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The Scourge of Book Bloggers

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According to Peter Stothard, the chair of this year's Man Booker Prize judging panel, book bloggers are harming literature. His idea is that if the mass of uninformed opinion gradually outweighs that of the "literary critics...then literature will be the lesser for it".  He does go on to say that some bloggers are okay, but the sub-text is that the bulk of them aren't.

This is very much the "us" and "them" argument which I thought went out the door after the Second World War.  Maybe we should hand out certificates to those who can talk about literature "properly" and disallow anyone else from talking about it.  Yeah, that'd work.

More Shades of Grey

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A few weeks back I noted the rise and rise of a novel by Australian writer Amanda Hayward titled Fifty Shades of Grey.  As also mentioned John Birmingham stated that it was really just fan fiction, in this case Twilight fan fiction based on the vampire novels of Stephanie Meyer, with names changed to protect the "innocent".

This novel has started to cause a fair bit of comment, not least because it was picked up at auction by big US publisher Vintage for seven figures at auction.  That's enough to get the attention of most people in the publishing world.  In the wake of this attention Elizabeth Minkel has now written a piece about the book, and on fan fiction generally, on the weblog "The Millions". 

For those not sure about what this is all about it's best to start with a few definitions.

Back when I started in sf fandom in the mid-70s the term "fan fiction" referred to science fiction stories written by fans and published in small print-run magazines called "fanzines".  These stories were original, often poorly written, and never intended for publication to a wider audience.  The writers were basically just starting out and wanted to just see their names in print.  But the point was, they were original. At that time there weren't a lot of media fanzines in Australia - fanzines dedicated to discussing an sf film or television series: Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who etc - but as these started to increase in number it became clear that they were publishing sf stories using the characters from these films and tv series as the centre-pieces for their work.  And the definition of the term "fan fiction" slowly morphed into what it is deemed to be today.

By the way, don't confuse "fan fiction" with "faan fiction" which is rather different in that it uses the actual names of sf fans in sf parodies or comedies - see "Tuckerization" as an example.

So "fan fiction", and its strange off-spring "slash fiction", started in the media world, concentrating on the big and small screens for inspiration. And then, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it began to change and enlarge and look to books for source material.  The Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling may well have been the kick-off for this, though I'm sure there were instances of Tolkein and Anne McCaffrey fan fiction beforehand.  But Rowling's novels, the fenzy that surrounded them and the subsequent films, really kicked fan fiction into another world.  Stephanie Meyer's work, which always seemed to me to ride on the coat-tails of Rowling, merely continued the fan fiction trend in a similar way. 

All of which has brought us to where we are now - with a Twilight-inspired piece of fan fiction riding high in the publishing world.

Minkel raises the point that this is nothing new: citing Tom Stoppard's play Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on Hamlet; and Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs, based on Dickens's Great Expectations. True, but the original works here were classics, way out of copyright and basically available to anyone to use.  The current crop of fan fiction relies on recent works, which are still under copyright, and there lies the major difference. 

Maybe I'm implying an injustice on Hayward that isn't fair.  Maybe, and it seems like this might be the case, she took her early Twilight-inspired fan fiction and morphed it into something similar but recognizably different. If so she has made the leap that she needed to make. I hope others that might be tempted to follow her success also follow that path.

There is nothing new under the sun in the field of literature; it's all in the author's intentions.  Homage is fine, theft is not.

The Australian Slanguage

It's always interesting to make connections between two newspaper pieces dealing with seemingly different topics, but which are, bascially, about the same thing.

Roland Sussex and Michael Clyne in their essay titled "2020 - Languages" - written for the December 2010 issue of the "Australian Literary Review" - discuss the prospect of foreign language study in Australia.  Their first paragraph sets out their theme perfectly: "Cars run on petrol. Societies run on language. Languages are treasure houses of culture and history."  If we are going to profit from a major mining bom, then why don't we also attempt to profit from multi-culturalism in the form of multi-lingualism.

The authors state that only 13 per cent of current Year 12 students study a Foreign Language; a lamentable state, and one that needs urgent attention.  My two children have studied a foreign language at school: both studied Italian in primary and my daughter did, and my son will, study French at high school.  But, like me, my daughter only took French for as long as she had to before dropping it in favour of other, preferred, subjects.  The easy excuse is that our family is not good at foreign languages. But, surely, every language is foreign when you are young.  The problem lies in how it is encountered, taught and encouraged in the early years.

When I hit high school in the late 1960s and was forced into learning French and German I knew the languages existed but I doubt I had ever heard a word spoken in either: the mid-North of South Australia at that time was not a hot-bed of multi-culturalism.  I didn't travel to any French or German speaking countries in my school years, and I never met anyone who spoke those languages at home.  I never had the opportunity to read books or comics in the languages and I never saw any French or German films, or television programs, without subtitles - if I saw any at all.  Two to three hours a week just was never going to be enough to get more than a basic grasp of the concepts.  I struggled to get even that.

I have a friend who lives in the Netherlands who regularly speaks four languages: Dutch, French, German and English.  He has to.  He interacts with speakers of those langages on an almost daily basis.  He may not be as proficient in German as he is in English but I suspect he gets by quite adequately for work and social occasions and can always drive over to Germany for a weekend and immerse himself in the language and culture if he finds he's getting a little rusty.

And there, I think, is the reason for our perceived lack of language skills - our isolation. It's just not possible to drop over to a foreign country for the weekend to top up your vocab and pronunciation.  The Europeans have it easier: London to Moscow is a touch under 2,500 kilometres; Melbourne to Jakarta is 5,148.  Number of languages between London and Moscow?  Eight? Ten? Who knows but certainly more than the one between Melbourne and Jakarta.

On the other side of the fence we have the recent spat between Hugh Lunn, author of Words Fail Me: A Journey Through Australia's Lost Language and Peter Conrad who reviewed the book for The Monthly. Lunn's view is "If you lose your language, you lose your personality, your character and who you are."  And I certainly have a lot of sympathy for that.  While it doesn't happen every day I do get some rather odd looks from people when I drop an old Australian slang expression into my conversations.  I don't do it deliberately, it just seems appropriate at the time. I like the Australian vernacular, its colorful turns-of-phrase, its  rhyming slang and its use of opposites, and I would really not like to see it disappear.  But, I fear, the encroachment of the ubiquitous American culture is slowly strangling the life out of good old Strine.

Both of these newspaper stories point to a slow but inevitable change in the Australian language.  It's becoming more trans-Pacific, taking on American phrases and meanings and slowly losing its individuality.  We're too small a nation to hold out against the cultural forces at work here, and I'm very sorry about that. 

The 20th century was the American century and maybe the current change is just a product of that.  If the 21st century is going to be the Asian century then maybe at this time in a hundred years we'll be decrying the influence of Chinese slang used by our young.  In that case we might have an answer to the Sussex/Clyne question: we'll all be speaking a language that will be an amalgam of English, Chinese, Japanese and Russian - rather like an updated Gibsonesque version of Anthony Burgess's Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange

A situation we might have to describe as horrorshow rather than just plain bonzer.


Parallel-Importation Restrictions on Books

While not being specifically about the ongoing Australian debate about the parallel-importation restrictions on books, this piece about the history of the UK publishing house Faber & Faber makes a very telling point:

Stephen Page, the current CEO of Faber & Faber, thinks British publishing is caught in the endgame of the death of the net book agreement in 1995. This enabled supermarkets and large retailers to heavily discount prices. "It decimated the independent booksellers and drew everyone into a much more mass market conversation based around bestsellers, which has not been good news for a publisher like Faber," he says. Price has become the way to attract buyers and so from top to bottom the margins were squeezed.

Pro-abolitionists will dismiss this as not being applicable or just plain wrong. But, surely, if it happened there it will happen here.

Handwriting versus Typing

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Almost from the beginning the "Handwriting versus Typing" quandary was never a question worth considering for me: my hand-writing has been woeful since I started nearly fifty years ago.  Right from the beginning I was one of the worst in my class; the refrain of "Peter, Paul and Perry" (yes, very droll) still rings loudly in my ears.  I have no idea of why I was so bad. 

My mother and father were both left-handed, but I came out right-handed after a left-handed older brother.  Both my parents had dodgy writing, probably caused by the schooling they received in an era when children were actively encouraged, if not forced, to write right-handed.  My father still writes in an over-the-top left-handed style, brought about, he once told me, due to the need not to smudge the ink with his sleeve as it followed the line of his script.  This leads to a highly sloped style which is difficult to understand if you're not used to it.  My mother, as best I recall, wrote in a flowing small script that seemed to imply or skip over letters as much as delineate them.  They were both idiosyncratic, but they had the advantage of being, in the main, consistent.  My writing was never like that.

From an early age I was thought to have poor spelling in class as my "a" ended up looking more like an "o", "r" and "p" and "n" were confused and the script never stayed on course, drifting over and above the lines with wild abandon.  Taking French dictation at high school was a nightmare.

It was all really hopeless. I gripped the pen too hard when I was young in an attempt to control what was delivered and ended up with a large callous on the top-left of my middle finger that I can still see today. I tried slowing down but that didn't help.  Ink, pencil, ballpoint pens, it was all a mess and never seemed to improve no matter what I did.  One teacher explained to my parents that it was all because my "brain moved too fast" or some-such mumbo-jumbo.  That didn't make much sense to me then, nor now. 

I was short-sighted from my early teenage years but that doesn't explain much.  It wasn't my sight that was a problem, and I don't think it was hand-to-eye co-ordination.  I played a lot of sport and while I wasn't a star I did all right, not good enough to go on with anything but okay. I reckon if I was really bad I would have given up way before I did.

For a short period in late high school things improved a little and the small snippets of my writing from that period that are still around are vaguely legible.  And then came university, and the speed writing required to keep up with lecture notes destroyed any writing abilities I may have attained.  I could read what I wrote, other people couldn't be bothered, and I didn't blame them.  Luckily enough I asked for a typewriter for a birthday present about that time and from then on typed everything I needed anyone else to read: letters and essays being the bulk of them.

Oddly enough, although I've been typing for over 35 years I've never learnt how to touch type.  I figured out pretty early how to type at a reasonable clip using only two, then three and occasionally four fingers.  Back in the 1960s in Australia, boys did woodwork and girls did typing at school. There wasn't a choice in the matter, and even if there was it wasn't one you'd want to consider.  I tried a few PC-based lessons a few times over the years but they tended to slow me down and they seemed like more of an imposition than an improvement.

So I'm stuck with typing everything except small notes, which I tend to print.  A long time ago I could read my own writing.  Now, only a few days have to pass and it's all a mystery to me, a scrawl, the modern equivalent of a "thumbnail dipped in tar".  Don't get me wrong, it's not that I dislike copper-plate script.  On the contrary, it's a talent I wish I had.  I fear, however, that it, along with the inability to draw anything recognisable other than a silhouette elephant, is a skill that will be forever out of my reach.

[See Umberto Eco's thoughts on this matter.] 

Of Helen Garner and J.M. Coetzee

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I haven't written much here lately about the on-going problems I have had with the old, archived entries on this weblog.  Mainly that's because it a long tedious process with, I assume, little interest to anyone other than myself.  But the one thing this process of re-posting does provide me is the opportunity to re-read pieces that have appeared here over the years.

Just recently I've been looking at a number of my "author watches" - posts in which I attempt to provide a series of catch-up links relating to one specific author - and just this morning I was editing the Helen Garner Watch #2 post which mainly dealt with reviews of her latest novel, The Spare Room.

As a part of that re-editing I had to go back to some reviews of Garner's novel to ensure my posts were aligned properly and easier to read.  In particular, I had another look at Robert Dessaix's review of the book in The Monthly, and I was quite taken by how critical Dessaix had been about Garner's insistence in referring to The Spare Room as a novel.  He also criticises the author's earlier works, The Children's Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino, for the same reason, stating "They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels?" 

My view at the time, and the one I still hold, is that if Garner wants to call her works "novels" then that is what they are.  To assume that a reader's view of a book holds greater weight and credence in the wider world than that of the writer strikes me as nonsense.  I can argue till I'm blue in the face that The Road is science fiction, but if the author doesn't think it is, then it patently isn't.  I will argue for that novel's inclusion in the sf canon as much to show how the edges of the sf genre blur into other categories as to poke a bit of fun at readers who say they don't read sf, yet are quite willing to read this novel, and Harry Potter and Margaret Atwood, and lots more besides.

And the reason why this topic has come up again is the Combined Reviews post I wrote earlier today regarding J.M. Coetzee's latest book Summertime.  While not having read either book, I am struck by the similarities:  Garner has a protagonist named Helen in her book, and Coetzee has a protagonist named John Coetzee in his; Garner's novel is a fictionalised account of a personal experience, and Coetzee's is a fictionalised account of a part of his own life.  Is there much of a difference?  Not to me. 

I've quoted Peter Craven's review of Summertime in my Combined Reviews post and it's interesting to note that he refers to the work as a "more or less fictionalised memoir" and as a "book", but never as a "novel". You might think that a rather pedantic debating point; I don't, and I don't think Craven does either.  I believe he chose his words very carefully.

So what of Craven's view of Garner's book?  In his selection of best books for the 2008-09 summer period for, co-incidentally, The Monthly, Craven refers to it as the author's "first novel in years", firmly flagging it as fiction, which he first did in a profile of the author for "The Age" newspaper in March 2008.

Will Dessaix now review Coetzee's book and re-define it as a "memoir" rather than a "novel"?  Based on Craven's view of the two books you'd have to think so.  I'll keep an eye out.  

The Next Big Thing?

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Chris Lawson, of the “Talking Squid” weblog, has alerted us to the new YouTube trailer for Scott Westerfeld’s upcoming novel Leviathan.

As Chris puts it, this is “seriously cool”, but it also brings to mind a discussion that ran here on this weblog a few weeks back. In a piece about the current flood of vampire media - books, film and television - I alluded to a James Bradley interview in which he mentioned that the “undead” genre might be on the wane. Which then led me to ponder what might be the “next big thing”.

Various correspondonents, including my 16-year-old daughter, thought vampires still had a lot more to offer in the YA world, and I was happy to accept that. My question really went to: what happens after that?

We all know the effect that the Harry Potter books had on the younger section of the reading public - and, yes, the older one as well - but the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published on 21 December 2006, nearly three years ago. The “big thing” after that was the Twilight series of teenage vampire novels from Stephanie Meyer, the first of which was published on 5 October 2005, and the second, New Moon, on 6 September 2006. So, by the time the Harry Potter series of novels had run its course, the Twilight series was in second gear and accelerating fast. Now, although Meyer - unlike Rowling - is still publishing novels in her preferred genre, the Twilight books at least have come to an end with the fourth in the series, Breaking Dawn, being published in August 2008.

All of which, in my view, leaves a bit of a gap. And it was this gap that I alluded to in my earlier post. One of the commenters on that earlier blog suggested “steampunk” might be the genre to step up and make its mark.

worldshaker.jpg For those not in the know, “steampunk” according to Wikipedia, “is a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.”

It’s a genre that doesn’t restrict itself to strictly adult or YA literature: novels fitting the description can easily be read by readers across the age-spectrum and therein lies its appeal. Quest adventures fit, as do “alternate histories” and “gaslight romances”. Works such as The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, and Worldshaker by Richard Harland all fall under the steampunk umbrella.

Zombies and werewolves, by their very nature are too bloody to have much more than a peripheral appeal. The same might have been said of vampires originally - if you’ve seen the 1920s film Nosferatu you’ll understand what I mean - but Meyer, and Anne Rice before her, have shifted the boundaries of the vampire genre away from the blood and more towards the romance. I just can’t see the same emphasis shift happening with zombies, with their mindless brain-munching, or werewolves whose monthly human cycle is punctuated with brief stints of ultra-violence.

No, I think the “next big thing” will probably occur within the steampunk genre. There will be enough elements to attract both young male and female readers and enough adults will be able to remember their youthful infatuations with balloons and steam trains, dark foggy laneways, and things that go bump in the night. And, if that’s the case then I also suspect that Scott Westerfeld and Richard Harland might well be in the forefront of that new movement.

Parallel Import Restrictions - The Federal Government Considers

Further to the Productivity Commission report on Parallel Import Restrictions comes the news that the issue was widely discussed at the ALP National Conference over the weekend. "The rhetoric at the conference certainly sounded more in line with the writers than the publishers' views, but key ministers did not join the debate." 

The Federal Government is considering its position and has set up a Labor Party working group to report back in a month.

The successful conference resolution on the issue stated: "Labor believes that the government should give priority to encouraging Australians to keep on buying Australian books and to maximising the economic, cultural and creative viability of Australian literature and Australian book industries."

But conferences are one thing, government decisions another.

Parallel Import Restrictions - A Voice of Sanity

The concept of balance induces me to bring to your attention an essay in yesterday's "Age" regarding the Parallel Import Restrictions.  This essay, by Text publisher Michael Heyward, puts the opposite point to view to that offered by Allan Fels that I discussed yesterday.  So why didn't I mention it then?  I put it down to skipping over it due to the red film that had formed over my eyes.

Here is just one paragraph of interest:

Australian readers now have real choice about where to shop and how much to pay for a hugely diverse range of books. And under current law they can buy any book they want online even if there is an Australian edition available. Retailers can at any time order any book from anywhere at the request of the consumer. No bookseller in the US or Britain has this right.

There are more as you might expect.

Parallel Import Restrictions - The Saga Continues

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I guess I shouldn't have been at all surprised to see Allan Fels (former Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) have an essay published in "The Age" today responding to the report from the Producticity Commission on Parallel Import Restrictions on books in Australia.  But, really, some of his statements are a little hard to swallow.

Take his first paragraph as an example:

Australia needs a loftier debate about book prices now that the Productivity Commission has demolished the arguments of opponents to lifting parallel import restrictions (PIR). We had been told books are actually cheap in Australia. Wrong. The commission found that books are much more expensive than in comparable foreign markets -- all due to parallel import restrictions.

By "loftier" I suspect he means at a level that deals with economics rather than culture, 'cos it's all about the bottom line isn't it?  And I really did like the point he makes that "the Productivity Commission has demolished the arguments of opponents", which brings the jargon of sports commentary to a cultural issue.  Oh, sorry, economic, not cultural.  Must try to remember that.  They disagreed with opposing viewpoints, put another, and came up with a recommendation.  This seems to amount to a "demolition".  Not sure how.  Didn't even know we were scoring points here.  Must pay more attention in future.

Sentence two reads: "We had been told books are actually cheap in Australia."  I'd like to know by whom.  Most commentators agreed that books in Australia were probably, on the whole, somewhat more expensive than similar books overseas, and that there were reasons for that.  So this is really a cheap debating trick - taking an extreme position of a few of your opponents and applying it to every opponent as if they all agree with it - which we can ignore.

Which leads us directly to sentence four, the best of the lot: "The commission found that books are much more expensive than in comparable foreign markets -- all due to parallel import restrictions."  Really?  ALL of it?  Every single cent?  No accounting for equipment and wage costs, shipping expenses, GST?  Bloody GST, Allan.  There's 10% right there.  What's the VAT on books in the UK? 

Skimming the rest of the essay - have to watch the blood pressure you know - I got the impression these were the major points.  The rest was just expansion and wordage. 

There are four sentences in Fels's first paragraph and the only one I agree with is sentence three: "Wrong."

The Ethics of Reviewing

In a recent post on his weblog, "The Happy Antipodean", Matt had this to say:

In a recent survey of Australian literature blogs, Perry Middlemiss of "Matilda" blog asked about 15 bloggers to talk about their experiences, and what they thought about blogging. In my first draft, I included a line saying "Ethical bloggers don't accept review copies". I said this because marketers for publishing companies are starting to infiltrate the scene. The kind of books, as a result, that get reviewed are frequently new releases. And they're mostly not very interesting.

Perry's blog is a case in point and I seldom read the reviews. Alternative Oz litblog "Reading Matters" also contains reviews of copies of books received from publishers. It's a shame.

Given that this comment speaks of me directly I thought I might reply here. But first a bit of context: Matt started his post discussing Natalie Tran, You-Tube poster who has decided against accepting sponsorship money for her video-blog saying "It [sponsorship money] is very tempting but it's not really what I'm looking for -- I've spent a long time creating something and I don't want to give that up." (The quote is from "The Sydney Morning Herald".) Matt thinks it refreshing that she has done this and I agree.

But it's the next step along from direct sponsorship where Matt and I differ. This weblog has been running for a touch over four years now and is attracting enough visits a month for people to take a bit of notice. Some of that notice has resulted in a couple of emails asking if I would be interested in accepting advertising, and on one occasion, a suggestion that I might like to incorporate my weblog into another, much more commercial one. I've always said no, as politely as I could. I consider this little venture to be a hobby, pure and simple. I don't want to be told - in whatever manner - what I can or cannot post about, and I don't want to feel that I have to temper any comments I might make on the grounds that it might annoy the person paying the bills. I need to be able to post as often or as little as I want. I need to be able to restrict myself to Australian literature, with occasional forays elsewhere if I so choose. I need to be able to take time off when I want without feeling guilty that I'm not delivering product in a timely manner. If I decide I've had enough of the whole thing I can drop it at a moment's notice and not feel obliged to explain myself. I have a full time job already, so I don't need or want another one. It's a personal interest, nothing more.

Matt thinks, and I'm only surmising here as he doesn't actually state this in so many words, that accepting books for review from publishers, authors or publicists is the next step removed from sponsorship. And I would agree with him if I felt obliged to post only positive reviews of the books I receive. But I don't feel so obliged, and I have never told any publisher that I will review a book favourably. Nor have I asked any of my reviewers to do so either. I'm not keen on writing reviews that cut a novel to pieces just for the sake of seeing my fine words on the page. But that doesn't also mean that I set out to praise on all occasions. I have the view that it takes a lot of effort, by a lot of people, to get that copy of that book into my hands, and that I should respect that effort by considering the work carefully.

As a parent, and likewise as a reviewer, I've found that more is to be gained by thoughtful criticism and judicious use of praise and reproach than by overuse of either. Another worthy aim which I don't always live up to.

Some time back, on another weblog which discussed this same issue, I noted that I would include a statement of origin for all book reviews that I published here. Make what you will of that extra piece of information. It might help you understand the review's stance, or it might have no bearing whatsoever. I feel more comfortable having it there.

Matt doesn't find reviews of new books interesting and doesn't read the reviews I post here. That's fair enough. I have a peculiar sort of mind that allows me to jump from Charles Harpur and Mary Fortune to Margo Lanagan and James Bradley, and from poetry to sf to crime to literary fiction. It's just how I work. I don't expect that many, if any, of the readers of this weblog will follow me down every path. One or two branches a week should be enough.

I'm not going to give you some high-minded mission statement about how this weblog's aim is to promote Australian literature in a new medium. If it does that, then all the better, but it was started as a hobby and as a means for me to learn more about the literature of this country: past and present, fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. That's what matters to me at this time, and hopefully for the life of this weblog. I see receiving books for review as a means of helping me understand more about Australian literature. I appreciate all the books I am sent, but don't feel compromised by any of them.

Australian Literature on the WWW

In October and December 2006 I wrote a couple of href=http://www.middlemiss.org/matilda/2006/12/australian-11.html>pieces about the lamentable state of Australian literature entries on Wikipedia. In particular I focussed on the Miles Franklin Award page, noting that, firstly, a number of authors who had won the award did not have Wikipedia pages devoted to them, and, secondly, the award-winning novels were even more poorly represented.

I'm happy to say that this situation has now been rectified, and all winning authors and novels now have entries on Wikipedia. Not all of them are as extensive as I'd like but the framework is there. I should point out, however, that the Wikipedia Miles Franklin Award page does list all the shortlisted works from 1987, and all the longlisted works from 2005, and not all of these books and their authors have been fixed up as yet. Any help you can provide, by way of additional information, will be greatly appreciated. It's really not that hard once you get into it.

Explanatory Notes on SF Conventions #1

A couple of days back I made a throwaway comment on this weblog about the need to describe the differences between SF conventions and the normal literary festivals most people are familiar with. So take this as the first couple of steps towards that goal.

Science fiction is usually abbreviated as "sf" or "SF" (pronounced "ess-eff") by afficiandos, and as "sci-fi" (pronounced "sky-fy") by others. This last term is generally considered to be derogatory in nature, and is sometimes pronounced "skiffy" to increase the emphasis. I'm not sure where the term "sci-fi" came from, but seem to recall reading somewhere that it originated in the mainstream media in the 1950s to complement the term "hi-fi". A marketing abbrevation in other words. The general rule here is don't use it.

I've linked to the Wikipedia article on sf above, not so much because I believe each word of it but just to give you an indication of what sort of work fits under the genre's label. Any attempt at a clear and inclusive defintion of sf has always failed; there is always someone who will come up with a work that falls just outside the definition but which most people would consider as sf. Basically anything fantastical, futuristic, off-world or historically divergent is covered. Most people who consider themselves "non-readers" of the genre would be amazed at some of the books that are considered part of the canon: Frankenstein by Shelley, 1984 by Orwell, Brave New World by Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, Jurassic Park by Crichton, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, most of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and even Illywhacker by Peter Carey, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I could, and will, argue the case for each of these. If you really wanted to push the point, sf is really just a sub-set of the much larger genre of "fantasy". But in the twentieth century the "fantasy" label started to pertain to a particular section of the literary landscape - think Tolkein and his ilk - and "science fiction" came to be the predominant and overarching term in common use. Again, this was probably a labelling issue which started in the 1920s with the advent of US fiction magazines styling themselves as specifically science fiction.

These days when we say science fiction, we also include horror (just about all of Stephen King for example), high or epic fantasy (Tolkein and Robert Jordan), cyberpunk and steampunk (Gibson and Sterling), alternate history (sometimes called "counterfactuals"), space opera (Iain M. Banks and Star Wars), superhero fiction (Superman and X-Men), and even, in some part, the literary sub-genre of magic realism.

It's a broad church; just about anything fits. Which probably goes some way to describing the philosophy behind sf conventions. But more on that next time.

The Art of Reviewing #6

"Paper Cuts", a "New York Times" blog about books, recently listed the "Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing". As they say, each of the words listed is a perfectly good word (with the possible exception of eschew), just not in a book review any more. Words such as poignant and compelling have become cliched and have now lost all meaning. In three days this post has received 215 comments on other words and phrases to avoid, which just goes to show that this subject has hit a nerve. Maybe "Alex the Bold" sums it up best:

This SUBTLE but POWERFUL WORK uses BOLD and STARTLING language in a RARE combination -- one part SAUCY, one part E PLURIBUS UNUM -- to construct a LAVISH and NECESSARILY FRIGHTENING story that CULMINATES in an AMUSING and UNEXPECTED CLIMAX.
Which sounds awfully familiar.

Follow-up To Prime Minister's Literary Awards

In reply to a piece I wrote last week regarding the new Prime Minister's new Literary Awards, Maggy took me to task, in a comment, for implying that self-published works weren't worthy of being considered. I originally intended to answer that comment with another, but as I got into the topic my reply got bigger and bigger, and I thought it had a few things to say that needed airing at a higher level. So, here is that comment expanded into the piece below.

To Maggy: I think we might have a different understanding of the term "self-published". When I wrote the piece on the PM's new literary prize I was thinking of such vanity press outfits as iUniverse, Outskirts and Xlibris. Not small press outfits, which are a different kettle of fish entirely. For more discussion of the problems of vanity presses see the self-publishing section of Lee Goldberg's weblog "A Writer's Life".

But even with small presses you have problems. There has been a big fuss lately in the US over Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas. The basic problem is that "Richard Aleas" is a pen-name for Charles Ardai, who happens to be the co-founder and managing editor of Hard Case Crime (a wonderful publishing house by the way), which published Aleas's latest book. And because of that connection the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) have deemed Aleas's novel a self-published book, and therefore ineligible for the Edgar Award. A bit rough you might think given that "Publishers Weekly chose Songs of Innocence as one of the 100 best novels of the year" [Michael A. Burnstein]. But those are the rules of the MWA. And if you are going to ban self-published works you have to ban them all, no matter how professional they might look and feel. Hopefully the same probem won't arise here, but it might.

Returning to the question of self-publishing, as Jason Pinter puts it:

Getting self-published today is easier than ever. It does not take any editorial or authorial skill to be self-published, only a pile of paper and enough money to cover the costs. And for many, the cost is worth seeing your manuscript bound between two covers. I can be relatively certain that if all self-published books were permitted, the time consumed would go from "minor inconvenience" to "near insurmountable" almost overnight. Not to mention, in my opinion, it would encourage even more self-publishing, as aspiring authors would soon realize that for $199 they could be judged on the same field as Lawrence Block. And if this leads to authors paying a few [bucks] to get their books bound for award consideration instead of honing their craft, I think it'd be a real shame and could actually do the opposite of what's intended.
As I was writing this I had the thought that the guidelines for the PM's award also stated that 750 copies of each book entered must have been sold. That would have made it nigh on impossible for any self-published book to fit the entry criteria: in 2004 in the USA, iUniverse published 18,108 titles, and of those only 83 sold more than 500 copies. But the guidelines here don't refer to copies sold but copies "published"; and therein lies the difference. I reckon I could "publish" 750 copies of a set of unedited, unread manuscript pages for under $500, which includes registering a business name for the "publishing house". Without this award's restriction on self-published material I would then fit all the criteria. The fact that some 40 to 50 reams of paper would be sitting in a big pile in my house waiting to be pulped after the award was announced is beside the point. This isn't "publishing" by any stretch of the imagination. It's not a book in the true sense, and it shouldn't be eligible for an award such as this. I think the guidelines for these awards, concerning self-publishing, are quite reasonable.

[Update: I inadvertently spelt Maggy's name incorrectly. I've fixed that now. My apologies.]

Miles Franklin Award Commentary

"The Literary Saloon", one of the best literature weblogs going around, recently noted the announcement of the longlist for the Miles Franklin Award and added the comment: "Only 59 books were submitted for consideration, a pretty feeble number that makes us wonder about the state of literary affairs down under." Which, on the face of it, seems like a quite reasonable statement - 59 is not a lot of novels to be eligible for the country's main literary award. But let's look at it in comparison to other countries.

The UK had an estimated population of 60.5 million in 2006, while Australia's was 19.855 at the 2006 Census. So let's round that out at 3 times, which, if converted to novels for a similar award, leads us to 177. If the UK published 177 literary works a year that, to paraphrase, "portrayed British life in any of its phases", would it be considered healthy? The USA has an estimated population of 303.5 million in 2008, which we'll take to be 15 times Australia's. Thus, a similar question for the USA would relate to 885 novels and plays. You'd have to think that was pretty good. So the 59 works entered for the Miles Franklin Award, as a bland number, looks quite small, but on a population comparison basis stands up pretty well.

Would we like more to be published? Of course we would. But the industry isn't quite as bad as mere numbers would seem to indicate.

The Art of Reading

Every now and then you come across a statement in a book review that, normally, you'd just skate over. I had one of those moments over the weekend when reading Nigel Krauth's review of a new novel.

Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole is as heavy as a dumbbell. It weighs 1.05kg in paperback and, at 210,000 words, takes 30 hours to read.
At 711 pages I can see his problem. It's a book that's hard to lug around, and you have to be careful how you sit when reading it. But 30 hours? I doubt it.

I don't read anywhere near as fast as I once did. Back in my younger days one standard page per minute seemed like quite a good rate to me; not exactly speed reading but fast enough, I thought, to get through even the longest books in a reasonable time. But 30 hours? That's two hours a day for over two weeks. Surely not. I don't know how fast Krauth reads but I think there's a mistake here. A page per minute gives us 711 minutes - let's round that up to 720 minutes, which is 12 hours. Even a page every two minutes gives us only 24 hours in total. So where does this 30 hours come from? At that rate Krauth is reading a page every 2.5 minutes; a snail's pace.

At the end of the review Krauth states that he didn't read the last eight pages of this book. I think the reasons he supplies are a bit spurious. I've never before heard of someone getting that close to the end of a long book and not finishing. Especially a reviewer, who then tries to make a virtue out of it. Maybe he needed that 20 minutes to do something else. I'm terribly confused.

A Few Words About "Sorry"

When it became public knowledge that the new Federal Labor Government of Australia intended, as one of its first acts of the next parliamentary sitting, to apologise to the Stolen Generations, I was inwardly very pleased. I hadn't voted Labor at the last election - I went further left and gave Labor my second preferences in both Houses - but this was one issue that I wanted to see addressed, and my first choice party had endorsed the policy as well. I spoke to my wife soon after the announcement was made and stated that I hoped the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, would take his time over the wording of the Apology, and that he would get someone like Don Watson to write it for him.

From what I've read Rudd has decided to write the speech himself. That's fair enough. He's entitled to do that and I'm not going to criticise him for it. What he has received criticism for is the amount of time he is taking to release the wording. And that is what I have trouble with. Not the time he is taking, but the criticism he is receiving for striving
to get the wording just right. Surely it's better that he writes a number of drafts, honing the wording until he gets the speech as he wants it. Throwing out a long, rambling, hastily drafted apology is not going to serve any purpose and will only open the whole process up to censure and abuse.

Somewhere or other I found an interesting little quote about the writing process which tends to sum up my feelings about this whole matter: "The first draft of everything is crap." Sometimes the fifth and sixth drafts are as well. You just have to keep going
until it works.

The Art of Reviewing #5

Neil Gaiman starts off talking about the upcoming Audie awards, and then makes some telling points as he discusses his "...collaboration with Michael Reaves, Interworld, which was reviewed, along with China's Un Lun Dun in the New York Times this week. It's an odd review -- I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don't Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre. Just don't. Don't start a review of romance books by saying that all romance books are rubbish but these are good (or just as bad as the rest). Don't start a review of SF by saying that you hate all off-planet tales or things set in the future and you don't like the way SF writers do characters. Don't start a review of a University Adultery novel by explaining that mostly books about English professors having panicky academic sex bore you to tears but. Just don't. Any more than a restaurant reviewer would spend a paragraph explaining that she didn't normally like or eat -- or understand why other people would like or eat -- Chinese food, or French, or barbeque. It just makes people think you're not a very good reviewer."

2007 - A Year in Australian Literature

January

  • Passarola Rising by Azhar Abidi is chosen as the best sf novel of 2006 by "Locus" magazine
  • Surrender by Sonya Hartnett and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak are named as Honor Books in the 2007 American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature
  • Will Elliott wins the Golden Aurelais award for his novel The Pilo Family Circus

February

  • Elizabeth Jolley, author of the Mles Franklin award winning novel The Well, amongst many others, dies at the age of 83

March

  • Luck in the Greater West by Damian McDonald is announced as the winner of the 2007 ABC Fiction Award
  • The Commonwealth Writers' Prize regional winners are announced. In the South East Asia and South Pacific region, the winners are: Best Book: Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones (New Zealand), Penguin Best First Book: Tuvalu by Andrew O'Connor (Australia), Allen and Unwin
  • "The Guardian" newspaper from the UK reports that Borders plans to sell its Australian stores

April

  • The Australian Society of Authors announces a major new literary prize (worth $35,000) to be given 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"
  • East of Time, by Jacob Rosenberg, is announced as the winner of the 2007 National Biography Award
  • Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee is included on the shortlist for the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • The shortlist for the 2007 Miles Franklin Award is announced, with only four novels making the list

May

  • Tom Kenneally is named the 2007 recipient of the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, an annual award based on a writer's full career
  • the small township of Clunes, about 20 kilometres north of Ballarat in Victoria, decides to try to set up Australia's first dedicated booktown. The first weekend event takes place on May 20
  • Deborah Robertson wins the 2007 Nita Kibble Award for Women Writers for her novel Careless
  • Justine Larbalestier wins the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, for her novel Magic and Madness. The prize is awarded by the SFWA (Science Fiction/Fatasy Writers of America)
  • Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones of New Zealand is named as the winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
  • The winners of the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Awards are announced. Book of the Year: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Fiction: Peter Carey, Theft: a Love Story; Non-fiction: Robert Hughes, Things I Didn't Know: a Memoir; Poetry: John Tranter, Urban Myths: 210 Poems; Children's: Narelle Oliver, Home; Young People's: Ursula Dubosarsky, The Red Shoe.

