Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 3: Biography

Time for another in my little Monday Musings sub-series on “supporting” genres. I’ve chosen Biography for this one, since the 2021 National Biography Award winner will be announced this month.

However, I have written quite a bit about Australian biography before:

David Marr, NLA Seymour Lecture, Sept 2016

Given all this, you might think that this post is superfluous, but I figured that it’s helpful to put all these together in one post as a resource for myself (and maybe for others too?) These posts provide significance evidence for the support of and interest in biography in Australia – and they mean that the rest of this post will be a bit different to the first two “supporting genre” posts.

Definition

You may have noticed that I described the Seymour Biography Lecture as “devoted to life-writing” – and here’s the rub, because there is quite a blurring of definitions when we talk about “biography” these days. Traditionally, biography has been seen as a detailed description of a person’s life written by a third person. Autobiography, on the other hand, is the story of a person’s life, written by that person. Then there’s memoir which focuses on a particular aspect or period of a person’s life, and is written, again, by that person. All of these come under the banner of “life-writing”. The problem is that, for example, the Seymour Biography Award is called “biography” but the lectures are, in fact, broader. Indeed, the first lecture we went to was given by Robert Drewe who has written, and who thus talked about, memoir.

This is fine but the nomenclature is strange, don’t you think? Even our National Biography Award is, actually, a national life writing award. It “celebrates excellence in biography, autobiography and memoir writing” says the Award website. Interestingly, though, while all these forms feature regularly in the shortlists, traditional biographies have tended to be the winners. A recent exception was Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains.

Life-writing now

Life-writing is big business. Search online and you will find many companies offering to help you write your life story, or to write your life story for you. You will also find courses on life-writing. Daughter Gums did one a few years ago at the ACT Writers Centre taught by memoirist Benjamin Law.

The Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW (FAWNSW) has an excellent page on the subject written by Dr Rae Luckie. They quote from La Trobe University’s description of its Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography.

Life writing is now one of the most dynamic and rapidly developing fields of international scholarship. It includes not just biography and autobiography, but also diaries, journals, letters, and the use of life narrative in various disciplines: history, anthropology, sociology, politics, business and leadership studies, sport, and others… In addition to its high academic profile, life writing generates great interest among the general public: works of biography and autobiography sell in vast numbers.

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughter

Luckie talks about changes in the field, saying that “writers whose work is included under the umbrella of ‘life writing’ have broken traditional auto/biographical boundaries”. She mentions works I read before blogging, like Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s eye, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation, and, even, Robert Dessaix’s “autobiographical novel” Night letters! While I enjoy the traditional biography, and have reviewed several here, I am not averse to reading writers who play with the form, like the hybrid-biography-memoirs I’ve reviewed (such as Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter and Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers)

The biggest change, though, is probably that academic historians are now embracing the form in a way they hadn’t previously. If you are interested in a discussion of the topic, check out this in the first issue of the Australian Journal of Biography and History. The authors comment on the fact that “there are now prizes to encourage biographical writing, lectures that feature prominent biographers, biography research centres and courses in universities, public conferences and so on.” Another interesting point they make is the significant role biography played in feminist history.

Biography – and life-writing – are now serious, as well as, marketable business. You heard it here!

Zeitgeist, or Serendipity?

Book cover

And now for something completely different. It concerns those funny coincidences which happen in the literary firmament, like when David Lodge’s Author, author and Colm Tóibín’s The master, which are novels about Henry James, both came out in 2004. What was that about?

Well, I’ve noticed another strange coincidence: the recent publication of Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A biography of Elizabeth Von Arnim (2017), Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (2020) and Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirribilli: The mysterious and free-spirited literary sensation who beguiled the world (2021). Many of you, I know, have heard of Elizabeth von Arnim. Her best-known works are the satirically humorous Elizabeth and her German Garden and the popular Enchanted April which was made into a successful feature film starring many of our favourite grand dames of English theatre. For those of you who don’t know her, though, she’s a British novelist who was born in Sydney (Kirribilli) in 1866, but who moved to England with her family when she was three and never lived here again. Her connection with Australia is therefore tenuous, but she was a wonderful character who moved among the biggest literary movers and shakers of her time. I devoured many of her novels, and a memoir, back in the 80s and 90s when Virago published her. Why this flurry of interest now? (Not that I disagree.)

Do you read biography? If so, care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 2: Short stories

When I started this little sub-series, I wondered how to describe it – genres or forms or genres and forms? In the end, I chose “genres” on the assumption that we could define it very loosely to include forms. I hope this works. After all, the content is more important than the name!

I decided to make my second topic Short Stories because it’s around now that the relatively new Australian Short Story Festival has been held. You will see from this post, that the way the forms/genres I discuss in this sub-series are supported vary greatly. Short stories, for example, don’t seem to have a focused organisation supporting them the way genres like historical fiction and crime do. However, they are supported in their own ways.

Short story publishers

Although the scuttlebutt is that publishers do not like short stories, there are some who commit to them in an ongoing way, and these are the ones I’m going to share here. Many publishers, though, do, in fact, publish collections, such as, recently, Laura Elvery’s Ordinary matters (by University of Queensland Press) or Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations (by Spinifex Press, my review).

Black Inc’s Best Australian stories series has been published annually for at least two decades, with each edition edited by significant Australian short story writers like Charlotte Wood (2016) and Maxine Beneba Clarke (2017).

Book cover

Margaret River Press published their short story prize anthologies, annually, from 2012 to 2017. I have reviewed a couple of these anthologies, which included competition winners and commended stories. They announced in 2019 that they were “taking a break”. They may be taking a break from this competition, but they are continuing to publish short story collections. I reviewed one only recently, Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women.

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrix

The wonderfully named Spineless Wonders describe themselves as “a multi-platform publishing company devoted to short, quality fiction produced by Australian writers”. They support “brief fiction in all its forms – from short short stories to novella” including ‘microlit’ which combines microfiction and prose poetry. Most of their publishing is digital, I believe, and I have reviewed Carmel Bird’s foray into digital publishing, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories.

Other publishers which support short stories in a significant way include MidnightSun Publishing and Kill Your Darlings, which has now published two annual editions (2019 and 2020) of New Australian fiction.

Short story prizes

Back in 2015, I wrote a Monday Musings on short story awards, so I won’t repeat that here. Please check it out for awards like the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the Margaret River Short Story Competition. But, there are some new ones established since then, and genre ones I didn’t mention, that I’d like to share here.

  • Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award: Established in 2018 –  named for Carmel Bird (who has appeared on my blog several times), hosted by Spineless Wonders and supported by the Copyright Agency – this award is for short story collections up to 30,000 words in length. The stories can be in any fiction genre, with all prose forms being acceptable, including non-fiction prose. The award includes cash prizes and world-wide digital publication of the three winning entries. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has posted on this award.
  • Scarlet Stiletto Awards: Established in 1994 by Sisters in Crime (who will appear again when I focus on crime), this national award is for “short stories, written by Australian women and featuring a strong female protagonist”. Its purpose was “to support and unearth new talent”. Past winners have included writers who have appeared here – Cate Kennedy, Angela Savage – and a young woman who went to school with Daughter Gums, Anna Snoekstra. This award is actually a suite of awards comprising several awards – such as “Best New Writer”, “Best ‘Body in the Library'”, “Best Foreign Linguistics Story”, “Best Story with a Disabled Protagonist”, to name a few.

There is a comprehensive list of short story competitions available in 2020 on the Australian Writers Centre site, which underscores how much support there really is for this oft-maligned form!

Australian Short Story Festival

As I said at the beginning, the reason I chose Short Stories as my second topic for this sub-series is this festival. Founded by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing) and Caroline Wood (Margaret River Press) in 2016, it’s an annual festival celebrating short stories in written and spoken forms. It aims to connect Australian and international short story writers, storytellers, publishers, literary magazine editors, and readers. It’s apparently the first national event to focus exclusively on the short story.

The first festivals were held in Perth – I watched the social media campaigns with great envy! In 2019 it was held in Melbourne. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the 2020 festival, scheduled for Adelaide, was cancelled because they felt that “online festival experiences can never quite replicate the immediacy of the face-to-face festival”. This is a festival I plan to attend one day.

Book cover

For those of you interested in short story recommendations, check out my reviews of short stories or look at Readings blog post on Short Stories (written to align with the 2019 Australian Short Story Festival). One of the books recommended is Chris Womersley’s A lovely and terrible thing, which I’ve reviewed here, so I’ll conclude this little post with it!

Do you like short stories? Why or why not?

Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Let me be brief

MWF logoI won’t get to many Melbourne Writers Festival events, because those of most interest to me clash with other commitments and responsibilities. This is a shame given this year’s extensive digital program would enable me to attend my first ever MWF. Never mind, there will be other years. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to find a session on short stories at a time I could attend, so attend I did.

