Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Final, or the Winner is announced

One of the best things about blogging is the conversation it can engender. I was consequently pleased then when my last post on the Meanjin Tournament got some conversation going about the tournament itself – some thoughtful, respectful conversation. So, before I report on the final round, I thought I’d discuss this a little …

This year is the third time Meanjin has run the Tournament of Books. The first, in 2011, focussed on books by women writers, while last year’s focused on short stories. This year, they chose a, I guess you could call it, topic, the sea. The tournament was inspired by the American Morning News Tournament of Books, which is now 9 years old. Blogger Kerry of Hungry Like the Wolf has, for a few years, shadowed the tournament. That was my first introduction to the concept, so when Meanjin decided to emulate the idea – including the comic commentary – I decided to report on it.

However, some commenters – commenters I respect like blogger Lisa (ANZLItLovers) and novelist/artist Sara Dowse – are uncomfortable about the tournament. Similar concerns were expressed during my reporting on the first round. I wrote a post then on my understanding of the tournament, which is that I:

  • don’t take literary competition seriously. (Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas has said that “he envied the surety of the outcome in most sport – unlike with books, when prize judging is largely subjective”. Winning an award, or having great sales, does not necessarily reassure you as a definition of success, he has said. This, I think, says it all.)
  • think that literary competitions can promote literature, can get a conversation going.

The thing about the Tournament of Books is that it has a tongue-in-cheek aspect. It recognises, I believe, that literary competitions are fundamentally questionable as identifiers of “best”. But, humour is difficult to get right, and we don’t all see humour as appropriate in all situations. I’d be very sorry, as I responded to Sara on my last post, if this competition caused distress to the writers involved or worked in any way to undermine their achievements or sense of self.

In response to these concerns, I posted a question on one of the judge’s blogs – Belinda Rule’s barking dogmouth – regarding her understanding of the tournament. Here is part of her response:

it’s an organised series of comparative book reviews, with the intention of being light-hearted and entertaining (or so the judging brief tells us!), and starting a conversation about the books involved. I guess the high-level objective is to promote Australian fiction in an entertaining way.

I’d be interested to know what you think. I’d also love to know what Meanjin thinks it is doing and what if any evaluation it is doing of the “event”.

But now, the last round between Tim Winton’s Breath and Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts. As for last year, the final adjudications involved three judges:

Judge 1: David Mence, a Melbourne based writer and playwright, saw it as a battle between David (Margo Lanagan) and Goliath (Tim Winton). He opted for Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts because: Winton

is without a doubt the jaeger (or MechWarrior) of Australian literature, the champion defender of all that we stand for. But then again, I have always loved monsters from the deep—I would not want to live in a world without monsters—and it seems to me that Lanagan’s book is, among other things, a homage to that which is strange, difficult and monstrous in our world.

Judge 2: Bethanie Blanchard, a Melbourne based freelance writer and literary critic, who decided on the basis of which book was most about the sea. She gave it to Winton:

In Lanagan’s work the sea is an abiding presence in the background, but the tale is less about the ocean than the inhabitants who spring from and long to return to it. It is Breaththat is more truly steeped in the ocean, in its changeable hardness and lure. Winton writes powerfully of the beauty of the water when riding high upon it, ‘for a moment—just a brief second of enchantment—I felt weightless, a moth riding light,’ as well as the danger and impossibility of its conflict between the fear of not breathing and the desire to stay immersed.

And so it came down to the deciding vote of:

Judge 3: Belinda Rule, who describes herself on her blog as “a Melbourne writer of fiction and poetry”, says she loves and defends Tim Winton. However, like Sara Dowse who commented on my previous Meanjin post, she’s bothered by the “mean sexy lady” in Winton’s fiction. She gives her vote to Lanagan:

It’s Lanagan for me! I love Winton’s miscellany of things to do with breath, but I don’t want it nearly as badly as I want Lanagan to get me on the ground and kick me in the heart again.

There is, as yet, no commentary from Melbourne comedians Ben and Jess on this final round, but I believe it is coming …

However, just to confirm, the winner of the 2013 sea-themed Meanjin Tournament of Books is Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts. I wasn’t expecting that at the beginning, but there you go. Serious or not, this tournament can raise readers’ awareness of works they may or may not have heard of, or may have heard of but decided wasn’t for them.

You can read the full judgements for 2013 here.

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Round 2

Round two of this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books has now been played – as of a couple of days before Christmas. Here are the winners

Round 2 Match 1: Tim Winton’s Breath defeated Kim Scott’s That deadman dance

Well, I must say I’m surprised. Much as I love both these books – both of which won the Miles Franklin Award in their year – I thought That deadman dance would be the eventual winner. But, as in all exciting competitions, it was not to be – and who am I to argue with the judge Maxine Benebe Clarke. I don’t know her but she’s apparently “a widely published Australian writer and slam poetry champion”. Interestingly, she, a poet, found Winton’s Breath easy to read but “early on in the reading of this book [That deadman dance], I confessed to a fellow poet and voracious reader that I’d re-read the first sixty or so pages three times, because I felt them so inaccessible”. I understand how that might happen, though I didn’t find it so myself. She did come to enjoy Scott’s novel, once she let go of her expectations of historical fiction which are that it should give her knowledge of the era or event without her being aware it’s happening. Hmm … sounds to me like her definition of historical fiction is a little narrow. She said she enjoyed the novel when she “stopped aching for this to happen”. However, as she chose another book that I love and that has stuck with me since I read it, I won’t complain. She chose Winton because:

I found myself, despite my lack of knowledge of surfing culture, fighting for air, caught in a crazed obsession, the book which almost suffocated me under the deep blue, before landing me back on shore, face-grazed, foamy and gasping for Breath.

I know exactly what she means. It’s a breath-taking (sorry!) book.

Round 2 Match 2: Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts defeated Jaya Savidge’s Surface to air

This match was also judged by someone I don’t know. Clearly I’m not up on the Melbourne scene. Adolfo Aranjuez edited Award Winning Australian Writing, and is editor of Metro magazine, sub-editor of Screen Education, and deputy editor of Voiceworks. He found judging hard, particularly because he really was judging apples and oranges, that is, a collection of poems versus a novel. Moreover, he says that:

Thematically, Savige’s poems aren’t all about the ocean, either, handicapping it slightly. And then there was the pre-existing problem of bias: I’ve adored Lanagan for years, though I tried to summon as much impartiality as my Lanagan-fan heart could muster.

I haven’t read either of these books so can’t comment. Our judge discovered why Savidge is recognised as a great poet, but for him the selkie myth won out. His reasoning makes sense:

Lanagan’s nods to miscegenation and multiculturalism highlight the issues that I and those like me face as ‘mongrels’, unable to explain to largely-monocultural Australians where we ‘come from’. These intercultural themes raise questions that are increasingly relevant in our society, where arranged marriages aren’t uncommon, some are forced by circumstance to leave their homes, and the rhetoric of ‘assimilation’ continues to have currency.

I have been thinking for some time that I should read this book. Aranjuez’s adjudication has strengthened my resolve.

And so … we are left with a Final that will be between

  • Tim Winton‘s Breath; and
  • Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts

I’ll be very surprised if Tim Winton doesn’t win at this point, but I’ve been known to be wrong before. As they say, it isn’t over until … as usual, watch this space, soon!

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Round 1

Hmm, when I announced this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books over three weeks ago, I thought I’d be back before now with an update. However, the last match in Round 1 was only posted a couple of days ago, and I wanted to wait until the Round was finished before reporting back. So, here I am now, with Round 1’s results …

Round 1 Match 1: Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts defeated Favel Parrett’s Past the shallows

Now this is a round between books I haven’t read, so I have no vested interest here. The judge Laura Jean McKay is a writer-performer who has been published in places like Best Australian stories and The Big Issue. She had a hard job – though what Meanjin Tournament judging isn’t hard, do I hear you say? – as both books have received significant critical acclaim since their publication. Sea hearts was shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Stella Prize, while Past the shallows was shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. Meanjin showed their strategic hand when pitting these two against each other! McKay observes that both “are told through very similar landscapes and lifestyles—though the first is Australian and the latter presumably Scottish. As well as the motifs of island and fishing life, both books are a comment on effects of these lives on women and their sons”. Parrett’s book she says is a “desperately sad and realist story of a rural Tasmanian fishing family torn apart by jealousy and death” while Lanagan draws on the selkie myth to tell her story of women, men and fishing. McKay doesn’t want to make a decision but, she says, “our relationship with the sea is unfair” and so she makes a choice. Lanagan wins by a seal’s whisker for coaxing McKay under to a place from which she never wants to emerge. Hmm!

Round 1 Match 2: Kim Scott’s That deadman dance defeated Kathryn Heynman’s Floodline

Now, I admit that I don’t know Heynman or Floodline, but I reckon it would have taken a super-extraordinary book to beat Kim Scott. Heynman should take comfort from that. She could have lost to way lesser mortals! Judge Peter Taggart is a Queensland-based writer and theatre critic. Unlike McKay, he is very clear about which book is the winner and why. He appreciates much of what Heynman does but says that Floodline, a novel that explores the hypocrisy of Christina morality, recedes from memory while That deadman dance, with its powerful protagonist in Bobby, “lingers, which is why That Deadman Dance must take out this round”. Can’t argue with that. Scott’s wonderful book (my review) is not easy to forget, and will, I suspect, be a hard one to beat.

Photo of Jaya Savige

Jaya Savige, 2009 (Released not the Public Domain by Emma Cox, via Wikipedia)

Round 1 Match 3: Jaya Savige’s Surface to air defeated Nevil Shute’s On the beach

I must say that, while I haven’t read Savige’s book and I loved Nevil Shute as a teen, I’m not surprised by this result. The mysterious judge, First Dog on the Moon, and I are in agreement. However, why First Dog chose Savige is not exactly clear – you can read the adjudication yourself at the link above – so I will just say that while I loved Shute’s dystopian novel when I was 15, I was disappointed when I read it a decade or so ago. Shute is a good story-teller – his books make great movies – but the characters were too stereotyped and the writing a little too prosaic to engage me beyond the basic story. Enough said. So, I must check out Surface to air which is, apparently, a collection of poetry.

(PS First Dog on the Moon is Walkley award-winning cartoonist Andrew Marlton)

Round 1 Match 4: Tim Winton’s Breath defeated Kate Grenville’s The secret river

What a shame that these two books met in the first round – particularly since they are two of the four books I’ve read! Judge Tseen Khoo, a senior adviser in Research Development at RMIT University, had a hard job having to choose between these two great books, but I think, given the “sea” theme, that Tim Winton had to win. How could we not have Winton, our most famous chronicler of things oceanic, in the next round? Seriously, though, Khoo goes into some detail to explain her adjudication. Her decision, rightly or wrongly, comes down to the fact that she’s uncertain whether The secret river “changes conversations in Australia’s present about its past” – and she’d like it to. On the other hand, while she feels that Winton’s protagonist “never grows into measures of self-confidence and joy in life”, the book “left me haunted in an enduring way”. Grenville’s book, she said, felt like a book she’d read before, while Winton’s was unfamiliar and “not comfortable”. Much as I love both books, I think that’s a very good reason for choosing one work of art over another.


And so, we have 4 books – three novels and one book of poetry – going into Round 2:

  • Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts
  • Kim Scott’s That deadman dance
  • Jaya Savige’s Surface to air
  • Tim Winton’s Breath

OK, so I’ve read two of these – Scott and Winton. Watch this space, to find out which two books will be in the finals …

Meanjin Tournament of Books: Goes to Sea in 2013

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

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

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

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christos Tsiolkas in Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

I indicated in my recent review of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue that I would write another post or two on the issue. This is one of those posts. It may, in fact, be the only one, for who knows where the spirit will lead me next? Right now though, I want to devote a post to the second last piece in the volume, “Me and my country, Where to Now?”. It’s a conversation between writer Heather Taylor Johnson and Christos Tsiolkas whose novel The slap was one of the first I reviewed in this blog. While the novel was well received critically – won awards and was short/longlisted for others – it was not universally liked. The Wikipedia article on the novel quotes Commonwealth Writer’s Prize judge, Nicholas Hasluck, describing it as “a controversial and daring novel”. It was that …

Before I continue, I should say that this piece has a fairly tenuous link to Canberra – Tsiolkas lived here for a short time in the 1990s I understand – but its inclusion is justified, I think, for the relevance of the ideas it covers. I don’t plan to summarise the whole conversation, interesting though it is, but pick out a couple of points that got my attention – and they mostly relate to The slap.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Johnson commences by asking Tsiolkas about the mini-series adaptation of The slap. While recognising that the mini-series was not his work, but the work of those who had “translated and transformed” it for another medium, Tsiolkas talks of his overall intention:

I felt a certain responsibility with the screening of the series, a hope that whatever criticism people had of it, that it would be understood as an authentic voice of contemporary, multicultural urban Australia. I share the frustration of so many people of immigrant heritage in this country who have rarely seen their lives portrayed with any complexity or realism on the Australian screen. I also know that there would be people of that experience who either don’t read fiction or can’t read fiction in English and for whom the moving-image media are the only source for story and representation. I wanted people to be angry, frustrated, enraged by The slap, but I also wanted their arguments with it to be based on an appreciation that the representations were neither patronising nor sentimental. My own view is that the series succeeded in doing that.

