the book does she say that Robert Farquharson is a monster.’

If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.

This is why I like Garner. She’s generous, openly questioning, tender, but fierce too. And just in case you think she has no “moral guns”, read her piece in the last section, “The insults of age”, in which she describes her reaction to a young teenage girl whom she’d seen intimidating/disrespecting some Asian people. Garner writes:

… I saw the Asian woman look up in fear, and something in me went berserk.

In two strides I was behind the schoolgirl. I reached up, seized her ponytail at the roots and gave it a sharp downward yank. Her head snapped back. In a voice I didn’t recognise I snarled, ‘Give it a rest, darling.’ She twisted to look behind her. Her eyes were bulging, her mouth agape. I let go and she bolted away to join her friends …

This is why I like Garner!

There is so much in this book, lighter stuff too, but I’ll leave those delights for you to discover.

In “My dear lift-rat”, her delightful piece on Elizabeth Jolley, Garner says that she frequently wrote about Jolley’s books “in literary magazines, trying not to go over the top”, and that Jolley would write “formal” thank you letters. “I never knew”, Garner wrote, “whether she really liked them, or if she thought I had missed the point”. If Garner can feel that way about writing reviews (or critiques), then I don’t feel so badly about having the same worries! I sure hope, though, that I haven’t missed her points in this one.

awwchallenge2016Helen Garner
Everywhere I look
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016
227pp.
ISBN: 9781925355369

Monday musings on Australian literature: Annual anthologies

July 18, 2016

This post would possibly be better done at the end of the year given that its subject – annual anthologies – relates most commonly to end-of-year publishing. However, not all such anthologies are published at year’s end, and, anyhow, I was inspired to write this post because my reading group is about to do one of these publications. Why not strike while the inspiration is upon me?

I’m going to share just a few that I’ve come across in recent years – ordered by publisher.

Black Inc

BestOf2009PoemsBlackIncMelbourne publisher Black Inc is the company which has made, in recent years anyhow, the biggest contribution to this form. I’m not sure when they started their “Best Australian” series but I’ve found titles going back to 2007 at least. They currently publish three annual editions: Best Australian stories, Best Australian poems and Best Australian essays. I’ve received, or given as gifts, various of these volumes over the years. Their editors change regularly, though not necessarily annually, so, for example, the 2016 edition of Best Australian stories will be selected by Charlotte Wood (whose The natural way of things won this year’s Stella Prize, among other awards). Previous editions have been edited by writers like Amanda Lohrey and Kim Scott. Recent Best Australian poems have been edited by poets Geoff Page, Lisa Gorton and Robert Adamson, and recent Best Australian essays by essayists Geordie Williamson and Robert Manne. These three annual anthologies are books that many of us Australians start looking for as the year draws to an end – and they do make good Christmas gifts for the reader who has read everything!

Griffith Review

The Queensland-based literary quarterly, the Griffith Review, published for several years (issues 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42) an Annual Fiction Edition (though the first one was called the Fiction Issue). The last of these, issue 42 published in 2013, was edited by Griffith Review’s editor Julianne Schultz and author Carmel Bird, and contained stories by recognised writers including Cate Kennedy, Arnold Zable, Tony Birch, Marion Halligan, Margo Lanagan and Bruce Pascoe. These editions focus on fiction, as their name implies, but they also include a smattering of pieces written in other forms, such as essays and poems.

However, in the last couple of years, Griffith Review seems to have abandoned this series, and has published instead what it calls The Novella Project. Numbered II (issue 46) and III (issue 50), these built on what was initially a one-off edition, issue 38 published in 2012. The novellas published were chosen from submissions to novella competitions run by the Review. One of last year’s winners was Nick Earls whom I featured in an earlier post this week. Issue 50 was published in October last year. I have no idea what Griffith Review plans for its last issue of 2016, but it would be lovely if it were a similarly focused “annual”.

Margaret River Press

Richard Rossiter, Knitting

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

For four or five years now, Western Australia’s Margaret River Press has been running an annual short story competition, the conclusion of which is the publication of the winning and shortlisted titles in an anthology, usually edited by the judges. I have reviewed, and thoroughly enjoyed, a couple of these anthologies, the 2013 titled Knitting and other stories, edited by Richard Rossiter, and the 2014 one titled The trouble with flying and other stories, edited by Richard Rossiter and Susan Midalia.

The competition attracts both new and established short story writers. In 2015, they received 323 entries, of which 24 were shortlisted for inclusion in the anthology. This initiative represents a wonderful commitment by a small publisher to the short story form.

