Saturday, April 18, 2009

Miles Franklin and the Mystery of Talent, or, Don't Mention the War

Because I am supposed to be a grown-up, and because I made a promise, I'm not buying into the question of the literary stag night 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award all-male shortlist beyond offering the odd brief neutral fact in other people's comments threads, and observing here, because I really cannot help myself, that if what spokesjudge Morag Fraser says is true and the judges did not realise what they had done until their shortlist was already set in stone, then the gender-blindness we thought we had diagnosed and exposed by about 1985 is actually still as bad as it ever was, even at these upper levels of cultural and intellectual endeavour.

But otherwise the howling restraint is making my ears bleed, so here by way of self-distraction is a little material on a related question: not what makes a good book, but what makes a good writer, since they are frequently not the same thing. Being a good writer is a non-negotiable condition of producing a good book, but by no means guarantees it.

I've read three books since Tuesday. All of them have been the author's first book of fiction: An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and John the Revelator by Peter Murphy. Here in that order is a sample from each, demonstrating that when somebody's a good writer it does actually leap off the page at you and grab you round the neck, and that writing talent lies as much in the quality of pre-verbal observation as it does in what ends up on the page.

Jennet loved her husband, she liked and she disliked him, and she hated him as well.

She thinks that merely by being forceful and independent she can make a decent life, but that just isn't true -- life is tended and weeded and watered, is created out of effort, and is made from other materials than oneself.

Rows of stalls and tables laden with cheap jewellery, gimcrack stuff, necklaces and rings and charms and amulets and stones. Caravans with signs in the windows advertising Tarot and palm and crystal-ball readings. I counted my money and went up the steps to one of the caravans and knocked on the open door. A woman in a baggy jumper and a pair of sweatpants was watching a portable television blaring some sort of game show. She turned the sound down and waved a hand at an armchair beside a flimsy table.
'Fiver for your palm, tenner for the cards,' she said.
I gave her a tenner. She donned a pair of glasses and took my hand and pulled my fingers apart and peered at the lines. Her head jerked up. She stared at my face.
'Out,' she said.
'Out.' She pushed the tenner across the table. 'And take your money with you.'
I stood and stammered, but she reached for the sweeping brush. I backed out the doorway and stumbled down the steps and into the night. The door slammed and the blinds came down. The funfair whirled around me.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A find

I'd not heard of Maria Quinn before her first novel The Gene Thieves turned up chez moi for review, but I spent the first hour of this morning reading the first 50 pages of it while my coffee went cold and I've sure as hell heard of her now. Go check out that link, if you haven't already.

I usually read a little faster than that, but it's small print (= more words per page. You'd be amazed, if you ever get down to actually counting them, which most people have no reason to do, at the variation in number of words per page from book to book), and I needed to read some passages twice in order to make sure I fully understood what was going on.

In this job I read a lot of genre fiction and the awful truth is that I prefer some genres to others, with crime of the variety that Val McDermid's Tony Hill calls 'messy heads' a long way up the top of the list. If spec fic and fantasy come lower down, it's partly because you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The facts that (a) with these genres the central idea is often valued way above fiction-writing skills, and (b) both genres have a large and hungry readership (read: 'market') means that a lot of what gets published in these genres is virtually unreadable to someone outside the fan base. And many novels in both these genres are reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's (now that's what I call a novelist) Frederica Potter and her reader's reports for the publisher in Babel Tower: 'It is a curiously vacant work, whose driving force appears paradoxically to be the desire to create and people an imaginary world.'

Many fans of fantasy and spec fic are understandably defensive about these tastes so I hope they are still with me thus far, because the corollary is that when novels in these genres are good, they're very very good and some of them are mind-bogglingly fabulous, in both senses of that word. (Please note that by 'good' in this instance I mean 'couldn't put it down and neither could most other people', so let's not get into dreary backlash quibbles about Harry Potter and so on.)

This particular futuristic novel rises above the pack partly because of the many long, fat, juicy, healthy roots it has in the fertile soil of the present. Much, indeed most, of the science and technology is already with us, as are many of the ethical concerns and the directions in which they seem to be going. There's a magnificent imagining of a not-too-distantly-future Sydney featuring among other things a 'vertical sky garden' that produces fruit and veg for self-sustainability, a taken-for-granted reliance on geothermal energy among other kinds, and this particularly fabulous idea:
Years before, over a million ceramic tiles were overlaid with transparent photovoltaic cells, painstakingly matched to the profile of the unique originals on the amazing pre-cast concrete 'sails' of the roof. Jørn Utzon's masterpiece now powered much of the city that worshipped it.

Memo to HarperCollinsPublishers: Maria Quinn has an excellent website (see above). Why is it not mentioned in the media release?

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat