My literary week (3), mid-winter 2016

Today pretty much marks the middle of winter for us downunder, and what an unusually cold and wet winter 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?

36 thoughts on “My literary week (3), mid-winter 2016

  1. Oh dear, I feel a bit of a fuddy duddy when it comes to digital storytelling. I play vidoe games, and I find some of them fun, but they are a poor substitute for a book IMO…

    • Ah Lisa, you’re ahead of me. I don’t even play video games. I wonder which ones you play versus which ones she or my son are talking about? Regardless, I suppose it is bit of a case of to each her own, eh? I think the important thing is not that we all have to embrace new forms but that we should keep our minds open to the fact that there are other forms and that they are just as valid? What I found interesting was the commonality between what Earls and Alderman see as important to a good story.

      • I like God Games, where I get to rule the world and Myst which involves a bit of detective work. (I am also addicted to Solitaire, but I was addicted to the cards version too).
        But I come back to the reason why I read: it is not just to enter into another world but to enter into the minds of the characters and perhaps feel an empathy for them. I stand ready to be corrected but I do not think you can get that from a game, especially not those ones that are predicated on killing The Other.

        • Thanks Lisa. I’ve heard of Myst but not God Games! Love your reason for liking it! I do play Solitaire and some boggle like games, occasionally, but they’re not really video games in this sense are they.

          I’d say from what I’ve heard – both from Alderman and son – that there are games that are not about killing/big quests/adventure etc, where you do empathise, where you become characters and make life choices, where you see where this choice or that one leads in terms of life. I’ll ask Son for some examples as I’m pretty sure this is what he told me.

  2. Sue – I whooped when I read The Sentence you reproduced out of Everywhere I Look. I recognised that description so deeply, I typed it out on slips and have been giving them to friends. I’ve found (so far) that all women with grown up child/ren of either gender, resonate utterly. That verb ‘muffle’ attributed to joy is just brilliant. The one Dad whom I’ve graced with this gem didn’t really respond at all. More research required.
    It is truly brilliant – so much conveyed in single sentence.

    • Snap, Biff! That’s lovely – thanks so much for letting me know. I can imagine the gendered response (though clearly your sample is not scientific!). As you say, there’s so much conveyed in this – I feel like it can cover such a variety of experience and yet a commonality too.

  3. I love Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look. It is so personal and yet so familiar. I don’t play video games. When we first bought a computer I did play pac man and that is far as I advanced. I think Virtual Reality games are certainly taking on the world. Pokeman began as a game and card collecting, and now Pokeman Go is fascinating the world. One good thing about VR is that it gets people reading more. My grandsons like them and I think my son-in-law might be addicted to them. I am glad to say they are all addicted to reading too.

    • Thanks Meg. I knew you’d love Garner’s book as you’re a fan too!

      I never played pacman either, but I have done a little geocaching which I don’t see as game but more like a gps-led scavenger hunt. I understand Pacman Go draws on that idea of looking for something but more gamelike?

      Have you tried the VR games with your grandsons?

  4. I was going to say I don’t play computer games but I am a sucker for Solitaire. The rest sounds like the old debate about comics, no doubt some are quite involved, but they’re not Literature! (Yes, I’m in my 60s).

    • I don’t think solitaire is a video game Bill, so I think while you may play computer games, you can quite happily, like me, say you don’t play video games. When you say comics, do you include graphic novels, because I’d be hard pressed not to accept (some) graphic novels as literature.

  5. What a very interesting series about storytelling. I do quite like graphic novels but haven’t really bothered with games but no question that is where the future of developments in storytelling is. Envy you those cool days of an Australian winter- much better than the clammy dog days of summer over here!

    • Oh yes, Ian, I don’t much like clammy summers. My city has dry summers and I love it. But my city’s winters are too dry and I suffer from the dryness. A Mediterranean climate is what I crave.

      No, I’m not into games either but I loved the discussion about the diversification of storytelling modes. After all, originally stories were all oral, and then we had plays and then novels and so on and son. Most of these haven’t been replaced, but just added to. It’s exciting, even if individually different ones of us prefer different forms, don’t you think?