New South Books

New South Wales based New South Books contributes something a little different to this annual anthology arena – and this is the one my reading group will be discussing next month. I’m talking their Best Australian Science Writing anthology. We will be reading the 2015 edition which was edited by science journalist Bianca Nogrady whose book about death, No end, I’ve reviewed. The 2015 edition is the fifth they’ve published but, not surprising, given my main reading interests, I had not heard of it. However, I’m looking forward to being introduced to, as its promo says, “the knowledge and insight of Australia’s brightest thinkers in examining the world around us”. Its subjects apparently range from “our obsession with Mars to the mating habits of fish”. I’m intrigued. One thing I know is that I’ll be introduced to a whole bunch of writers I’ve never read before! Like Black Inc, New South Books is already promoting this year’s edition. It’s being edited by Jo Chandler, and promotion for it says:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

Do you read annuals? If so, I’d love to know which one/s and why. 

(PS I should add here that I did buy, about a decade ago, one of the O Henry Prize Stories anthologies. It was great reading.)

 

Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)

July 17, 2016
According to Keirsey, Edith Wharton may have b...

Edith Wharton (Presumed Public Domain via Wikipedia)

“Writing a war story” is quite different to the Edith Whartons I’ve read to date, and it was clear from the opening sentence – “Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war”. It was the comic tone that did it. All the previous works of hers I’ve read, several novels and novellas, plus a couple of short stories, have been serious, if not downright tragic. However, Wharton was a prolific writer, so I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact, I was rather thrilled to have come across this story via the Library of America (a few months ago now).

I haven’t yet read the highly recommended biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee, but I’ve heard enough about her life to know that she lived in France during the First World War, and that she contributed significantly to the war effort. As LOA’s notes tell us, she stayed in France when the war started while others fled. She raised money, visited the front, established refugee hostels and homes for children. She was admired widely but she, herself, apparently underplayed her role, believing, writes LOA, “that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families”. Her story, “Writing a war story” satirises both this role and the idea of writing stories for soldiers, for the war effort.

The plot is simple. Ivy Spang, who had published, to minimal recognition, a book of verse, is asked to contribute a short story to a new magazine, The Man-at-Arms, aimed at convalescent soldiers. Flattered, she accepts, and, due for leave from her volunteer work of “pouring tea once a week” for soldiers in a hospital, she sets off “to a quiet corner of Brittany”, because

devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

But, the task proves harder than she’d imagined. She struggles to find “Inspiration”, her mind being full of the one serious but unfortunately pretentious and condescending review, by the editor of Zig-Zag, of her published verse collection. She tells her companion, Madsy, that “people don’t bother with plots nowadays” and that “subject’s nothing”. Eventually, in desperation, she accepts Madsy’s offer to use/collaborate on one of the “stories” Madsy had jotted down from her hospital volunteer work. They agreed that Ivy would take the basic story but add her literary “treatment”. You can probably guess the outcome, but you should read the story to see just how it comes out. There’s a photo and a famous novelist involved too. In addition to the satire on “literature” and war volunteer work, there’s also a gender dig.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the story was its satire of literary pretensions, and how easy it is for an unconfident writer to be derailed by the wrong sort of praise, as Ivy is by Mr Zig-Zag!

In the story’s conclusion, a novelist laughs at her story, before he realises she’s the author. When he realises, and she asks for feedback:

He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer—it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject; and that’s the main thing, of course—”
Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”
“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”
“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

Poor Ivy! I liked the fact that Wharton’s satire is subtle, not over the top. We readers can see what’s coming but Ivy isn’t ridiculed. We feel for her aspirations but we can see that her lack of confidence has laid her open to influence. And there’s irony here because that very influence, that editor of Zig-Zag, had warned her of “not allowing one’s self to be ‘influenced'”, of the importance of “jealously guarding” her “originality”.

There’s more to this story, particularly for people interested in Edith Wharton’s biography. My point is that whatever your interest – literature, war literature, Edith Wharton herself – this story has something to offer, as well as being a good read (with a subject, or two!)

Edith Wharton
“Writing a war story”
The Library of America
Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion, 1919
Available: Online

My literary week (3), mid-winter 2016

July 15, 2016

Today pretty much marks the middle of winter for us downunder, and what an unusually cold and wet inter it’s been, at least in my city. We’ve had more rain than usual, and we’ve had snow, which is rare for us though not unheard of. Our average July maximum is around 12-13°C but this last Wednesday it barely made it to 7°C. No wonder, as I write this, I am en route to slightly warmer climes, on the New South Wales central coast, where we expect to experience temperatures of 18-22°C in the coming week. Whew. But, none of this relates much to my literary week, so on with the show …

Kibble Award Winners

The winners for the Kibble Literary Awards for life-writing by women were announced this week. I’m thrilled that Fiona Wright’s honest, moving collection of essays, Small acts of disappearance (my review) about her experience of an eating disorder, won the Nita B Kibble Literary Award, which recognises the work of an established Australian woman writer.

Lucy Treloar’s historical fiction novel, Salt Creek, won the Dobbie Award for a first published work by an Australian woman. I’m yet to read it, but as it’s been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award I would like to try to fit it in. You can check out Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Both these books were shortlisted earlier this year for the Stella Prize. As happy as I am about Fiona Wright’s win – it’s an excellent book – I did have a secret little wish that Elizabeth Harrower’s A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) would win. She hasn’t been recognised nearly enough.

Helen Garner on mothers and daughters

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookI am currently reading Helen Garner’s beautiful collection of essays, Everywhere I look. A review will follow soon-ish – that is, as soon as I finish the book instead of  soaking up some sun. In the meantime, I’ll share a quote from her essay about her complicated relationship with her mother. Helen, born in 1942, was the eldest of 6. She writes:

When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself to muffle and conceal this joy.

This brought tears to my eyes.

New ways of telling stories

Finally, I want to share some ideas I heard last Saturday from ABC Radio National’s Future Tense program. It explores change from all sorts of angles. In this particular session they interviewed three novelists about new forms of story telling. My comments below are based on some quick notes I made at the time, while I was doing some housework. I haven’t had time to listen to it again, but you can do so at the link I’ve provided if you’re interested.

First off, and the least “controversial”, was Australian author Nick Earls on his recent series of novellas. Wisdom Tree. (Lisa has reviewed the first two at ANZLitLovers.) Novellas aren’t new of course, but Earls sees them as meeting the needs of contemporary readers (though he believes that big books will never be completely replaced) and as having excellent podcast potential. The thing that interested me most about this interview, however, was his requirements for a good story: it must be authentic; readers must be able to connect with the characters (he didn’t say we must “like” or even “engage” with them); and there needs to be something at stake that will interest the readers and make them want to read on.

Next was Naomi Alderman, an author-cum-video game developer from London. She argued that video games are the new “story form”. I was fascinated by this, partly because of recent discussions I’ve had with Son Gums. He has always loved stories. In his primary school years, he got into comics, alongside his love of “chapter books”, but by his late teens, comics and graphic novels had become his main fare. He never, though, really got video games the way his friends did – until very recently! Now in his early-thirties, he’s come to them quite late. I was surprised, but the reason he gave was the new style of story-based games. If I hadn’t had these conversations with him, I may not have connected quite so quickly with Alderman. Anyhow, she also gave her story requirements: the characters must be real; the worlds created must be coherent, in that the players must be able to imagine humans in them; and there needs to be meaningful themes like justice, revenge, freedom. In conclusion, though, she said quite categorically that if you want to understand story culture today, you must understand games and the way they use storytelling.

Finally, we heard Sydney novelist Mike Jones on virtual reality. He has created a piece of crime fiction called VR Noir. It premiered at this year’s Vivid festival in Sydney. I was interested in his idea that we tend to choose what we read/see/experience on the basis of what “choose to feel”. In other words, when we look at a selection of movies at the local cinema, we choose what to see on the basis of what we want to “feel”. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, though I’ve never quite thought about it that way. VR feeds into this “experiential” need, he says –  the “reader” (“user”) is put into the story and experiences it from within. VR, he said, draws from both video games and interactive theatre, and is still very new.

Do you think our story-telling (story-reading) needs have changed in our modern digital, interactive, connected world?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the third decade (1978-1987)

July 11, 2016
Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Today’s post is the third in my little sub-series of posts looking at the Miles Franklin Award by decade.

As before, I don’t plan to list all the decade’s winners, as you can find them on the Award’s official site. Instead, I’ll share some interesting snippets, inspired by my Trove meanders.

Women writers on the rise?

The late 1970s and 1980s saw, I believe, a flowering of Australian women writers, similar to that we saw in the 1920s-1940s with the likes of Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard/Flora Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, and Christina Stead, not to mention Miles Franklin herself. This flowering is partly evidenced by the fact that while just five awards were made for books by women in the first two decades, another four were made to women in this third decade. These were Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river (1978) and her The impersonators (1980), Elizabeth Jolley’s The well (1986), and Glenda Adams’ Dancing on coral (1987).

In 1979, The Australian Women’s Weekly announced Jessica Anderson’s win under the headline “Women take honours in literature, fashion”. It seems the awards were handled differently then, with the winner being advised before the presentation. The Weekly describes Anderson’s reaction:

“I was thrilled,” she said. “Like all Australian writers, I think we owe a tremendous debt to our predecessors. The award does encourage writers. You feel someone out of the past has spoken to you.”

One of the Award judges, the well-known and successful publisher-editor, Beatrice Davis, said of Anderson’s book that “It has an unpretentious elegance, an individual quality so different from the realistic documentary that still dominates the field in Australian novels.” But Jessica Anderson told The Weekly that, the book’s content annoyed a lot of people, particularly men:

“I didn’t mean it to be a liberationist gesture,” she said. “Men recorded their experiences for hundreds of years and women read them with admiration.”

Hmmm … this is fascinating, and an issue that we still confront, I believe. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read Tirra Lirra by the river, add it to your list. It’s a great read. I read it before blogging, but Lisa has posted her thoughts on her blog.

Incomprehensible or outstanding?

David Ireland won the award in 1980 for the third time with A woman of the future. Ireland said at the time that it had been initially rejected by Macmillan because it was “too incomprehensible”. The judges called it “outstanding”. Well, four of them felt it was. The fifth, Colin Roderick, called it “literary sewage”, The Canberra Times reported.

A few months after it won, a long article giving “a feminist perspective” appeared in Woroni, the ANU’s student paper. The writer, Andrea Mitchell, starts by discussing Ireland’s previous novels in which women appear as “domestic or sexual adjuncts”. Ireland, she argues, does not dissociate himself in these novels from his male characters’ poor treatment of women, but, she writes

A Woman of the Future offers a different and more rewarding perspective on women in society. A complete turnabout, Ireland presents a woman’s life and experience in the first person.

It’s an in-depth analysis, but I’ll just share her assessment of what she thinks he is doing, because I love it:

I would suggest that Ireland is not only satirizing sexism, but levelling criticism at a certain style of feminism epitomized by German Greer’s A Female Eunuch: That is, that in order to change the subservient position of women, women must become as ruthlessly self-oriented and competitive as men have traditionally been. Ireland reasonably sees the same danger for women as for men who pursue social power: a less than full human existence, and alienation in their personal lives.

Here come the men!

Peter Carey, BlissIf this decade saw a flowering of Australia’s women writers, it was also when some of the men who are now among Australia’s top male writers won their first awards. I’m talking Peter Carey, who won the first of his three Miles Franklin Awards with his debut novel Bliss, and Tim Winton who won the first of his four awards with his second novel Shallows.

The Canberra Times reported judge Beatrice Davis as saying that

Carey was an “effortless stylist” who “gives a sense of immediacy to every vivid scene and compels belief in every character no matter how bizarre”.

While I haven’t loved every Carey I’ve read, I do love the fact that you never know what form or “style” he’s going to produce next. He is exciting to read.

Tim Winton won the 1984 award with his novel Shallows. The award was not made for 1983 (see below) so I was intrigued to read the following statement by the judges quoted in The Canberra Times report:

The merit of Winton’s novel is reflected by the high quality of the 29 books considered this year for the $5,000 award … Among the other books entered were David Malouf’s Harland’s half acre, Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and honey, Thomas Shapcott’s The white stag of exile, Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bellarmine jug (The Age Book of the Year), David Ireland’s Archimedes and the seagle, Alan Gould’s The man who stayed below and Olga Masters’s Loving daughters.

Interesting.

Now, I’m a Winton fan but when I read Shallows not long after it came out I clearly remember feeling it overdid the imagery a bit, that it was a little “overwritten” (which is something I’ve just read Helen Garner felt about his first novel). Still, the judges saw “ample proof of a developing talent” and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that. The judges also said:

The merits of this novel are perhaps most evident in the strength of the characterisation — these characters stand on their own — and in Winton’s ability to bring the early history of whaling into an intelligible relationship with present-day attitudes to the whaling industry.

Fair enough. Winton is great at writing character, and setting. He, like, Carey, is always exciting to read.

Another interesting winner this decade was Rodney Hall, with his wonderful Just relations, but I just don’t have time to share everything I found.

No award (again)

As happened in the second decade, there was a year in this third decade, 1983, in which no award was made. The Canberra Times reported that most of judges for the 1983 Miles Franklin Literary Award “felt the standard too poor to justify presenting it”. The report continued that “if no novel of sufficient quality is available, the author of a play for stage. radio, television ‘or such other medium as may develop’ can be the recipient but few scripts are received”.

In 1983, novels were published by people like Brian Castro, Sara Dowse, Elizabeth Jolley, and Peter Kocan. Interestingly Peter Kocan’s The cure won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr Scobie’s riddle won The Age Book of the Year Award. There were also short story collections – but these, unlike plays and scripts, are not eligible it seems – by Carmel Bird, Robert Drewe, Beverley Farmer, amongst others. I’m not saying any of these should have won, but in the light of what the judges said the following year – including highlighting The Age Book of the Year as indicative of quality – it does make me wonder.

Past posts in the series

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