A little note on dark literature

Book cover

I ended my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim with Carey’s point that, although at her death there was a belief that von Arnim’s work would live on, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”. This was because, claimed English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy” and these, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. He was referring to Modernism, which, as Carey says, “didn’t believe in happiness” – and this, she added, is a value that has carried through to today.

Modernist writer, Albert Camus, for example, wrote

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (1 January 1942)

Anyhow, Carey writes just a little more about this issue of our focus on gloom. She quotes literary theorist Terry Eagleton from his 2015 book Hope without optimism. Eagleton comments that it can be “arresting” when contemporary novels “fail to be suitably downbeat”. He said that for a contemporary novel to end on a “joyfully transformative note” – as Jose Saramago’s Blindness does – “is almost as audacious as if Pride and Prejudice were to conclude with a massacre of the Bennet sisters”. Love his example of course.

Eagleton goes on to say that

In this era of modernity, gloom appears a more sophisticated stance than cheerfulness.

Carey picks up this idea, suggesting that this attitude is the key to von Arnim’s demise. She says:

It has become more respectable to be depressed, an attitude that signals virtue, and almost socially irresponsible to be happy – a state that is associated with vacuousness. After all, if you aren’t depressed by the mess the world is in – ravaged by fire, flood and plague – you are clearly insensitive or uninformed. Perhaps that is precisely why no one reads her novels anymore, because amid our infatuation with darkness, being cheerful has become not only unsophisticated but morally suspect.

This made me stop and think … because, while most times have been difficult in one way or another, it does seem to be particularly so now. The pandemic, climate change, the current war in Ukraine, not to mention, in Australia, our government’s refusal to meet our First Nation’s people half-way, their inflexible hard-hearted policy regarding refugees and asylum-seekers, and the continuing violence against women, are all a bit overwhelming. No wonder we feel gloomy.

But, here’s the thing. My personal life here and now is going OK. Of course I’m concerned about all the things I’ve just mentioned – I’d be “insensitive” and “uninformed” if I weren’t – but in my daily life they are (with perhaps the exception of the pandemic) “just” concerns. What I mean by this is that I have the luxury of choosing whether to worry about them or not, rather than that they are issues that spoil my generally comfortable life. It should therefore, theoretically speaking, be easy for me to be cheerful. This is something that, coincidentally, I’ve been pondering rather a lot lately, so Carey’s comment hit a nerve. I DO feel it would be “morally suspect” of me to be cheerful.

This is because – to use the word du jour, if it’s not already passé – we are now “woke”. We are acutely aware of our privilege in a way that past generations may not have been, and this is not only uncomfortable, but we feel uncomfortable about being uncomfortable because, well, we are not really uncomfortable. It’s too easy, in the situation, to become smug in our “wokeness” …

So, where does that leave us? Cheerfulness in itself is not a bad thing. We achieve nothing by being gloomy all the time, but can we truly be happy being cheerful? I’m not sure I can. The best, I think, I can aim for, is to have a laugh every now and then – and what better way than through the arts – before I get back to the difficult job of living in this challenging, uncertain world.

What do you think?

(Meanwhile, for a different take on happiness in modern literature, check out this 2013 article from The Guardian.)

Chrystopher J. Spicer: Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (#BookReview)

I love thinking about place in literature, so I was intrigued when Chrystopher Spicer, cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at North Queensland’s James Cook University, offered me his book Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature for review. Unfortunately, I’ve taken a while to get to it.

Place can be a contentious issue for readers, and I’ve become embroiled in many discussions over the years on the topic. However, this is not going to be one of those, not because I have nothing more to say, but because Spicer’s book looks at place from a different angle. His focus is, obviously, cyclones, and was inspired by the fact that he lives in northern Queensland, a tropical region known for its often highly destructive cyclones. Despite this, people stay. How do they incorporate their experience into their sense of place, and, more significantly, into their understanding of who they are personally and as a community? Cyclones bring chaos and destruction, but, paradoxically, they are also part of the fabric of place they destroy.

It is in this context that cyclones (and similar “nature catastrophes”) can be catalysts for literature. It specifically was for Susan Hawthorne’s eco-poetry collection Earth’s breath. Spicer wanted to explore whether such literature provides “a means by which individuals and societies can cope with and integrate these events into their lives, culture and place” and how weather catastrophes like cyclones “speak of our relationships with place and the people in it”. Concluding his introduction, he identifies his objectives as

to explore how we integrate a violent, chaotic, and destructive weather feature into our culture through the use of storytelling and structure. At the same time, I hope to convey a sense of the connectivity and commonality of people search for meaning amid the meaninglessness of chaos and catastrophe.

“in with through” (Hawthorne)

Spicer explores all this through eight chapters. The first two and the last are devoted to general discussion about cyclones, cyclones and place, and cyclones in literature. In these chapters in particular, Spice draws on academics, critics, and other writers to provide a theoretical underpinning to his argument. The fundamental point is that stories shape the places in which we live and that in the same process people and place are mapped by those stories. He adopts the word “terroir”, traditionally used to describe wine regions, arguing that it encompasses both the tangible habitat and the spiritual sense that is imbued in that habitat from living within it. Weather, he argues, is inseparable from the physical and experiential aspects of the landscape. As poet Susan Hawthorne writes:

I am in with through the cyclone
which is inside with through me

The book’s other five chapters explore his ideas through specific works set in or around Queensland and its cyclonic environment: Vance Palmer’s Cyclone (Lisa’s review), Thea Astley’s A boatload of home folk (with references to other works including The multiple effects of rainshadow which I’ve reviewed), Patrick White’s The eye of the storm (Lisa’s review), Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath, and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post).

Storms and cyclones have, of course, featured in literature as long as people have been telling stories, and Spicer provides many examples. Their “propensity to be intense life-changing personal experiences” naturally leads to their use in literature, often as metaphor for “epiphany and revelatory apocalypse”. I’m sure all of us have examples from our reading. For me, Shakespeare stands out.

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

The five authors Spicer explores use cyclones in different ways, but there are recurring ideas. Epiphany, revelation, with a corresponding opportunity to change or start afresh, underpin the stories. Serpents and similar monsters feature frequently, whether it’s Palmer’s Leviathan, or Hawthorne’s ouroboros, or Wright’s Rainbow Serpent. I’m simplifying here but, essentially, their role varies from being the monster that embodies and explains the chaos to something that is more organically part of the process of chaos and renewal. Somewhat related to this, but separate too, is a cyclical view of nature and thus life. This idea is particularly developed by Hawthorne and Wright, in whose works the apocalyptic event contains the cycle of beginning and end, of life and death and life again.

For White, the image or metaphor is a little different again, but also related, with his using the spiral and the mandala or circle. For his protagonist, it’s in the “eye” of the storm, or the “still point” of the spiralling word, that revelation is found, and epiphany achieved. Astley, too, suggests Spicer, sees us as all being “part of a swirling, spiralling, cyclonic universe”. However, instead of going into the eye, her characters try to escape the cyclone, something which Astley herself said, “is not possible”. The main Astley book that Spicer explores, A boatload of home folk, has been criticised as awful, unlikeable, but Spicer disagrees, arguing that, ultimately, Astley, like the other writers, “uses the elemental cyclone as a trope of apocalypse that is both an instrument of destruction and a catalyst of revelation.” It is what the cyclone draws out of the despair in the novel’s characters that is significant.

In the end, there are two main ideas I took from this book. One is that cyclone literature helps us to understand the event, to incorporate the resultant chaos into our lives, and thus, to “integrate nature catastrophes” into our sense of place, or terroir. While Spicer’s focus is cyclones, he also mentions “nature catastrophes”. Consequently, I’d argue that his argument holds for places which frequently experience other such catastrophes, like bushfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and recurring long droughts. People who live in places frequented by such catastrophic events, and who choose to remain in those places, must surely “integrate” the experience in some way into their identity as a person of that place, and into their understanding of how to live in that place. Spicer’s discussion of Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath addresses this idea in depth.

The other idea relates more generally to how writers use cyclones/storms to explores broader ideas. In a way, this extends beyond Spicer’s specific goals regarding place. Whether or not writers are inspired by actual cyclonic events or purely imagined ones, in real or imagined places, they can and do use cyclones to explore spiritual and/or psychological upheavals in their characters’ lives. Spicer’s selections are all Queensland-related, so place is quintessential to the stories, but his analysis shows that cyclones in literature also transcend place to encompass something more universally human.

In the final section of his book, “The Cyclone as Universal Trope”, Spicer writes that –

Such events and the stories of them can challenge previous human experience, thereby providing opportunity to move forward and rebuild, opportunity for the emergence of the new.

– with “the new” embodying both the tangible and the intangible aspects of our lives.

Spicer’s book is well-researched and thorough in its analysis, and is supported by an excellent bibliography and index. I found it fascinating. It’s not for everyone. However, it makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the tropes of Australian literature, including reminding us that it’s not all about “the bush”.

Lisa also reviewed this book.

Chrystopher J. Spicer
Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020
ISBN: 9781476681566

Review copy courtesy of the author

Monday musings on Australian literature: Birds in Australian fiction

This week in Australia, 18 to 24 October, is National Bird Week. According to BirdLife Australia, this week originated in the early 1900s when 28 October was designated by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union as the first Bird Day. Now Bird Week, it is organised and promoted by BirdLife Australia, which is the Union’s successor. Its goal is to inspire Australians to take action and get involved in bird conservation efforts.

My post may not count as taking action, but I thought it might be fun to talk about birds in Australian fiction. It’s a huge topic, so I will only touch the tip of a bird’s feather, but that just means there’s plenty of opportunity for you all to join in, with your Aussie and non-Aussie examples.

Birds, birds, birds

Birds can offer powerful imagery for writers, though like all imagery they need to be used carefully. Marion Halligan’s warning in The fog garden, “That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go”, is worth heeding. Birds are popular in poetry and fiction. They are used to convey positive or negative ideas or emotions; they convey freedom; they herald messages and omens (good or bad). Just for a start.

And then there are individual birds, which can enrich or complicate the issue further. Doves suggest peace, and crows (or ravens) death. Eagles can mean power and owls wisdom, while lovebirds need no explanation. Flocks of birds can mean many things. Writers can use birds to convey the obvious ideas, or they can use them ironically to convey the opposite.

Patrick White, Happy Valley

Indigenous cultures, like Australia’s First Nations people, can have a specific relationship with birds. They figure frequently in Indigenous spirituality, often providing a connection with ancestors. If your totem is a bird, the meaning can be even more potent.

All this is very general, I know, but the point is that when a writer mentions a bird, particularly if the references recur in a work, chances are there’s a reason. It can be fun – and worthwhile – to think about what that might be. In my posts on many of the novels I’ve selected for this post, I have tried to explain the birds, but who knows whether that has matched the authors’ intentions? For some reason, though, I never even mentioned the bird that opens Patrick White’s Happy Valley (1939) (my review)!

Selected Aussie novels featuring birds

My selection here is ad hoc and mostly drawn from books I’ve reviewed on this blog. My discussion will be brief because my aim is to suggest some ideas rather than write a treatise on the topic. Apologies if you hoped for more!

Some novelists focus on specific birds. Jessica Anderson’s One of the wattlebirds (1994) (my review) features various birds, but particularly the titular wattlebird. It’s not a bird commonly found in literature, I must say, and it’s not one of our most beautiful songbirds, either. However, Anderson uses it very specifically in the novel, for her insecure protagonist, Cec who calls it the DOIK, for its sound, or “no-comment bird”, because it seems to be drowned out by other birds. This reflected, I felt, Cec’s feeling of inconsequence.

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany mentions various Australian birds in her Mateship with birds (2012) (my review). The novel takes place over a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family, but it actually opens with descriptions of magpie attacks on humans, and then of cockatoos damaging crops. In the recent Stella 10 years panel, Tiffany reiterated that her novel is about desire, and certainly that’s there, but I also felt her birds convey broader themes about the nature of our relationships with animals, and how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves.

Birds are also significant in Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing (2013) (my review). Their use is complex. They can reflect protagonist Jake’s mood (“the birds sing and everything feels brand new”), break tension, and suggest death (such as the crows hovering over the dead ewe in the opening paragraph). There are specific birds – butcher birds, night jars, galahs, merlins, currawongs and crows – and there are birds in general.

Tiffany’s and Wyld’s novels are rural, so nature is part of their literal setting, but in both, birds also carry significant metaphorical weight.

Leah Swann’s Sheerwater (2020) (my review) makes frequent reference to the migration of shearwaters (or, mutton birds). They start the novel and introduce the days around which the novel is structured. Among other things, I sensed that their impressive endurance mirrors that of women, like protagonist Ava, and their arduous journey that of her sons.

Book cover

Less obvious, perhaps, are birds in Carol Leferre’s Murmurations (2020) (my review) but murmuration does refer to the flocking behaviour of starlings to deter predators and keep warm. Lefevre’s epigraph, from a paper about starlings, provides a strong sense of her intention: “The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is“.

I have books on my TBR that reference birds in their title, but I have no idea what role birds will play. Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird cafe includes an epigraph from Nabokov’s Pale fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane”. Waxwings are beautiful, silky birds, but I’m prepared for something tricksy, or that’s not as it seems. Then bluebird? Bluebirds of happiness? Another is Melinda Bobis’ most recent book, The kindness of birds (Lisa’s review). The back cover blurb starts with:

An oriole sings to a dying father. A bleeding-heart dove saves the day. A crow wakes a woman’s resolve. Owls help a boy endure isolation. Cockatoos attend the laying of the dead. Always there are birds in these linked stories that pay homage to kindness…

Will these birds mean what we might expect? Watch this space.

Birds feature frequently in First Nations Australia novels. Often they are message carriers. For Tony Birch’s protagonist Odette in The white girl (2019) (my review) “a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”. However, as in other literature, their use is also more complex. Crows feature heavily in Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (2018) (my review), from the beginning when one says to protagonist Kerry:

Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help, instead of sitting up there like a mug lair from the city.

Lucashenko’s crows are cheeky, complicated beings which know and often convey the wrongness of things. Kerry’s first conversation in her hometown Durrongo is with three crows, one of whom has managed to get its beak caught in the fangs of a dead snake. It could starve to death. “The eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads” thinks Kerry – and so the novel really starts!

Finally, various birds appear in Nardi Simpson’s Song of crocodile (2020) (my review), but most significantly in spirit songman Jakybird, who wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. Towards the end of the novel he prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song. 

Birds, birds, birds … what can you add to this discussion?

Bill curates: What do I mean by spare?

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

During this first year as a blogger (2009) Sue wrote an astonishing number of well-researched and interesting posts. Let’s say 4 per week at around 600 words per post. So I’m starting to skip posts that I might otherwise have included. Today Sue proposes a definition for ‘spare’, which I am sure you will agree with me is an important quality in good writing.

My original post titled: “What do I mean by spare?”

If you asked my kids what my favourite mantras are, they would probably include “less is more” as one of them. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy flamboyance and “over-the-topness”, because I most certainly do, but it is true that I am more often drawn to what I would call “the spare”.