Let me be brief (Sunday 9 August 5-6pm)

The session was moderated by Wheeler Centre Programming Manager Veronica Sullivan who knew the books well. She managed the 45 minutes or so tightly but with intelligence and warmth. The panel comprised three writers of recently published short story collections: Yumna Kassab (The house of Youssef), Jo Lennan (In the time of foxes), and Elizabeth Tan (Smart ovens for lonely people). I’m sorry to say that despite liking short stories, I haven’t read any of their books.

Sullivan started by asking each writer about her collection, targeting her questions to what she saw as significant aspects of those collections.

Introducing the writers

Yumna Kassab

Book coverSullivan introduced The house of Youssef as comprising “spare and sharp” stories about a Lebanese community in Sydney, exploring “the way generations differences play out … the gaps … that make mutual understanding so challenging.” Kassab agreed her stories are about community and family. It’s unavoidable that there will be tensions between generations in any community, she said, but these are exacerbated in migrant communities because of the added layer of different cultural expectations. She’s become increasingly interested in this issue.

Sullivan wanted to know what drew her to these sorts of moments in the very short story form that she mostly uses. Kassab said it wasn’t her initial plan. She thought she’d need to be more dramatic, but found this form appropriate for exploring relationships. She’s always liked short stories. She said – provocatively perhaps – “the novel is a fleshier version of the short story”. She feels the form is well suited to delivering the message she wants to deliver – delivering a strong message is clearly important to her.

Jo Lennan

Book coverIntroducing Lennan’s collection, Sullivan described it as having an international outlook. It has a wide geographic spread, featuring characters taken out of their comfort zones. Lennan observed that mobility has become familiar over the last decades. It seems easy, but is in fact complicated, as she shows in her title story, “In the time of foxes”. It’s about a young filmmaker in London with a young toddler. Her mother is developing dementia back home, and, there’s a fox in the backyard to deal with. She has to face “giving up” her childhood home. Lennan’s point is that living abroad offers immense opportunities but can be accompanied by immense cost. The time has come for this character to pay that cost. (This cost, as many of my generation knows, is also paid by those left at home – particularly with COVID-19, for example, keeping grandparents away from their overseas grandchildren!)

Sullivan asked her to explain the fox motif which recurs through the collection – sometimes real, sometimes simply referenced. Lennan responded that foxes have spread throughout the world and have adapted to various environments, creating so many parallels with human mobility. They are also, she said, survivors and shapeshifters. However, she’s suspicious of themes in short story collections. Hmm, having just read Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women (my review), which does have a unifying idea, I don’t think overall themes are necessarily bad! Anyhow, she said that in her collection, the fox motif was “never a straight-jacket”.

Lennan also said that, despite this overall animal motif, the book is very much about human relationships, because they are the stuff of short fiction, of fiction in general. In her collection, relationships sometimes go disastrously, but in many stories there is a turn-up at the end. In one, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants but is changed, becoming a larger and better person at the end.

Elizabeth Tan

Book coverSullivan introduced Tan by noting that her stories, which include animal protagonists, unsettle readers expectations and assumptions. She asked how this approach allows her to explore perceptions. Tan spoke from personal experience when she observed that people can look at characters – like her cats and mermaids – and assume they don’t have interiority or inner life, that they are just a sidekick to another’s life. She likes exploring how these characters are unexpectedly resilient, and suggested they could mirror how she moves through life. As a young Asian woman, she often feels underestimated. But, she is not always sure if how she thinks the world is seeing her is how it actually is, but how do you know? She quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”.

Sullivan asked Tan about the surreal and humorous or satirical aspects of her stories, wondering what responses she was looking for. Tan said that she didn’t set out to be funny, but hoped people find her stories funny. Friendship, she said, can be defined by laughter, by empathy in sharing silly things and humour about them.

Choosing the short story form

Sullivan wanted – naturally, given the “theme” of the session – to discuss the short story form: what drew the writers to the form, how they attack its particularities, and how they consider aspects like structure and characterisation.

Many of Kassab’s stories are very short. Why, wondered Sullivan? Kassab said she didn’t really make a choice, that for her the voice of the character is the important thing. It’s this, and the idea, that dictates the structure, and word choices. She didn’t set out to write the collection. She likes shortness, believing that she can deliver a greater message that can get lost in larger work. She also said that it is easier to experiment – with technique, structure, voices – in shorter work. Such experimentation is harder to sustain in a novel.

Lennan’s stories are longer and more disparate. They have a depth of characterisation, with a sense, said Sullivan, that they start before the story and continue after it. Lennan agreed with Kassab that short stories provide scope for experimentation. She said she “inevitably” writes longer short stories, which facilitates the deep characterisation that people want in a novel. It’s having her cake and eating it too, she said! She’d been working on a novel but realised that her best writing was in her WhatsApp chats with friends! Short stories are more immediate, and felt the right way to bring immediacy and freshness to her writing.

Tan is different because her first book was a novel. However, she agreed with Lennan that brevity offers freshness, and with Kassab about the flexibility possible with short stories. You can be more playful, she said. Sometimes she gets reader feedback wishing a story was longer, but she likes that you can explore a particular moment without having to build an entire world. She said that reality is fragmented, without a lovely shape. Short stories can capture fleeting moments. Tan suggested that the desire for longer stories is a desire for conclusiveness that life can’t offer. Sullivan concurred, suggesting that short stories leave a space for readers wanting more, for anticipation. I agree. Short stories frequently leave you wondering whether you’ve “got it”, but I think this is often the author inviting us to explore.

Sullivan asked the three what advice they’d give writers regarding writing short stories. Lennan said do both, novels and short stories in tandem, arguing that few visual artists work on one piece at a time. Kassab agreed, saying writers are creative people. Ideas change, and interests change, so try different things and be prepared to throw preferences out the window. Tan also agreed, saying you don’t have to choose. Rubik (on my TBR) was going to be short stories, but the same characters kept popping up.

Sullivan suggested that the idea of conforming to set forms comes from the publishing industry. There was some discussion about this, with a general feeling that the narrow definitions are breaking down. Kassab didn’t set out to write a short story collection. It just happened. She suggested that you create the work first and let the marketers try to categorise it! There was also discussion about contemporary attention spans versus that of older generations, and that short stories might better suit the more fragmented way we consume media these days. I know this is often bandied about, but I’m not completely convinced. I’d have to see the research!

I liked Lennan’s response to this attention span argument. She proposed that in some ways they ask more of a reader. Readers have to keep reinvesting in characters, from story to story. The writer has a responsibility to make it a worthy transition for for the reader. The collection needs to work as a whole. She recognises that reading fiction right now – besides beach reads – is a big ask of people. You need to think about what you want for your reader – catharsis, to move them, to present a provocative twist, for example?

Naming favourites

The session ended with that favourite festival question about the writers’ current favourites.

Kassab: This is her year of South American writers. She’s loving Jorges (great thinker about literature and ideas) and Bolaño (great experimenter).

Lennan: Chekhov (his “clear-sighted and sympathetic portrayal of humanity”, which is timeless); Tatyana Tolstaya’s On the golden porch; and the Australians Tegan Bennett Daylight (Six bedrooms, my review) and Christos Tsiolkas (Merciless gods).

Tan: Tom Cho’s Look who’s morphing (TBR) and Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. Both show you can write about anything you want, you can make stuff happen. Also Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women, and Wayne Marshall’s Shirl (which makes her laugh).

A great session, which offered, to me anyhow, some short story gold.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is also posting on the Festival, as is Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes).

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Hope Prize

I came across the beautifully named Hope Prize over the weekend via some online service. Was it Twitter? Was it Facebook? Perhaps even Instagram though I think not, but I really can’t recollect. Such is our online lives, eh?

Anyhow, the Hope Prize, was, according to the website, established by the Brotherhood of St Laurence “thanks to the generosity of the late Prudence Myer and the support of her family*, to encourage writing that transcends stereotypes of ‘the poor’ and reflects the resilience we know that people show in the face of poverty and testing times.” The Prize is supported by publisher Simon and Schuster and Readings bookshop.

So, what is the prize for? Well, it is subtitled the Brotherhood of St Laurence Short Story Competition. I understood from the site where I first read about it, that it’s geared to amateur writing. The competition rules say that entries “must be the original work of the applicant” and “must not have been published, broadcast, or won a monetary prize in any competition”. The applicant must also be a resident of Australia, and the story must be between 2,000 and 5,000 words.

Hope prize short stories book coverThe judges for the inaugural prize, whose winners have just been announced, were Australian actor Cate Blanchett, novelist Kate Grenville, and ex-Governor General Quentin Bryce. What a lovely panel (albeit an all-female one. Perhaps it would be good to include a token male next year! Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Anyhow, the website says that “they were impressed with the very high standard of writing and reported that all the finalists revealed powerful perspectives on the world at large, and displayed unique, unpretentious and authentic voices.” According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), a collection, which will include the winning and commended stories, will be published by Simon & Schuster on November 9. Sounds like a gift worth buying and giving.

But now, the winners:

  • First Prize, $5,000: Catherine Moffat for “Better Homes and Gardens”
  • Second Prize, $3,000: Eloise Young for “555 to Reservoir”
  • Third Prize, $2,000: Katherine Hayes for “Queen St”
  • Young Writer winner, $500: Eleanor George for “Colours”

There were also six highly commended stories.

… an entirely different perspective …

The abovementioned SMH article says that the winning story, “Better Homes and Gardens”, is “narrated by a young girl who lives in her father’s car with her little sister and describes her trying to stay afloat at school”. Cate Blanchett says of this story that

I suddenly saw the world from an entirely different perspective … It’s language and perspective on the world that in middle class society we take for granted. I felt like my entire world had been turned upside down.

She says that the stories did not confirm stereotypes and were “utterly illuminating”.

Quentin Bryce says that the stories, which present the perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers and homeless people, gave her a real understanding of the isolation experienced by many Australians every day. SMH quotes her as saying:

I was reading those stories again and thinking about what this publication is about; about poverty and disadvantage and the compassion you really feel very deeply. It gives you an awareness of how easily life can change.

And finally to return to Blanchett, she is, SMH says, “a firm believer that great works of art and literature can be catalysts for change”. I have to agree, and love her passion and support for projects like these.

Hope: an anthology will be available in trade paperback and format, and royalties are being donated to the prize. You can order via the Simon and Schuster site, or presumably buy from shops like Readings, after November 9.

What an encouraging initiative this is – one which encourages the arts while also working to raise awareness of social justice – and what a great example of what philanthropy can do.

* I’m not sure if this has been organised through the Myer Foundation, but the Myers, through four generations now, are among Australia’s most signifiant philanthropists in the arts, social welfare and the environment. Prudence Myer was married to Kenneth Myer, whom I met eons ago through his active support of the National Library of Australia.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The inaugural Australian Short Story Festival

Promotion is hotting up for the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival (ASSF) to be held in Perth this year, from October 21st to 23rd. At least, it’s hotting up, if you follow them on social media, because they’ve been actively promoting the event on Twitter and Instagram*. ASSF Inc is a non-profit organisation, and they are aiming big: this is their first event but on their website they describe it as “an annual festival celebrating short stories in written as well as spoken form.” Annual! Good for them. I like the fact, too, that they are talking about spoken and written short stories.

Australian writers bring to the genre of the short story, a form so loose and so generous that almost anything can be attempted within its porous borders. (Amanda Lohrey, on ASSF’s Instagram, 27 July)

ASSF explains that theirs is “the first national event to focus exclusively on the short story form”. It therefore “offers a unique contribution to the nation’s literary culture, as well as a timely response to the current resurgence of this aesthetically exacting narrative form”. It certainly seems to be so – that is, I do sense that the form is enjoying a resurgence. Anyhow, to continue … they say that the festival will “bring together short story writers, storytellers, publishers, and editors of literary magazines, as well as readers, and will connect audiences with both Australian and international short story writers”. They are committed to being culturally-inclusive, both in terms of speakers and audiences. Let’s hope they achieve this – particularly in terms of the audience, because the program does look pretty positive in terms of diversity.

And, they are already planning the 2017 Festival which they advise will be held in Adelaide.

Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression. (Isabelle Carmody, on ASSF’s Instagram, 20 July)

Richard Rossiter, Knitting

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

The organising committee includes some Western Australians who’ve graced these pages before in some form or other. There’s Caroline Wood, who is Director of both the Centre for Stories and Margaret River Press. I’ve reviewed a few books, including two short story anthologies, from this lovely little press. There’s also MidnightSun publisher Anna Solding. I’ve reviewed a short story anthology of theirs too. There are also two authors, Laurie Steed and Susan Midalia (who has appeared in one of the anthologies I’ve reviewed and co-edited another), as well as Catherine Nose, editor of Westerly Magazine, and Ada Chung representing the City of Subiaco.

So, what will be happening at the Festival? They released their program a few days ago – and it looks good. The style is looks to be typical writers festival with “in conversation” sessions, workshops and panel discussions on contemporary topics. The opening address will be given by, arguably, the doyenne of Australian short story writing, Cate Kennedy, and the closing address by one of Western Australia’s best-known writers, Kim Scott. “In conversation” sessions are being held with writers like Ellen van Neerven, Fiona McFarlane and Paddy O’Reilly, all of whom I’ve reviewed here; the workshops include topics like editing; and there’s a whole slew of other sessions that sound inspired and inspiring, ranging from the practical like publishing, structure, and voice to general interest topics like emerging writers, adapting for stage and screen, flash fiction and poetry, and crossing the cultural divide. And of course there are spoken word sessions like the “street side readings walk trail”.

Write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best as you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. (Neil Gaiman, on ASSF’s Instagram, 31 May)

It all sounds wonderfully interesting and exciting – and not overly expensive (as you’ll see if you check out the website links I’ve provided). I wish the Festival great luck – not that I think they’ll need it given the thinking and planning I’ve seen to date. I look forward to reading all about it on my favourite Western Australian litblogs!

A word after a word after a word is power. (Margaret Atwood, on ASSF’s Instagram, 5 September).

* I’ve included, throughout this post, some of the Instagram posts I’ve been seeing over the last few months. I’ve loved them.

Modern short stories, 1929-style

Pock, Modern short storiesAs I continue to clear out my aunt’s house, I keep finding little treasures. Most I move on. There are only so many little treasures, after all, that you can dwell on, let alone keep, but an old book of short stories? Of course, that captured my attention. Titled Modern short stories, it was my aunt’s school text around 1947. It edition date is actually 1929, and it belongs to a series of books, The Kings* treasures of literature, which was edited by Sir A T Quiller Couch*. Modern short stories was edited by Guy N. Pocock, who was “a novelist and educationist” according to the Wikipedia entry for his son Tom!

It contains twelve short stories, but I haven’t yet read them. I’m writing this post for other reasons. One is that my aunt wrote in the front of the book “Katherine Mansfield wrote good short stories”! Presumably the recommendation of her Methodist Ladies College teacher. Mansfield is not included in the anthology, although a couple of women (unknown to me) are. The book also has “Questions and suggestions” for each story at the back. The first story is “The lost god” by John Russell. Heard of him? I haven’t. Anyhow, one of the questions/suggestions for this story is:

“Good God!” breathed Bartlett. “He couldn’t get out!”

Explain this.

I think I’ll have to read this. In my search to find out who John Russell was I found a 2013 post on a blog called Pulp Flakes which describes itself as being about “Pulp magazines, authors and their stories. Adventure and Detective pulps”. According to the blogger, this story, written in 1917, was made into a film, The sea god. The blogger says that the story is “about an explorer who becomes a god. A standard pulp trope, you might say, and yet this has an unexpected ending. Or is it a beginning?”. One of the commenters calls it “one of the best short stories ever written”!

But, enough of that digression. I want to move on to my main reason for writing this post, Pocock’s introduction. Pocock commences by pondering how many short stories find their way into print. “Cataracts … come pouring out, monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly, from the American and English Press”, he says. And there are many others which are rejected. Of the thousands published, he asks, “how extraordinarily few are really worth the reading and writing – how extraordinarily few can be called great!” This, however, is not as extraordinary as it would appear, he continues, because “a great short story is a very difficult artistic achievement”. Of course, the stories he has chosen for this anthology are, he reassures us, “very good indeed”.

And so, in his introduction, he shares his ideas about “what constitutes a really good short story”. I’m going to dot point them:

  • it must be a story, that is, he says, there must be a plot – “however slight” (I like this qualification) – by which he means “some kind of development and crisis”. Otherwise, he suggests, it will be a sketch, a little snapshot from life or imagination”. To explain this, he describes going to “the ‘Pictures'”. (Interesting, given that going to the movies was still a fairly new thing at this time.) A sketch, he says, is like Pathé’s Gazette or Scenes from wild life, which are “just scenes”, while a short story is like Deadwood Dick or The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, because these comprise “a more or less artistic arrangement of scenes and situations developing to a climax”. What fascinates me about this is that he was clearly gearing his thoughts to young people – school students – by relating short stories to something they might know and enjoy. He was, in other words, “an educationist” as Wikipedia says.
  • it must be short, though there are, he admits, such things as “long short stories … a kind of literary dachshund”! Love it. Generally, though, they should be “brief and to the point”, ranging from a few hundred to two or three thousand words. In a short story, he continues, “there must be no padding out, no word-spinning. Every epithet, every phrase, every sentence should bear in some way upon the plot, character or atmosphere”. I think this is one of the reasons short stories are a joy to read. You really have to think closely about every thing the author writes.
  • if it’s an action story, the narrative must be rapid. This doesn’t have to be “breathless”, he says, but the sequence of events needs to be “swift and sustained”. And if it’s a more subtle, psychological story, the narrative still needs to move “rapidly”. There cannot be “loitering about and explaining the situation”. This is why short stories can be a challenge to read. If things aren’t explained, you really have to read all those words carefully – see the above point – to work out what’s going on!
  • we expect a consistent tone he says. He then discusses tone, such as how pathos is maintained or different sorts of humour injected, but he doesn’t really expand further on our “expectation”. I think he’s right, though. It’s the consistency of tone that tends to drive a short story on and give it much of its punch. When I think of my favourite short stories, it’s often not so much the actual story I remember as the feeling I’m left with, and this is usually created by the tone.

He then becomes a bit descriptive. He talks about “stories of Imagination”. The imagination can be “fanciful” taking us into “a world that lies beyond our everyday experience”, or “scientific” which may be beyond our experience but not beyond “possibility”. Stories, too, can convey an atmosphere of mystery (that is, be strange or haunting) or a sense of remoteness (that is, of happening, far away or long ago). “It is Style”, he says, “that works this magic; the personality of the author coming through”. I think I see “style” being broader than this – as also incorporating tone, pacing, characterisation etc – but perhaps I am misreading him.

Finally, he refers to characters, saying that

Their tongue betrayeth them. Either they are the real thing, or they are the author dressed up in borrowed and unfamiliar garb, which will deceive nobody.

The stories in this anthology, he says, are convincing – even those that are “most fanciful” – a qualification which suggests to me that he is a little wary of the “fanciful”? Then again, as one who tends to be wary of the “fanciful” myself, I understand where he’d coming from!

I’d love to hear what short story writers and fans think of his assessments.

* Kings has no apostrophe on the title page, and Quiller Couch is not hyphenated, though Wikipedia hyphenates it.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Stories, 1920s style

“A good short story is a work of art, and a joy of forever!” So wrote the author of The Sydney Stock and Station Journal’s “Our Book Column”, back in March 1920. I hadn’t planned to write about this topic today, but the various discussions of short stories I found while researching Trove distracted me. You all know how much I enjoy short stories. I couldn’t resist delving a little deeper – and by a little, I do mean a little, but still, I found some interesting ideas and perspectives.

Back to my opening quote. I love the fact that it comes from a stock and station journal. It suggests that short stories were widely popular then – in those days before television, and even radio (which started around 1923-1924 but of course was not immediately available to everyone everywhere). The writer (or writers) in The Queenslander’s Literature pages wrote frequently about short stories in the early 1920s, usually in reference to published collections or anthologies, most of which were not Australian. I’m mentioning them here though, not so much for the books being reviewed or promoted but for the commentary they provide on short stories. Here’s a fairly random selection of comments from The Queenslander.

  • On the value of short stories: “A book of short stories is usually a boon, and when the short stories are good it is a distinctly pleasant possession”. Well, duh – though I do like the idea that short stories are “a boon” by their very existence. Do readers still feel this way?
  • On the first of a planned annual, clearly international, anthology, The Best Stories of 1922: “In their first collection, “The Best Short Stories” of 1922″ (Jonathan Cape) they include some that certainly ought never to have got beyond the page of the magazines in which they were originally printed, and merely mention in a second-class a great number of others that must be considered with the year’s best. It may be, of course, that they were handicapped by the copyright. A few of the stories, however, are really first-class, including “Seaton’s Aunt,” by Walter de la Mare”. I like the fact that the writer doesn’t pull punches about the mixed quality of the selection.
  • On a growing interest in English language short stories: “For a great many years the short story was supposed to be the special property of the French writer, and for a generation the short story had only two notable exponents in English—Kipling and “O. Henry,” masters for all time. Recently, however, there is hardly a British or American writer of note who has not sought to excel in this special field, and one concludes that the English-speaking world is at last waking up to the value of the short story.”
  • Another par on the growing interest in short stories: “That the short story has gained a hold on the imagination of the English speaking peoples is very evident, for scarcely an English or American mail comes in without a book or two of short stories from the publishers. One of the latest is “Thirty-one Stories” (Thornton Butterworth), collected by Ernest Rhys and C. A. Dawson Scott, and containing stories by such writers as H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Russell, Aumonier, Galsworthy, May Sinclair, and others.” One of the things I enjoy about these articles is seeing the writers they include – some I know, some I don’t know, and some I’d forgotten about.
  • And another one in the same year on, yes, the popularity of short stories: “The world evidently cannot have too many short stories. Almost every author of note has published, or is publishing, a volume of short stories, and occasionally some discerning publisher collects a number of short stories of various authors and the result makes a very readable book.” The article mentions a recently received American collection called Marriage, which includes stories by Hergesheimer and Booth Tarkington among others. I wonder how these stories would read today?