Although focused on the miniseries, this statement is also, I think, a manifesto for the novel. It’s a warts-and-all story of people, most of whom happen to be immigrants or minorities in some way, getting on with their often flawed lives.

One of the themes that came through to me in the novel was that of violence. I felt Tsiolkas was saying that violence lies just beneath the surface of many human relationships. Later in the conversation he talks about the principles and philosophies, the “politics”, that drive him – feminism, racial civil rights, sexual liberation, post-colonial and communist. A complicated and, as he admits, sometimes contradictory bunch of ideas. He says:

I think that one of the drives I have in my writing is to express the complexity and violence of this tension. It means that though gender and sexuality are among the themes and ideas I explore in all my work, I can’t give myself over to a liberationist idea that the transformation of the individual can resolve these tensions and contradictions.

Hmm … this is pretty complex thinking methinks and I’m not sure I was able to articulate his ideas at this deeper philosophical level, but I sensed something going on and this helps explain it (to me, anyhow). He continues to say that he believes that “sexuality and the body constantly undermine our attempts at mastery and transformation”. This brought to mind the terrible recent rape cases in India and some angry discussions I’ve just read on Facebook about the current court case concerning the gang rape of the 16-year-old girl in the USA. We are not making much progress.

There is so much in this conversation that I’d love to talk about, such as his comment that much “Anglophone and European contemporary literature is moribund”. He argues that the most electric writing is coming from outside the Anglo-European centre. That must, I suppose, pose a challenge to him given his background. But, I’ll move on.

Johnson asks him about controversy, particularly in relation to The slap. Again his response is complex, but his main point is that “I want to pose questions that are unsettling or troubling”. One of the things that bothered me about the conversations surrounding The slap was that people focused on “the slap” itself  – as in do you or don’t you hit a child, particularly one not your own – and not on the social, cultural and, yes, political issues inherent in the relationships involved. The fact that “the slap” plot is resolved way before the end of the novel tells us that this issue of hitting a child is not Tsiolkas’ main point. In fact, he says in this conversation with Johnson that “the language of moral absolutes … may be having a pernicious effect on much of contemporary writing”. And then he says:

I have given up reading blogs because so many people are dismissing work because they ‘don’t like the characters’ or because the resolution of a book is not neat, is not easy. We are reading for confirmation of ourselves rather than to challenge ourselves and I think that is a real danger.

He has more to say on issues that interest me – including Aboriginal dispossession and public education – but I think I’ll finish here, because I need to think …

in Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
pp. 178-188
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue (Review)

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

Zora Sanders writes in her Editorial for Meanjin‘s Canberra Issue that Canberra has (or, is it had) a reputation for being The National Capital of Boredom. This is just one of the many less-than-flattering epithets regularly applied to Canberra: A Cemetery with Lights, Fat Cat City, and the pervasive, A City without a Soul. For me though it’s simply Home … a home I chose back in the mid-70s when I applied for my first professional job at the National Library of Australia. I was consequently pleased when Meanjin offered me their special Canberra edition to review.

Sanders describes the issue as being “full of the usual eclectic mix of fact, fiction and poetry” and says it aims to “offer a taste of Canberra as it is now, 100 years after its founding, as viewed by the people who live there, who’ve left there and who never meant to find themselves there in the first place”. The result is something that’s not a hagiography, if you can apply such a word to a city, but that offers a thoughtful look at Canberra from diverse angles – political, historical, social, personal.

With the exception of poetry which is interspersed throughout, the issue is organised straightforwardly by form, rather than by theme or chronology. This is not to say, however, that there is no sense of an ordering hand. The first essay, for example, is, appropriately, Paul Daley’s “Territorial disputes” which explores Canberra’s complex and sometimes controversial indigenous heritage, including the thorny question concerning Canberra’s name. Is it derived from “Ngambri”, which means the “cleavage between the breasts of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie“?

