And so Meanjin’s Tournament of Books rolls on – during a hot Australian summer that has been characterised by terrible fires and floods. “I love a sunburnt country” but this is ridiculous.
Anyhow, the tournament’s semi-finals have been played and the best short stories (sorta) have won. Here they are:
Semi-final 1: Thea Astley’s ‘Hunting the wild pineapple’ defeated Nam Le’s ‘Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice’
This match was judged by one Ronnie Scott, who is apparently a reviewer, writer, and PhD graduate among other literary-artsy things. His discussion of the two pieces is pretty thorough. He makes a few references to Nam Le’s creative writing school background – which is in fact the setting/background of this short story. He suggests, for example, that the story “invokes the fearsomely competent, ‘polished’ writing current writing schools produce”. He seems to admire Nam Le’s writing, arguing that while Nam Le uses “the (valuable) Creative Writing class trope that smell is the only unmediated route to memory”, he “does the impossible and makes the result break your heart”. However, Astley’s writing he says “feels dangerous, unruly, charged”. I think that’s it – that’s Astley in a nutshell, and you either like her or you don’t. This match was a hard call and I’d have been happy either way but, Astley has to be my sentimental favourite because of who she is, and because of the way she skewers the heart of people’s superficiality, self-centredness and intolerance.
Oh, and why did Scott give the award to Astley? Because, he argues quite logically really, that “the weirder work is the one deserving of the imaginary prize”! Can’t argue with that …
Semi-final 2: Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’ defeated Jennifer Rowe’s ‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing’
Now this match is between two stories I hadn’t read, so after the Round 2 I decided to track them down. I did manage to obtain Josephine Rowe’s, which is in her collection Tarcutta Wake, but not Tom Cho’s. Oh dear! I really will have to find it now. Anyhow, this match was judged by book critic and Monash University academic, Melinda Harvey. I enjoyed her adjudication which she framed through tennis match metaphors, asking at one point “Will it drive you wild if I keep these tennis metaphors going a bit longer?” Not me, Melinda! “Like a Federer-Nadal match”, she writes, “this semi-final is a study in contrasts. Rowe’s story is nostalgic, lyrical, earnest, an evocation of a particular time and place […] Cho’s story is contemporary, colloquial, playful, a flight of fantasy about identity”. The metaphors continue in her comparing Rowe’s writing to “groundstrokes” and Cho’s to “the drop shot and the lob”. I’ve read the Rowe now – a lovely, somewhat nostalgic but not sentimental piece about the way art (in this case music) can help us transcend the daily grind – and from Harvey’s description can guess a little about the style of Cho’s story. The match could almost be a replay of Nam Le versus Thea Astley, methinks, from the sound of it. But, Harvey is less definitive than Scott and lets Hawk-eye decide … it’s close, but it’s Cho. Not having read the Cho*, as I’ve already said, I have no comment.
And so it’s down to the final round and it’s between an older story and a recent one, a long story and a short one, a female writer and a male one, but also, it seems, between two writers who are a little more “out there” in style and thinking than many of their opponents have been. It’s gonna be interesting!
Who will the winner be? Ideas anyone?
- Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple” (1979) OR
- Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil” (c. 2006)
* It’s in his collection Look who’s morphing which is available for the Kindle. I used my 1-click purchase option and lo and behold, I have it! I’m ready …