  6. I know im at risk of sounding a boring oldie but I can’t get excited about video games and virtual storytelling. I’m sure of I were to begin p,aging them I’d get wrapped up in the excitement of the chases and quests which most of them to feature but once the game is over I can’t imagine I would be spending any time thinking about the characters or their motivations let alone what view of the world the creators are projecting. Nor do I get to use my imagination about what the world looks like because it’s all there for me in glorious technicolor. So in other words I get none of the features that I love about reading.

    • Yes, I agree personally, Karen, but as I wrote to Ian above, I did enjoy the discussion about the diversification of storytelling modes. As I see it, story-telling was originally all oral, and then we had plays and then novels and so on. Most of these haven’t been replaced, it seems to me, but just added to. I think we have to accept that each is valid, even if individually different ones of us prefer different forms, don’t you think?

      • I completely buy into the idea that storytelling evolve as authors test out new ideas and push the boundaries- that’s how the novel has developed over the centuries. I’m intrigued to know where it will go next but I don’t think that the virtual space is it, feels more like a desperate effort to be on trend.

        • Yes, agree, Karen – and the novel is a very good example. I can’t comment on VR as I haven’t tried it. It might always be a niche market perhaps? A bit like graphic novels which have gained traction but aren’t really mainstream?

        • The other genre extension that I’ve found interesting is where apps have been created that you can hear an actor reading say a Shakespeare sonnet and then look at the original folio and also look into a glossary to explain some of the terms.

        • Oh yes, good point, Karen. I’m going to write up that Shakespeare app one day. A few years ago I wrote up their preceding one on Eliot’s The Wasteland. It’s a wonderful app, and from what I’ve seen of the Shakespeare one – I’ve bought it – it looks great too.

  7. I have tried VR games with my grandsons, but I think they gave up on me before I gave up. Though I do play cards with them and we have fun. I used to do jigsaws with them, but while they found most of the pieces I struggled finding one.

  8. I am fond of computer games and generally have one on the go. They are great time killers. My favourites are adventure games because they have a complex story behind them and are often mentally challenging. I’m currently playing a rather grim detective story game called Still Life. It’s an oldish game developed in 2005 which I have been meaning to play for years, so I’m discovering why it was so well regarded back then.

    • Ah yes, I knew you liked them Anne. “Time killers”, that made me laugh. I’m fascinated that you’re playing a game over 10 years old! That’s impressive that it can still be played, and holds its own as worth playing.

      • Old games developed twenty years ago can still be played, and represent some of my all time favourite video games that I replay regularly.. A company called Good Old Games ( have rejigged many games of the 1980s, 1990s so they can be played on modern computers.

        • Ah, Anne, I wondered about technological obsolescence and games when you made your comment, but now you’ve answered it. I’m not sure who is achieving video games. It was once suggested that the NFSA might but we didn’t take it up then. I must check what has happened since then. They do need to be collected and preserved.

  9. 7C and you are really cold? Not a vary hardy bunch there are you? 😉

    I don’t think our needs in regards to storytelling have changed but the means by which we are able to tell stories certainly has. The VR Noir sounds really interesting. It would be fun to give something like that a try, getting closer and closer to the holodeck on Star Trek!

      • It’s supposed to be 35 today and even hotter tomorrow and I am already worn out with the mental preparations. Had to do some research about ways to help the chickens stay cool. I might have to use some of them for myself! 😀

        VR is kind of creepy. I get nauseous from first person pov computer games and I don;t even have motion sickness problems. So while part of me wants to try VR another part says, have a bucket handy!

        • Of course, your 35 is pretty humid too isn’t it. I’d not be so happy with that either. Hope the Dashwoods are comfortable.

          Yes, that potential effect of VR – is it on the vestibular system? – worries me a little.

        • Yes indeed, we have tropical humidity along with the heat that makes it feel 5-10 degrees hotter. The Dashwoods are getting ice cubes and iced fruit and veg to help them keep cool and hydrated. I think you are correct about the vestibular system.

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