Monday musings on Australian literature: Last minute Aussie lit shopping ideas

Wrapped Gift (Courtesy OCAL, via

Wrapped Gift (Courtesy OCAL, via

This is not my post on 2012 reading highlights … that will come at the end of the year … but, with Christmas just a week away, I thought I’d offer up some Aussie lit suggestions for your lovers-of-literature friends. Some of these may be tricky to find at this short notice – and these are by no means the only great bookish gift ideas – but I’m throwing them out there anyhow, so here goes.

For the Patrick White lover (or the Patrick White virgin): Patrick White’s Happy Valley. Published for the first time since its original publication, as part of the new Text Classics series, this is a treasure. I haven’t finished it yet, and it will be a little while before I get to write up a review, but nearly halfway in I can see why Grahame Greene described is as “one of the most mature first novels in recent years”. As I’m reading it, I’m pondering what is it that makes great writing, writing that makes you go “ah, how can something so simple sound so good”. I haven’t worked it out yet, but I’m enjoying the challenge … This is a book that belies the fear that White is hard. He’s not, not really … and for a Patrick White virgin Happy Valley is a highly accessible read and a good introduction to White’s concerns.

For a gift that will last all year: a subscription to the new-ish literary magazine, Kill Your Darlings. This is a gorgeous publication to hold, easy to carry around to read in those spare moments, and is also available in electronic version. This is just one of several Australian literary magazines around, and others would do the job I’m sure, but I am partial to this little publication.

For the person who’s a little scared of poetry: Suzanne Edgar’s Love procession from Gininderra Press. Poet Melinda Smith has said that “If a poem can’t speak to a person of ordinary intelligence without the help of a literature academic, the poet isn’t doing a proper job.” I defy anyone to argue that Edgar, in this often wry sometimes sad collection, isn’t doing her job.

For the indie supporting reader: a book from one of our wonderful SPUNC publishers, such as a Nigel Featherstone novella from Blemish books, or a “long story short” collection like Irma Gold’s Two steps forward from Affirm Press, or Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue from Spinifex Press, or … well, if you want more ideas, just go to the SPUNC site and see what you can find.

For the non-fiction reader: Anna Funder’s Stasiland. A few years old now, I admit, and there has been some great non-fiction published this year. But it took me a long time to get to read Stasiland and now I have I’m like a born-again! I want everyone to read it! And, you never know, if you’re on a budget and are happy to give a secondhand book, then this could be a goer.

And last, but definitely not least …

For the gift-giver running out of time: think electronic! Many of the ideas I’ve listed above can be acquired in electronic version because this seems to be the year that Australian publishers – of journals and of books – embraced electronic publishing big time. Australian works can be found through a range of outlets – both local (online bookshops and publisher’s own sites) and international (like Amazon).

So, it’s not too late to wow someone in your circle with a great piece of Australian literature … but it will be soon if you don’t get onto it now. Happy shopping!

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Last minute Aussie lit shopping ideas

  1. Brilliant suggestions – and admiring the time and the ability to focus on the really important things in life, even if Christmas is around the corner! Regula

  2. What is an “ordinary intelligence” and what does she mean by “speak”? Does she clarify? I haven’t watched the interview. Any person of ordinary intelligence can read (unless they are dyslexic or something has happened to their education, or some other unusual circumstance beyond their control), and all poems are made of words; how could you write a poem that did not speak somehow to the “ordinary intelligence”? Is she thinking of Language poetry? You might want someone there in front of a Language poem, or a note, to say, “This is what these poets are trying to accomplish; they have their own way of working with words.” So, then, are Language poets not “doing a proper job.”? Then what does she want them to do? Abandon their ideas and switch to couplets even if their hearts aren’t in it? Not write at all? How are unusual ideas ever going to seem normal if there isn’t someone there to start with, daring the reader to understand a bit of strangeness? I prefer Geoffrey Hill: “In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings.”

    • Oh how irritating .. I just wrote a long response through the wordpress notification system on the iPad and it disappeared. She talks of poetry that doesn’t have a wide open door, but that has a window to let you in; she means poetry that doesn’t need a literature degree to be able to comprehend. I could liken it to jazz … Some jazz seems more about the musicians being carried away with their own inventiveness that they forget about their audience/listeners while others invent in ways that welcome their listeners in. I agree that “ordinary” intelligence is a bit ambiguous, tricky … But I got her drift about using language structures, imagery etc that are not so obscure they scare the reader off but have a depth that make you want to come back and read it again, (re)ponder the ideas and nuances.

      • But why should the poet assume that the reader of ordinary intelligence is going to be scared by words? How is that a poet’s “job”? You like The Waste Land — wouldn’t that have fallen into the category of “using language structures, imagery, etc” that seems “obscure,” at the time when it was written, and even now? Isn’t it likely that many readers of ordinary intelligence take one look at “Nunc Sibyllam quidam …” and go, “Oh God, poetry’s too difficult for me”? There was that blogger earlier this year who was confounded by Les Murray’s Manuscript Roundel — she was also confused by another one of his poems, in which he juxtaposed the Taj Mahal with a factory — does this mean that Les Murray is a failed poet? obscure yet

        • “Obscure yet” — ahr, fragments, mistakes, etc: I’m typing too fast. Here’s the nub or rub: I am not convinced that it is my job as a reader to decide the job of a poem or of a poet. I’m the poem’s companion and midwife, not its career counselor. I examine it, I am not here to preempt its creation. The beginning and end of the poet’s job is to use language. The job of a poem is to be the medium through which language is used. If the poet wants to use familiar ideas and familiar forms, sonnets, rhyming verse, blank verse, then that’s their preregative. If they want to be the modern Mallarme then they can do that as well. But they decide for themselves, not for other poets.

        • That’s fair enough Pykk … Agree, really, that it’s not the JOB of the poet. I don’t think really that a poet, or any artist, has any JOB, other than to express what they want to in the way they want to. But on the other hand she has a point regarding obscure or difficult poetry … If poets want to communicate their ideas and encourage people to read them they need to do so in a way that lets people in, that uses language and structures that don’t discourage. But this doesn’t mean it has to be doggerel. The best poetry for me is that which makes me want to come back to it. And that means it has ideas, tone and rhythm that I want to
          experience and understand again. She recognises that too …

  3. Thank you for those quality suggestions and for prompting me to check out Suzanne Edgar’s poetry. She has a vivid poem in ‘The Best Australian Poems 1912’. Your discussion with Pykk about ‘difficult’ poetry is interesting. When I reviewed Cate Kennedy’s ‘The Taste of River Water’, I borrowed Claudia Emerson’s thoughts on ‘accessibility’. Poets try to communicate complex experiences – feelings, thoughts, epiphanies – so the poem needs to contain that complexity, but to do so with as much clarity as possible, respecting both the reader and the intangible nature of the experience. There is no point in being difficult for its own sake. Through her art, Cate Kennedy is able to respect both her subject matter and her reader, and I believe Suzanne Edgar also achieves this.

    • Oh thanks Bryce, what is the name of the poem in Best Australian Poems? I wonder if it is one in this collection? I like what you say about Claudia Emerson’s discussion of accessibility … I’ll check her out, and your review of Kennedy.

      • Suzanne Edgar published two collections of poetry in 2012: The Love Procession (your recommendation), and Still Life, in which A Strange Keepsake, the poem in Best Aus Poems, first appeared.

  4. I’ve read David Malouf for the first time this year and my reaction was similar to yours while reading Patrick White. But it is so hard to put into words what really makes these writers so great.
    I’ve got The Twyborn Affair but have read it’s a bit challenging.

  5. Ha, DKS, I wrote my reply to your previous comment before reading your last one … Yes, I do agree re the JOB of the poet. It’s up to them what they want to achieve, who they want to reach. I do like, however, Melinda’s view of HER job!!

  6. Great suggestions! I read something by Patrick White years ago, when I was going through as many of the Nobel Prize winners as I could, but I’m ashamed to say I can’t even remember the name of the book! Long overdue another read. I enjoyed visiting the SPUNC website too – great initiative, and a great name. Not sure if there’s anything similar in the UK, but there certainly should be!

    • Thanks Andrew … I’d love to know which White it was! As for SPUNC, yes it is a wonderful initiative I think, so I like to mention it every now and then to remind people, particularly Aussies of course, that it’s there.

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