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

As we drove recently through Central Australian desert country, I started thinking about why it is that I love deserts, why I am drawn to them – and it suddenly occurred to me that my love of deserts can probably be equated with my love of spare writing. There are similarities: deserts and spare writing look deceptively simple and even, at times, empty on the surface but, hidden beneath this surface is a complexity that you can only find by looking and, particularly, by knowing what to look for. Conversely, in, say, a rainforest or a big fat nineteenth century novel, you are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. This is not to say that they, too, don’t have their complexities, but the “wow factor” is in your face!

And so, what exactly is spare writing? I realised that I have often called something spare but this has been an intuitive thing – I’ve never actually sat down and defined what I mean by it. I’m going to now – for my benefit even if not for anyone else’s!

What typifies spare writing?

Of course, nothing that I write below is exclusive or absolute – there are, as they say, exceptions to every rule, but there are too, I think, some generalities we can identify:

  • preponderance of short sentences
  • minimal use of adjectives and adverbs
  • apparent focus on the concrete rather than the abstract
  • simple dialogue
  • repetition
  • strong (often more staccato like) rhythm
  • short paragraphs and more white space on the page

By excluding anything that could be seen to be superfluous to the intent, the author can cut to the chase…and the chase is often the most elemental, the most intense of experience or emotion. In this sense spare prose is reminiscent of poetry – and in fact can often feel and sound poetic. Spare writing, though, can also be its own worst enemy: it can be so pared down, so concise, that it becomes elliptical; so non-florid, so unsentimental, that it can seem cold. But then, this is no different from any other style is it? There are those who use a style effectively and those who don’t. Used well, a spare style can grip me quickly and, often, viscerally.

Some proponents of the style

While Ernest Hemingway is the writer most often cited, I think, as a spare writer, I have read little of his work – something I would like to rectify. Albert Camus, particularly in works like The outsider, is spare: the protagonist Meursault explains little leaving it to the reader to untangle who he is and what he feels and believes (or not as the case may be!). JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is another rather spare work, exemplified by its detached tone, by the refusal of the main character to explain himself, and by its matter-of-fact description of fear and horror.

A recent very obvious example is Cormac McCarthy’s The road. This book is elemental in more ways than one: everything is pared down to the minimal – the landscape, the characters, the language. It is in fact about the struggle for life – literally and spiritually. The spare style – with its rhythmic repetitions – makes sure that we see that. And guess what? Its landscape, while not originally a desert, has been made so by cataclysm. This is one of the sparest books I’ve read – and also one of the most mesmerising.

An observation

Have you noticed something about the above? All the examples are male. Is a spare style more suited to the male psyche? While I can’t think of any specific examples of women writing quite like the male writers I’ve described, I’d suggest that writers like – yes, I admit it, my favourites, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Jolley – are closer to the spare end of the writing spectrum. Austen, for example, is quite out of step with her female contemporaries, most of whom were writing Gothic or so-called sentimental novels. She is more rational, witty and ironic than descriptive and emotional…which is why, really, Charlotte Bronte, child of the Romantic age, didn’t much like her!

And here, in the interests of following my own “less is more” mantra, I shall close! I would though love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.


I love that Bill chose this post, because all these years later it is still dear to my heart. Thinking more about writers, particularly women, espousing sparer writing, I would add someone like Helen Garner. She is not given to imagistic flourishes, but writes the most beautiful sentences. She’s not the only one I can think of but, rather than produce my own list I’d love to hear from you …

Do you like spare writing, and can you recommend some spare writers or, spare works?

George Orwell’s Politics and the English language

George Orwell, 1933 (Presumed Public Domain, from Wikipedia)

I was reminded of George Orwell’s rules for writing this weekend while reading an article about the German architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). In her article, “New guides to Bath: Society and scene in Northanger Abbey, Judy Stove-Wilson wrote that

Pevsner noted the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables. He regarded this as symptomatic of ‘understatement, the aversion against fuss, the distrust of rhetoric’ (Pevsner, The Englishness of English art, 1956, p. 13).

The reason I was reading this article, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is because my local Jane Austen group is currently discussing Northanger Abbey. Pevsner wrote in 1968 an oft-quoted article on Austen, “The architectural setting of Jane Austen’s novels”. He, keenly interested in architecture, was critical of Austen’s minimal descriptions of buildings in her novels, though he was impressed with her knowledge of and use of Bath in her novels – and of course much of Northanger Abbey is set in Bath.

But, I’m digressing. My inspiration for this post is his comment on “the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables”. It made me chuckle given the German language’s predilection for multisyllabic words. It also reminded me of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English language” and his 6 rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

No. 2, of course, is the one I was remembering.

However, on returning to the essay to check Orwell’s actual rules, I realised that the whole essay is worth reading again, because in our world of “alternative facts” Orwell’s words on the relationship between politics and language are as relevant today as when he wrote them 70 years ago. He writes that, paradoxically, our language

becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

This is reversible, he believes, and reversing it is critical because good writing enables clear thinking, and the ability “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”. I should clarify, if you don’t already know, that his target is factual, and particularly “political writing”, not “the literary use of language” by which, presumably, he means creative or fictional writing.

Later in the essay he makes very clear why he is writing it, and you’ll quickly see why I’m sharing it now:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification”. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”.

Hmm … I bet everyone reading this can think of their own contemporary examples. Please share them if you like!

I won’t write more on the essay, as my main aim was simply to share its continuing relevance. I’ll just leave you with a sentence from his last paragraph:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

That George Orwell. He really was something.

George Orwell
“Politics and the English language” 1946

Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction

Angela Savage, The dying beach

I have several ideas for my next few Monday Musings, but another one popped up on the weekend as I was perusing my Twitter feed. I don’t check Twitter regularly enough – it’s impossible to keep up with all the social media sites don’t you think? – but when I do I regularly find a treasure or two. Anyhow, this tweet was from Angela Savage promoting the short piece “Take me to a different land” that she wrote for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference being held next month at the Virginia G Piper Centre for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. This is an annual conference for “writers, readers, and lovers of literature”, though it seems to me that the main focus is on writers, as it describes itself as devoted to “the science and art of creative writing, including world building, plot/narrative structure, and character development to more specialized topics like writing about climate change, working with different cultures, and pulling material from fairy tales and myth”.

Saguaro, near Tucson

Beautiful saguaro, near Tucson. (Just because I can!)

I was inspired to delve further for a few reasons: I’m interested in anything to do with the process of writing fiction; I wanted to know what Angela Savage had to say having enjoyed her crime novel The dying beach (my review); and, less relevant to this post, I love Arizona!

Now, setting is one of those aspects of fiction that readers often discuss. And, in fact, Savage starts her piece by quoting a reader from a rejection letter she received for her first Thailand-set novel, Behind the night bazaar:

I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.

Savage says that at the time she was writing the novel she’d been living in SE Asia for six years, including 18 months in Thailand. She realised that it had become too familiar to her. She needed, she said, to step back and remember what it was like when she first arrived, and “try to conjure the little things that made the place unique”. She describes the process she went through to give that first novel the feeling of Thailand, and then says that for her later Thailand-set novels she’s returned to the country “with the express purpose of conducting fieldwork to inform my fiction”.

She goes on to say that as well as working on conveying “the sensory texture of different locations—the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch”, she “walks the streets in the shoes” of her characters, “imagining the landscape as they would see it, based on their state of mind.” Her aim in doing this is to closely relate the setting to the character. She recognises that a “strong sense of place” can transport readers, “adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading” but that the writer’s challenge is to ensure place enhances the story, rather than be a distraction.

I’ve written about setting and place a few times on this blog. In one post, I talked of this sensory aspect, saying that “my favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to feel and see the place and its impact on the characters”. This is largely what Savage is talking about here, isn’t it?

In another post I reported on a panel with the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winners. The chair, Caroline Baum, asked fiction winner Stephen Daisley about writing on place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that this isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he’d not visited all the places he’d written about in Traitor, resulting in Baum asking how one can write about a place without visiting it. Daisley’s answer was Google!

Author Nigel Featherstone, was asked, in an interview he offered to my blog, about his writing on landscape in his novel, Remnants. He said

Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character.

So, that’s what some authors say. What do readers say?

Commenting during a discussion of my 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards post, Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker) wrote:

But if an author chooses to set a story in a real place, and they name it, then I think they should get it right. I want the details to be right, and if they aren’t (and I notice that they’re not, that’s another big step) then it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I don’t necessarily mean it to, but it just does.

Regular commenter on my blog, Meg, agrees, commenting on my recent Spotlight on Georgia Blain post that:

I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question something I know to be different.

And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying:

Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney, he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*…

And finally, Cally73 (a GoodReads reviewer) commented on the abovementioned Stephen Daisley’s Traitor that:

A little more explanation of the New Zealand setting would have been beneficial – as a New Zealander, I was able to work out where it was set, but those unfamiliar with the geography of NZ may find it difficult.

Oh dear, and that’s a place he has been to!

What I sense here – based on both the few examples here and more conversations over the years – is that readers can be very critical if they think authors have got the “facts” about place wrong, whilst for authors, the focus is more on the “sense” of the place and whether it serves their purposes. Many know they will be picked up if they get the “facts” wrong, but that’s not their focus. For authors who like doing research, it’s not a big issue, but for those who don’t it’s probably safer, as Louise above implies, to create a fictional setting, even if it’s based on a real place. Call Canberra by another name, and readers can go with the flow – but that doesn’t help of course if the issues the author wants to explore are place-centric (such as the shrimp-farming industry in Angela Savage’s The dying beach.)

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when setting is discussed at the conference. What issues will concern the authors most?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers, loquacious?

It’s a brave person who tries to characterise a nation’s literature. But this is apparently what Australian-French writer Jean-Francois Vernay has done in his book A brief take on the Australian novel (published this year by Wakefield Press). I haven’t read the book, but Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is currently reading it, and she challenged me to write this post. So, yes ma’am, here I am!

To be fair, Lisa’s challenge came from my comment on her blog to Vernay’s statement that there’s

a certain loquaciousness among Australian writers… accustomed to large geographical sweeps of land … and not inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space.

Now, dear readers, I contest this! Perhaps Vernay is not meaning to sound as sweeping about it as I am reading him, but it does sound a bit like the pot calling the kettle black or, to put it in perspective, like Victor Hugo calling Henry Handel Richardson long-winded! I mean really! I’m not sure this even warrants an investigation, but I’m going to take the opportunity to point out that Australians can write tight, spare prose, neat novellas and short novels with the best of them. Our country might be sprawling and all over the place, but our writers certainly aren’t – unless it is warranted. Because of course we do have long books – Henry Handel Richardson’s magnum opus, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy is an example, as is Xavier Herbert’s Poor fellow, my country. Peter Carey has been known to go on a bit too (in books like Illywhacker) and Winton’s Cloudstreet is not particularly short either.

But, before I continue, perhaps I should define my terms, particularly regarding “loquaciousness” and “fictional space”. According to most dictionaries, “loquacious” means “wordy” or “excessive talk”, meanings which carry a value judgement regarding quality (or lack thereof). “Fictional space” is not the sort of concept you find in dictionaries, but I’m understanding it to refer primarily to physical quantity, that is to “big” or long books. Now I contend that just because a book is big, just because it takes up fictional space, doesn’t mean it is excessive, that is, “loquacious” (and therefore of poorer quality). So, there are two arguments to be had here. One is whether Australian books that take up fictional space are or aren’t loquacious. The other is whether Australian books take up fictional space, in the first place, that is, whether Australian authors are capable of depriving themselves of this largesse that’s apparently open to them! It’s this latter that I’m going to briefly tackle (emulating Vernay’s idea of a “brief take”) in what’s left to me of this post. (Yes, I know that I can make the rules about how much is left to me in my own blog, but far be it from me to sprawl over this essentially limitless space I have here! I know how to be tight. Don’t comment on that!)

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

I want to tackle the second argument because, of course, like most literary cultures, we do have our long books (including, admittedly, some big, baggy – and potentially loquacious – monsters). Without taking time here to research examples for you, I’d argue that the majority of the longer Australian books I’ve read have tended to make good use of the words they’ve used. However, it doesn’t take much research for me to argue against the idea that Australians aren’t “inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space”. I just need to point to our long tradition of novellas.

I have many posts tagged “novellas“, some for specific books (not all Australian) and some for posts about the form. Very early in this blog, in fact, I wrote a post titled Little treasures. In that post I listed some of my favourite novellas to that time, and included  several Australians:

  • Thea Astley’s A kindness cup
  • Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus
  • Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review)
  • Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont Street
  • David Malouf’s Fly away Peter
  • Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living

And these are just a small sample.

Since then, I’ve read many more Australian novellas. But beyond them, my reading experience is that Australian novels are, overall, relatively short. A quick survey of the last 30 Australian novels I’ve read reveals that only five had more than 350 pages, which seems a reasonable marker in my mind for shorter versus longer books. Interestingly, four of those five were by male writers. Is there another hypothesis here, either regarding who writes the longest books, or, whether there’s a gender preference in the books Vernay based his statement on? I appreciate that my little survey is by no means scientific, but even non-scientific research can form the basis of an hypothesis can’t it?

I found online in The Age a discussion back in 2009 of the original French version (Panorama du roman australien) of Jean-Francois Vernay’s book that Lisa is reading. The article’s author, Simon Caterson, reports on his interview with Vernay:

Vernay says that Panorama, which covers early convict novels such as Quintus Servinton and For the Term of His Natural Life through to the work of contemporary authors such as Christos Tsiolkas and Alexis Wright …

Well, there you have it … these four books/authors used by Vernay to exemplify his research represent the more fictionally spacious end of Australian writing! I rest my case!

Seriously though, I’ve just had a little bit of fun here. I haven’t read Vernay. I don’t know how or whether he qualifies his statement. But, I did find it fascinating that he made his statement at all and wanted to tease it out a little, scientifically or not. So, whether or not Australia’s long novels are loquacious – and I’d say in general they’re not – my prime point is that we don’t produce an inordinate number of long (fictionally spacious) novels in the first place. What say you?

Ward Farnsworth, rhetoric and the modern politician

Farnsworth Classical English RhetoricOne of my favourite go-to bloggers, Stefanie (So Many Books), recently posted about a book by Ward Farnsworth titled Classic English rhetoric. (Her post, though, was titled for his second book, Classical English metaphor.) I was intrigued, particularly when she described the letter from the author himself that accompanied this second book. Stefanie writes:

Also in the package was a cheeky letter from Mr. Farnsworth expressing his disappointment when he saw that about a year after he sent me his book I had posted about A Tale of Two Cities and mentioned the book’s use of repetition wondering what it was called. He takes me to task in this letter because in his book he names this technique and uses Dickens to do it. He goes on to say that he has enclosed the paperback copy in case the hardcover he originally sent me was no longer handy because “Every household should have one in case of rhetorical emergency.” This made me laugh out loud.