The issue includes a Meanjin Papers insert comprising an essay by ACT historian David Headon titled “The genius and gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India”. So much has been written about the Griffins over the decades, and particularly this year, that it’s a challenge to present them in a handful of pages. Headon’s approach is to focus on the Griffins’ idealism, on what drove them to do what they did, and bypass the complex story of what happened to the plan. That story is explored a little later by Chris Hammer in his essay “A secret map of Canberra”. Griffin, like the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, was, Headon writes, inspired by the prospect of “a prosperous egalitarian future for the new democracy in the south”. He planned his “ideal city” to serve such a nation. It didn’t, as we know, quite turn out that way, but I love that our city has such passion in its genes.

Anthologies are tricky to write about, particularly one as varied as this (despite its seemingly singular subject). The main sections are Essays, Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. There’s also a Conversation and a Gallery – and an opening section titled Perspectives. These pieces provide a fittingly idiosyncratic introduction to the volume. First is novelist Andrew Croome (whose Document Z I reviewed a couple of years ago). He writes of the 2003 fire – Canberra’s worst disaster – and its impact on the observatory at Mt Stromlo. There was a terrible human cost to this disaster but, without denying that, Croome takes a more cosmic view, and turns our eyes to the future. It’s nicely done. Writer Lorin Clarke follows Croome with her cheekily titled perspective “The love that dare not speak its name”. She ferrets out, without actually using the word, some of Canberra’s soul, seeing it in small spaces rather than showy institutions and in, if I read her correctly, the gaps that appear between carefully planned intentions and reality. The third perspective comes from a previous Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, who, like Clarke and other writers in the issue, starts with the negatives –  “a public service town” etc etc – but suggests that “the city is beginning to acquire a patina”. He argues, rather logically really, that Canberra is still young. Other planned cities, like Washington DC and Istanbul, have got “into their stride” and Canberra probably will too.

These perspectives – and the way they test Canberra’s image against reality – set the tone for the rest of the issue. I’m not going bore you – though the contributions themselves are far from boring – by summarising every piece. There is something here for everyone – and they show that the real Canberra is more than roundabouts and public servants. Dorothy Johnston‘s short story “Mrs B”, though set in Melbourne, reminds us of the hidden world of “massage parlours” and migrant workers, while Geoff Page‘s poem, “The ward is new”, addresses mental illness. Michael Thorley’s poem “Bronzed Aussies” reveres some of Canberra’s (and Australia’s) top poets, AD Hope, David Campbell and Judith Wright, while award-winning novelist Marian Halligan‘s memoir “Constructing a city, Constructing a life” recounts how a move to Canberra for a year or so turned into half a century and still counting. Several pieces describe Canberra’s natural beauty, including Melanie Joosten’s bittersweet short story, “The sky was herding disappointments”. And Alan Gould’s poem “The blether”, pointedly but wittily the last piece in the volume, suggests we could do with less aimless chatter and more of the “sweet unsaid”.

Of course, as this is Canberra, there has to be some politics. I particularly enjoyed Gideon Haigh’s essay, “The Rise and Rise of the Prime Minister”. Looking at the recent development of prime ministerial libraries à la America’s tradition of presidential libraries, he argues that the political landscape is being personalised, resulting in a shift in focus from ideology to leaders and their personalities.

Many of the pieces interested me, and I plan to write separately about one or two of them in future posts, so I’ll end here with architects Gerard O’Connell and Nugroho Utomo. In their essay “Canberra LAB – a mythical biography; or the art of showing up”, they say:

One has to understand that Canberra is a dream. It doesn’t exist. It is an ideal unrealised. A half-finished work on the way to becoming a masterpiece.

I like that. Meanjin has compiled an anthology that shows, as contributor Yolande Norris puts it, how “rich and strange” Canberra’s history is. It’s hard for me to be objective, but I’d say this volume has enough variety and good writing to appeal to a wide range of readers – whether or not they know or care about Canberra.

Meanjin, Vol 72 No.1 (Autumn 2013); or,
Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012 (2013), Final, or the Winner is announced

Sorry folks, but I have been slack. Meanjin took a little while to post the final round but I’ve taken even longer to report back to you. February was not a good reading and blogging month for me as my Past Whisperings link shows. I am, however, back now and ready to post the winner which, you may remember, was to be chosen from Thea Astley‘s “Hunting the wild pineapple” and Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil”. I have (now, anyhow) read them both.

And what a pair of stories they are … it’s fitting in many ways that it came down to these two because they are probably the most “out there” of the stories in the tournament. Both take you on wild rides where one minute you feel firmly planted in reality and next you’re not quite sure. They seem grounded in reality but what’s going on stretches your imagination almost to breaking point. Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil” exposes our modern culture’s propensity for public confession, for seeking our five minutes of fame, while Astley explores the violence lurking just below the surface of many human relationships.

For the final round, Meanjin used three judges all of whom are published authors themselves:

Ryan O’Neill, the Scottish born Australian writer of  The weight of a human heart, wrote that Cho “expertly controls the story until the fitting, chaotic climax, while at the same time posing serious questions about identity and self”. But, he gives it to Astley’s story for “the spikiness of its style, the oddness of its characters, and the vividness of its setting”.

Susan Johnson, author of several novels including Life in seven mistakes which I’ve reviewed, writes of Astley’s “wonderful, theatrical, imaginative flourish”. However, using a horse race metaphor, she gives it to Cho, not only because he manages to make some “brilliant cultural and ethnic allusions” but because “he’s alive, and straining, and needs to get home to eat”.

So, one vote each now. Who will win?

Chris Flynn, author of A tiger in Eden which I’ve also reviewed, has the casting vote – and what a vote it is. I love it because, while appreciating Tom Cho’s wonderful, clever story, he gives it to Thea Astley – and I can’t argue with his reason:

… this is Thea Astley we’re talking about here. If Cho had been up against any of the more realist writers we’ve seen in the competition, some of which he’s already taken out, it would be game over man, game over … But … Astley was the progenitor, the chain-smoking, wise-cracking, jazz-loving four times Miles Franklin-winning champion of linguistic manipulation whose style got on Helen Garner’s nerves and who pushed the envelope of Australian literature when no-one else had the cojones to do so. My vote goes to Thea Astley, as without her, I don’t know where we’d be today.

I love that Flynn recognises and takes into account Astley’s contribution to Australian literature. I hope Cho isn’t disappointed because he was beaten by a real grand dame. He has nothing to be ashamed of – and I will continue to read his short stories in Look who’s morphing. It’s a great collection.

And so the winner of the latest Meanjin Tournament of Books is Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple”.

You can read the full judgements here.

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012 (2013), Semi-finals

And so Meanjin’s Tournament of Books rolls on – during a hot Australian summer that has been characterised by terrible fires and floods. “I love a sunburnt country” but this is ridiculous.

Anyhow, the tournament’s semi-finals have been played and the best short stories (sorta) have won. Here they are:

Semi-final 1: Thea Astley’s ‘Hunting the wild pineapple’ defeated Nam Le’s ‘Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice’

This match was judged by one Ronnie Scott, who is apparently a reviewer, writer, and PhD graduate among other literary-artsy things. His discussion of the two pieces is pretty thorough. He makes a few references to Nam Le’s creative writing school background – which is in fact the setting/background of this short story. He suggests, for example, that the story “invokes the fearsomely competent, ‘polished’ writing current writing schools produce”. He seems to admire Nam Le’s writing, arguing that while Nam Le uses “the (valuable) Creative Writing class trope that smell is the only unmediated route to memory”, he “does the impossible and makes the result break your heart”. However, Astley’s writing he says “feels dangerous, unruly, charged”. I think that’s it – that’s Astley in a nutshell, and you either like her or you don’t. This match was a hard call and I’d have been happy either way but, Astley has to be my sentimental favourite because of who she is, and because of the way she skewers the heart of people’s superficiality, self-centredness and intolerance.

Oh, and why did Scott give the award to Astley? Because, he argues quite logically really, that “the weirder work is the one deserving of the imaginary prize”! Can’t argue with that …

Semi-final 2: Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’ defeated Jennifer Rowe’s ‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing’

Now this match is between two stories I hadn’t read, so after the Round 2 I decided to track them down. I did manage to obtain Josephine Rowe’s, which is in her collection Tarcutta Wake, but not Tom Cho’s. Oh dear! I really will have to find it now. Anyhow, this match was judged by book critic and Monash University academic, Melinda Harvey. I enjoyed her adjudication which she framed through tennis match metaphors, asking at one point “Will it drive you wild if I keep these tennis metaphors going a bit longer?” Not me, Melinda! “Like a Federer-Nadal match”, she writes, “this semi-final is a study in contrasts. Rowe’s story is nostalgic, lyrical, earnest, an evocation of a particular time and place […] Cho’s story is contemporary, colloquial, playful, a flight of fantasy about identity”. The metaphors continue in her comparing Rowe’s writing to “groundstrokes” and Cho’s to “the drop shot and the lob”. I’ve read the Rowe now – a lovely, somewhat nostalgic but not sentimental piece about the way art (in this case music) can help us transcend the daily grind – and from Harvey’s description can guess a little about the style of Cho’s story. The match could almost be a replay of Nam Le versus Thea Astley, methinks, from the sound of it. But, Harvey is less definitive than Scott and lets Hawk-eye decide … it’s close, but it’s Cho. Not having read the Cho*, as I’ve already said, I have no comment.


And so it’s down to the final round and it’s between an older story and a recent one, a long story and a short one, a female writer and a male one, but also, it seems, between two writers who are a little more “out there” in style and thinking than many of their opponents have been. It’s gonna be interesting!

Who will the winner be? Ideas anyone?

  • Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple” (1979) OR
  • Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil” (c. 2006)

* It’s in his collection Look who’s morphing which is available for the Kindle. I used my 1-click purchase option and lo and behold, I have it! I’m ready …

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012 (2013), Round 2

Methinks our Meanjin Tournament of Books judges partied a little too much over the silly season because it has taken a few weeks for the second round to be judged. However, the judging has now concluded and the eight stories have been reduced to four, as follows:

Round 2 Match 1: Thea Astley’s ‘Hunting the wild pineapple’ defeated Barbara Baynton’s ‘Squeaker’s mate’

From my point of view this was a hard one because I admire both these stories (which I have reviewed here and here). I would like to have seen them both go through to the next round. The good thing however is that I was not going to be disappointed with the winner. Judge, Australian crime writer Jennifer Rowe, starts her judgement by commenting that both stories “harbour a certain grotesqueness” and she’s right, what with Astley’s stabbing pineapples and Baynton’s oppressive poverty. She said she started by thinking ‘Squeaker’s mate’ would have an “easy victory” because it is “an impressive, unflinching work of Australian gothic” but, despite admitting getting lost at times in Astley (as I also admitted in my review), writes that “Astley’s verve for language is ultimately endearing (and possibly contagious) and despite the initial frustration I was won over …”. As I keep saying, there’s something about Astley.

Round 2 Match 2: Nam Le’s ‘Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice’ defeated Henry Lawson’s ‘The drover’s wife’

Another match-up of two stories I’ve read, and an interesting one that pits a much-anthologised Australian classic against a new kid on the block. The judge, Andre Dao, writes that “if Lawson is iconic of a certain type of Australian literature, then Nam Le’s ‘Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice’ is emblematic of something at the very other end of Aussie lit’. Le grapples he says with ‘intergenerational trauma, ethnic literature and appalling crimes against humanity’. Dao appreciates the complexity, as do I, of the story commenting on “the layers of metafictionality and murky autobiography” in it. In the end he gives it to Le because Lawson “represents our literary past” while Le’s “writing augurs well for our literary future”. I think that’s a good enough reason as any, though I do wish that Le had given some thought to we poor reviewers and given his story a shorter, easier to remember title! Oh, and, it would be good to see something new from Le …

Round 2 Match 3: Jennifer Rowe’s ‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing’ defeated Peter Carey’s ‘American dreams’

Oh no, another long short story title! This match is harder for me to comment on as I have only read the Carey. Looks like I’ll have to seek Rowe’s story out now that it’s won through to the next round. Judge, editor Melissa Cranenburgh, says that she’s always rather liked Carey’s story “for its classic fairytale structure” and says that it is “deceptively simple – both charming and barbed”. She writes that Rowe’s story also has “a fairytale quality, but of a more transportative, mystical kind than Carey’s traditionally told tale.” She gives it to, as she says, “the new kid on the block”. Interesting … because, look what happens in Match 4 …

Round 2 Match 4: Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’ defeated Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Five acre virgin’

Now this one did make me sad as the Jolley was, as I’ve said in previous post, one of my nominations for the tournament. I love this story, which was one of the first Jolleys I read. Of course, I haven’t read the Cho so I should reserve judgment. Then again, the judge was a dog (aka First Dog on the Moon) so is a bit suss wouldn’t you think! Seriously though … well, can I be serious about a judge who says the winner is Tom Cho’s “because it had the Hulk in it and anyway Elizabeth Jolley is dead so I’m not likely to run into here anywhere am I?” Hmm …


Now, have you noticed something? In every match it was the newer story of the two that won. A changing of the guard? A bias on the part of judges towards the new? Coincidence or conspiracy? (Just joking). Meanwhile …

… we are left with 4 stories to go into the next round:

  • Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple”
  • Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil”
  • Nam Le’s “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”
  • Josephine Rowe’s “‘In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing”

OK, so I’ve read two of these – the Astley and the Le. I will try to track down (the rhyming pair) Cho and Rowe, before the next round. Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath …

Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapple (Review)

Thea Astley‘s “Hunting the wild pineapple” is both a short story and the title of a collection of connected short stories (that includes, of course, the title story). Today I am going to write on the short story as it’s one of the 16 included in the current Meanjin Tournament of Books – and it has made it through to the second round.

“Hunting the wild pineapple” is the third story of eight, which are all narrated by a man called Leverson. It is set in far North Queensland in a place called Mango, which she writes about again in her 1987 novel, It’s raining in Mango. In this story, Leverson, accompanied by the American Mrs Crystal Bellamy who is “impossibly researching the human geography of the north for a nonsense thesis”, is visiting a pineapple farmer called Pasmore. Pasmore, while waiting for a lobster to thaw for dinner, takes his guests on a somewhat alcohol-fuelled car-ride, first to hunt for wild pineapples and then to visit his two migrant farm workers, “the two”.

It is pretty vintage Astley, at least mid-career Astley as I know her, with its lush, evocative, “imagistic” (as she once described it) language and its focus on inequitable human relationships in which one group, usually white men, wield power over another – women, migrants, and (though not in this particular story) indigenous people.

The story is set in the 1970s, and is characterised by satire and irony. Leverson describes Pasmore as

a well-intentioned buddy who wanted to prove we’re not all grubbing away at soil up here, that we’re smooth, polished, and have swung quite nicely, ta ever so, into the sophisticated seventies.

So smooth that outside the house we are left gawking at a whopping heart-shaped swimming-pool filled with blue tears that blinked as a woman (his wife?) plunged from sight.

See what I mean about the language? It’s packed with images and ideas that rub somewhat uncomfortably against each other. In Astley, discomforting language is de rigueur; it, more than plot or characterisation, is the tool she uses to unsettle us, to shock us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront the unkindness, the viciousness, if not the downright violence that she sees lurking beneath the surface of human interactions. (I admit now that I don’t always get it on a rational level, but it rarely fails to move me.) In this story, the relationships she spears with her pineapples are those between husband and wife (Mr Pasmore and Tubs), employer and worker (Mr Pasmore and migrant workers, Tom and Georgy), and even between colleagues (Tom and Georgy).

And yet, it’s Astley’s language that has got her most into trouble, because it is heavily imagistic (not at all spare, until perhaps her very last works which were a little sparer, comparatively speaking) and some readers and critics don’t like it. Here, for example, is Leverson on Pasmore presenting his hunted down, “huge humped” pineapple to Mrs Bellamy:

… he tattooed her arms with spikes; the head spears stabbed her skin. He lit, post-coitally I think nastily, a cigarette.

Not very subtle, eh, but effective in its hints of sex, power and violence. Similarly, here is Pasmore knocking on the door of “the two”, he

drummed a neat riff on the wall beside the open front door, the over-familiar, paternalistic-presumptuous tat-a-tat, tat-tat, and emitted hearty cries of boss-lure …

Writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy, like me, likes Astley. She says*:

I love Thea Astley’s writing and always have. I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, its demented metaphors, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed. I love the way that even at its most savage and despairing, it has always had a suggestion of redemptive energy working away somewhere in the plot, no matter how subterranean, outmaneuvered or comprehensively beaten down….

This story is a good example of the Astley that Goldsworthy and I like. There’s a savage bite to it, but there’s also the slightest hint of the opposite. I wonder how far it will get in Meanjin’s tournament.

Thea Astley
“Hunting the wild pineapple”
in Hunting the wild pineapple and other related stories
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 63-76
ISBN: 9780140058437

* from “Undimmed Outrage”, Australian Book Review, Sept 1999, Issue no 214.