What is literary fiction? A personal manifesto!

I was pottering around the Internet last night, as you do, and found myself on a State Library of Victoria page titled Novels: Finding Literary Reviews and Criticism and there I saw this definition of Literary Novel:

Literary fiction focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create introspective, in-depth studies of complex characters. The tone of literary fiction is usually serious, it has layered meanings and the pace is slower than lighter fiction. Much of this literature remains relevant for generations, even centuries.

There’s no source for this definition – though it may have been partly drawn from Wikipedia. This definition is followed by one for Popular or Genre Novel:

Usually the plot is important in the popular novel, the pace is faster and the characterisation is uncomplicated. Action is more important than reflection. Murder/mysteries, thrillers and romances fall into this category.

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(Courtesy OCAL, via clker.com)

Now, I’m particularly interested in this topic at the moment because I’m coordinating the “Literary” category for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Each month I write a round-up of the previous month’s reviews for literary fiction (and literary non-fiction, but that’s not my topic here). The first thing I do is review the reviews (ha!) to see what has been categorised as “literary” – and each month I change a few, mostly by adding “literary” to some titles that haven’t been so classified.

My challenge is to have some basis for making these decisions. Fortunately, it’s not brain surgery so, while feelings may be hurt at times – though I really hope that doesn’t happen – no-one is going to die if I do or don’t label a book as “literary”. Phew!

I don’t fully agree with the State Library of Victoria’s definition, though it has some validity. Being multi-layered, particularly in terms of meaning, and being universal or likely to have longevity are valid criteria – and they certainly play a role in my categorisation. Characterisation is a bit trickier. Genre fiction can have complex characters, though perhaps not quite so much complex characterisation, if that makes sense.

Risky business …

But, the defining characteristics for me have to do with language and with innovation. Fiction I classify as “literary” uses language that challenges its readers. This isn’t to suggest that “genre” fiction is badly written, but that the focus of “genre” fiction is something else, usually plot or character. It also doesn’t suggest that genre fiction writers can’t have a message or serious intent. They can, but they want to convey that primarily through the story, rather than through linguistic devices.

Fiction I classify as “literary” also tends to be innovative. That is, it may play with voice, narrative structure, grammar and syntax, with imagery, form, tone, and/or expectations. This doesn’t mean that “genre” fiction can’t also be literary. It can, but I would call it literary when the writer manipulates or diverges in some way from the expectations of the genre.

Literary fiction, in other words, tends to take risks. Take some (mostly Australian) examples:

  • Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review) is historical fiction, perhaps even historical crime, but I’d label it literary for a number of reasons, one being its voice. It is told in the voice of a dead baby, who operates mostly as an omniscient narrator but who, occasionally, injects her own feelings.
  • Carrie Tiffany‘s Mateship with birds (my review) could also be labelled historical fiction but I’d label it literary on multiple fronts, one being form. Interspersed with the main narrative are a log book documenting the life cycle of a kookaburra family, a nature journal, various lists, a bit of a diary, to name a few departures from straight story-telling. These are not just there for the sake of it; they enhance the meaning.
  • Martin AmisTime’s arrow (read before blogging) is a Holocaust novel that plays big-time with narrative structure. It’s graphically told in rewind – and, in doing so, manages to increase the horror.
  • Markus Zusak‘s The book thief (my review) is another Holocaust novel. It plays with tone (and related to that, voice). It’s humorous – a Holocaust novel humorous? – and is narrated by Death. Shocking! And therein lies its impact.
  • Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang (read before blogging) and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest (my review) disobey the rules of grammar and syntax to create unique voices for their protagonists, the uneducated Ned Kelly for Carey, and a feral child for Nowra. Doing this risks alienating readers but, on the other hand, increases the realism.

But, do we want to classify “literary fiction” …

I think we do, mainly because many readers do have reading preferences. If we don’t have a “literary” category, how would readers like me find the sorts of books we like to read? And, where would those books that don’t seem to fit any “genre” go? Bookshops differ of course. Some categorise the main genres – crime, fantasy, etc – and lump the rest as general fiction. Others don’t categorise at all and simply shelve alphabetically, while others do have a literary fiction section. They may not always get it right – by my definition – but I appreciate that they try.

The point is, this is not about snobbery. It’s not about good-versus-bad. That’s a completely different judgement, one that can occur as much within as between genres/categories – and is why there are genre-based awards, as well as literary awards. No, it’s simply about making it easy for readers to find the sort of books they like – and surely, that’s a good thing?

Do you have thoughts on the subject?

Poor novellas?

Having just reviewed two novellas in succession – Nigel Featherstone’s I’m ready now and Gerald Murnane‘s The plains – I was intrigued to receive an email this week from AbeBooks titled “The best novellas: Literature’s middle child”. It linked to an article which starts:

Poor novellas. They are the middle-child, the Jan Brady of the book world – too short to be novels, too long to be short stories.

Joe Fassler in The Atlantic earlier this year also used a family-based metaphor to describe novellas:

Longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, the form has been the ugly stepchild of the literary world.

So, are novellas poor? Are they “the ugly stepchild”? Well yes, in some ways they are because, as I understand it, publishers are not keen to publish them. Fassler confirms this, stating that novellas are “an unfairly neglected literary art form that’s been practiced for centuries by celebrated writers” and yet face “an ongoing struggle for commercial viability”. One of the problems seems to be that they “hog too much space to appear in magazines and literary journals, but they’re usually too slight to release as books”. This made me wonder whether the the e-Book might result in a greater acceptance of novellas. You can’t, after all, see that you’re taking home a slim volume can you!

Things are changing, though, says Fassler. American publisher, Melville House, decided in 2004 to publish a series of classic novellas by such writers as Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They were apparently derided in the industry for publishing novellas and for using plain covers. Had the critics never heard of Penguin?  But, the novellas sold – and sold – and kept on selling.

There is a catch, however: they’re classics. Apparently, it’s not so easy to sell contemporary novellas. They are more expensive to produce because their authors are alive and need to be paid. Fair enough, eh, Nigel and Gerald? So, people will buy classic novellas because they are by well-known authors and cheap, but are not so keen to buy contemporary ones. Melville House is not giving up though. They are apparently looking at using the electronic media (told you!) and adding curated materials “to extend the experience”. They’re starting with some classics, but plan to move onto contemporary works.

Joe Fassler ends his article with a definition – always the challenge – which goes like this:

a narrative of middle length with nothing wrong with it, an ideal iteration of its own terms, that can [be] devoured within a single day of reading. I think I’m not alone when I say this is the kind of reading I like best. On a summer Sunday, sometime. We fall under the book’s spell in the morning. A friend knocks, the phone rings, the mail clunks through the mail slot. There won’t be any stopping until there’s nothing left to read. The tempo builds until the pages turn with feverish speed, the sun burns hot and starts to dim. Finally, we’re released sometime before dinner. The spell lingers on all through the evening until, at night, we dream.

Good one, but I also rather like John Clanchy’s definition which novella writer Nigel Featherstone quotes in his blog:

Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way. I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length. But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.

Funnily enough, Melville House’s new novella initiative is called Hybrid Books. Ah well, each to their own … I don’t care what novellas are called really as long as they continue to be written and published because, as I’ve said before, I like the form.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite first (Australian) lines

This is a bit of a copout, I know, but I’m travelling this week and don’t have a lot of time to write a seriously considered post. So, I’ve decided to simply do a list – of some of my favourite first lines from Australian literature. Like most readers I think, I do love a good first line, and the way it can get you into the story from the get-go. We all know the famous ones from books like Pride and prejudice, Moby Dick, A tale of two citiesAnna Karenina but these books haven’t cornered the market on great first lines. Here are some of my favourites from Australian works (in alphabetical order by author):

“I’m losing my nouns”, she admitted. (from Thea Astley‘s Coda)

“I’ve never sailed the Amazon.” (from Thea Astley’s Drylands)

No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. (from Elizabeth Jolley‘s The newspaper of Claremont Street)

What have you brought me Hester? (from Elizabeth Jolley’s The well)

The sea has many voices. (from David Malouf‘s Ransom)

Breed ’em tough, the old man says … (from Geoff Page‘s verse novel, The scarring)

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around/That the colt from old Regret had got away … (from Banjo Paterson‘s poem, “The man from Snowy River)

“There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,” said Rose. (from Patrick White‘s Voss)

What makes a great first line? Here are some of the features that grab me – though not every great first line has all of these:

  • Is brief or spare (though there are some good long ones like A tale of two cities)
  • Reads well, particularly in terms of rhythm
  • Surprises me, shocks me or makes me laugh
  • Is puzzling or mysterious
  • Contains wordplay or intriguing imagery

There are practical things good first lines may do too, such as give an idea of what the novel is about and/or its theme/s (even if this isn’t immediately clear), set the tone and, perhaps, introduce the main (or, a significant) character. But these are additional benefits. I don’t think they are essential to grabbing the first-time reader.

How important is a first line to you? Guy Dammann, writing in The Guardian bookblog argues they are critical:

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but they didn’t say anything about opening lines, which are surely fair game. For it seems to me that if the author can’t take the trouble, or hasn’t got the nous, to sculpt those words from which all the rest flow, then they probably won’t have taken the trouble in all those other key moments of the text when the interpretative pressure is at its highest, when the duty to capture a whole fictional world in a single breath is at its most pressing. Screw up the opening, screw up the book.

Do you have favourite first lines? I’d love to hear them – and your reasons if you’d like to share that too.

On the titling of books

Forget about judging books by their covers, what about titles? How important are they to you? Do you ever decide to read a book based on the title alone? Do you always (never, sometimes) consider the title when thinking about the meaning of a book?

Title Puzzle Clker M

Titles: They're a puzzlement (Courtesy: M, via clker.com)

It seems to be a fraught issue, this book titling business – and it makes me wonder just what import to ascribe to titles. Who decides on the title? Do authors always have the final say in the titling of their books? Well, no, they don’t … so, how much can/should we readers think about the title when discussing or thinking about the books we read. Is it worth wasting our time bothering about it as, for example, readers did with Wolf Hall. Why, many of us wondered, was Hilary Mantel‘s book called Wolf Hall? I had an answer, and so did others, but is it worth even bothering about if we don’t know whether the author created the title? This may be a bad example though. Hilary Mantel was an established author when Wolf Hall was published, so it’s likely she had more clout in the titling of her book than a first time author has. Hmm, then, how am I to know when an author has chosen the title and when he/she hasn’t – and therefore when it might be worth my while considering the title and when not?

And what about books which are published under different titles in different countries? Think Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow versus Smilla’s sense of snow. This is a tricky one though because, like The outsider versus The stranger, it is a translated book, so there’s a double whammy here. Not only has the title been translated, but it’s then been translated differently. Are these difference due to translation decisions or marketing ones? A better example might be Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone versus Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone. What’s that about*? Marketing, of course. (And, I can’t help wondering whether the book might have met with less opposition in the USA if the title had not been changed to “sorcerer”?) Again, where does this title confusion, oops variation, leave we readers, particularly regarding our wish to understand and analyse what we are reading?

For an interesting discussion of book titling, read Caroline Baum’s article “What it takes to title a book” in the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2003. It answers some of the questions I raise above and gives some great examples, but it doesn’t really consider where the reader sits in all this (except as the target for marketing).

What say you on the book title issue?

* Rhetorical question. Reasons abound, some from Rowling herself, on the internet. My concern is the general issue, not this specific case.

Nettie Palmer on short stories

In a recent Monday Musings I mentioned Nettie Palmer who was part of one of Australia’s famous literary couples. Her husband, Vance Palmer, wrote, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a regular column for the ABC Weekly published by the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. Nettie Palmer also contributed to this paper, albeit less regularly. One of these contributions is a discussion, in 1943, of Australian and Russian short stories. In it she made a simple but clear statement on what she believes is essential to a good story:

What is a story without the power to see what matters to people, to detect the character’s most revealing moment? A sense of life is something more than mere narrative, or a knack for inventing a scene.

This appeals to me because of her focus on meaning and character rather than on plot … and I like the way she hones in on “the character’s most revealing moment”. When I think about it, the best short stories do tend to centre on just that, a moment (an action, a decision, an event) in which the character’s self is revealed to us. I think of Guy de Maupassant‘s “The necklace”, Kate Chopin‘s “Désireé’s baby” and Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. In these stories, the main characters are confronted by a challenge to their sense of being … and how each responds tells us much about who they are, and we, in contemplating their reactions, learn a bit more, perhaps, about who we are.

Does this definition of a good story hold for longer fiction too?

Marion Halligan on fact, fiction and character

More on playing with that line between fact and fiction… One of my favourite writers – though I have nowhere near read all her works – is Marion Halligan, who also happens to be local to my town. Halligan has been shortlisted for and/or won several signifcant Australian literary awards but I’d be surprised if many readers overseas had ever heard of her. A particularly beautiful novel of hers is The fog garden (2002) which she wrote after her  husband’s death. It’s about love and grief (reminding me of Joan Didion‘s non-fiction work, The year of magical thinking which was published in 2005), but it also explores the nature of fiction, and the relationship between life and art.

And so, here she is introducing the heroine:

She isn’t me. She is a character in fiction. And like such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.

And here she is, the next page, on keeping your character honest:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life as I have imagined them.

Some readers may not like this sort of self-conscious writing but I often enjoy it … I like the recognition that we are, writer and reader, meeting in a very particular space, that of art (or is it artifice!). I like it that Halligan is here writing fiction inspired by a very personal experience and tackling head on the questions her readers will raise … playing with us, teasing us even, but also teaching us about the nature of fiction.

On pathologising fictional characters

Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, illustration by CE Brock

Mr Darcy, illus by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, courtesty Wikipedia)

Was Mr Darcy autistic? Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, a Canadian speech pathologist, suggests that he was in her book So odd a mixture.  Her theory has not been taken seriously, but it throws up an issue I’ve confronted before, the pathologising of fictional characters.

Take M.J. Hyland for example. I have read two of her novels and must admit that, as I read them, the word “autism” did cross my mind more than once. I did not, however, define the characters as such in my reviews, though I did footnote my temptation to do so in my post on This is how. I didn’t succumb to the temptation because I’m not sure it is relevant or helpful to ascribe to a fictional character a condition that the writer him/herself has not identified.

And, as it turns out MJ Hyland herself has something to say on the matter, at least as far as her works are concerned. She said in an interview on Slow TV that many people suggest her characters have autism but she does not, she said, want to “pathologise” her characters, she does not want such a neat cause and effect. She explains this further by saying that she does not want to present her characters as victims but rather, she wants them to be “as complicated as we are”. I like that … her characters are highly complex and would become immediately less so if she identified them as having a diagnosed condition.

Book cover for Toni Jordan's Addition

Addition Paperback cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

What is it that makes readers want to “diagnose” characters? Is it a desire to do the opposite to what Hyland wants, that is, to simplify them, to put them in neat explainable boxes rather than allow them all the messiness that make us human? By saying this I am certainly not suggesting that “real” people with these conditions are simple. Far from it. But I am suggesting that making such diagnoses, extratextually, can be used to simplify the fictional world. Labelling Darcy as autistic denies us the challenge of teasing out who he is, and why he does the things he does. Or what about Albert Camus‘ Meursault from L’étranger? Had Camus labelled him autistic, as some critics/reviewers have suggested, would we, could we, analyse the book in the same way? Or Patrick Suskind‘s Grenouille from Perfume? Does it help or hinder our analysis to call him a sociopath? I don’t have an answer to this except to say that I like to proceed with caution when I go beyond the text on the page.

Of course, there are books in which characters are ascribed conditions by their creators. Think Mark Haddon‘s The curious incident of the dog in the night-time in which the protagonist defines himself as having “behaviour difficulties” (though nothing more specific than that) and Toni Jordan’s Addition in which the heroine has OCD. Because these characters admit to their conditions, the focus of their novels is different. They deal more directly with the issue of how these characters face the challenges of their particular “condition”.

Anyhow, what do you think? How far do you think it is reasonable to go in terms of describing fictional characters – and why?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Helen Garner on writing about self

I have mentioned Helen Garner several times in this blog, and the word I tend to use about her is “honest”. Her fiction is very much about “self”. And in her non-fiction that I’ve read – Joe Cinque’s consolation and The first stone – her “self” is an integral part. She is not what you’d call an objective writer. In fact, in a talk she gave in 2001 at the National Library of Australia’s conference titled “The Secret Self: Exploring Biography and Autobiography” someone who writes “helplessly about the intimate”.

This started with her first novel, Monkey Grip, which, though published to general overall acclaim, did attract some demurrers who argued that all she’d done was publish her diaries. That was in 1977. In her address at the National Library conference she spoke of how she’d been initially defensive about these criticisms but that in the succeeding years she’d thought about it and would now “come clean” because that’s exactly what she’d done. She’d cut out the boring bits, written bridging passages and changed names. And, she said, there’s craft in all that. “Why the sneer?” she asked,

…as if it were lazy. As if no work were involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language.

Sounds like a novelist’s manifesto to me! Anyhow, she goes on to say that she wrote it because she’s not such a narcissist as to believe that her story was so “hermetically enclosed in a bubble of self” that it could offer no value to anyone else. She’s talking, of course, about some level of universality.

Further, she says, when writing (whether from a diary or not), she has to find a persona … and it is different for every work. These personas may draw from her life but they are not identical with her. She cannot write until she finds this persona. (An aside. I love hearing from authors about what they need to get started. Australian young adult writer John Marsden says he must find “the voice”. Australian children’s writer, Paul Jennings, said he started with a “what if?”. Alan Gould about whom I posted recently starts with a sentence – which may or may not be the first in the book – and Helen Garner needs her persona.)

Garner’s persona, she admits, usually draws from herself, from “the intimate”. This inevitably results in some level of self-exposure, which, given our interdependent lives, can’t help but involve others. And so she has struck a deal with herself:

… if I’m rough on myself, it frees me to be rough on others as well. I stress the unappealing, mean, aggressive, unglamorous aspects of myself as a way of lessening my anxiety about portraying other people as they strike me.

She certainly keeps to her deal … and it often gets her into trouble, in both her fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel The spare room is a raw exploration of a friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer but refuses to accept it. The main character, the one not dying and who is challenged by her friend’s attitudes and demands, is called Helen! Life and art are very close in this book it seems, but she knows what she is doing. Her ethical challenge is about the “other” people in her life who get pulled into her exploration of “the intimate”. She says:

Writing, it seems, like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without damage.

Some time ago I reviewed a short story titled “The young painters” by Nicole Krauss. In it she explores the impact of writing from other people’s stories, and presents her case:

In the publicity interviews I gave, I emphasized that the book was fiction and professed my frustration with journalists and readers alike who insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors, as if there were not such thing as the writer’s imagination …

Helen Garner has no real answer to the problems she poses (any more than Krauss’s fictional character does in the short story), except to say that

… if I can write well enough, rigorously and imaginatively enough, readers will be carried through the superficial levels of perviness and urged into the depths of themselves. I hope we can meet and know each other there further down, where each of us connects with every other person who has ever been loved, hurt and been wounded …

In other words, she’s looking for readers who can tell the difference between fiction and reality. This may not, I suspect, reassure all those close to her who may not want their lives to be caught up in such a risky writer-reader venture but, theoretically, I like what she says and the honesty with which she says it. I’d love to have been in the audience that day to hear the Q and As.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian bildungsroman

Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I know the sad truth. About everything.
(Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones)

In past posts, I’ve talked of enjoying coming-of-age novels (aka bildungsroman) and so today I thought I’d share 5 (cos 5 seems like a manageable number for a list like this – and gives you an opportunity to contribute your own!) Australian novels in the genre.

In the introduction to a course on “The European bildungsroman” at Columbia University in the USA, there is a brief discussion on the definition of the term. The unnamed writer (so let’s call him/her Columbia) of the introduction says:

My particular approach to defining the genre … returns to Dilthey‘s original definition. According to Dilthey, the prototypical Bildungsroman is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in which the hero engages in a double task of self-integration and integration into society.

Columbia then expounds a little on this definition arguing that, while Dilthey see this as an affirmative, conservative genre which aims to find the “hero” a productive place in a valid society, s/he sees it as involving a tension – that between “the priorities of self-integration and social integration”, between personal desire and social obligation. For Columbia this tension is a major criterion for the Bildungsroman genre. This makes sense to me … perhaps this tension isn’t an issue for every young person who is coming of age, but a coming-of-age story without that tension, without some conflict to resolve, is probably not going to be interesting to read!

(By the way, I’m not sure that this necessarily negates Dilthey’s definition. The difference between Dilthey and Columbia seems to me to be that Dilthey focuses on the end result, while Columbia focuses on the process which may or may not culminate in Dilthey’s goal.)

And so, five Australian coming-of-age novels (choosing from those I’ve read):

  • Miles Franklin‘s My brilliant career (1901) is probably Australia’s best known book of the genre. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about Sybylla, a young girl on an outback property who must choose between her passion for a man and her passion to be a writer. It was made into a film by Australian director Gillian Armstrong.
  • Henry Handel Richardson‘s The getting of wisdom (1910) is another novel about a blue-stocking girl. Laura’s innocence and idealism are sorely tested by the city sophistication of her well-to-do peers. In this story, the awakening is more intellectual and philosophical than sexual. According to the Henry Handel Richardson Society, this novel was admired by HG Wells. It was also made into a film.
  • Melina Marchetta‘s Looking for Alibrandi (1992) is a young adult novel (and, later, a film) which adds an immigrant background to the heroine’s challenge. Not only is she a young intelligent girl who confronts her awakening sexuality but she must do so within the strictures of a conservative Italian family.
  • Tim Winton‘s Breath (2008) explores the youthful drive to prove oneself, to take risks, and the complications that arise from choosing an imperfect male role model and from becoming embroiled in a rather unhealthy sexual relationship with an older woman. Eva is no Mrs Robinson. The question left for the reader at the end goes to the heart of Columbia’s disagreement with Dilthey.
  • Craig Silvey‘s Jasper Jones (2009) is set in rural 1960s Western Australia and, with a nod to To kill a mockingbird, combines a somewhat Gothic mystery with a more traditional coming-of-age story. Racism (against immigrants and indigenous people), sexuality and learning who you can trust are some of the adult issues that Charlie confronts in his growth to maturity.

I’m intrigued by how many of these books have a rural or small town setting. (Even Laura, in The getting of wisdom, is a country child, though the book is set in a city boarding school. Looking for Alibrandi is the only truly urban novel here.) Is this because we equate country with innocence? Because rural life tends to be more conservative and therefore presents a greater challenge to a burgeoning self? Is it simply that the books I’ve chosen are not representative? Or? What do you think?

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Barbara Hanrahan on the sun

When you read do you come across passages that you just want to hang onto forever – but (if you’re a blogger) when you go to write your blog review you can’t quite make them fit? I do, and have been pondering for some time what to do about it. Then, suddenly, it came to me. How about a series of posts comprising favourite bits from books (and other writing)? And so, “Delicious descriptions from Down Under” was born. The posts will be occasional – and some times more occasional than others – but I’ll just see where it takes me.

For my first one, I couldn’t go past Barbara Hanrahan‘s The scent of eucalyptus (1973) which I reviewed recently. It’s full of “delicious descriptions” but the one I wanted to share has to do with the Sun, with, specifically, hot sunny days in the city of Adelaide. I was in Adelaide on a scorchingly hot long January weekend many moons ago, and haven’t forgotten it. Here is Hanrahan:

Myilly Point, Darwin, shutters


The sun is everywhere.

It is in the garden: peering huge-eyed over the berry bush, roosting behind the chimney, floating like a fried egg in puddles. It mocks me when I burn my bare feet on the earth and scorch my fingers on the iron fence. It peels my nose to jigsaw puzzles, gilds my skin with freckles, turns the hair on my arms to gold.

It is in the house: spangling the passage with leopard spots, turning the sheepskin rug tawny, casting zebra stripes through the shutters. It curdles the milk, melts the butter, shows the dust, fades the curtains. It steals into vases and drinks their water; creeps up the cold tap and turns it hot.

Such intense summer heat that goes on for days is typically – though not solely I know – Australian. I love the way she gives the sun life, the way she mixes up her imagery and yet consciously but not rigidly uses a symmetrical structure to make it read more like poetry than prose. It works beautifully – for me, anyhow.