Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We have moved

This blog is expanded and continued here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Whoa, sorry about accidental posting, all whose feeds picked up what was actually a first draft of some opening remarks of a long post about the Miles Franklin and why I think there's this constant fussing about the bloody thing. (Miles F. herself, of course, would just love the constant fussing and be extremely sardonic about it.)

So pay that false start no mind, please. Fellow-users of Blogger will know that the SAVE NOW button is right next to the PUBLISH POST button, and so far this morning I'm not sufficiently caffeinated to tell the difference.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Miles Franklin shortlist

Clearly I have lost my Miles mojo.

Contrary to my prediction here the other day, the shortlist does indeed again contain six books (the length has varied over the last decade or so, usually from four to six), rather than my predicted five. I only picked two and a half of the six: Brian Castro's The Bath Fugues, Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly, and a two-way punt on Alex Miller's Lovesong. And my predicted winner, David Foster's Sons of the Rumour, hasn't even made the shortlist.

I'm glad to see Truth there. As I said, the five I picked were not necessarily my personal favourites -- they were predictions rather than choices.

The list:

Lovesong by Alex Miller
The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster
Truth by Peter Temple
Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another year, another Miles Franklin shortlist prediction from Mystic Mog as was

The Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist, according to the official website, is due to be announced on April 21. Having had some success in the past, though way off base last year, I feel emboldened to have a go at predicting the shortlist and winner again this year.

These are not necessarily my own picks, just what I think might get up, on what I think will be the standard shortlist of five: Brian Castro's The Bath Fugues, David Foster's Sons of the Rumour and Glenda Guest's Siddon Rock plus two of the following: Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly, Alex Miller's Lovesong and Tom Keneally's The People's Train. I don't expect Peter Carey to make the cut and I'm guessing Alex Miller might not either, but I'm not as much of a Miller fan as most people so I might be off base there.

Foster the incomparable to win.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature

My longtime Australian Lit colleague and recently acquired FaceBook Friend Susan Lever has suggested I link to the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, published by the National Library of Australia: it's here. You have to register, but you don't have to pay. [UPDATE: no, apparently you don't even have to register to read it!] There are full archives and an excellent, detailed search function.

The Association for the Study of Australian Literature was formed in the late 1970s and an extraordinarily successful venture it has been and remains; for some of us the ASAL conference was and is the highlight of the academic year and I think many people felt as I did that ASAL, rather than their own university department, was their real -- or at least their main -- intellectual community.

It was also, usually, a riot, though these days it seems more seemly. I have particularly fond memories of Townsville 1986, when Prof (well, he is now) Ken Gelder won the Parody Competition with a masterly mashup of classic texts, conference papers and conference conditions, notably the so-called unisex toilets and the conflation in one paper of the work of Catherine Helen Spence and Karl Marx, thenceforth referred to as Marx and Spence.

JASAL was set up by a small group of dedicated ASAL members after it became clear that the opportunities for publishing scholarly work in Australian literary studies were getting thinner and thinner on the ground. The current issue is a tribute to poet Vincent Buckley and includes articles by his friends and fellow-poets Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Jennifer Strauss, plus reminiscences and scholarly articles by friends, former colleagues, former students and specialists in Australian poetry.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Glenda Guest and Siddon Rock

What's she doing writing a blog post about a book she hasn't read, you ask. Well, for one thing I'm waking this blog out of its five-month coma to try yet again to get some order into my thoughts on the topic I know better than any other, that of Australian writing -- though the idea of 'Australian writing' gets more and more problematic as the intertubes kick internationalism along. (On the other hand, I did hear some very nasty, and stupid, nationalist stuff coming out of Central Europe on the radio yesterday so there is obviously resistance to the inevitable.)

Anyway, I'm trying a trick that's often successfully used by bloggers who want to kick-(re-)start their sites and that's to vow to post something -- anything, no matter how brief or glancing -- every day. There's something about the discipline of this that I really like; blogging is not so far away from meditation. And staying in regular touch with developments in my own main skill set can't possibly be a bad idea.

What's inspired me to start today, though, is the news this morning that first-time novelist Glenda Guest has won the Best First Book prize in the Commonwealth Literary Awards for her novel Siddon Rock.

There'd been a bit of a subdued buzz about this book, and Guest herself, after the novel was shortlisted, and I expect her and it to get more publicity in the wake of the win. What with her success there and the brief synopsis I've just read at the website of her publishers, Random House, I'm now curious and enthusiastic enough to seek it out and make the time to read it:
When Macha Connor came home from the war she walked into town as naked as the day she was born, except for well-worn and shining boots, a dusty slouch hat, and the .303 rifle she held across her waist.

Macha patrols Siddon Rock by night, watching over the town’s inhabitants: Brigid, Granna, and all of the Aberline clan; Alistair in Meakin's Haberdashery, with his fine sense of style; Sybil, scrubbing away at the bloodstains in her father's butcher shop; Reverend Siggy, afraid of the outback landscape and the district’s magical saltpans; silent Nell with her wild dogs; publican Marg, always accompanied by a cloud of blue; and the new barman, Kelpie Crush.
It is only when refugee Catalin Morgenstern and her young son Josis arrive in town that Macha realises there is nothing she can do to keep the townspeople safe.

On hearing of her success, Guest told the Guardian that she was 'standing here like a stunned mullet', an epithet that no doubt left English punters bemused at the strange ways of colonials. 'It's not about the money,' she said, 'it's not about the credit, it's about being given verification that this is any good, that I can actually write."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

'We must sit down and work'

If you have 25 minutes to watch it, this is just lovely: two of the most elegant and eloquent women I know, Helen Garner and Anna Goldsworthy, at the launch of Anna's memoir Piano Lessons at Janet Clarke Hall where Anna is Artist-in Residence. Watch the whole thing if you possibly can; after Anna speaks, she plays a Chopin nocturne and then there's a quick snippet of her teacher, the extraordinary Eleanora Sivan. The heckling baby you can hear is Anna's son Reuben, born last summer.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

The price of books: on the one hand this and on the other hand that, and anyway, nobody really knows

In the wake of the federal government's decision the day before yesterday to reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation on Australian books and maintain the status quo on parallel importation, there's a fair amount of passionate discussion around -- here, for example -- about whether or not it was a good decision.

The free marketeers are really going to town on it, apparently unable to see it as anything but a straightforward market issue -- books as pure commodity, as in 'I'm not giving you a book for Christmas, you've already got a book'. Most of their arguments are based on the unspoken assumption that the producer/consumer relationship is at once symbiotic and fundamentally adversarial in literature (as it truly is in so many other activities), something they would know to be far from the truth if they had enough interest in literature to hang about at a few writers' festivals and observe the behaviour of the crowds.

I've always had a lot of respect for Allan Fels, but if he has anywhere actually addressed the concerns of those who feared damage and loss to Australian literary cultures, subcultures, infrastructures, practitioners and readers, instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, then I have yet to see it.

The free-market types are scornfully trashing the articles, essays, explanations and submissions from authors and publishers (including this particularly lucid piece by Text publisher Michael Heyward) as mere expressions of self-interest and therefore to be ignored. But whatever self-interest might have been involved (as if it were necessarily desirable, or even possible, to be both knowledgable and neutral on such a matter), these literary types addressed a broad range of concerns and explored various intricacies: of national and international publishing; of publishing contracts; and of the probable effects of the proposed changes on the ability of Australian writers to make a living -- and on the probable survival, or not, of the Australian literary culture that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish, maintain and expand.

Since reading, writing, teaching, scholarship, reviewing, editing, interviewing, anthologising, prize-judging, blogging and what-all else inside said literary culture have been my life's work, I did have and still do have just a bit of a stake in whether or not, in literature as in so much else, the local and the national get subsumed in the global and every aspect of Australian history, landscape, cityscape, vernacular and regional variation disappears from our literature in an attempt to compete in the global market.

(I myself, for example, am working on a pitch to publishers involving the tale of a teenage sparkly vampire from Rivendell who finds an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed with mysterious mathematical formulae, wedged into a secret panel at the back of the wardrobe in the Master of Ormond College's bedroom, which is guarded by a T. Rex and an albino hippogriff called Layla, creatures past which she manages to slip with the combined aid of Heathcliff, Mr Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, such were the arguments of authors and publishers and they looked pretty reasonable to me. Among the submissions to the Commission I can see the names of at least 40 writers, booksellers, publishers and agents I've known and respected for decades -- Frank Moorhouse's submission is worth reading for its own sake just as an exceptional piece of writing -- but then I read this most excellent blog post by that most excellent blogger Bernice Balconey, who has written several subsequent posts on the subject, and is an energetic participant in the discussion at Larvatus Prodeo linked to above; Bernice's original post was the first argument for change I'd read from someone with insider knowledge of the Australian book industry and it is still the most persuasive. Some of her points have been convincingly answered by various commentators but the one I can't go past is her summary point: 'the cat is out of the bag. The consumer exists in a truly global market'. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for metaphors about cats and bags. There are some things there I don't agree with and others I wish I didn't agree with but Bernice very clearly knows whereof she speaks and as a blogger and commenter over the years she has given me every reason to trust her judgement, especially in such matters as this.

So once I'd read Bernice's post I gave up any ambition to take up a position on this. There are too many variables and too many unknowns, and the issues are too numerous and too complex and in some cases too self-contradictory, and there are too many possible computations and permutations and too many things have been brought into the argument, things that may or may not turn out to be relevant -- though I was struck by the clarity of two very different points made today on Crikey in a piece by one Michael R. James:
E-books. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. [My emphasis.] As bloggers have shown, [Guy] Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

As James suggests, many of the arguments being made on both sides are to do with the unforeseeable changes in the technology -- imagine yourself in 1985 trying to explain to someone else what a Kindle was. But the only thing in the whole tangled web of argument that seems even remotely clear is that nobody really knows what will happen, or would have happened, either way.

Even the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (among other things), Craig Emerson, who was behind the push to lift the restrictions, admits (all quotations from here) that
The Productivity Commission report acknowledged that removing these restrictions would adversely affect Australian authors, publishers and culture.

He also went on to say
The Commission recommended extra budgetary funding of authors and publishers to compensate them for this loss.

Yeah, yeah. Show us the money, Craig. Core promise, is it?

And furthermore,
The Government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers. The Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance.

So yah boo sucks to you, eh? This sounds like a totally empty retro-threat to me -- "We'll say we were going to, although we didn't tell you that, but now we're not, so you've bitten off your noses to spite your faces. Or maybe not. You'll never know now, will you, so nyerdy nyer." This particular dummy spit looks to me like the words of a man whose ego has been bruised by the failure of his pet proposal to get up.

It's bizarre to see the free-market types joining forces with consumer advocates like Fels (apparently not an advocate of consumers of Australian books) while sneeringly dismissing the other side as 'economically illiterate', a phrase many of them are using to mean 'they don't share my world view, which is, of course, the only possible one'.

In my own case, why yes, it is indeed perfectly true that I know next to nothing about economics, having, like most people, spent my adult life studying and practising other things. And that is why I have refrained from forming, much less expressing, an opinion. What a shame those who know nothing about literature don't think they need to take the same precautions. The culturally illiterate blithely using a metaphor about reading skills to diss their perceived opponents is a very neat irony, the more so since -- being fundamentally uninterested in literature and its effects -- they're not equipped to notice it.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Code for 'We don't care'

When I first saw this article about Publishers Weekly and its all-male-author Best Books of 2009 (ah yes, it's that time of year again), it took me a minute to work out the title: 'Why Weren't Any Women Invited to Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?' I'd always thought 'wienie' as in 'wiener' as in 'frankfurter' was spelt with an 'ie' not an 'ee', and it's not clear whether 'weenie' is used here as a variant or a disparaging pun (though I'd like to think the latter), but either way it is, in this context, American for what we in Australia call a sausage fest. Boys' Own, if you like.

It was only yesterday that I was looking around the nation's various literary-cultural-political mags, blogs and websites and noticing with growing dismay that the general ratio of male to female writers represented -- both the people writing for the journals and blogs and magazines and the people being written about -- seems to have nose-dived*, even just since the beginning of this year, back to the good old days where 'male' meant the norm and 'female' meant some lesser variant; yet again I was reminded of the great Simone de Beauvoir, than whom nobody has ever described this phenomenon better. 'There are two kinds of people: human beings and women.'

And it was only last night that an otherwise apparently intelligent commenter on a literary blog referred disparagingly to 'the worst kind of 80s PC', apparently meaning that all that silly nonsense about considering the presence in the world of female people and black people and gay people that we used to have to bend the knee to is merely a memory of a now-despised fad , like satin jumpsuits and big hair, and it's über-cool in 2009 to have sunk right back into our straight white male supremacist good ole boy ways, as into a comfy yet manly chair, clutching the remote in one hand and a stubby in the other. (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way.)

And then up will go the passionate cry of 'But never mind all this gender nonsense, isn't it just about literary merit??', and back will echo faintly for the nine millionth time from a chorus of exhausted feminists that 'literary merit' is not an exact science, but is rather assessed by the values of the dominant culture, and if the dominant culture is a sausage fest, then, well, you know.

(Though one must look on the bright side: that list of ten books by blokes may ignore the fact that Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have both had books out this year, but at least it doesn't include the most overrated writer and sausage fest ornament of the 20th century, Philip Roth.)

I wrote here earlier this year about how gobsmacking it was that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges didn't notice that they'd come up with an all-male shortlist in a year when there were at least five realistic female contenders for the prize, and apparently this kind of 'human beings and women' thinking is once more rife in the US as well. After pondering last night with such disquiet on the turn things seemed to be taking, I wasn't as surprised as I wish I had been this morning to see a feminist Facebook Friend linking that post about the Publishers Weekly list. Here's that post's hook, a line strongly recommended as the default comeback next time some bloke -- or rogue girl trawling for the boys' approval -- accuses you dismissively of being 'just PC':

So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

* It is however a relief to see that the November issue of Australian Book Review, which arrived today and which I just finished reading, does honourably buck this trend a bit: writers/reviewers include an Alison, an Andrea, a Belinda, a Claudia, a Gay, a Jacqueline, a Jane, two Judiths, two Kates, a Kylie, a Melinda, a Rosaleen (the lead article), a Sarah and a Stephanie, while the written-about include an Anna, an Emily, a Jan, a Jeanette, a Jenny, a Jeri, a Mandy and a Ruth.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Prime Minister's Literary Awards winners ...

... were announced yesterday. Evelyn Juers' House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann shared the nonfiction prize with Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake's Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, while Nam Le's The Boat, to no-one's surprise despite the quality of the shortlist, won the fiction prize outright.

There's something unusually coherent about this set of winners; together, qua winners, they have about them the feel of a viewpoint new in Australian literary prizegiving, a strong whiff of post-nationalist awareness. Drawing the Global Colour Line is, as its title suggests, global in the scope of its analysis, while The Boat has been widely praised for its cosmopolitanism and its range, containing stories set in several countries. House of Exile is a 'group biography' of author and activist Heinrich Mann, his partner Nelly Kroeger and their several overlapping circles of acquaintances and friends, including Virginia Woolf (about whom there are some beautiful and surprising stories) and Heinrich's brother Thomas Mann, who despised and looked down on Nelly as a schreckliche Trulle which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

So congrats to the 2009 nonfiction judges Phillip Adams, Peter Rose and Joan Beaumont, and fiction judges Peter Pierce, Lyn Gallacher and John Hay, for taking the long, broad view of what, within its official brief, an Australian literary award might encompass. Especially a Prime Minister's literary award, the judging process for which one might have expected to be somehow more rah-rah but is glad it wasn't. This is not for a moment to disparage more nationally focused awards, which have an important place, but only to be pleased that there's also room for books like these to rise to the top of the pile.

I've owned all three for yonks but to my shame haven't read any of them yet, except for Nam Le's story 'Halflead Bay' for a review of Mandy Sayer's anthology The Australian Long Story. It's not quite a question of not having the time. It's more that books of this quality demand an answering quality of mind in their readers, a sharpness of focus and subtlety of attention that it can be very hard to bring to non-work reading when reading is what you do for a living. Because you need to be in a particularly alert and receptive state of mind to do any of these books proper justice as reading-for-pleasure.

'This new work took on fresh urgency with the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and the pitiless application of eugenic principles and racial technologies -- many of which had been rehearsed under colonial regimes -- in the heartland of Europe, the results of which were to finally scarify the conscience of the world.'

'Keep a straight back, Mrs Sasaki says. Wipe the floor with your spirit.'

'But the party was in full swing, the atmosphere rippling with anecdotes and laughter, so much so that a button popped off the decolletage of Nelly's red velvet dress to reveal the splendid contours of her lacy bra. I like to think that the little red velvet button described a perfect arc across the table and landed right on top of Thomas Mann's Charlotte surprise.'

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat