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Meanjin Tournament of Books: Goes to Sea in 2013

November 22, 2013

Surely it can’t be a year since the last Meanjin Tournament of Books? But yes, it is. My first post on the 2012 tournament – themed Short Stories – was last November. Wah!

This year’s theme is the sea. With their tongue surely planted firmly in cheek they announced the theme few months ago:

As the Meanjin Tournament of Books becomes increasingly influential in the Australian literary landscape, we’ve decided to raise the stakes even further by turning our critical gaze on that most tempestuous of subjects, the sea.

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

“Increasingly influential on the Australian literary landscape”? Not that I’ve noticed! But I do enjoy following it. I love the sense of fun that accompanies an also serious attempt to shine a light on an eclectic selection of works related to a theme. For this year’s challenge, framed as “Who writes the best books about the sea and/or rivers?”, the works selected for the shortlist are:

An interesting selection (presented in Meanjin’s rather random looking order) of which I’ve read half (Winton, Grenville, Scott and Shute).

Ours is an island continent, so it’s not hard for us to find literature dealing with the sea – from the early days of the convicts (who arrived by sea and many of whom, depending on where they were, tried to escape incarceration by sea) to the present with our world-famous beach culture. The sea both isolates and protects us. It is rarely absent from our news, in one form or another – in politics through issues like asylum-seekers arriving by boat; regarding environmental issues like whaling; or in sports like surfing and the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Ours is also a dry continent, so our need for water has always been a priority issue for us – from the first explorers who searched for inland lakes or seas to modern controversies about the management of our major rivers.

Consequently, pretty well any reading Australian looking at the shortlist is likely to have a favourite book missing from it. What about Marcus Clarke’s convict classic For the term of his natural life? Or Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (a story of immigrants which ends with an astonishing river scene)? Or Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria set in the Gulf Country? Or one of Richard Flanagan’s books? But, let’s not be churlish. Their selection is as good as any if you have to limit it to eight and you want to be a bit diverse – and, in the end, it’s all about having some fun and raising awareness.

Watch this space, as in previous years, for reports on the match as it progresses.

In the meantime, and despite my comment above, is there a sea-or-river-themed book you would love to have seen in the tournament? (Or, if you’re not Australian, a book on the theme from your literature that you’d recommend to the rest of us?). Here’s mine:

Picture the creative serpent, scoring deep into – scouring down through – the slippery underground of the mudflats, leaving in its wake the thunder of tunnels collapsing to form deep sunken valleys. The sea water following in the serpent’s wake, swarming in a frenzy of tidal waves, soon changed colour from ocean blue to the yellow of mud. The water filled the swirling tracks to form the mighty bending rivers spread across the vast plains of the Gulf country. The serpent travelled over the marine plains, over the salt flats, through the salt dunes, past the mangrove forests and crawled inland. Then it went back to the sea. And it came out at another spot along the coastline … (from the first chapter of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in which she describes the creation of country and the law that goes with it)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Todd permalink
    November 22, 2013 3:14 pm

    Having read Death of a River Guide quite recently, and having been struck by the glorious miracle that is that novel, I’m sad to see it not on there.

    But with only 8 slots, I’m happy to see the Grenville, Scott and Parrett – they’re all quite wonderful.

    • November 22, 2013 3:18 pm

      Thanks Matthew … yes, I think Flanagan would have been right up there. I bet he was in the near-to-final mix.

  2. Brona permalink
    November 22, 2013 10:39 pm

    Granted I’m not embedded in the Aust literary landscape, but I do work in an Indie bookstore and read voraciously…and well…until tonight I’d never heard of this tournament.

    Which isn’t to say I wont embrace it wholeheartedly now that i know about it!

    The Secret River was my first thought – the Hawkesbury was another character in the story. I even developed the idea after reading this, that one day I’d like to kayak (or more realistically, cruise) the Hawkesbury from start to finish.

    Second was the amazing floating glass church down the Bellinger in Oscar & Lucinda.

    Third was the over blown, dramatic sea and island finale to Dirt Music

    Fourth was the almost drowning in Cloudstreet

    Thanks for bringing these scenes to the front of my mind again 🙂

    • November 22, 2013 10:57 pm

      Oh welcome, Brona. Love the fact that you’ve commented and played the game. The Tournament is fun, including the comments made on each round by the two commentators, Ben Pobje and Jess McGuire. Yes, I thought of Dirt Music and Cloudstreet (and in fact most of Winton) as well. I enjoyed Dirt music but the end up there in the cliffs was a little melodramatic wasn’t it?

      I hope you do your kayak trip one day. I spent a week on the Hawkesbury on a little houseboat once – and we had a little row boat to go get provisions but I wasn’t a very good rower! The Hawkesbury is a stunning river though isn’t it.

  3. November 23, 2013 2:09 am

    I’ve read one of the books on the list! On the Beach. Depressing book, but well written. Of course the American seafaring book to read would be Melville’s Moby Dick!

    • November 23, 2013 8:03 am

      Of course, Stefanie, Moby Dick! I loved On the beach when I was a teen but when I read it again a few years ago I was disappointed in the writing. He’s a great storyteller though … And the book still had that power.

  4. November 23, 2013 4:42 am

    I can’t wait until you spearhead your own Australian literature competition.

    • November 23, 2013 8:04 am

      Oh sure, Hannah … Btw have I mentioned the Margaret River Short Story Competition? You midnight wast to check it out.

  5. November 24, 2013 3:44 am

    I don’t know if Ada Cambridge ever wrote a sea-themed book (I haven’t read all of her) but she loved the sea (in real life she did: in her first autobiography she hugs a ship) and she has several sea-scenes that probably deserve to be nominated if anyone ever decided to shrivel that tournament down to chapters instead of entire works. “I was on deck, firmly tied to my chair, and my chair to the mast, dry under oilskins, and only my face exposed to wind and spray, which threatened to take the skin off. I could hardly see the length of the ship through the spindrift of the gale, and the way it shrieked in the rigging was like fiends let loose. Bee—a—utiful!”

    • November 24, 2013 8:57 am

      Oh that’s great DKS … It wouldn’t be me. I’m a mountain and rivers gal or watch the sea from a cliff. I’d be inside the boat somewhere hiding from the salty spray.

  6. November 26, 2013 9:33 am

    Hi Sue,

    I’ve read the Winton, Scott, Grenville & Parrett and can’t fault their inclusion. Like Matthew I am a little sad not to see Flanagan’s ‘Death of a River Guide’, but hey ho, I suppose they would have had to extend it to 16 to get more in, and that *might* have been too many. I’d be interested to see the judge(s)’ thoughts on Breath vs Past the Shallows if it happens. I look forward to your updates on the rounds. Cheers, John

    • November 26, 2013 4:45 pm

      Thanks John. It will be interesting and fun to see what they do, won’t it. I’ll enjoy reporting on it.

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