Sunday, April 22, 2007

On not giving away the plot

I've just been reading Alison Croggon's stunning review of the current Melbourne production of The History Boys and thinking about some differences: between the 1950s and the 1980s; between England and Australia; and, most of all, between reviewing theatre and reviewing fiction.

What this last difference seems to come down to is that you only 'review' a novel when it's new. And what that means is that part of your unbreakable contract with the reader (to say nothing of the publication for which you're writing) is that you must not give away the plot.

Anyone who's ever studied literature knows that there are some thumping big differences between literary reviewing and literary criticism. The main one is that in literary criticism you are not only free to discuss every aspect of the plot in question but pretty much required to do so. Fiction reviewing, on the other hand, is a bit like foreplay; the pleasures of reading narrative lie mainly in its unknowing, in the way that narrative desire lures and drags you forwards through the story, lustfully wondering what will happen next, revelling in the deferred pleasures of finding out.

So unless it's a new play (and in Australia it relatively rarely is), the theatre reviewier has a shared understanding with her/his readers that (almost) everyone knows more or less what happens in it. The artifact of the play's text is a given, and the reviewer is therefore not only free but, again, required to discuss aspects of the play as a whole thing, entire and intact: structure, characterisations, plot, meaning, ideology. What's being discussed is not just the text, but also the latest onstage interpretation of the text.

With book and theatre reviewing for MSM publication, obviously both are subject to the strictures of publication: in both cases, if you're writing for a newspaper you've got a non-negotiable and usually small word limit, and an editorial requirement that your ideas and language will remain punter-friendly. But on a blog you are freed up to write at a greater level of complexity and at as much length as you like. You can insert spoiler warnings, which is a rather good way of getting around the strictures on giving away the plot, though with fiction as with film reviews this can be frustrating for the reader.

But Alison's review of The History Boys seems to me to be one of those blog posts that demonstrate the possibilities of what blogs at their best can do. It's an ideal medium for reviewing theatre. Theatre reviews are by their nature ephemeral and need to appear straight away; theatre productions are 'news', in that they quickly get old, in the way that books are not. And there's certainly no publication in this country that would run a theatre review of even a quarter this length and complexity -- probably at all, much less in time for potential punters or recent audiences to read it.

In the blogosphere and freed from the cash nexus, though, it becomes possible for someone like Alison to share with her readership the expression of what she thinks and knows, without having to withhold any information or dumb anything down; to share it while it's still current and breathing; and to elevate the level of cultural discussion, among people who find it interesting and important, to far greater heights than anything in the MSM infrastructure could possibly allow.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Predicting the Miles Franklin shortlist

Some time in 1981, I made my first-ever soufflé (cheese), from a recipe by Julia Child. To my astonishment, it rose, and it stayed risen. It was delicious. It was, in a word, perfect.

And I have never made another one. I figure the only direction one can go from there is south and I go south way too often by accident as it is.

By the same token, a freak effort off the top of my head last year meant that a couple of hours before the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist was announced, I listed my prediction and got a perfect score, which means that any attempt to do it again is doomed to failure.

However, here on the day before the shortlist is to be announced, pressure is being applied. It's sheer madness, considering I have actually read fewer than half the novels on the longlist -- this reviewing-four-novels-a-week-for-the-SMH caper means that my reading patterns have radically changed. But okay, for what it's worth, here is my prediction:

I predict that the judges will take the slightly unusual step of choosing a longlist with only four novels on it rather than five, and that those novels will be, in alphabetical order, Careless, Carpentaria, Dreams of Speaking and Silent Parts.

And I think Carpentaria will win.

Monday, April 02, 2007

New prize for writers: the Barbara Jefferis Award (part 1)

From Susan Wyndham in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald:

'... the Barbara Jefferis Award ... is launched today by the Australian Society of Authors.

Offering prizemoney of "at least $35,000", the award will be given annually from next year to "the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society. The novel may be in any genre and it is not necessary for it to be set in Australia."

Among the country's most generous book awards, it is funded by a $1 million bequest from Jefferis's husband, John Hinde, the ABC film critic who died last year. Hinde has also funded a new film script award for the Australian Writers' Guild.

Rosalind Hinde, a Sydney biologist, said her father established the Jefferis Award in his will with "the very clear and strong intention to honour my mother's writing, her feminism and her devotion to other writers".'

I'd hoped to have a long, considered post about this award up at this site before I went to bed last night, but the more I think about it, the more worms -- big fat wriggly ones -- I realise there are in this particular can. Here are a few of them:

What is an Australian author? What does 'positive' mean, and what 'empowers'? What is a level playing field, and why do we need one? How are women currently represented in Australian fiction, how were they in the past, and why is it more complicated than a simple 'for women only' literary prize? Why do people think it's their right to condemn and interfere with what other people choose to do in their wills with their own money?

So I am working on a long post trying to tease out all the different strands of our assumptions about writing and writers, about essentialism and feminism, about nationalism and whatever the other thing is, that are woven tighly up in this new award and the discussion about it. But I may, as Captain Oates remarked, be some time.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Reading notes: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The other day I bought a copy of something that everybody else read two or three years ago but that had passed me by. I hadn't realised it was a novel -- I thought it was some kind of dreary earnest American soul-searching self-help kind of thingy -- or I would have read it sooner.

I'm talking about Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Now I have been putting in marathon efforts to get up to date with the piled-up Magic-Puddingesque workload (I cut, it comes again) of other work apart from the weekly fiction reviewing, and have actually been making tiny inroads here and there -- ensuring in the meantime that I do not actually forget what my friends and family look like, run out of clean knickers, or die of botulism or bubonic plague.

But all such efforts have been blown out of the water over the last 48 hours. Because when I haven't been asleep or out, I've been reading this appalling, brilliant book.

I gather there's some amazing twist at the end. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT TELL ME WHAT IT IS and if anybody does I will stalk you down the Interwebs for all eternity. (Has it got something to do with her very very wonky 'handwriting' in the signatures? Are the husband and the daughter, in fact, both dead?)

In the meantime, here's how to win the Orange Prize: write a passage as good as this, and then keep it up for 468 pages.

'But I have a theory about Dream Homes ... Regardless of how much money you lavish on oak baseboards, an unhistoried house is invariably cheap in another dimension. Otherwise, the trouble seems rooted in the nature of beauty itself, a surprisingly elusive quality and one you can rarely buy outright. It flees in the face of too much effort. It rewards casualness, and most of all it deigns to arrive by whim, by accident. On my travels, I became a devotee of found art: a shaft of light on a dilapidated 1914 gun factory, an abadoned billboard whose layers have worn into a beguiling pentimento collage of Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and Burma Shave, cut-rate pensions whose faded cushions perfectly match, in that unplanned way, the fluttering sun-blanched curtains.'




Well, there's an almost Shakespearean breadth and transcendence at the very end, that looking-family-matters-in-the-eye-no-matter-what business that you get at the end of the four last plays, and quite a few of the others as well. 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.'

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat