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 …

Recap

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 …

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012, Matches 7-8

With this post, we finish the first round of this year’s Tournament of Books, so here goes … next post will look at Round 2.

Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, c1902. (Presumed Public Domain, from Sydney University Library, via Wikipedia)

Match 7: Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” defeated Cate Kennedy’s “Static”

Like most Australians I’ve read Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. It’s probably one of Australia’s most anthologised stories so it was, really, a no-brainer for inclusion in the tournament. It would have been interesting to have seen this pitted against Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” but it is Baynton’s other well-known story, “Squeaker’s Mate”, that was chosen for the tournament.

Anyhow, the judge of this match, Canberra-based Indian poet Subhash Jaireth, gave the match “hands down” to Lawson’s story for, it seems, its power. He says Kennedy’s story is “a wonderful story composed by a writer who knows her craft, but I doubt if it would stir someone’s imagination to make a painting, a movie or a song” (as “The drover’s wife” has). I guess this is as good a criterion as any to choose between two respected pieces of literature but, as you would expect, the tournament’s comic commentators, Jess McGuire and Ben Pobjie, did poke fun at this judgement. As Jess wrote:

Sadly … the lack of a tie in with a celebrated paintbrush jockey [like Russell Drysdale for “The drover’s wife”] has quite possibly cost Cate Kennedy more than she could’ve possibly imagined when penning her work of fiction…

To which all I can say is, Such is life!

Match 8: Peter Carey’s “American Dreams’ defeated Tony Birch’s “The promise”

The final match of the first round pitted one of the grand men of Australian literature, Peter Carey – he whom many love to hate – against the up and coming Tony Birch, whose book Blood was shortlisted this year for the Miles Franklin Award. Again, I’ve only read the older story, which was published in 1974 in the collection A fat man in history. Lucky me, eh, that yet another story I’ve read has progressed to the next round. The judge, Melbourne-based poet, Sean M Whelan, writes that “American dreams” deals with “themes of globalisation, cultural cringe, and that old chestnut ‘be careful what you wish for'”. We probably wouldn’t have described it as “globalisation” in 1974 but that’s what it is – and is part of what makes this story still work nearly 40 years after it was written. Moreover, the concept of “American dreams” still works as a metaphor for dreams of wealth and success, even though the real America these days may be a little tarnished.

I’m not sure that Whelan makes perfectly clear why he chose Carey over Birch except by saying “I love this story”. I understand why. It is a well-constructed story that gets you in from the opening line and has you guessing, has you expecting big drama, only to turn out quieter, subtler than that, but no less hard-hitting. An effective, satisfying story. In a strange twist, Carey ended up moving to America in 1990 where he remains still. Life imitating art perhaps?

Recap

And so, we are left with eight stories for Round 2:

  • Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple”
  • Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s mate”
  • Peter Carey’s “American dreams”
  • Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil”
  • Elizabeth Jolley’s “Five acre virgin”
  • Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”
  • 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”

With several favourites of mine in the mix, this will be interesting. Watch this space …

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2012, Matches 3 to 6

As I promised in my first post on this year’s tournament – whether you wanted it or not  – I’m back with a progress report on the tournament. And, I must say, I’m rather thrilled with the results to date. I haven’t read all the contenders so my reaction is more than a little subjective but my favourite authors and some favourite stories are doing well.

Match 3: Thea Astley’s “Hunting the wild pineapple” defeated Tara June Winch’s “It’s too difficult to explain”

Thea Astley, as I’ve said before, is one of my favourite writers. I have read several of her novels, but she had a long and prolific career and so there’s still a lot for me to read. Her short story collection, Hunting the wild pineapple, is one I’ve yet to read. I also haven’t read the Tara June Winch story so I’m flying completely blind. I’d like to support the young, up and coming writer, but in my heart I’m glad Astley is through to the next round. I want to see her better recognised!

I loved the fact that the judge of this round, John Hunter, recognised (not that it’s relevant to this particular competition) Thea Astley’s Miles Franklin achievement when he says that she “single-handedly kept up the women’s quota of Miles Franklin Awards for decades. Even today I think not many people know this. Anyhow, he describes Astley’s short story as “social observation written with a razor blade”. I couldn’t describe Astley better myself.

Match 4: Elizabeth Jolley’s “Five acre virgin” defeated Sonya Hartnett’s “Any dog”

Of all the matches, this is the one that mattered most to me, not only because Elizabeth Jolley is another of my favourite writers, but because this short story is one of the few I nominated in Meanjin‘s call for nominations on its blog. Estelle Tang, who judged this one, starts by commenting on the humour. This is one of the reasons I love Jolley, her wit, satire and irony. She’s dark but she makes you laugh despite yourself. “Five acre virgin” was my first Jolley. It introduced me to her interest in and empathy for the underdog, the marginalised and the outsider in our society, issues that she explores regularly in her fiction. Tang describes the story as “the classic swimming duck, an unassuming facade masking the maelstrom beneath” which could be a good description for Jolley herself. On the outside, she looked like a sweet little old lady but underneath was something far sharper. She was one funny, cluey woman.

Match 5: Josephine Rowe’s “In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing” defeated Murray Bail’s “A.B.C.D-Z”

Of the four matches I’m reporting on today, this is the one I have least vested interest in because I’ve read neither of the short stories. However, I have read a couple of novels by Murray Bail and like his writing so on a purely subjective basis, I’d have been happy to see him win. However, the judge Jo Case calls Rowe’s prose “exquisite”, describes the story as “a mood piece” and says it’s “a seductive read”. I must locate a copy.

Match 6: Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s Mate” defeated Frank Moorhouse’s “The Annual Conference of 1930 and South Dada”

Regular readers of this blog will probably remember that I reviewed “Squeaker’s Mate” last month. It’s a great story and offers such a different perspective on the “bush myth” that, although I haven’t read Moorhouse’s probably very worthy story, I am very glad to see Baynton win. Patrick Pittman who judged this match said that Baynton was new to him, and that the piece came as “a complete surprise”. He comments on its “sparse and unrelenting prose” and on its gender politics which “is radical and unsettling, if not always pin-downable”. I know what he means. Baynton is not simplistic – and should be better known.

Recap

Did you notice that these four rounds, which involved 6 female and 2 male writers, were all won by women? This is not a gender war … but it’s good to see some under-appreciated women gaining recognition.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary Awards for Short Stories

Since we’ve been currently talking about short stories – or, at least, I have been doing so here in my little corner of the litblog world – I though it might be a good time to list some of the literary awards dedicated to short stories in Australia. It’s a bit of a lazy post I know, but we are getting to that time of the year and life is getting busy.

There are, in fact, a goodly number of opportunities in Australia for short story writers to win awards, so in this post I am just going to list the ones that seem best known or that have a reasonably broad coverage. Most of the competitions define short stories as those 3,000 words or less. Here goes:

  • The Age Short Story Award has been awarded since 1979. I believe it was the award that kick-started Elliot Perlman’s writing career when he won in 1994. It has also been won by some of Australia’s currently best regarded short story writers like Cate Kennedy and Paddy O’Reilly.
  • Steele Rudd Award for Australian Short Story Collection was part of the recently cancelled Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and was continued this year in the Queensland Literary Awards when it was won by a favourite writer of mine, Janette Turner Hospital, for her collection Forecast: Turbulence.
  • Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, which started life as the Australian Book Review award, has been offered under its new name since 2010. It honours the late Australian author, Elizabeth Jolley, who is one of my favourite writers and to whom I was introduced back in 1988 via her short story “Five acre virgin”.
  • Hal Porter Short Story Competition which in 2012 is in its 19th year, and which commemorates the Australian novelist, poet, short story writer and playwright.
  • Awards for short stories offered by state chapters of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, including the Marjorie Barnard Award from NSW (commemorating Barnard whose collection The persimmon tree and other stories* is one of my favourites) and the Henry Savery National Short Story Award from Tasmania (commemorating Savery who wrote the first “Australian-made” novel)
  • Locally offered awards such as the Alan Marshall Short Story Award, the Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the Stringybark suite of short story awards.
  • Genre-based awards for short stories, such as the Aurealis Awards for speculative fiction which include awards for short stories in fantasy, horror, science fiction and young adult; and the Scarlett Stiletto awards for crime and mystery short stories written by women. Cate Kennedy won the first Scarlett Stiletto in 1994.
  • And, of course, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is part of the Commonwealth group of literary prizes and is open to all members of the (British) Commonwealth.

There are many more awards, but this list indicates that the short story is pretty well supported down under. However, short stories can always do with more recognition because, despite all the awards, they are still under-recognised and, I think, under-appreciated. I have heard chat around various traps that electronic publishing may be raising the profile of short stories with new audiences … I’ll be watching with interest.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with Australian novelist and short story writer Jennifer Mills who was a regional winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2008. In an interview on the Spineless Wonders website, she explained why she likes the short story form:

It’s very flexible. I love its capture of pivot points, its nearly mathematical tidiness, and its risk. I can pull off imaginative feats in short stories which I would struggle to hold together in a novel. I like the adaptability of short fiction to different delivery modes, like podcasting. As a novelist, I like the gratification: the end of the job is in sight.

Are you aware of short story competitions in your neck of the world?

* I was thrilled when Tony of Tony’s Book World reviewed this collection a few years ago.

Meanjin Tournament of Books: Short stories in 2012

Last year I wrote a series of posts on the first Meanjin Tournament of Books. Responding to the discussions that had been raging at the time, that tournament was devoted to books written by women. I’m pleased to say that the Meanjin team has decided to run the tournament again this year and the focus is another rather unsung aspect of Aussie literature – short stories. Will Meanjin, perhaps, do poetry next year? Watch this space!

Anyhow, the tournament is off and running with Angela Meyer of Literary Minded judging the first round. More of that anon, because first I’d like to list the stories. A few weeks ago, Meanjin called for suggestions through, was it Facebook or Twitter or? How can we ever keep track of what we learn where and when these days? Never mind, by whatever method I heard, I did make some suggestions – of specific titles and authors. A few of the authors I nominated are included, as is at least one title, Elizabeth Jolley‘s “Five acre virgin”. I’ll be cross if it doesn’t do well! The final list is:

  • ‘Squeakers Mate’, Barbara Baynton
  • ‘The Promise’, Tony Birch
  • ‘Five Acre Virgin’, Elizabeth Jolley
  • ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, Nam Le
  • ‘A,B,C,D—Z’, Murray Bail
  • ‘American Dreams’, Peter Carey
  • ‘Static’, Cate Kennedy
  • ‘The Annual Conference of 1930 and South Coast Dada’, Frank Moorhouse
  • ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’, Thea Astley
  • ‘Today on Dr Phil’, Tom Cho
  • ‘Darling Odile’, Beverley Farmer
  • ‘Any Dog’, Sonya Hartnett
  • ‘The Drover’s Wife’, Henry Lawson
  • ‘In the Mornings We Would Sometimes Hear Him Singing’, Josephine Rowe
  • ‘It’s Too Difficult to Explain’, Tara June Winch
  • ‘Happiness’, Katherine Susannah Prichard

It looks to be a good list to me. It covers gender and time well, and includes writers from diverse cultural backgrounds. I have read some of these stories – those by Baynton, Jolley, Le and Lawson.

Regular readers might have noted that it includes two of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley. It also includes other writers whose novels or short stories I’ve reviewed in the last three years or so, Murray Bail, Peter Carey, and Katherine Susannah Prichard. In fact, I’ve read most of the listed authors in some form and am happy to see their short stories being recognised through the tournament. On the other hand there are  – as there always are – omissions. No Helen Garner for example, no Patrick White, but I’m not going to be churlish about that. The list is a perfectly fine one that makes a good fist of representing breadth and quality.

But now to the tournament. The first two rounds have been held, with the following results:

Match 1: Katherine Susannah Prichard’s “Happiness” versus Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr. Phil”. Meyer gave it to Cho’s story saying “Happiness’ was definitely interesting enough to make me want to read more of Prichard’s work, but Cho’s distinct, clever and funny story ‘Today on Dr Phil’ is the winner of this round.” Not having read either, I have no comment.

Match 2: Nam Le’s “Love and Honour and Pity and Compassion and Sacrifice” versus “Darling Odile” by Beverley Farmer. Judge Anna Heyward gave it to Nam Le’s story “because this story was slightly better written”. She held the two stories up to the Isaac Babel test. I’ve never heard of him but she says he’s a “master story writer of last century”. She quotes Isaac Babel as saying “In ‘Guy de Maupassant no iron can enter the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time.” I know what he means when it comes to de Maupassant, who was my first short story love. I have read and liked Farmer, but don’t know this particularly short story (as least as I remember!). However, I have read Nam Le’s story and liked it. As I recollect, he quotes in it that recommendation to writers that you should write what you know about – but then, the rest of the short stories (until, tellingly, the final one) in the collection from which this story comes, are anything but that. Instead they are about people like Colombian assassins, Hiroshima orphans, and New York painters with haemorrhoids! It’s a sly story, and I like that.

I won’t write on this tournament, match by match, but I will be back soon with a progress report.

Nettie Palmer on short stories

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

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

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

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Are short stories on the rise?

Today I’ll dip my toes into the muddy waters that comprise short stories. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m rather partial to short stories. Why, I wonder, are they still pretty much the second class citizen of the literary world? Marion Halligan said, on the release of her latest collection, Shooting the fox, that her agent’s initial reaction to receiving the collection was:

Oh, Marion, short stories?

Marion says, though, that while publishers have traditionally not liked short stories, “they may be changing their minds”.

And so, today, I’ll talk a little about short stories. I’ve wanted to write on them for a while but the subject is so vast I’ve kept putting it off. Should I talk about short story awards? Or favourite short stories? Or favourite short story writers? Or collections? Or? I will probably visit some of those topics in future posts, but today I’ll just talk a little about Halligan’s belief (or is it simply hope) that “they may be changing their minds”.

Is there any evidence? Well, there may be (though I don’t have the statistics to prove that what I say here represents real change or just a continuation of the status quo).

Short story collections

There have been some critically successful collections of short stories published in recent years, of which the best known is probably Nam Le‘s The boat. It’s a beautifully diverse and accomplished collection which I read not long before I started this blog. Not only was it was shortlisted for awards, but it won some significant ones, that is, it won awards that were not specifically targeted to short stories, including, in 2009, the Prime Minister’ Literary Award for fiction and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year. Tim Winton’s collection of somewhat connected short stories, The turning, won the New South Wales Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 2005. But then, Helen Garner won for Postcards from Surfers in 1986, and Beverley Farmer for Milk in 1984. So, is there anything new to celebrate? Perhaps, because the exciting thing about Nam Le is that The boat is his first book … a first book of short stories that won major awards! Change afoot? Or an anomaly?

Irma Gold in an article on short stories in Overland suggests that more short story collections are being shortlisted for awards, and cites this year’s Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards as evidence. She also notes that the publishers of these shortlisted works are mostly small – Black Inc, Salt Publishing, Black Pepper and Affirm Press. Are small publishers the only ones willing to take a risk on short story collections – like Affirm Press’s gorgeous Long Story Shorts – by emerging and lesser known writers? Whatever the answer, thank goodness for small publishers!

Short story anthologies

Short stories continue to be published in literary magazines, large and small, but their success as a genre feels (rightly or wrongly) more solid if they are published in books which readers are willing to buy. And there does seem to be quite a lot (my best scientific measure) of anthologies being published.

There are annual editions by such (small, again) publishers as Black Inc, Scribe (which has done two anthologies now) and the Griffith Review. In her Editor’s Note for Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 , Aviva Tuffield writes:

Those dwindling opportunities for single-author collections concern me, both as an editor and as a reader. Many of the foremost novelists in Australia today – Gail Jones, Kate Grenville, Peter Carey, Joan London, Peter Goldsworthy – began their publishing career with story collections, but this trajectory no longer seems available. Yet short stories are vital training grounds for our writers …

Two points. First, Tuffield doesn’t seem to agree with Halligan that things might be changing, and second, are short stories only to be valued as “a training ground”? If that’s how we see them, then they will remain second-class citizens – won’t they? I suspect Tuffield does like short stories in themselves too … but I wonder whether this “training ground” idea is held by many readers?

Then there are anthologies compiled by an editor, often on a theme, such as Families (ed. Barry Oakley, 2008, in Five Mile Press’s series of “topic” oriented short story collections) and Brothers and sisters (ed. Charlotte Wood, 2009). These anthologies are (I’m guessing) the bread and butter of short story publishing: they are clearly easier to market. They have been around for a long time (and I’ve read many over the years), but they tend, in my experience, to focus on works by established writers (and often, though not always, use stories previously written and published). Good stories, usually, and good reading, but probably a less useful indicator of the health of short story writing and publishing in Australia.

So, where does all this leave me (us)? Nowhere, really, I think, in terms of resolving whether Halligan is right or not – but at least I have finally written a post on short stories. There will be more.

In the meantime, what do you think of short stories and their health (here or in your country)?