Well, I had a rhetorical emergency earlier this year when I was preparing for my reading group’s discussion of a book, Steve Toltz’s Quicksand. It used a literary (or rhetorical) device that I knew had a name but I could not remember it. Eventually, through Google, I found it, but it took a little while. The device is asyndeton and yes, it is in Classic English rhetoric, which I have now bought on my Kindle – the perfect place for a dipping-into-cum-reference book like this. No more rhetorical emergencies for me!

However, this is not my main reason for writing this post. I have started the book and, while with fiction I always read the introduction last, with non-fiction I read it first. In this book, it’s called the Preface, and Farnsworth uses it to define rhetoric (“the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience”) and argue for the worth of his book. There is a decline, he says, in rhetoric. It is possible, he continues, to write well without using rhetorical figures “but most of the best writers and speakers – the ones whose work has stood up the longest – have made important use of them”.

The opposite also occurs, he says. That is, “rhetorical figures show up in a lot of bad speech and writing”. And here we get to the point of this post. He writes that:

When used in contemporary political speeches and read from teleprompter, figures often sound tinny – like clichés, or strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy. This is partly because today’s politician tends to be a creature of very modest literacy and wit who spoils what he touches, but there are more specific reasons as well. First, figures sound splendid when used to say things worth saying. They can show a worthy sentiment to great advantage. But they merely are grating when used to inflate the sound of words that are trite or trivial in substance …

Hmmm … “to say things worth saying”. Farnsworth is really socking it to our* political leaders. I do despair at the type of speech-making we hear today, at the lack of real oratory. Is it because of our sound-bite world? Or because politicians seem more focused on vote-getting or sniping at their opponents, than on presenting a vision to us who vote for them? Oh, for a leader who will inspire and lead.

I could go on and name a few of Australia’s good orators or great political speeches – we have had them – but my plan was to keep this post short, to just share this idea and ask what you think. Can you name a current politician who can regularly be relied upon to make a beautiful – and meaningful – speech? Do you have a favourite political speech, past (I’ll allow that) or present? I promise not to test you on its rhetorical figures.

* I’m not sure whether he meant American or something more global by “our”, but what he says can certainly apply down under.

Delicious descriptions: More on Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Rightly or wrongly, I try to keep my reviews to a reasonable length. When they start creeping up to 1200 words, I worry that readers will be discouraged from reading. There’s so much to read out there – so many books, so many blogs, so many articles. And so, when my review of The luminaries started to close in on 1100 words, I decided that it was time to stop. There’s always my Delicious Descriptions series I thought …

So here I am. I’m going to introduce my follow-up with another character description, this time of the young banker:

Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently. The air of cryptic strategy with which he often spoke was not manufactured, though he was entirely sensible of its effects; it came, rather, out of a fundamental blindness to all experience exterior to his own. Frost did not know how to listen to himself as if he were somebody else; he did not know how to see the world from another man’s eyes; he did not know how to contemplate another man’s nature, except to compare it, either enviously or pitiably, to his own. He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped up in the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjectivity was comprehensive, and complete.

An important aspect of the novel I omitted in my review was its relationship to the 19th century Victorian novel. I just couldn’t do it justice in a few words … Since writing my review, I’ve been roaming around blogs and reviews, reading various responses. I’m finding a fascinating array of ideas: it’s rich, it’s hollow, it’s tedious, it’s exciting, it’s innovative … and so on. Many discuss this 19th century novel aspect – and one of the issues raised is Catton’s characterisation. Some suggest, as I have too in other reviews, that the novelist should show not tell. They argue that Catton’s character descriptions, such as the one above, do too much telling. They don’t like it. I don’t see it that way, though. For me, it’s a matter of what you show and what you tell. No amount of her “showing” me Charlie Frost would result in my being able to describe his character the way she has here. I’m more than happy to read such delicious descriptions as this, and then watch the character acting it out.

Catton also invokes other stylistic features of the Victorian novel – the coincidences, the red herrings, the mixed identities, the large cast of characters, the gritty realism, and the omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator. Is Catton being anachronistic or has she offered a fresh take? I feel the latter. For one thing, there is no clear protagonist until, perhaps, towards the end when the chapters shorten and the focus narrows to the two who we realise are the luminaries. That’s a subversion of expectations. Maybe it’s this that creates the problem.  With no protagonist for us to hang our hat on, we feel adrift, uncertain. We thought the stranger, Walter Moody, would be our protagonist but he disappears midway after the trial. Furthermore, Victorian novels tend to have clear moral arguments. This novel has themes and moral concerns, but the conclusion does not, really, resolve them. That’s not particularly subversive, but it is more modern.

Another way Catton has nodded to the 19th century tradition is through using descriptive chapter summaries to open each chapter, as in “In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika …”. You need, with this book, to be a reader who reads such details. Some readers tend to ignore  features like chapter headings, seeing them as superfluous, but in The luminaries you ignore them at your peril. As the novel draws to a close, the “in which” chapter summaries become longer as the chapters themselves, following her waning-moon astrological structure, become shorter. By the last few chapters, these so-called summaries contain information that is not further elaborated in the chapter itself. If you don’t read them, you miss some plot. I liked this playing with the form, this reminder that the book is a holistic thing. It, too, is subversive.

However, I mustn’t be too holier than thou, because I didn’t put the effort into understanding the astrological charts, which represent another nod to the 19th century (though not so much to the 19th century novel.) As I understand it, astrology, an ancient school of thought, experienced a resurgence in the 19th century after being generally discarded during the 17th-18th centuries’ Age of Enlightenment (or Reason). Goethe, no less, was an enthusiast, as was, later in the century, Jung. For me, though, reading all the text in the novel is one thing; leaving the novel to go research astrological signs and their meanings is a whole different ball-game. If such knowledge added meaning to the novel, then I’m afraid I missed it.

All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!

PS One of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of the novel is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books.

Thoughts on Christina Stead’s writing in For love alone

I can’t resist writing another post on Christina Stead‘s For love alone, which I reviewed recently. Usually in my reviews I make some comments about the writing, but that review was getting so long that I decided to leave that discussion for another day.

I’m embarrassed to admit that For love alone is my first Stead. I’ve been wanting to get to her for the longest time, but somehow other books kept getting in the way. I’ll admit too that I was a bit nervous – as I’d heard over the years that she was difficult to read, or that her books were too miserable. Fortunately, I found neither of these to be the case with this novel. From the first chapter I was hooked. The book does have a little prologue which I enjoyed, but it was the first chapter that really got me in – and it got me in primarily because of its writing.

I love writing that plays with words and this is what I found in chapter one. Take for example this use of the word “bending” in an exchange between the heroine Teresa and her father (pp. 11-12):

“… I am in love again, with a young woman, a woman of thirty, a – ” His voice dropped. He came towards her, seized her arms and looked into her face without bending. “A wonderful, proud looking woman, pure in soul. “My whole life is wrapping itself around her, so I’m glad you brought it up for you will understand later on -”

She angrily shook her arms free. “Don’t touch me, I don’t like it.”

He sighed and turned his shoulder to her. “That is no way to treat men, men don’t like an unbending woman.”

“I am unbending.”

“You will be sorry for it.”

Then a few sentences down, her father says to her about flirtatious, coaxing behaviour in women:

“If, I say, you should ever be tempted to tricks like that, thinking to please some man, remember that they detest those tricks and see through them. They know they are traps, mean little chicane to bend them to women’s purpose.”

This is such a clever and telling exchange. It immediately tells us something about the father, the daughter and their relationship, about the likely themes of the novel (particularly given the title) and, though we don’t know it, it sets up future exchanges with Jonathan Crow who often talks of women trapping men.

A couple pages on is a another exchange in the family in which the idea of “honour” is played with and twisted. Stead, I sensed, was a writer I was going to like.

This, however, is not all that captured me in the first chapter. There were also several oxymorons (oxymora?) that added to the sense of slipperiness. Teresa’s room is described as “an inviting cell” and her brother, Lance, as “chaste and impure”. In the next chapter, a womanising dockhand is “agreeably sinister”.

It is language like this – ironic, satirical, biting – that keeps me reading, particularly in early stages of books where I’m not sure what is happening. I enjoy this sort of language because it challenges our preconceptions and can set a strong tone. (I do like a strong tone.) Mostly, though, such language tells me that the novel in question is likely to be multi-layered and that I’d better be ready to look beneath the surface.

Stead also writes beautiful, evocative descriptions. Christina Houen, commenting on my review of the book, referred to Stead’s description of Sydney. Stead herself grew up on Sydney Harbour. Here is the description Christina referred to. It occurs as Teresa is returning home after the wedding that opens the book:

It was high tide at nine-thirty that night in February and even after ten o’clock the black tide was glassy, too full for lapping in the gullies. Up on the cliffs, Teresa could see the ocean flooding the reefs outside, choking the headlands and swimming to the landing platforms of jetties in the bays. It was long after ten when Teresa got to the highest point of the seaward cliffs and turning there, dropped down to the pine-grown bay by narrow paths and tree-grown boulders, trailing her long skirt, holding her hat by a ribbon. From every moon-red shadow came the voices of men and women; and in every bush and in the clumps of pine, upon unseen wooden seats and behind rocks, in the grass and even on open ledges, men and women groaned and gave shuddering cries as if they were being beaten. She passed slowly, timidly, but fascinated by the strange battlefield, the bodies stretched out, contorted, with sounds of the dying under the fierce high moon. She did not know what the sounds were, but she knew children would be conceived this night, and some time later women would marry hurriedly, if they could, like one of her cousins who had slept the night with a man in one of these very grottoes; and perhaps one or two would jump into the sea. There were often bodies fished up around here, that had leapt when the heart still beat, from these high ledges into waters washed around these rocks by the moon. (Beginning of Ch. 5)

I won’t even try to unpack all this, but I’m sure you can see how intense and dense it is. It’s ambiguous about love and sex – and this ambiguity underlies the whole book, right through to – and beyond – its resolution.

Oh, and then there’s her facility with dialogue, her imagery, her literary and classical allusions – but again this post is starting to get long. Maybe another day!