Monday musings on Australian literature: Untapped (The Australian Literary Heritage Project)

I have Lisa (ANZLitLovers) to thank for this Monday Musings because, commenting on my recent Margaret Barbalet post, she mentioned this Untapped project, which, embarrassingly, was unknown to me. Then, seeing our discussion, novelist Dorothy Johnston joined in, and offered to send me some information, which she did. So, I now have a copy of the launch announcement press release. This eased my embarrassment a little, as the project was announced two months ago, on 18 November 2021, and was launched on 6 December (at this gala event). Easy to miss, says she, at such a busy time of year!

Yes, yes, but what is it, I hear you all saying? Essentially, Untapped aims “to identify Australia’s lost literary treasures and bring them back to life”. In other words, it’s about bringing to the fore again those books that have been published in the past but are now out-of-print. The books are produced in eBook format, and are available for borrowing from libraries and purchase from several eBooksellers.

I like that it’s “a collaboration between authors, libraries and researchers”, and that “it creates a new income source for Australian authors, who currently have few options for getting their out-of-print titles available in libraries”. The project has some significant partners, including the Australian Society of Authors, National State and Territory Libraries, the Australian Library and Information Association and Ligature Press. 

What a visionary and practical project. I am particularly thrilled about it because it ties in somewhat with our reframing this year of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) to focus on forgotten and past women writers. The two activities don’t completely align: the new AWW is focusing on works published fifty or more years ago, whereas Untapped focuses on books that have gone out of print, and many of these are far more recent than 50 years old.

On the Untapped website, linked above, they have clearly outlined the steps:

  1. Identify missing books: it seems that the current collection comprises 161 books, which they describe as an “inclusive and diverse selection of lost books in need of rescue”.
  2. Find the authors and obtain the rights: this, I imagine, would have been particularly time consuming, tracking down the appropriate people to deal with – authors, estates and/or literary agents.
  3. Digitise the works: this involved scanning, then using OCR to convert the text, followed by careful proof-reading and scan quality checking. For this proofreading they focused on “hiring arts workers affected by COVID”. Then there’s all the work involved in (digital) publication, including design, metadata, royalty accounting, and uploading onto the library lending and other platforms.
  4. Promote the collection: this is where the libraries come into their own, promoting the collection in their various ways, and ensuring payment to the authors. Dorothy Johnston mentioned in her comment on my post that “we’re hoping to generate some publicity through the Geelong Regional Libraries this year”. She’d love to find any other “current or past writers living in or writing about Geelong” who might be covered by the collection. If you live in Geelong, keep an eye out for this.
  5. Collect the data and crunch the numbers: like any good project, its managers will analyse the sales and loan data. Their aim is “to understand the value of out-of-print rights to authors, the value of libraries’ book promotion efforts, and the relationship between library lending and sales”. They will feed this data, they say, “into public policy discussions about how we can best support Australian authors and literary culture”. They also hope the project might encourage new interest from commercial publishers. This research aspect is led by Rebecca Giblin, Associate Professor of Law, University of Melbourne.

As I understand it, the initial project involves this collection of 161 books, and the research will be based on this, but having created the infrastructure, they plan to “keep rescuing lost literary treasures” for as long as they have the resources to do so. The books will also be lodged at the National Library as part of its e-deposit scheme, ensuring that they’ll be available “for as long as libraries exist”.

It’s a great initiative that will spotlight work from beloved Australian authors and provide new access to those works. (Olivia Lanchester, CEO, Australian Society of Authors from Press Release)

The books

When Lisa mentioned the project, it was to say she’d bought Margaret Barbalet’s non-fiction book, Low gutter girl: The forgotten world of state wards, South Australia, 1887–1940. So, curious, I checked the site out, and bought Canberra tales, the anthology of short stories by Canberra’s Seven Writers (Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Horsfield, Dorothy Johnston) .

However, Lisa’s purchase should tell you something interesting about the collection, which is that it contains not only fiction. It includes a wide range of genres and forms, including novels, histories, memoirs, and poetry. The project also wanted a diverse collection, so there are works by First Nations author Anita Heiss, Greek-born Vogel/The Australian award winning author Jim Sakkas, and Lebanese-born writer and academic Abbas El-Zein, to name a few. Their books are all 21st century, but, there are also significantly older books, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate strangers (1937) and M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (1947).

I thought, of course, to check my own library, the ACT Library Service, and found an announcement on their website. Not surprisingly, they draw attention to a Canberra connection, as Johnston would like to do in Geelong:

The books include some with a connection to Canberra, through the author or substantial Canberra-related content. For example: The golden dress by Marion Halligan, One for the master by Dorothy Johnston, The moth hunters by Josephine Flood, The schoonermaster’s dance by Alan Gould, and others.

I should add that all of Canberra’s Seven Writers are included.

So, a wonderful project. The question is, will it achieve its goal of ensuring the long tail of authors’ works stay available in a world where money not culture rules?

Ellen van Neerven (ed.), Writing black (#BookReview)

Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia is one of the productions supported by the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book that I wrote about in a recent Monday Musings. It’s an interactive e-book created using Apple’s iBooks platform, and can be downloaded free-of-charge via the if:book page or directly from iBooks.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi

Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Using fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

Writing black was edited (and commissioned) by Ellen van Neerven (whose book Heat and light and story “Sweetest thing”, I’ve reviewed here). It contains works by 20 writers, in a variety of forms, including prose by writers like Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, and Marie Munkara; poetry by Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Steven Oliver (most of which are presented in both text and video); and twitter-fiction by Siv Parker. For each writer, there is a “title” page which provides a brief biography, and the works are illustrated with gorgeous sepia-toned photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

In her editor’s introduction, van Neerven states that, by the time of publication, there had not been a “digital-only anthology of Australian indigenous writing”. This book addresses that gap, but with a very particular goal. It was, she writes, “moulded by possibility”, by the fact that “the multimedia and enhancements a digital publication allows lifts the imagination”. Certainly, we see some of these possibilities in this production.

Her point, though, that particularly interested me was this:

Expectations of what we write about are changing, no longer the narrow restriction of life stories and poetry. Indeed, Indigenous writers do not need to write about Indigenous issues at all, if they choose not to. With more Indigenous books and authors comes a new generation of readers — open-minded to what Indigenous writers can write about, and across new forms and experiences.

Great point – just as it’s important that we see indigenous people on television and in movies, for example, without their indigeneity needing to be referenced or be part of the story. Anyhow, we see this broadening of content in Writing black – in Jane Harrison’s “Born, still”, for example – although, not surprisingly and completely understandably, given where we are on the reconciliation journey, many of pieces do have political intent.

This brings me to one of the appealing aspect of this production, which is its variety, not only in form as I’ve already mentioned, but in tone and content. The pieces span moods from the intensity of Tara June Winch (“Moon”) to the cheeky humour of Marie Munkara (“Trixie”), from the anger of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (“Talking up to the white woman”) and the frustration of Steven Oliver (“You can’t be black”) to the melancholy of Bruce Pascoe’s (“A letter to Barry”). Many of the pieces speak to loss of country and identity, and the emotional impact of these. What makes them particularly powerful is that they come from all over, from the tropical north to country Victoria to various urban settings.

Another appealing thing, which stems from its being an e-Book, is that we can hear poets perform their own work, as well as read the text ourselves. One of these is the new-to-me Steven Oliver. He has four poems in the collection – “Real”, “You can’t be black”, “Diversified identity” and “I’m a black fella” – with video of him reading each of them. He (or his poetic persona) is an urban dweller who regularly confronts questions concerning his indigenous identity. In “Real” he describes a discussion with another who refuses to accept he’s “black”, who produces those crass arguments like he’s “more of a brown” and “not really a full”, but who suddenly turns when our poet responds that his English name suggests he’s not “from here”. Oliver writes:

Listen here Abo, you know-it-all coon
It seemed that my friend has spoken too soon
Just moments ago I was not the real thing
Yet now by his words my heritage clings

This is a long-ish poem, but is accessible. Its use of rhyming couplets provides a light touch that keeps the reader engaged while the actual words drive home a serious point about Aboriginal identity. I hope it’s taught in schools.

Another poem of his, “You can’t be black”, also addresses assumptions others make about what being Aboriginal is:

You can’t be black
When the media shows Aborigines they live on communities
And struggle with petrol, poverty and disease
So you can’t be black
If you’re black you wouldn’t have nice clothes on your back.

Oliver’s poems are made to be performed, as are those of the next poet Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

She also comes out fighting, with five poems. She writes of being in a bar, waiting for the racist slurs (“A conversation and a beer”), or of being exploited by people who only want to know her to further their own aims (“Talking up to the white woman”). She speaks in the voice of a white racist in “Because my mum said so” to show how racism is learnt through families. This is a particular concern of mine. I’ve seen schools trying their hardest to teach tolerance and respect – but that role-modelling at home is mighty powerful stuff.

Another well-established poet who has been politically active for decades is Lionel Fogarty. His two poems in this collection focus more on caring for country, on sharing the land, on passing knowledge on.

The prose pieces are, overall, more diverse. There’s Tristan Savage’s cheeky short film script, “Gubbament man” about Freddy the indigenous “discrimination prevention officer”. Siv Parker’s twitter-fiction piece “Maisie May” was originally released as tweets over several hours on, note, 26th January, in 2014. It tells of a trip to country for the funeral of Aunty Maisie May who “could tell you about country and our ways that we lost over the years.” Marie Munkara is here too with her particular brand of humour to tell about “Trixie” who takes revenge on her ex. There’s also Tony Birch whose “Deep rock” clearly draws from (or fed into) his novel Ghost River (my review). And there’s David Curtis whose “What kind dreaming” tells of three young indigenous men, two already becoming familiar with the life and law of their country and the other a greenhorn from the city, who go bush. Our greenhorn soon learns a few things from the other two, who respect “them old people”.

In an interview in Sydney Review of Books, Ellen van Neerven comments briefly on why she wanted to do this “digital collection”:

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of roadblocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

And that’s exactly it. This oh-so-rich collection introduces readers to many of Australia’s current significant indigenous writers, not to mention the range of issues that interest them. And it’s free to download. That we should be so lucky! A big thanks to if:book and the Queensland Writers Centre for supporting such innovative and sophisticated projects as this one.

aww2017 badgeEllen van Neerven (ed.)
Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia
State Library of Queensland, 2014
ISBN: 9780975803059

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, app-style

Back in 2011 I wrote a post, a few in fact, on Touchpress‘s wonderful iPad app for TS Eliot‘s poem The wasteland. I love that app. It’s an excellent example of how interactive digital media can enhance learning about or enjoyment of literature, for a start, though Touchpress has applied its approach to a wide range of scientific and historical topics, including the solar system and Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Touchpress has also done one on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the whole 154 of them. It was released back in 2012 but I only bought it a year or so ago, when I decided it was time I became more familiar with this part of his oeuvre. So far I’ve only dipped into it, but have decided it’s worth posting on it now, rather than wait until I’ve finished it.

SHAKESPEARE SONNETS APP MENUSo this is an introduction rather than a proper review. The app follows a similar format to that used for Eliot, with some variations due to the work itself, and its age and particular history. It comprises the following menu items:

  • All 154 Sonnets in text form
  • Performances, by different people, such as Jemma Redgrave, David Tennant, and Stephen Fry, of each sonnet (filmed performances with the text synced to it)
  • Facsimile reproduction of the first published edition of the sonnets in 1969
  • Perspectives, that is, commentary on the sonnets, including their form, history and Shakespeare’s use of them, by various academics/Shakespearean scholars, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, James Shapiro, Don Paterson – filmed talks, with transcript of the text.
  • Notes, that is, Arden’s detailed notes on each sonnet, including notes on individual lines.
  • Arden’s scholarly Introduction
  • Favourites, which as you’d assume allows users to save and share – yes – their favourites.

There is a Home icon so you can quickly return to the menu screen to navigate around the app. And there are also well thought through navigations. For example, on the screen containing the straight text of the sonnet are icons linking directly to the Notes, the filmed reading of the sonnet, and the Facsimile version. If you then  choose Notes, you get three tabs – Arden Notes (explanation of allusions and idioms, definitions of obsolete words, and the like), Commentary (critique) and My Notes (make your own notes).

As with all Shakespeare – given the unfamiliar-to-us language of his time – the sonnets come to life when read by people who know what they are doing.  You can read them in order, or navigate easily to particular sonnets. You can also read/hear them by performer, as when you touch a performer’s image up pops a windows listing the sonnets they perform.

Anna Baddeley, reviewing the app for The Guardian says

The Sonnets app, like its older sister The Waste Land, has the power to awaken passions (in my case, Shakespeare and poetry) you never knew you had. Reading outside and trying vainly to shield my iPad from the glare, I prayed the sun would go in so I could see what Don Paterson had to say about Sonnet 129.

Paterson’s commentary is the best thing about this app. It’s like sitting in the pub with a witty, more literary friend, who uses language such as “mind bouillabaisse” and “post-coital freak-out”. Most fascinating is his emphasis on the weirdness and borderline misogyny of the sonnets, a view echoed by the other academics interviewed for the app.

I don’t know Don Paterson, whom Wikipedia tells me is a Scottish poet, writer and musician, but Baddeley is right – in the sense that his commentaries are fresh, engaging, personal, funny and yet also meaningful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the best thing about the app, because it’s the whole that is important, but they certainly give it life.

This is not something to read in a hurry, and it is a BIG app, but how wonderful it is to have these sonnets so readily available on my iPad wherever I go.

Have you used this app, or would it interest you?

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s sonnets
iPad app
The Arden Shakespeare, Touch Press and Faber and Faber, 2012

Monday musings on Australian literature: More on small books

Why is it that when we humans see change, we tend to prognosticate doom? I’m thinking how it was argued that TV would be the end of radio, and videos the end of cinema. It hasn’t happened has it? These older industries may have had to rearranged themselves a little but they have survived. Then a few years ago, with the advent of e-books, it happened again with commentators forecasting the end of the printed book. That hasn’t happened – yet, anyhow, and I really don’t think it will happen anytime soon. What drives all this? Fear I suppose. Enough of that, though, as my aim here is not to philosophise about change. Rather, I want to talk about the small book …

Yes, I know that I wrote about them only a couple of weeks ago, but since then I’ve come across more discussion of them, and more initiatives. Short books, it seems, are gaining in popularity – or at least a number of publishers seem willing to give them a go, and not just for publishing cheap classics which they can expect to have an audience. No, as I wrote in my previous post on the topic, some are publishing contemporary material, sometimes specifically commissioning or putting a call out for contributions or even holding competitions.

Giramondo, an independent Australian publisher, started their Shorts program back around 2012. Giramondo Shorts is, they say:

a new series of short form, short print run books, designed to take account of the new technologies of digital printing, and to appeal to a community of literary readers. The series carries a quote from Les Murray’s poem ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’: ‘it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts.’

There are now 8 books in the series, and the books have an unusual square format. At $19.95 each, they are priced a little higher than many small books, but the fact that they are continuing suggests some level of success. It seems like digital printing technologies are enabling Giramondo to produce their books more efficiently.

One of the reasons that I decided to write this follow-up post was because in my role as Literary and Classics coordinator for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I came across Jonathan Shaw’s review (for his blog Me Fail? I Fly!) of the Going Down Swinging Longbox. This is a set of  “five slim books” containing pieces the literary magazine had rejected for publication in its magazine. Shaw calls this little collection “a beautiful artefact”. It is for this reason that I particularly wanted to mention it, because not only are these small books, but beautiful design is an important part of their production. In other words, they are a long way from the cheap Penguin 60s initiative. After all, there’s nothing like holding a beautifully designed book is there – something that is hard to experience in the e-format. (Going Down Swinging is a literary magazine that has been publishing in print, and later also online, since 1979.)

Finally, for this post anyhow, there’s Griffith Review’s novella project. Including this is a bit of a cheat, really, because in this case the book itself is not especially small, and these two posts have been focussed on physical smallness, not just smallness (or shortness) of content. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because it represents a commitment to the novella form, which as you know is a favourite form for me. Here is what they say:

In 2012, Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project played a major role in enabling Australian and New Zealand authors to gain a foothold in the English language revival of the novella underway internationally. In 2014, Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories – The Novella Project II published five novellas with an historical dimension in a confronting, moving and provocative collection.

And so, Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short – The Novella Project III has just been published. It contains five novellas which were selected in a blind-judged nationwide competition.

The printed book, in other words, looks to me like it’s not going anywhere soon. There might be a bit of a shake-down as publishers explore what is going to work best and for whom, but it is exciting to see them continuing to explore the possibilities of print, including producing short works in new forms and formats.

Anna Funder, Everything precious (Review)

Anna Funder, Everything preciousI must thank John aka Musings of a Literary Dilettante for introducing me to this intriguing little e-work by Miles Franklin award-winner, Anna Funder. When John read it, back in October, it was in daily instalments, but when I clicked the link in his post I was offered several e-book versions, including for the Kindle and iPad, or for an audiobook which I believe is read by Funder. It’s free.

So, what is it? Here’s the description at the start of the story:

This story is a unique collaboration between Paspaley, acclaimed author Anna Funder, photographer Derek Henderson and award-winning actress Teresa Palmer. It’s an original story of love, self and all things precious, featuring the most beautiful pearls in the world.

Paspaley, for those who don’t know, is an Australian-based company founded in the pearling industry of northwestern Australia. Although it has now diversified into other businesses, it is probably still best known for its pearling arm. As you might assume from the title of Funder’s story, “Everything precious”, it is the pearling arm that sponsored Funder. John wrote his post before he finished reading the story, and said he feared finding some product placement at the end. However, in a postscript added later, he advised there was no such thing. He’s right – in a sense – as there’s no reference to pearls or Paspaley in the text. But, in my e-book version, between chapters 4 and 5, there is a series of five photographs taken presumably by Derek Henderson and featuring, again presumably, actor Teresa Palmer. They are tasteful in that high-class-magazine way … no text, just beautiful images of a lovely woman wearing gorgeous pearls.

I researched a little more, and discovered that the story is part of a “multi-channel campaign” to launch Paspaley’s new Touchstone collection. The “campaign uses storytelling to engage a new, younger, more fashion conscious audience and make pearls relevant and appealing to them”. Intriguing eh! I wonder how successful it’s been?

What, besides presumably money, did it all mean for Anna Funder? Here’s what she says:

Working with Paspaley has been one of the most exciting writing experiences I’ve had. To have total creative freedom, a time limit and an audience turn out to be the perfect conditions for writing a short story. And the idea that a company, which makes things of great beauty and value from nature, values literature, which (on a good day) is also something of beauty and value that reflects the world around us, was inspiring. Writing this story has been a joy and a privilege, and was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

Now, let’s talk about the story, which the promoter’s website I’ve linked to above describes as “a short story of desire, need, love and all that is precious”. The plot is pretty simple. It’s about Tess, who works in online legal publishing, and would be in her mid thirties. She has a husband, Dan, head of epidemiology in the State Health Department and a lovely SNAG if ever there was one, and three children, Charlotte who is 13, and the twins, Tom and Lorna, who are 6. She also has a father, Howard, a retired judge who is in Assisted Living because he has dementia. This is, then, an upper middle class, professional family. Tess and Dan have been together for 17 years and she’s feeling a little trapped and restless. A bit of a midlife crisis, in other words, or, as Funder writes in the story, Tess is:

at a hinge moment: between youth and age, between the life you thought you wanted and the one you feel might, now, suit you better.

So, Tess decides to consider that other life she might have had, but … well, I won’t give the ending away because it’s easy for you to access at Paspaley.

It’s interesting to look at this story in terms of the campaign because I’m presuming that although Funder had “total creative freedom” there must have been a brief – one that at the very least identified a target market, oops audience, for the story. This audience would, I’m sure, identify pretty easily with the character and set up, with the restlessness attended by guilt that she should be so restless. The brief must surely have identified a tone too. You wouldn’t sell pearls with a grim story – or did they assume Funder would have the nous to make the story appropriately positive? Regardless, the story would clearly suit what I assume was Paspaley’s target market – upwardly mobile or already there professional thirty-to-forty-something women who have the disposable income but who may see pearls as the province of their Baby Boomer mothers.

This all sounds pretty cynical, and to some degree it surely must be. I would describe the story as “chicklit” for the well-to-do married woman. It’s not challenging reading. The resolution is easy to comprehend and reassuring. However, it is written by Funder. This means that the writing is good, there’s intelligence at play (including an allusion to Chekhov!), and the insights into the pressures of early 21st century professional family life are authentic even if not explored in any depth.

awwchallenge2015Overall, then, it’s an enjoyable read and an interesting concept to ponder. I certainly wouldn’t criticise Funder for taking up the opportunity offered to her. Writers, like all of us, have to live – and if a company like Paspaley is prepared to pay, and offer “complete freedom”, why would you say no?

Anna Funder
Everything precious
Sydney: Paspaley, 2014
Smashwords Edition
Available: Gratis at Paspaley

Who’s watching our e-reading behaviour?

I was intrigued to read in The Guardian app this morning that Kobo has released a report on patterns in e-reading that they have gleaned from more than 21 million Kobo readers (the devices and, therefore, the readers!) across the world! The report says that retailers had been reluctant to share the data they had been gathering for themselves – but Kobo has apparently come clean. And how interesting it is. But first, the main issue implied by my subject line …

I’m not sure what to think about the fact that this data is being gathered. I find data about human behaviour fascinating but, as a librarian/archivist, I ascribe to the principle of reader/user privacy or confidentiality. Librarians don’t tell others what individual people are borrowing or researching, but they do gather data. Librarians running public libraries want, need in fact, to know what their users like. Do their readers prefer crime novels to classics, cookbooks to self-help, and so on? Librarians seek this information via such sources as borrowing statistics, surveys and just by chatting with their users. The public, presumably, thinks this is ok. After all, it is their/our money (our taxes) that is being used to buy the books – and we want that money spent sensibly.

Kobo, though, and all those other e-reader companies are in business. They also want to know what we like to read – because they want to make money. Fair enough. All retailers want to know what their customers want – at least, they should if they want to stay in business. The question is, in our electronic data driven world, what data is collected, how is it collected, and where is it kept? Is it anonymous, is it encoded, how is it used? There’s an interesting discussion about the collection of reader data at Scholarly Kitchen, particularly in relation to a recent discovery that Adobe Digital Editions was not only gathering information about users’ digital libraries and reading patterns, but sending it back to their servers in the clear (unencrypted). You can read more about this (with links to even more articles) at the Digital Reader. Adobe, of course, is not the only company gathering reader data. Amazon, says Scholarly Kitchen, “is notoriously silent about its activities, but it is well known that their use of big data gathering and analytics is profound”.

I’ll leave the discussion here … I have no solutions. In the end, we have two main options – opt out of the electronic world (if that’s at all possible) or trust providers (and do our best to be aware, careful consumers). Oh, and we can support the watchdogs who do their best to protect us and our information, and we can try to use trusted third parties (like, says Scholarly Kitchen, libraries and scholarly publishers).

I will end, instead, where I began – with Kobo’s recent report, and its finding that there is quite a discrepancy between what we buy and what we actually read. Hmm, let me put that more clearly: they found that the books at the top of the bestseller lists are not at the top of the “most completed” lists. Indeed, not one of the top 10 UK bestsellers (such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone girl which ranked 4) appears in the top 10 most completed. (You can see the two UK lists in The Guardian link I provided at the beginning of the post).

What does this say about bestsellers? Clearly promotion (and word of mouth) is extremely powerful – something we surely knew, but this data adds another whole angle to it. An interesting example is Northup’s Twelve years a slave which is ninth on the British bestseller list, due presumably to the  recent film adaptation, but which only 28.2% of British readers finished (or had, by the time the data was gathered). The book that topped the UK’s “most completed” list was

Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core, which doesn’t even feature on the overall bestseller list – although Kelleher has gone on to win a book deal with Amazon’s UK publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer after selling nearly 150,000 copies of her three self-published novels.

Good news for Casey Kelleher.

Besides my intrinsic interest in what people buy versus what they read, my main question is how will Kobo (and other publishers) use this information? They probably don’t care greatly if people don’t read “bestsellers” – after all, they’ve got the money – but, getting their marketing machine behind smaller selling books that people are completing is another whole ball-game. Is this a scary thing or is there a wonderful potential here? For we general-cum-literary readers, it is scary, because the risk is they will start to skew their publishing activity (even more) towards the genres people most complete – which, in the UK, is romance – rather than taking a risk on something new. Sometimes, too much data can be a bad thing.

Thanks be to all those lovely small publishers who hang in there publishing different books. Once more, I “dips me lid” to them.


Jane Austen, Lady Susan (Review)

AustenLadySusanPenguinIt is a truth universally acknowledged – I know this is a tired old joke but I seem programmed to do it – that Jane Austen fans will collect multiple editions of her works. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but one of them is our interest in different introductions. And so, although I already had a copy of Lady Susan, in the Minor works volume of R.W. Chapman’s The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, I bought the Penguin edition for my Kindle because it had an introduction by Margaret Drabble. And I have a second confession to make: this is a rereading, but my reason for rereading has little to do with the reasons I gave in my recent post on Flanagan. The reason is simple – my local Jane Austen group decided to schedule it for our October meeting. I was happy with that. As far as I’m concerned all bets are off my usual “rules” when it comes to Jane Austen.

If you’re not an Austen fan, you may not have heard of Lady Susan. It is a complete novella that sits between her Juvenilia and her adult novels. It was written, we believe, in 1793/4 when Austen would have been 18-19 years old, but was not published until 1871, well after her death, when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included it in his memoir of her.  It is epistolary in form, something she tried again with Elinor and Marianne. While this latter one she rewrote in her well-known third person omniscient voice, retitling it Sense and sensibility, for some reason she didn’t go back to Lady Susan. One reason might have been its subject matter.

 “the most accomplished coquette in England” (Reginald of Lady Susan)

Lady Susan is a beautiful, 35-year-old widow of four months, who is already on the prowl for a new, wealthy husband. The novel opens with her needing to leave Langford, where she’d been staying with the Manwarings, because she was having an affair with the married man of the house, and had seduced his sister’s suitor, Sir James Martin. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife Catherine, whom she’d done her best to dissuade him from marrying. She’s not long there before Reginald, Catherine’s brother, arrives to check her out because, from what he’s heard,

Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.

Of course, the inevitable happens and the artful Lady Susan captivates him. Meanwhile, Lady Susan wants her 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, to marry Sir James, the man she’d seduced away from Miss Manwaring – but sweet, sensible Frederica wants none of this weak “rattle” of a man.

You’ve probably worked out by now that this is not Austen’s usual fare. Lady Susan belongs to the 18th century tradition of wickedness, lasciviousness and adultery, forced marriages, and moralistic resolutions. The novel’s characters tend to be types rather than complex beings, and it is racily written, with a broad brush rather than a fine pen. And yet …

“Lady Susan is not wholly a villain” (Margaret Drabble)

This is also where Austen’s mature touch starts to appear. For all Lady Susan’s self-centred “bewitching” machinations, she is also, as Drabble says, “witty, energetic, intelligent and charming”. Drabble and other critics argue that Lady Susan’s spirit can be seen in characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and, particularly, Mary Crawford who, like Lady Susan, comes from London where she moved in “fast” circles. How could a teenaged country parson’s daughter imagine into being such a duplicitous character? Austen was, we know, a great reader and read the gothic novels of her day. She also knew the behaviour of Mrs Craven, the mother of her neighbour Mrs Lloyd. According to Drabble, Mrs Craven “had treated her daughters shockingly, locking them up, beating them and starving them, until they ran away from home …” just as Lady Susan’s daughter ran away from school. And, as her letters demonstrate, Austen was capable of bite.

We don’t know why Austen didn’t pursue this book, besides making a good copy of it in 1805, or why she didn’t try again to write about a beautiful 35-year-old widow.

Hints of what’s to come

All this is well and good, and I loved the read, but my main reason for reading these early Austens is their insight into the writer to come – her wit and irony, and her commentary on human nature. Lady Susan, having been written on the cusp of her maturity, is particularly interesting in this context. The melodrama, for example, is toned down, compared with the books Austen would have been reading. Frederica isn’t locked up as she might have been in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (my review), there are no rapes as we see in Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen is moving, in other words, towards the naturalism of her favourite topic, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”.

I love Austen’s irony, and there’s plenty in evidence here. A good example is when Reginald, completely convinced by Lady Susan, writes to his father of how she has been misrepresented, saying that this

may also convince us how little the general report of any one ought to be credited … I blame myself severely for having so easily believed the scandalous tales invented.

The joke is on him because, of course, he should believe these “scandalous tales”. One of the complexities of the novel is this issue of gossip – who should believe what and whom? As Austen readers know, gossip plays a significant role in her characterisation and plots.

Other ideas and themes that we see in later novels also appear in Lady Susan. Bad mothering is one. Another, more specific, is this delightful comment on accomplishments, reminding us of the discussion between Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth at Netherfield. Lady Susan writes to her equally scheming friend Alicia Johnson:

Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.

And then there’s that main reason I love Austen – her terse, pithy commentary on human behaviour. There’s much in Lady Susan, including

but where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting


Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!

Have I convinced you to give it a go? I do hope so.

Jane Austen
“Lady Susan”
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 2003
Kindle Edition EISBN: 9780141907901

Available in e-text.

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution book cover

Lifted, with approval I hope, from Johnston’s website

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.

The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).

The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?

Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:

She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Johnston’s characters are often wistful or even a little sad, but they are never pathetic. They are intelligent, and Johnston respects not judges them. They are not powerless, either, though sometimes the power they have is limited to their domain and can be tenuous. They can be a little lost, or perhaps just at a cross-roads in their lives. Maria in ‘The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry’ is uncertain about the world and her place in it. She thinks, when she moves and loses a client:
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
Sandy in ‘Names’ admires university student Gail’s strength and resilience:

She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.

There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.

The pieces are set in places known to Johnston – Canberra and Melbourne. We get a clear sense of those cities, but even more we are let into the rooms the prostitutes inhabit – the ones they work in, the ones they relax in between clients. We learn about the things that are part of their daily routine. Sophie, for example, in ‘Commuting’, finds that when she steps outside work
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
The final piece is the novella ‘Where the Ladders Start’. The title comes from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”.  The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?

As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.

Johnston’s language is a delight to read. She’s precise but expressive, using imagery with a light touch:

The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.

She can be quietly ironic:

Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.

Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.

In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.

Dorothy Johnston
Eight pieces on prostitution
Australian Society of Authors, 2013
Availability: Online download for $9.95 from the ASA site

Monday musings on Australian literature: ASA’s Authors Unlimited eBook portal

In her comment on my recent Monday musings about e-Publishing, Australian author Dorothy Johnston, whose novel The house at number 10 I reviewed recently, mentioned Authors Unlimited. I responded that I’d look into it and perhaps post on it. I did and now I am. Never let it be said that Whispering Gums is not true to her word. (Hmmm … perhaps you should ignore that … I don’t always follow through methinks, at least not promptly.)

Anyhow, Authors Unlimited is the “information and sales portal for authors, books and eBooks” for the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). The masthead on the homepage has the tagline “buy eBooks from Australian authors” but in fact it also contains pretty extensive information about Australian authors, who are members of the ASA, and their books*. So, for example, if you click on J under Authors, and then click on Dorothy Johnston you get some information about her (written by her) and a list of her books. To find out more about any particular book, click on a title and you’re taken to a page describing the book and providing publication details. If the book has an e-version – in ePub or mobi format generally – you can purchase it from that page … as I did for …

Kindle ebook ereader

Kindle (Courtesy: OCAL via

… Johnston’s collection of short stories Eight pieces on prostitution. It includes her first story, “The man who came with the news”, which was published by Frank Moorhouse in State of the Art in 1983. It also includes a long story – almost a novella, she says – titled “Where the ladders start” and “Mrs B” which was included in Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue this year (my review). I have bought this book – for AUD9.95 – and plan to read it when I travel later in the year. Prices vary, but they all seem pretty reasonable to me.

I’m not an author or publisher, as you know, but Dorothy Johnston is enthusiastic about this initiative. I notice that popular Australian children’s writer Hazel Edwards (whom I mentioned in my post on the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival) is selling her novel Fake I.D. available through the site. It was originally published in 2002, and in her description of the book she writes “Originally a popular print book, now only available in e-format”.

And there’s the thing … Authors Unlimited provides a great opportunity for authors to publish their out-of-print books with the help of ASA. I presume most (all?) books published in the last two or more decades were published from electronic versions. It should be a relatively easy matter, technically, to convert them to one of the e-Book standards. Some books’ rights are, presumably, still held by publishers – and some publishers are now using e-publication for out-of-print backlists but it’s good to know that authors have another option. They can publish via ASA using its conversion process, sell via ASA’s ordering and delivery mechanisms, and promote via their own websites, Facebook pages, and so on …

Here’s to more options for authors  – to republish old works, as is or in new permutations, and to publish new work.

* I believe the author listings here are automatically fed through from ASA, and so includes many authors who do not have books for sale through the portal.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Thoughts on Australian e-publishing

I wasn’t sure whether to call this “an Australian’s thoughts on e-publishing” or “thoughts on e-publishing in Australia” or the title I ended up choosing. There are subtle differences but almost too subtle for me to tease out here, so I decided to use the shortest title.

I was inspired to write this post by Nigel Featherstone’s blog post a week or so ago about a special offer for his novella, Fall on me (my review). The deal is that you can buy the e-book version and “pay whatever you like”! Apparently, as some of you probably know, Radiohead tried something similar many years ago – and 60% chose to pay nothing. I certainly hope that’s not what happens to Nigel Featherstone and his publisher, Blemish Books. Featherstone writes of the Radiohead experiment that:

At the time, Radiohead’s approach was considered ground-breaking, but over the years there’s been debate about its impact on the music industry in general; even Thom Yorke, the band’s free-thinking frontman, said that the strategy may have been a mistake, as it played into the prevailing internet culture that everything should be free.

I certainly don’t think everything on the internet should be free. After all, everyone has to eat and if the internet is the best way to distribute the results of one’s work then one should get paid. And yet, when I first acquired my Kindle around three years ago now, my idea was that I’d only use it for free classics (such as those from Project Gutenberg)!  I wasn’t, I thought, going to spend real money on a virtual book!

But, with experience has come some change of mind. Here is what I do now:

  • Pride and Prejudice book covers

    Reading the classics

    Classics: I will still acquire free classics if that’s the only way I can acquire them but if, as with say Jane Austen’s novels, they can be bought I will pay for them. This is because, really, “you get what you pay for”. With a bought classic you can usually choose a version with an introduction by an academic or critic you respect or want to read, and the edition is less likely to have editing/proofreading errors and other conniptions (as my last free classic did – it just seized up at a certain chapter and that was it. I could have investigated – re-downloaded perhaps – but it was easier to pay a couple of dollars for a commercially published edition).

  • Journals: I have discovered that I quite like reading literary journals on my Kindle. I do miss the lovely physicality of many journals – some are just gorgeous (like Kill Your Darlings) and some contain pictorial content that aren’t easily reproduced (like Griffith Review) – but journal articles are perfect for spare moments when I’m out and about, and e-versions are convenient.
  • Newspapers: I also like to read the newspaper in e-format, particularly since my app also supports crosswords! So far our local newspaper app is free, as they are still ironing out bugs etc, but at the prices being charged for other metropolitan newspaper apps, I’d be happy to pay for ours here in e-format, when they decide to charge. It’s so easy to select the articles I want to read, and I can read it when travelling.
  • Contemporary literature: I have finally started acquiring contemporary literature – both fiction and non-fiction – on my Kindle. I still prefer print versions for this sort of reading but am teaching myself to enjoy e-versions. It is lovely to hear of a book, decide you want it right away, and be able to get it – particularly when it isn’t immediately available in my favourite bookshop (as I discovered recently with Courtney Collins’ The burial. “We can order it for you”, the salesperson helpfully said, but that can take two weeks or more and, being a child of the twenty-first century, I wanted it now!). I want to pay less for an e-version, but there are costs – including payment to the author – that are independent of the publishing platform, so we have to pay something. Right?

So, how reflective are my reading habits of e-publishing in Australia? Clearly, journals and newspapers are actively moving into e-formats. I don’t know how readers are responding to this, but anecdotal evidence tells me that people are increasingly interested in receiving their newspapers and journals electronically. However, the situation seems to me to be a little different when it comes to books. Again speaking anecdotally, there’s some resistance among my literary fiction cohorts to reading “whole” books electronically, with most still preferring print, even where, like me, they have e-book devices. I think there might be a bigger uptake among genre readers?

An article in The Australian earlier this year suggests that e-Books represent about 10% of book purchases here, which is less than in the US (20%) and the UK (16%). Publishers recognise that the e-book is here to stay but also believe that print will continue side-by-side (for some time to come, anyhow). Sensibly, publishers are starting to look more carefully at what they publish in what format when. Digital-first and digital-only publishing is now part of the business model. Penguin Australia, for example, has introduced its digital only Penguin Specials collection, with wonderful sounding fiction and non-fiction titles by the likes of Elizabeth Jolley, Gideon Haigh, and Orhan Pamuk. Ooh, I want to read them …

Also in The Australian article, the HarperCollins spokesperson said that:

Fiction readers, in particular, have responded enthusiastically to the e-reading experience and we have seen a significant upsurge of sales of backlist titles as people ‘discover’ a new author and then buy all previous books by them.

Great, eh? The Blemish Books initiative which inspired this post is, really, about backlist. I hope it goes well. It isn’t easy being a small publisher – or one of its authors!