Other articles I found talk about fostering and encouraging local writers. Evening News wrote in 1921 that it would continue to publish short stories by Australian authors in its Sunday News edition, as part of its “policy of endeavoring to give a stimulus to native literature”.

The writer of The Western Mail, probably the Fairfax I mentioned in a post earlier this year, praises the stories of Dowel O’Reilly whose humour, he says, “never degenerates—as is the case with some Australian writers—into the unedifying antics of sheer larrikinism”! The Western Mail was not so pleased with the stories of Elizabeth Fairfax. I’ll quote this par in full:

We have received from the publishers, (Melville and Mullen Pty. Ltd., Melbourne) a copy of “Garden o’ Memories and Other Stories,” by Elizabeth Fairfax. Reprinted from the pages of various Australian periodicals, the stories contained in this little volume are no better and no worse than the majority of their kind. Whether they were worth reissuing is another matter altogether. Perhaps “Time and Tide” is the pick of the bunch, but they are all of them afflicted with an incurable tendency to sentimentalism in its most advanced stage.

The book has a frontispiece in colour – and a pictorial cover design.

Hmmm … sounds like the cover might be the best part.

Finally, something practical. Here is the writer in The Argus responding to a query regarding how to get short stories published. S/he writes: “It is only possible to find publication for the stories if they are equal to the standard required by the editor to whom they are submitted. The stories should be typewritten on one side of the paper only, and a stamped and addressed envelope should be forwarded with the manuscript for its return in the event of its proving unsuitable. The manuscript should be addressed to the editor of the magazine or newspaper to whom it is to be submitted, and on no account should a copy be sent to two papers at the same time.”

I’ve filled this post, I know, with excerpts from newspaper articles but I do enjoy these insights into the thinking of a different time. I hope you get something out of them too.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Short story awards

You all know by now that I really enjoy short stories. I have not, though, paid much attention here to short story awards, partly because, despite a few recent posts on awards, awards are not a major focus on my blog. However, I was down at New South Wales’ beautiful south coast a few weekends ago and, as I like to do, picked up the local rag, The Triangle to check out the local scene. In it I read about the establishment of a new award, the Olga Masters Short Story Award.

Olga Masters (1919-1986) was one of the leading lights in the wonderful flourishing of women’s writing that occurred here in the 1980s-1990s. Being one of our late-bloomers, she died too early in her fiction writing career, but not before she received critical acclaim for both her novels and her short stories. She was born in Pambula, on the south coast, so it’s fitting that this award has been established in that region. It has prompted me to do a little post on short story awards, albeit a highly selective post because over the years I’ve become aware of a plethora of short story awards. It’s great to see such support of this rather undervalued form of writing, but it would be impossible in the time I have to track them all down. So, as in my other posts on specialised awards, I’ll just focus on a few.

  • ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Established in 2010. Awarded to a single-authored, not previously-pulbished story of between 2000 and words. As of 2014, there is no nationality requirement but the story must be in English. Offers $8000, though first prize seems to be $5000. The inaugural winner was Maria Takolander, whose book The double is currently on my TBR.
  • The Age Short Story Award. Established in 1979 and currently run in conjunction with International PEN. Awarded to a previously unpublished short story of under 3000 words. Offers cash prizes of $2000, $1000 and $500 and publication in The Age for the top three stories.
  • Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction. Established in 1995, and covers both novels and short stories. Awarded to short stories by Australian writers in several categories: Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, and Young Adult. Awarded to published works by an Australian author. This is an excellent example of a well-regarded set of awards in genre fiction.
  • Margaret River Short Story Competition. Established in 2011/12 by the the small family press, Margaret River Press. Offers several prizes, and all winners together with a number of other stories selected from the competition, are published in an annual anthology. Last year I reviewed the 2013 anthology, Knitting, and other stories.
  • Olga Masters Short Story Award. Established in 2014 by south coast residents, a local benefactor and Well thumbed Books. Awarded for “the best 2000-5000 word short story dealing with aspects of family life in rural Australia” written by an Australian citizen or permanent resident. Offers $1500 to the winner aged over 21 years old, and $500 encouragement award to the best story by a writer under 21.
  • The Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. Established in 2012 by Overland magazine and Victoria University. Designed to encourage and support new writing. Offers a first prize of $6000 and two runners-up prizes of $1000, and I believe publication in Overland.

These are just a few of the Australian awards on offer for short stories, but there are many more, not only in Australia but also overseas which writers can enter.

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.

Recap

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 …