June

  • The Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists 2007 are announced as Danielle Wood, Will Elliott, and Tara June Winch.
  • Austlit, the major Australian literary bibliographic index housed at the University of Queensland, announces the commencement of "Black Words", a literary website specialising in Australian Indigenous works
  • Andrew Denton, host of the ABC TV interview show Enough Rope, has launched the Kit Denton Fellowship in honour of his late father. The $25,000 fellowship will be awarded each year to reward courage in performance writing. It's aim is to allow a writer a full year to develop their work
  • Chinua Achebe is announced as the winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize
  • The 2007 Ditmar Awards (otherwise known as the Australian Science Fiction Achievement Awards) are announced with The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot, picking up the Novel award
  • Out Stealing Horses, by Norwegian author Per Petterson, is announced as the 12th winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Alexis Wright is announced as the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Award, for her novel Carpentaria
  • The Great War by Les Carlyon and Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy by Dr Peter Cochrane are announced as joint winners of the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History
  • The winners of the 2006 Western Australian Premier's Book Awards are announced. Premier's Prize: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Fiction: Simon Lazaroo, The Travel Writer; Poetry: Dennis Haskell, All the Time in the World; Non-fiction: Quentin Beresford, Rob Riley: an Aboriginal Leader's Quest for Justice and Peter Edwards, Arthur Tange: Last of the Mandarins; Children's: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Young Adult's: Kate McCaffrey, Destroying Avalon

July

  • Peter Temple is announced as the winner of 2007 Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (formerly the Golden Dagger) in the UK, for his novel The Broken Shore
  • The 2007 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal is awarded to Alexis Wright for her novel Carpentaria
  • Glenda Adams, the Miles Franklin Award winning author of Dancing on Coral, dies at the age of 67 after a long illness
  • Bronwyn Clarke wins the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Golden Heart contest for unpublished manuscripts, for her novel Falling into Darkness

August

  • M.J. Hyland is awarded the 2007 Hawthornden Prize for her novel Carry Me Down
  • Federal Education minister, Julie Bishop, announces that the Australian Government will allocate funds to $A1.5m to create a Chair of Australian Literature in an Australian university
  • Charlie Rimmer, Group Commercial Manager for Angus and Robertson bookshops, writes to a number of Australian independent publishers indicating that the bookshop chain will refuse to stock their books without compensation
  • The 2007 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards are announced - Older Readers: Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes; Younger Readers: Catherine Bateson, Being Bee; Early Childhood: Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwoood (illus), Amy & Louis; Picture Book of the Year: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Eve Pownall Award for Information Books: Mark Norman,The Penguin Book: Birds in Suits
  • The winners of the 2007 "The Age" Book of the Year Awards are announced. Fiction: Every Move You Make by David Malouf; Non-Fiction: Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy by Peter Cochrane; Poetry: The Goldfinches of Baghdad by Robert Adamson. Cochrane also won the Book of the Year Award
  • The 2007 Ned Kelly Award winners (for crime fiction) are anounced: Chain of Evidence by Garry Disher in the Novel category; Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland won Best First Novel; Killing for Pleasure: The Definitive Story of the Snowtown Murders by Debi Marshall and Written on the Skin by Liz Porter for Best True Crime; and the Lifetime Achievement Award went to Sandra Harvey and Lindsay Simpson

September

  • The winners of the 2007 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards are announced. Fiction: Alexis Wright, Carpentaria; Non-fiction: Danielle Clode, Voyages to the South Seas: In Search of Terres Australes; Poetry: Judy Johnson, Jack; Young Adult: Simmone Howell, Notes from the Teenage Underground
  • The winners of the 2007 Queensland Premier's Literary Awards are announced. Fiction: Alexis Wright, Carpentaria; Non-fiction: Professor Tom Griffiths, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica; Children's: Glenda Millard, Layla Queen of Hearts; Young Adult: Judith Clarke, One Whole and Perfect Day
  • Stefan Laszczuk is named as the winner of the 2007 The Australian/Vogel Award, for an unpublished manuscript for an Australian writer under the age of 35, for his novel titled I Dream of Magda

October

  • Lonely Planet, the iconic Australian publisher of travel guides, is sold to the commercial division of the BBC in a deal reportedly worth $A200 million
  • Markus Zusak wins the 2007 Exclusive Books Boeke Prize for his novel, The Book Thief. This is a South African award
  • Ladbrook's, a major UK betting agency, lists Les Murray as a 6/1 second favourite - behind Claudio Magris - for the 2007 Nobel prize for Literature. The prize is subsequently won by Doris Lessing who was not listed by Ladbrook's
  • Anne Enright's novel The Gathering, is announced as the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize
  • Steve J Spears, author of The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin and a recent series of crime novels, dies at the age of 56

November

  • Shaun Tan is announced as the winner of the Best Artist category in the 2007 World Fantasy Awards
  • 9 Australian novels make the extended longlist for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • David Rowbotham is announced as the winner of the 2007 Patrick White Award
  • The winners of the 2007 Davitt Awards (crime written by Australina women) are anounced. Best True Crime and Readers' Choice: Karen Kissane, Silent Death: The Killing of Julie Ramage; Best Adult Crime: Sydney Bauer, Undertow; Best Young Adult Crime: Jaclyn Moriarty, The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie; Readers' Choice: Kerry Greenwood, Devil's Food and Karen Kissane
  • Eric Rolls, author of A Million Wild Acres, dies at the age of 84

December

  • Australia's new Prime Minister announces a major new literary prize of $100,000 in both fiction and non-fiction categories

Australian Literature on the Shelves

In "The Age" over the weekend, Simon Casterton asks whether it is advisable any longer for bookshops to have a separate section for Australian literature. The basic question is: does this tend to "ghetto-ise" Australian literature or make it easier to find?

Casterton visits a number of bookshops asking their opinion on the matter, and, as you might expect, gets a number of differing responses. Some like the division as it makes it easier for customers - especially overseas visitors - to find what they are looking for, and others dislike it as it appears to be an out-moded method of singling out Australian literature for attention. The question is asked: "Why can't Thea Astley be shelved next to Margaret Atwood?"

Why indeed. I do it at home, but then I also shelve Le Carre next to Le Guin; well, not quite, as Carol Lefavre has slipped in between, but you know what I mean. It's just as much a legitimate question to ask why sf and crime fiction is not shelved in the general fiction section, as to wonder the same about Australian literature. In my house fiction is just fiction: doesn't matter if it is crime, literary, historical or sf. It all gets lumped together. It only depends on what fits on which shelves. I've got a good idea of what is on my bookcases and I just need to know in which room a book is probably located.

Bookshops face a different problem, in that customers may have no idea of what they are looking for and need some easy method of narrowing down any search they may undertake. Shops do this by placing their crime fiction in one section, their biographies in another, and, in some, Australian fiction in a section of its own. I don't have a problem with different shelving methods for the shop and the home. It's the ease of identification and discovery that is the issue.

Crime Fiction Characters

About a month ago, I wrote a small posting about a cliched phrase I'd come across in a review of a book I'd quite liked. I got to talking about character development in the novel which elicited a comment from Kerryn Goldsworthy that read, in part: "...he sounds less like the kind of character you'd find in realist literary fiction than like a version of the contemporary crime fiction hero model: idiosyncratic, damaged, quirky, maybe ageing, bit of a loner, crummy love life, clearly defined cultural tastes and so on."

Which was followed up by another commenter, meika, who added: "Kerryn I think you forgot the empty fridge at home."

What reminded me of this was a memory that came to me from Peter Temple's Jack Irish novel, Black Tide, which I finished a little while back. It's just one sentence, but I think it says it all.

"At home, sad, misty, loveless Saturday night, a chicken pie and two glasses of red took care of me."

Australian Literature and Film

Peter Craven laments that not enough of our (ie Australian) great works of literature have been turned into films or television series. His argument is that adapting great books into film opens the works up to a greater audience, thereby maintaining their presence in the Australian cultural consciousness.

"Novels are not the same thing as films, but unless there is a determined effort to make literature into film and television then we run the risk that literature will wither or fall into obscurity. And all the more so with the literature of a country such as Australia, where the novels tend to loom larger in our minds than they do for the rest of the world (quite apart from their value)."
I can agree with the underlying sentiment of this paragraph, but some of the individual pieces within it seem either cliched or open to debate.

Firstly, there is the basic assumption that UNLESS SOMETHING IS DONE then literature in this country will "wither or fall into obscurity". Nope, can't agree that with one. It's the old hoary "literature is dying" trope that is dragged out about once a year. Literature isn't dying, it's just changing; as it should. The subjects that literature tackles have been changing since the early part of the 20th century, splayed by the Modernists and then
expanded further by the post-splayers. The delivery methods will change now, which, on the face of it, may give the impression that it is fading away. It isn't. We are surrounded by more stories and poetry than ever before, and yet people insist that it's on its last legs. Just because it may not look like the literature you read in your youth doesn't imply its heading towards the wrong side of the grass.

Secondly: do novels really "loom larger in our minds than they do for the rest of the world"? Don't see that one either. I wonder if Craven is implying that we, as Australians, define ourselves in terms of our literary context. Do we see ourselves as real-life avatars of past or contemporary literary creations? I don't, and I doubt whether anyone else I know does either. We may, at one point, have been keen on seeing ourselves as a modern variant of The Man from Snowy River, but surely not these days. Not since the Second World War I suspect. Murray Whelan is more indicative of the people I relate to than anything by Martin Boyd.

But Craven does have a point when he implies the importance of film and television as a means of keeping our literature in the forefront of our hearts and minds. I think I'd be on solid ground in saying that film (and its cousin, television) represented the great new artistic form of the twentieth century. The novel filled that role in the 18th and 19th centuries and, while both the novel and film may have originated at an earlier time, they came to be their dominant cultural positions in the eras mentioned.

We are in the middle of a Golden Age of television. Series such as The X-Files (nine seasons and 201 episodes), The West Wing (seven seasons of about 22 episodes each), The Sopranos, (6 seasons and 86 episodes), Deadwood, Rome, even the new Doctor Who and Torchwood are redefining the way we watch and perceive the television artform. And, in the case of The West Wing and The Sopranos, may even be showing us a new form of literature and a new way of appreciating it. So the method is there. Television networks just need the will (read marketplace dynamics) to incorporate adaptations of the literary classics along with the newer works.

Literature isn't dead, it just needs a better publicist.

The Art of Reviewing 4

There are a number of phrases that turn up with monotonous regularity in book reviews, phrases that always make me think the reviewer hasn't thought about the book at hand to any great extent. Phrases such as "near masterpiece" or "what it means to be human" (thanks Jonathan Strahan), words such as "flawed" and "well-crafted"; they all leave me thinking I've missed something entirely in the review. But the one at present that is giving me the pip is "two-dimensional character".

What does that actually mean?

I understand it as shorthand for "flat and uninteresting": that the character changed little over the course of the novel, had little in the way of personal history, and made no compelling case for being someone the reader would be happy to meet in the street and go have a beer with.

I read this description recently in a review of Inspector Anders and the Blood Vendetta by Marshall Browne, and I was a bit peeved really. So I got to thinking about what readers actually want from their fictional characters, and what I remembered of Inspector Anders.

It's been about six months since I read the novel but I still feel as though I've got a pretty good idea about the book and the main character. Let's remember that the novel fits into what is loosely referred to as the "crime/mystery" genre. Such books, like other genre specific works, tend to be rather more plot-driven than character-centric. That's both their blessing and their curse. The good examples, the ones that stand out from the rest of the pack, tend to maintain the plot interest while also presenting good characterisation, setting, and tempo; they're the whole package in other words.

Inspector Anders, as might be hinted at by his title, works for the police, and would normally be rather humdrum with a few minor quirks to make him stand out. But Anders is different: physically he's middle-aged, balding with greying hair, with an artifical leg; he's a lover a fine food and wine; he's a lover of women with specific psychological damage - similar to his own; and he is writing a detailed biography of an ancestor of his, a well-known poet who died in a duel over a woman. We see Anders angry, depressed, afraid, in love and in lust, frustrated, happy, resigned and triumphant. All of these physical and emotional aspects (barring his hair type) have some affect on the story-line, causing branches and changes depending on how he reacts to the world around him. And none of it seems out of place. He's changed by the actions in the novel, and he changes the world by what he does.

Doesn't seem so two-dimensional to me.

Maybe the original review was pressed for space and it was a throw-away phrase. But if, as reviewers, we should be on the look-out for cliches, then surely we should not be utilising them ourselves.

A Balanced Diet

A couple of weeks back Dean, of the "Happy Antipodean" weblog, had this to say in a comment about a poem that I had transcribed here:

Perry, why do you persist in transcribing the irrelevant effusions of second-rate versifiers just because they're Australian? Are you so tightly wrapped in the flag?
It's a decent enough question, but one I didn't attempt to answer at the time. I covered the second part by stating that the major aim of this weblog is to cover Australian literature in all its forms. If that gave the impression that I was exhibiting any form of rampant nationalism then that was unfortunate. It was only a secondary by-product and not the main aim.

I did, however, get to thinking about Dean's original comment and wondered if he might have a point after all. I have come to the conclusion that he does, that a lot of the poems I transcribe here are of only minor interest and are mainly second-rate at best. But you know what? I don't really care. They are of interest to me, and that's the best guide I can think of.

A couple of times over the past year I have made some minor asides about the need for all readers to think of their literary input as a form of diet, nourishment for the soul if you like. All the nutritional literature will tell you that a balanced diet is what you should aim for, in any one day sampling across all the basic food groups. It's okay to dip deeply into stuff that isn't overly good for you occasionally. Trouble arises when that's all you do.

I tend to think that reading works exactly in the same way. We need to read across all literary forms and genres, fiction and non-fiction, to get a decent dietary spread. "Binge-reading" in one grenre or another is okay for a while - just remember to come up for air once in a while.

And what this means is that, at times, you're going to read crap. Sturgeon's Law tells us that 90% of everything is trash. It doesn't matter what the subject is, the law applies equally. There really isn't any avoiding it, unless, of course, you're got a really good built-in trash filter. You might have, I don't. And again it's not something that bothers me.

I have a particular liking for Australian poetry from period of about 1850 to the start of the Second World War. It probably comes from a lack of understanding of modern poetry on the one hand, and a sense that a poem should say something to me on the other. Some of the work that falls into this period will fit under the genre name of "Bush Ballads". Unfortunately, a lot of people think it all should fall under that heading, thereby condemning it to the trash bucket without proper consideration. But again, it all comes back to a balanced diet. I do read some modern poets - not a lot it must be said but some. I particularly like Dorothy Porter's work and can generally find something in poems of Les Murray and, sometimes, David Malouf. But it's to the late 19th and early 20th century that I keep returning.

I started transcribing poems for this weblog when I began it back in December 2004. I believed then, as I still do, that there was a vast amount of work published during the period which had never, or rarely, seen the light of day after first publication. I thought that a pity.

The poems that appear on Matilda are selected using several criteria, the most important of which being that I need to find something of interest in the work. How others see them is not something I can determine. But I'm going to keep transcribing the works for as long as I can find pieces I'm interested in.

Some of them will be good, and some rather trashy. But that's just the nature of the beast.

Searching for Banjo Paterson

"The Courier-Mail" newspaper is wondering where all the new major poets are. Likening the current long-running drought with that suffered by the country in the 1890s, the unnamed writer of this piece points out:

The impact of the 1890s drought on the country we live in today is almost impossible to exaggerate. There is a case to be argued that even the decision for the colonies to federate was influenced by the terrifying realities of that big dry.

The Australian Labor Party became a real political force because of that drought; our Constitution contains carefully worded phrases about the allocation of water rights because of that drought; some men walked away from hopeless lives and went off to fight the Boer War because of that drought, and some of our greatest cultural treasures exist because of that drought. Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson wrote some of their finest works on the back of the social and economic upheaval of the times.

So, where are the current-day responses to this big dry? Methods of communication have changed markedly in the past 110 years, not least of them being the demise of poetry as a popular artform. But has anything stepped in to take its place? Has the massive social shift from the "bush" to the "city" in Australian society distanced us so much from the effects of the drought that any artistic response
will be minimal and ineffectual?

We would hope not, but if the past four or five years is anything to go by, you'd have to say "yes".

Genre Fiction and its Poponents

A couple of weeks back, during a discussion about the Miles Franklin Award, I alluded to the fact that the sf genre had gained a level of critical acceptance if not respectability.

It used to be that sf writers came to despise the "science fiction" label and aimed to achieve a greater level of acceptance from the general reading public by removing the tag and by having their books placed in the general literary section of bookshops. "Non-sf" authors occasionally ventured into the sf field, mostly with results which annoyed sf fans, due to a lack of understanding of sf tropes, and astounded the general readership for what was perceived as innovation. The fact that both these conditions could hold for the one novel said much about the ghetto nature of most sf.

But times have changed and we now find a number of major novellists exploring sf themes or using sf devices to structure their work. Jonathan Strahan, on his eblog "Notes From Coode Street", points to one such recent novel: "Michiko Kakutani reviews Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union in "The New York Times" today. I honestly have little time or interest in the discussion of how genre fiction is or isn't viewed in the mainstream, or even in the divide between genre and mainstream, but I was struck by how the one thing that Kakutani repeatedly praised is Chabon's world-building skills. The novel, which I'm reading at the moment, is an alternate history, and a good one. The only possible thing that might set it apart from genre alternate histories (and this is a big maybe) is that the alternate history element of the story is pretty much used only as setting, while the story focusses on other matters. That is to say, the alternate history isn't the point of the story." It's interesting that a major critic like Kakutani would praise an author for a portion of their book which seems to have little relevance. It's almost as if they hadn't seen this type of thing before. Alternate histories, world-building? That's old stuff, sf-wise.

Last night, on the First Tuesday Book Club broadcast on ABC TV, two books were discussed which were, in most respects, sf novels. And yet, the terms "sf" or "science fiction" were, to my tired ears, never mentioned. Kurt Vonnegut started as an sf writer and was one of the first major authors to move from the field out into the mainstream world. He was later followed by such authors as William Golding, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, among many others. But Slaughterhouse Five is considered by many to be a great sf novel, though not, it seems, by the general reading public.

The same can be said of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's basically a post-apocalyptic novel, much in the same way that Walter M Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Edgar Pangborn's Davy, and Russell's Hoban's Riddley Walker depict worlds devasted by nuclear war. We've had the world destroyed by war, alien invasion, drought, water, wind, cosmic collision, solar detonation and plague. We've even had cannibalism featuring pretty much up front in A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison. There's nothing new here. It has been done before. But as good as this? Well, that's another question.

They Are Just Words, But...

An article in "The Sydney Morning Herald" last weekend starts as follows: "In a recent Spectrum review of a book about Nicole Kidman, it was suggested that studying the Kidman mystique reveals something of 'the nature of fandom'...'Fandom'. There's a word you've likely not heard much. Yet you instantly know what it means - without necessarily knowing how you know. It's a nano-blink of inferencing and corroboration."

The author of the piece, Ruth Wajnryb, then goes on to reference a number of Australian dictionaries in search of the word, and, other than The Oxford Australian Dictionary, comes up short. I find this rather peculiar. I don't when I first heard the word "fandom", but it would have to be about 30 years ago, and would have thought it had been in general use in Australia for much longer than that.

Wikipedia defines the term as follows: "Fandom (from the noun fan and the affix -dom, as in kingdom, dukedom, etc.) is a subculture composed by like-minded fans (aficionados) characterized by a feeling of closeness to others who share the same interest...The term 'fandom' is particularly associated with fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres, a community that dates back to the 1930s and has held the World Science Fiction Convention since 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage of the term back as far as 1903, with many of its documented references referring to sports fandom."

SF fandom started when readers of the early sf magazines, in the 1920s and 1930s, started corresponding within and outside the magazines' letter columns. At first their major mutual interest was the literature of sf, but, like all such unorganised associations, once people started to meet in person they came to realise they had more things in common than just the initial point of contact. Fandom evolved from these early meetings into a sub-culture that continues to this day. Being a 'fan' is a state of mind more than anything else. It's how you think of yourself, rather than an appellation that someone bestows upon you.

Wajnryb hasn't written her piece as a search for the meaning of the word "fandom" - it's pretty obvious that she does know what it means - but as a way of showing that it is possible for us to understand the sense of a word, even if we can't necessarily find it in our usual reference texts. The problem with that situation is that leads to some major misunderstandings.

Back before the internet spread its almost-instantaneous web across the world, the major method of communication between fans was via the "fanzine" (an abbreviation of the phrase "fan magazine"). In most people's minds the word "fanzine" has rather low connotations - implying the worst in celebrity idolisation - and I'd be remiss to deny that some of them were, and probably are, just like that. So this is another word that implies one meaning to some people and something entirely different to others.

That is never more evident that in an essay series titled "A People's History of Australian Zines", published in Heat 11 - unfortunately not available on the web. Wikipedia says of fanzines that "The term was coined in October 1940 by Russ Chauvenet and first popularized within science fiction fandom". Within fandom the terms "fanzines" and "zines" are inter-changeable, the second being merely an abbreviated form of the first. Yet, for some reason, recent "zine-makers" seem to feel they have invented not only the term, but the whole genre as well.

In her introduction to the series of essays in Heat Anna Poletti boldly states, at the beginning of the third paragraph: "As a genre, zines have their roots in the British punk movement of the 1970s and, some argue, the political pamphleteering of the American Revolution; independent, unmediated communication is the common ground between punks and the political agitators of fledgling America." From this statement I thought she was defining a form of zine that was different from my own experience, which I thought was fair enough, if mildly ill-informed. But then, a page or so later she states: "It is tenable, but perhaps quite parochial, to speak of generations of zine-makers in Australia. Murdoch University Library in Perth holds a collection of science fiction fanzines which stretches back to the 1950s..." Which then leaves me in state of some puzzlement. On the one hand zines have their roots in the 1970s, and yet here they are dating back to the 1950s. Actually, I think the main reason why there are fanzines from the 1950s, rather than earlier, is that the bulk of the fanzine collection at Murdoch was donated by Leigh Edmonds, who entered fandom in the mid 1960s. Being transitory items at best, fanzines have limited life expectancy, and even more limited distribution. Collecting fanzines from the 1940s would have been nigh on impossible, even in the 1960s.

If you were to read the other essays in Heat 11, you could safely come away with the view that the Australian zine world has really only been in existence for the past ten years, and that the only people producing them are wannabe writers looking for a publishing outlet. A little more research into the subject would have unearthed a vast history which is only hinted at here. Leigh lives in Ballarat and is easily found, and Bruce Gillespie, who has been mentioned on this weblog before, lives in Melbourne and still publishes "SF Commentary", albeit sporadically. I'm sure either one would have been a valuable research resource if asked.

I'd rather not come to the conclusion from this examination that certain parts of history are neglected because of their genre associations, but I'm not sure how else to look at it.

I live my days in quiet confusion.

2006 - A Year in Australian Literature

January

  • Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, and I am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak are named as Honor Books in the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature
  • Dr Inga Clendinnen awarded an Officer (AO) in the General Division in the Australia Day Honors list

February

  • The Secret River by Kate Grenville is named the winner of the South East Asia and South Pacific Region section of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
  • Bookseller Jack Bradstreet complains in a letter to Australian Book Review about the printing of Grenville's new novel, as the book's cloth case shows no identifying type - subsequent editions reveal a return to sanity
  • Margo Lanagan's story, "Singing My Sister Down", makes the final ballot for the Short Story Category of the 2005 Nebula Awards

March

  • Adelaide Writers' Week runs as part of the 2006 Adelaide Festival of Arts
  • J.M. Coetzee takes up Australian citizenship in front of Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, with Cornelia Rau - falsely detained by immigration officials in 2005 - standing at his shoulder
  • 2006 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature winners announced - with Gail Jones taking out the main prize for her novel Sixty Lights
  • The Secret River by Kate Grenville is named the overall winner of the Best Book of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
  • 2006 Miles Franklin Award Longlist announced
  • After appearing on nationwide US breakfast television Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief, hits #1 on the Amazon book list
  • Margo Lanagan's story, "Singing My Sister Down", continues its remarkable run by being nominated for a Hugo (Science Fiction Achievement) Award. K.J. Bishiop is nominated for a John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer
  • William Elliott's manuscript, The Pilo Family Circus, is named the inaugural winner of the ABC Fiction Award

April

  • John Hughes is annnounced as the winner of the 2006 National Biography Award for his book The Idea of Home
  • the 2006 Ditmar Award Winners are announced with Sean Williams and Shane Dix winning the main award for their novel Geodesica: Ascent
  • Geraldine Brooks wins the 2006 Pultizer Prize for Fiction for her novel March
  • Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, complains about the modern school English syllabus, stating that it is being "dumbed down"
  • Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany is shortlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize
  • ex Miles Franklin award judge, Kerryn Goldsworthy, speculates on the make-up of the 2006 shortlist and picks the complete set which is announced a few hours later - the sky does not fall and her local betting shop remains untroubled

May

  • Peter Carey's ex-wife, Alison Summers, takes a swipe at the author, accusing him of using his fiction to settle some old scores. She refers to a minor character in Carey's novel Theft: A Love Story (called The Plaintiff) and announces she is also writing a novel, titled Mrs Jekyll
  • Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, is awarded the 2006 Kathleen Mitchell Award, a $7500 prize given biennially to encourage Australian authors under 30
  • the shortlist for the 2006 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal is announced
  • Brenda Walker is announced as the winner of the 2006 Nita B. Kibble Award for Women's Life Writing, for her novel The Wing of Night
  • ABC Television announces its return to literature broadcasting with the scheduling of "The First Tuesday Book Club", first program to screen in August
  • the winners of the 2006 NSW Premier's Literary Awards are announced, with Kate Grenville's The Secret River picking up the main fiction award
  • nominations open for the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2006 - Australia's richest literary prize

June

  • Hachette Livre announces it intends to launch a major new SF and Fantasy imprint in Australia
  • Johnno by David Malouf, his novel of post-war Brisbane, is adapted for the stage with its world premiere scheduled for this year's Brisbane Arts Festival on July 14th
  • Grant Stone's long-running, Perth-based sf and fantasy radio program, Faster Than Light, starts podcasting its programs
  • Kate Morton's novel, The Shifting Fog, is sold in 11 countries in a two-book deal approaching seven figures
  • Roger McDonald's novel, The Ballad of Desmond Kale is announced as the winner of the 2006 Miles Franklin Award

July

  • the ABC board decides against publishing the new Chris Masters book Jonestown, an unauthorised biography of Alan Jones, a Sydney radio presenter
  • the Australian Classification Review Board bans two radical Islamic books, prompting calls from the Australian Attorney-General for the Board to provide with even tougher laws
  • Angus & Robertson, one of Australia's largest chain of bookshops, announces plans to expand its nationwide network of 170 stores by adding another 45 over the next two years
  • Emily Maguire's first novel, Taming the Beast, is longlisted for the inaugural Dylan Thomas prize, for writers under 30

August

  • Marion Lennox wins the Best Traditional Romance category of the 2006 Romance Writers of America Rita awards, for her novel Princess of Convenience
  • ABC television's "First Tuesday Book Club" premieres to reasonable reviews
  • "The Australian" newspaper submits a chapter of a Patrick White novel to a number of Australian publishers under a pseudonym - none of them opt to publish the work
  • the longlist for the 2006 Man Booker Prize is released - three Australians make the list
  • Australian playwright Alex Buzo dies after a long illness, he was 62

September

  • the 2006 "Age" Book of the Year Award winners are announced: Velocity by Mandy Sayer for Non-Fiction; Friendly Fire by Jennifer Maiden for Poetry; and Dead Europe by Christos Tsialkos for Fiction; with Maiden also winning for Best Book
  • the 2006 Ned Kelly Award winners (for crime fiction) are anounced: Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst tied with The Broken Shore by Peter Temple in the Novel category; Out of the Silence by Wendy James won Best First Novel; and Packing Death by Lachlan McCullough won for Best Non-Fiction
  • the 2006 Victorian Premier's Literary Award winners are announced with Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey winning the main Fiction Award
  • Colin Thiele, award-winning children's author of such books as Storm Boy and Sun on the Stubble, dies - he was 85
  • the 2006 Man Booker Prize Shortlist is announced, with The Secret River by Kate Grenville, and Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland making the final list of six novels
  • the 2006 Queensland Premier's Literary Awards winners are announced, with The Garden Book by Brian Castro winning the main fiction award
  • the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies announces the 2005 winner of the Colin Roderick Award as The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
  • Belinda Castles wins the 2006 "The Australian"/Vogel Literary Award for her novel The River Baptists

October

  • Gwen Meredith, script-writer for the long-running radio serial "Blue Hills" dies at the age of 99
  • Kiran Desai's novel, The Inheritance of Loss, is announced as the winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize
  • after being denied publication by ABC Books in July, Jonestown by Chris Masters, is finally published by Allen and Unwin - it is an immediate best-seller
  • Alexandra Adornetto, a 14-year-old Melbourne high school student signs a two-book deal with publisher HarperCollins - her first novel The Shadow Thief is due to be published in the middle of 2007
  • Readings Bookshops is presented with "The Age"/D&B Business Award in the retail category

November

  • a large treasure trove of missing papers belonging to Patrick White is revealed to the public. Contrary to the wishes expressed in White's will, his literary executor, Barbara Mobbs, did not destroy the material but kept it and has since offered it to the National Library of Australia
  • 11 Australian novels make the extended longlist for the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Tim Flannery is awarded the Lannan Foundation Literary Award, for his "excellence in nonfiction".
  • Morris Lurie is announced as the winner of the 2006 Patrick White Award
  • Helen Garner wins the 2006 Melbourne Prize for Literature for a body of work that "has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life", and Christos Tsiolkas wins the best writing prize for a writer under 40, for his novel Dead Europe
  • "The New York Times" includes Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir by Robert Hughes in its list of the best 100 books of the year
  • Scholastic Australia drops plans to publish John Dale's children's thriller, Army of the Pure, citing a survey which showed that booksellers and librarians would not stock the book because the villain is a Muslim terrorist

December

  • the month is dominated by one best books of the year list after another
  • nominations are released for the 2006 Aurealis Awards

The Art of Reviewing 3

Lucy Sussex, a reviewer for the "Age" newspaper and various other Australian literary magazines, sent through a comment on my previous post about George Turner and the "Art of Reviewing". I thought it would be lost in the Comments section so I asked Lucy if I could elevate to the main weblog. She agreed and her piece follows:

I beg to differ slightly on the late George Turner and his reviewing. I did not know him well -- who did? -- but it was my distinct impression that he got caught in the writer-reviewer bind, or Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. A writer who is also a critic puts themselves in peril, in that however much your vitriol is directed at the work, the writer reviewed will inevitably take it personally. George's early critical work took no prisoners, and some writers never forgave him. They reviewed him in return with equal asperity -- one, he told me, turned their back on him at their only meeting, a decade after the original review. So he learnt what it felt like...and in the process had his own literary work impugned.

That said, I agree that it is the reviewer's duty to describe the work in such a way that the target market is identified, and that the reader can decide whether to buy the work or not. Separating personal likes and dislikes from this process is well-nigh impossible -- but it can provide a way of deflecting the actual criticism. The work is perhaps not to my tastes, but you might like misery memoirs, serial killers, women getting nailed to floorboards. It's absolutely true, somebody out there buys this crap. And sometimes you have to quote, to give the flavour of the author, or damn them with their own words.

At a recent publisher's party I got into a multi-person discussion about reviewerly ethics. "What ethics?" said a review editor (& writer). An exquisitely frank exchange ensued, where the words "corruption", "promoting his f-buddies" and "culture of pals" were also heard. The question arose of saying in a review what you wouldn't say to the writer's face. Well, ideally politeness or cowardice have no place in reviewing. On the other hand, it is nice to go to parties in a frock rather than a flak jacket.

I thought of a reviewer praised because: "She lives in the country, she doesn't associate with writers, she can say what she likes."

Here are some good rules for reviewing in a small fishpond and surviving.

Jenny Pausacker: Never review your dinner host, or someone whom you've similarly hosted, the relationship is too close.

Lucy adds: Not unless they are really foul cooks, and you never want to eat there ever again. Also make sure they have no access to Polonium.

Anonymous Australian Literary Novelist: Never review anyone writing in your same field and nation (Australian literary novelists).

Lucy's rules: never review friends (but if you must, state your conflict of interest somewhere in the review), or enemies. Also sensitive little plants (not worth the bother) and people you have an editorial relationship with...

Which means, when I opened a recent publication and discovered I'd been reviewed less than glowingly by someone breaking Pausacker's, Anonymous's, and several of Lucy's rules, I vomited.

No exaggeration, I had gastric lurgi on the day. Then I got down to meeting a deadline, writing my review copy for next week. You don't mess with newspapers, so I sat up in bed and typed, with laptop propped against the cat, and the bucket nearby, just in case.

Did the review copy include the rule-breaker's latest work? Oh, poetic justice if it had. No, I stick to the rules. It just means there's one less writer I need to read.

And given how sensitive writers are, that's equally as hurtful as repeating gossip about their sexual attributes, or comparing literary style to a cow with side-pockets.

Australian Literature on Wikipedia

Back at the end of October I wrote a piece about the state of Australian literature on the WWW, and, in particular, discussed the lamentable state of entries on Wikipedia - the free web-based encyclopedia. The main example I gave concerned the Miles Franklin Award. At the time of writing some eight authors, who had won the award, did not have individual entries on the website. I am happy to say that has now been rectified; by me and others who have chipped in. The entries I've added aren't expansive: only a brief biography, lists of works and award won. But it's a start. Now all we need is for the Australian literature experts out there to expand on the basic pages.

The Art of Reviewing 2

Back in the mid-1990s I attended a meeting of Melbourne's Nova Mob that featured George Turner on the subject of reviewing. The Nova Mob is a weekly sf discussion group that has been running for over 30 years, and generally features one person providing the lead talk, followed by a lively question and answer session. It's all done in a good spirit, and most leading figures in the sf and fantasy worlds within Australia have addressed it at one time or another.

I was especially keen on this particlar meeting, however, because Turner was such an interesting figure in the Australian sf scene. He was a well-established, if not best-selling, writer of literary fiction who was also a long-time sf fan: not a common occurrence, or not one admitted to at least. His writing career can be basically split in two: a first "literary" phase, during which he won a Miles Franklin Award for The Cupboard Under the Stairs in 1962, and his secondary science fictional phase during which he won a Commonwealth Writers' Regional Prize for The Sea and Summer in 1988. Let's admit it, he could write, regardless of the genre.*

The other thing he could do was look at his beloved science fiction with a critical eye, skewering classic novels such as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, works that had seemed almost inviolate previously. He started his reviewing career writing for John Bangsund's "Australian Science Fiction Review" (ASFR) in the middle 1960s, and later for Bruce Gillespie's "Science Fiction Commentary" (SFC) and "The Age" newspaper. It didn't take him long to make enemies all over the place. Turner had a set of critical levels that he applied to sf novels, levels that the bulk of them failed to meet. He could be quite acerbic when annoyed and he scared the hell out of most sf fans in the country - me included. The British critic, Paul Kincaid, has recently written about Turner's critical style in "Science Fiction Studies". While I've only read the abstract available on the web, Kincaid seems to imply that Turner had an antagonistic relationship with sf, that he attempted "to see the genre as if it were based on exactly the same principles and ideas as mainstream literature". I agree with the latter but not the former of those two points.

Back in December 1968, John Bangsund published the 18th issue of his fanzine ASFR and, with it, George Turner's philosophy about the art of reviewing: "On Writing About Science Fiction". It's an essay that deserves close attention. Yes, it deals mainly with sf but its sentiments and guidelines can be applied across all genres.

Turner makes the following basic points:

  • reviewing must be honest and fair
  • the prime purpose of a review is to present a description of the work under notice, so that the reader may have some advance idea of whether it will interest him or not
  • a review should be based on what the book attempts and how it succeeds or fails
  • whether you personally like or dislike the work is not of prime importance
  • nevertheless, your personal reaction will appear, though it should not be used to set the tone of the article, which should be judicial and balanced
  • be careful with quotation
  • don't go nit picking
  • don't attempt criticism in the space of a review

As a basic set of reviewing guidelines they're pretty good. You can quibble with various bits, but I reckon if you were to apply them in the main you wouldn't go far wrong.**

Turner disliked the lower end of the sf genre: the poorly written, the unassuming and the incomprehensible. But he also admired those works that reached for something more; novels by authors like Ursula Le Guin, Tom Disch and Gene Wolfe. That he attempted to apply mainstream critical techniques to sf works was only to his credit, and to the benefit of the genre.

So it was with that in mind that I went along to the Nova Mob's meeting. Turner was in his late 70s by this time and had mellowed somewhat. Even so he could be rather daunting if you spoke to him on his own. You always had the feeling that no matter how much sf you had read he had always read more, and read it more intensely.

But George threw me at that Nova Mob meeting. His subject was reviewing and I thought he was going to re-iterate his 1968 manifesto, expounding on the need for fairness to the reader and to the text. And he did, but he also did something else. This time he added in the author as well. He admitted that, in the past, he had been rather harsh on some writers within the field of sf, going in a little too hard, without reasonable thought of the consequences. Now he had decided that he would not write any more negative reviews. If he couldn't find something to praise in a book then he wouldn't review it at all. He hadn't recanted from his 1960s stance, just added a little humanity to it I suppose you'd say.

I don't know how many reviews he wrote after that - not overly many I'd say - and I don't remember how many of them I read - doubtless a similarly small number. It doesn't matter really. Turner had come to the conclusion that all books were written with the best intentions in mind. Some of those intentions might not aim very high up the intellectual ladder, but the original ambition had to be respected just the same.

Personal epilogue:
George Turner was one of the best critics the genre has produced and yet I don't think he thought that highly of what he did. The last time I spoke to him was at an sf gathering, probably in early 1997. He'd been unwell for some time and although he had accepted an invitation from the organising committee of the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention to be a Guest of Honor at Aussiecon III, he didn't feel that he would be able to make it. He sought me out at the gathering and suggested, politely, that we might want to think about taking his name off the list, or getting someone else. For the first and only time that I can recall, I disagreed with him. "No George, you're the Guest of Honor," I said. "We aren't choosing anyone else." I'm not sure, but I hope he was pleased by that. He died later that year, and he was still a Guest of Honor at Aussiecon III.

* I've simplified Turner's career somewhat. Bruce Gillespie, who is Turner's literary executor and who knows more about this than I ever will, considers the writer had four distinct "careers".

** You can read the full version of this essay in "SF Commentary 76" (PDF file of about 2MgB!) which Bruce has loaded up to the web.

The Art of Reviewing

I have yet to read Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land, but I have every intention of doing so after reading Emma-Kate Symons's review of it in the latest issue of "The Australian Literary Review", published today. Oddly enough my reading intention is not based on a favourable review by Symons; on the contrary, she gives the novel a mild bucketing. It's been a while since I've been so annoyed by a review that purports to give an unbiased view of a book. It's such a strange one that I am left wondering if there was a level of snarkiness involved, or whether the "Review's" editor just picked completely the wrong reviewer.

The whole piece is given away by just one paragraph: "So what is it about fifty-something or 60-plus middle-class men and their prostates that seems to obsess some of the best contemporary American novelists in their mature phase?"

Leads you to think there's a bit of new genre appearing here doesn't it. I suppose it is quite possible to read "some" in that sentence as referring to "two", but you'd be stretching the bounds of credibility to do so. No, it implies "a certain quantity or number of" as my dictionary puts it. "A few", "several" - more than one, and more than two. And yet Symons only refers to one other novelist, Philip Roth and his Nathan character Zuckerman, as supporting evidence.

And then there's the underlying indication that middle-aged men and their prostates is not a subject about which to be obsessed. Turn the question on its head and replace gender and cancer. If I was to write such a line about a book by, say, Penelope Lively or Margaret Atwood, I'd be vilified for it - and rightly so. From the rest of the review, and from reading other reviews of this novel, I have come to the conclusion that Ford's character is rightly concerned about his prostate cancer - even Symons refers to him being "understandably morose" about the subject - and that it defines his thoughts and actions to a large extent through the course of this book. So to ask a question such as the one quoted, and then not to answer it seems to imply that the reviewer has missed the whole point of the novel. And surely, with a writer of Ford's stature, we have to assume that there is one.

It's going on my Christmas list.

Australian Literature on the WWW

A couple of weeks back Jenny Sinclair wrote an article, which was published in "The Australian" newspaper, about the woeful state of Australian Literature entries on Wikipedia, the major online open-source encyclopedia.

Although she doesn't come right out and say it, the article is basically a call-to-arms, a call to get people interested in Australian Literature to create new entries and to update those already there. Sinclair uses the example of Jessica Anderson, author of some eight novels and winner of the 1978 Miles Franklin Award for Tirra Lirra by the River - a great novel. Basically, Anderson is listed on the award's entry, but there were no biographical details about the writer anywhere. Sinclair did the proper thing and added one herself. An action I can only applaud.

It's been a while since I'd strolled around the site so I decided to check Wikipedia and see how bad the situation really is. The Miles Franklin Award entry is a pretty good place to start, especially as I've done a bit of work in that area as well - though even I will admit that I haven't done enough.

The first thing I noticed is that the list is up-to-date with Roger McDonald's 2006 winner listed. The years when no book was considered worthy of the award are included, as is the year (1988) when no award was presented due to a change in designation from year of publication to year of award. So on the face of it, it looks pretty good. But the devil is in the detail.

Any attempt at accessing details of the winning novels, or their authors, brings you up very short. Before today there were no entries on Wikipedia for Roger McDonald (2006 winner - I added one today), Andrew McGahan (2005), David Foster (1997), Tom Flood (1990), Glenda Adams (1987), David Ireland (1971, 1976 and 1979), Ronald McKie (1974), George Johnston (1964 and 1969), and Elizabeth O'Connor (1960). I won't bother to list the missing novels, there's just too many of them.

It's a poor state of affairs really.

Sinclair raises the question about Wikipedia: "Why should anyone in Australia care?" It's a good question and she proceeds to answer it very well. If for no other reason than the fact that a search on Google for the term "Australian Literature" returns Wikipedia in fifth place.

The odd thing about this, however, is the list of the first four. Sinclair explains them as follows: "the first listing for 'Australian literature' is a privately run index. The second is Ozlit, a well-meaning Victorian site where some pages were last updated in 1999; third is a National Library of Australia literature index. The 'official' authority on Australian literature, AustLit, comes in fourth. AustLit is comprehensive, well edited and accurate. It's also unavailable to the average user, limited as it is to subscribers or members of organisations that subscribe (including university students)."

I have lamented the loss of Ozlit here before, but what bothers me more than anything is the fact that the "privately run index" in first place is mine. It's nothing terribly great in the scheme of things, yet there is such a lack of information about Australian literature out there on the web that a small collection of pages put together with little skill and no authority should end up coming in first in a Google search.

Jenny Sinclair worries that no-one is interested. Hopefully she keeps fixing some of the Wikipedia entries and creating others. Her article has given me the prod I needed.

Journal Writing in the 21st Century

I'm not a journal writer. I wrote one for about a year when I was living in London in the early 1990s but found I was leaving bigger and bigger gaps between entries. It got to the point where it wasn't much use trying to catch up. I was just fooling myself. Still, I have dragged out that journal from time to time and find myself reading about someone from another time; someone almost recognisable.

Being a livelong procrastinator, I'm always on the look-out for a good excuse: the journal volume is the wrong size, the colour of the paper or cover is no good, the paper inside has the wrong texture, the printed lines (the lines for God's sake!) are the wrong colour, the pen is no good, and my writing is unreadable. Actually the last of these is quite reasonable. I've had terrible hand writing since I was a kid. No matter how much I slow down, print or write larger, sooner or later I degenerate into a pathetic scrawl that even I can't read later on. I envy people who have a good writing hand. It's probably way too late for me to change now.

Even a few years ago a good journal (right size, colour and paper texture) wasn't all that easy to find. There were volumes around but they tended to fit into either end of the market: mass-produced or expensive. Then a friend introduced me to the Moleskine notebook range and I was hooked. I like the cover and the paper texture. I like the elastic band that holds it all together, and I like the little pocket at the back where I can keep notes and receipts and other scraps of paper. The biggest of them is not quite big enough for a journal for me - I prefer something around the A4 size - but they are very good as a desk-top notebook, and smaller ones work very well as a pocket book. I got to the stage where I was carrying one around just about everywhere. I had them at work, at home and in the briefcase. They seemed to keep turning up in with a bag of books I might purchase at certain bookshops round town. They were always paid for, though I did worry for a while that I was getting a tad addicted to the things.

I knew I was onto something when I discovered a massive web-based community dedicated to Moleskines, notebooks, pencils and the concept of just putting pen to paper. But it's note-taking, not journal writing, that I was doing. Or at least not journal writing as Ann Nugent describes it in "The Lost Art of Journal Writing", published in the October 2006 issue of the "National Library of Australia News" - note, this is a PDF file.

The National Library of Australia has a special interest in journals and diaries ranging from Captain James Cook's account of the voyage of the Endeavour (1768-71), through exploration journals, 19th-century shipboard emigrant diaries, to modern-day hand-written journals by people from all walks of life. It's a huge collection. But Nugent wonders if the art of journal writing has been lost. Or whether it has been taken over by "the 21st-century heirs to journal-writers, the bloggers whose personal web logs give instant global expression to their daily lives or what they care to impart online." I think she has answered her own question. There are probably more journal writers alive now than have ever lived. They just tend to express themselves using a different medium.

It was interesting that I came across Nugent's article today as the UK just yesterday held its "One Day in History" blog day, run by the National Trust, with the final entries held at the British Library for, one suspects, perpetuity. Maybe the National Library of Australia might like to take up the idea and run with it here in this country. Once a year? I might just be able to handle that.

Patrick White and Wraith Picket

About a month back "The Australian" newspaper submitted a chapter of a Patrick White novel to a number of Australian publishers under the name Wraith Picket. It was roundly rejected by all of them - exactly what the paper hoped to achieve. This hoax was reported all over the place and I thought about commenting on it but got bored by the whole affair pretty quickly. And I didn't think I had anything to add. It had been done before in the UK with a chapter from a novel by V.S. Naipaul, and that exercise had been trawled over by everyone at the time.

Now, just as we thought the whole imbroglio seemed about to settle down, "The Australian" has lobbed another grenade into the mess. I'm not so interested in what the article has to say so much as the fact that they spend a lot of time quoting from one particular literary weblog. I think this is the first time I've seen a major paper in Australia do this.

Just thought you might be interested.

As an amusing addendum to all this, the number of readers in Sydney have set up a Patrick White Readers' Group with its own weblog. The aim is to get people reading the old curmudgeon again. And that can only be a good thing.

Man Booker Prize Longlist

With the announcement of the 2006 Man Booker Prize longlist about a week away (August 14th to be precise), I thought it time to have a look at a few contenders. Over the past few years I've been collecting a list of those works which seem to be gathering enough interest and "good" reviews to indicate they might be included. This year I've got to 30 novels, and that's just the ones I know about. Each year publishers hold off some of their possible contenders until the last minute, submitting the book to the judging panel before the publication date, and hence before any reviews appear. These tend to slip through my net. I'm not on publishers' lists of press release recipients so I am restricted to checking out their websites or trawling through the bowels of amazon.co.uk
looking for gems. This is not always a fruitful exercise. Anyway, it's usually possible to get a feeling for how the novels are being received in the UK by the "buzz" they generate in newspapers and on various weblogs.

One method I use is to check out the Metacritic website. I've mentioned this site before but it was a while back so a brief overview might be in order here. Metacritic examines book reviews published in major newspapers and magazines from the USA and the UK. To each of these reviews it allocates a rating, either Outstanding, Favorable, Mixed or Unfavorable, and from those rankings comes up with a final score out of 100. The site takes a while to come up with a final score which probably says more about the time-spread of book review appearances than about its efficiency. In any event, the longer they wait the more reviews they rate, and, hopefully, the better their final score becomes. Given that the site is based in the US, most of the books it examines are by North American authors but enough books of interest from the other side of the water turn up to make it a useful resource in this discussion.

A quick search through the site reveals the following books on Metacritic that overlap with my list of shortlist possibles (I've appended the Metacritic rating to each novel):
Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali - 46
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant - 78
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - 80
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - 82

By way of comparison, the latest Updike received a score of 44, the latest Roth got 80, and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky was allocated an all-time high figure of 95. I am of the view that the four novels listed above will make the Man Booker Longlist this year. The Ali might be the only contentious one (given its poor rating and unenthusiastic reviews), but I believe it will prevail. I would suspect it only needs one judge to be passionate about a book for it to be listed, and it seems that Monica Ali - a bit like Zadie Smith - seems to bring out that emotion in some readers.

So that's four. Then I reckon you can include Peter Carey as a major front-runner. I've been expecting his novel to appear on the Metacritic site for some time now, as it has been available in the US for a while and has been receiving some pretty favourable reviews. And beyond that: maybe Kate Grenville's The Secret River, though Commonwealth Writers' Prize winners don't seem to do well in the Booker, and Will Self's The Book of Dave. After those it's anyone's guess. It's a completely pointless exercise when all is said and done. Nothing I write here is going to influence any judge's decision: it's already too late for that. But who cares? Sometimes just having a bit of fun is all that matters.

Some Thoughts on First Tuesday Book Club 2

As Susanne points out in her comment to the href="http://www.middlemiss.org/weblog/archives/matilda/2006/08/first_tuesday_b_1.html">first instalment of this commentary set, the second book for the second program has been decided. It will be Helen Garner's The First Stone. Haven't read that one either.

Some Thoughts on First Tuesday Book Club

As previously mentioned, ABC Television has bitten the bullet and started a monthly book program. As Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, this is a very brave decision. Such programs do not have a glorious history on Australian television, generally being relegated to graveyard timeslots, or unimaginative in their approach. But with First Tuesday Book Club I think they might just be on a winner.

The ABC was rather restrained in their pre-publicity of the 30-minute show leading up to the first night. There were a couple of judiciously placed news drops in "The Age" newspaper, and a few (say, one or two a night) small promos between programs in the week before the event. If the promotional push extended beyond that I was blissfully ignorant of it. So ABC management were looking optimistic without attempting to be over-confident. Prudent I would have thought.

Luckily enough the program has, as its host, one of Australia's better television performers. Jennifer Byrne has a long history on Australian television, as journalist and presenter, and comes across as informed and enthusiastic. I can forgive a lot of things of people appearing on television but if they don't have either of those attributes then they lose my interest pretty fast. Appearing with Jennifer Byrne were Jason Steger (literary editor of "The Age"), Jacki Weaver (actor and author), Peter Cundall (presenter of ABC TV's Gardening Australia program) and Marieke Hardy (screenwriter,
blogger and grand-daughter of Frank Hardy - about the last of which she seemed quite defensive). It's a good mix of ages and literary backgrounds, though it might be criticised as being overly homogenous in its cultural diversity.

The first thing we notice about the program is the set and the seating arrangements of the participants. Most previous attempts at this have utilised the tried and true, but now tired, approach of putting all panelists in a line behind a straight or slightly curved desk with a fixed camera out front. The problem with this is that the host, who generally sits in the middle, spends the entire program bouncing their head backwards and forwards, making eye-contact with the panellists on each end of the desk, who lean forward attempting to stay in the conversation, producing a weird effect like four people sitting around a noddy-head dog. The dynamic has to be just right or the whole thing falls apart. First Tuesday Book Club gets around this problem by seating all
participants in a circle, just like a normal book club. A simple solution, so simple you wonder why no-one has done it before; until you start wondering how the guy on the middle left is ever going to get into shot if his back is to the camera facing the main talent. That is, of course, until they all come into center screen, one after the other, and you realise the answer is to have one camera focused on each person - five in all. It's a good ploy, just so long as you can hide the cameras in the background. And that's where the second part of the set-up comes in.

The program is presented with five people sitting in a circle in armchairs surrounded by bookshelves. But bookshelves of a specific type. They have been designed in such a way that they complement the light airy nature of the program. The shelves are of light-coloured wood, without backing boards, which carry a number of book-like objects in a general sense of order - standing upright or stacked in short piles on the shelves. I say "book-like" because the objects are book sized and shaped but are covered in what appears to be brown wrapping paper. I'm not doing the set justice here. It sounds awful rom my description, yet the overall effect is one of bookishness without the distractions of a multi-coloured background that draws the eye to the titles and away from the discussion in the centre of the set. So another win there.

As a side-point: I didn't see any of the cameras in the background during the program
so I can only suppose they were cleverly hidden amongst the bookshelves and books. It worked for me.

The choice of the books under discussion each week is going to be the telling point, determining whether or not the programs succeed. This week we had the 2006 Miles Franklin Award winner, The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald, and, as Jennifer Byrne's "classic" choice, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. And if argument, discontent, and enthusiasm are your criteria for success on programs such as this then you got it in bucketloads. The McDonald novel was generally considered to be a worthy read. There were a few dissensions - Peter Cundall found what he thought was a factual error on the first page - which were mainly to do with the style employed and the length. But all things considered it received a positive response.

Not so the Ellis. Byrne picked the book for discussion and she introduced it as "modern classic". Weaver agreed, Steger and Hardy thought it would have made for a good short story and Cundall just about went apoplectic. For a while there I thought he was going to burst a boiler. His final verdict: he had a good use for the novel - chopped up as mulch for his plants. Each book brought out a lively discussion, curtailed somewhat by the program's length, but energetic and relatively free-flowing. Thirty minutes seemed a tad short to me, although sixty might just be stretching the bounds of interest.

All in all it's a good start. I didn't see anything in this first episode that might scuttle it too early in its run. Its continued success will depend largely on the choice of books and whether or not the participants become too repetitive. The books under discussion will hange from week to week, it might be an idea to introduce some guest commentators from time to time as well.

The September program will discuss Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and one other, yet to be announced.

A Poet Laureate for Australia

In a major piece in "The Australian" newspaper on the weekend, Perth based writer and critic Richard King discusses the possibility of Australia appointing a poet laureate. The basic question is: Britain and the USA both have one, so why not us?

It is a reasonable question, which I, in typical fashion, scoffed at immediately. What possible use could one be, I thought? Which then raised the supplementary question: what do they actually do, anyway? To which I can safely answer that I do not have the faintest idea.

So it was off to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet_laureate that I went and obtained the following definition: "A Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government and often expected to compose poems for state occasions and other government events. The term has in England for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, appointed for life since the time of Charles II. Poets Laureate are appointed by many countries, some U.S. states and the UN."

So the Poet Laureate is a government appointment whose particular task is, to quote the current British incumbent: "..to write poems on royal and national events". But even he then went on to question how this could be done by one person in such a multicultural society as Britain's. What we tend to end up with are ugly poems that no-one is particularly interested in. Which brings to mind the reaction to the poem the then Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, wrote about the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales. I think "vitriolic" might not be too harsh a word for the criticism it received. Though to be fair, this may well have been directed mainly at Hughes rather than the quality of his poetry.

It might be argued that C.J. Dennis, in his role as resident poet for the Melbourne "Herald" in the 1920s and 1930s, was as close an example of an Australian Poet Laureate as we have had. Each year during his tenure, he wrote poems commemorating such events as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day; events that most Australians would consider worthy of some sort of decent poetry. But it has also to be remembered that he wrote poems about the Melbourne Cup, the start of the football season and the results of cricket test matches. He wrote about politicians and grocers, country doctors and country pubs, city trams and local trains, trees and birds, gardens and monuments - basically the whole gamut of life as he saw it.

It is impossible to say how popular his verse was at the time it was written. I suppose the fact that he continued to be published for as long as he did gives as good an indication as any of his standing among the paper's readership.

I doubt that Dennis ever saw his role as one concerned with the promotion of poetry as an acceptable artform. He came from a humble background that viewed poetry as part and parcel of an everyday reading life, not as some sort of pretentious nonsense.

In general I'm not a big fan of modern poetry. I don't find it says anything to me that has an impact. There are some that I enjoy (David Rowbotham, Dorothy Porter and Les Murray spring to mind) but the list is short. And yet I put it to you that there are a couple of "poets" working in Australia right now who might be considered to have taken on some of Dennis's mantle: I'm thinking of Michael Leunig and singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. If we are going to appoint a Poet Laureate for Australia I'd certainly like to see either of them being considered for the role. But if we are going to appoint someone whose brief has them writing poems to commemorate the opening of Parliament or the Queen's birthday, then I think we should give the whole idea the flick.

The Miles Franklin Award and Associated Publicity

Over in the comments section to the right a number of correspondents are discussing some points I raised last week regarding the Miles Franklin Award. As part of that discussion I mentioned that "books get excluded that the general reading public would well assume were eligible". To which The Happy Antipodean, Dean, replied: "I think another alternative is to more thoroughly publicise the restrictions of Australian literary awards, as I suggested earlier. That way, nobody will be disabused when a good candidate fails to qualify."

Which, in a roundabout way, introduces the subject of publicity surrounding the Miles Franklin Award.

I've been in a few bookshops around Melbourne lately and have been rather disappointed in the lack of material regarding the award on open display. My local shop, Readings in Hawthorn, has a small poster attached to the wall next to their Australian fiction section. This poster, which seems to have been produced by someone other than the bookshop, lists the books, displays their covers, highlights the publishers and gives details of when the winner will be anounced. Pretty reasonable overall. I can quibble about the size of the poster but it's good to have something. The bookshop also lists the contending novels on the front page of its website.

On the other hand I was in Borders today, in Melbourne Central, cashing in an old book voucher by buying Roger McDonald's nominated novel and found nothing obvious about the award anywhere in the shop. Okay, I didn't check the graphic novel section but figured I'd hardly be likely to stumble across anything there. Anyway, I get to the cash desk and the lady behind the counter says something like "This one looks interesting. I've been eyeing it off for a while." "It's on the Miles Franklin shortlist," I said. "That's a pretty good indication," she said. She didn't seem aware that the shortlist had been released nor anything other than a form of "brand recognition" of the award.

I found this rather depressing. Last year the shortlisted novels all carried a silver sticker signalling their new-found status within a couple of days of the announcement. Nothing so far this year. I remain vigilent, but unhopeful.

The Outlook for Australian Literature

In "The Australian" last weekend Rosemary Neill wrote a long article titled "Lits Out", or elsewhere titled "Who is Killing the Great Books of Australia?" I meant to link to it earlier in the week, and wanted to make some comments on it. I just couldn't think of much to go on with. I'm not sure that I still can, yet I think it does need to be mentioned and discussed.

Neill's basic premise is that Australian literary fiction is in a very sick state indeed. It isn't dead, it's just not very well. Sales are down in numbers and value and if the current trends continue then it's probably going to slowly fade out of existence.

Her main argument is based on the number of non-genre Australian novels published each year which has fallen from 60 in 1996 to 32 in 2004. And by any stretch this isn't good. One part of the problem seems to lie with the current crop of major Australian publishers, who are all, bar Allen & Unwin, majority owned by non-Australian companies. Current publishing set-up costs mean that a major publishing house has to print, and sell, at least 3000 copies. That doesn't sound like a lot but Shona Martyn, publishing director at HarperCollins, says that a lot of well-known, respected writers sell under 1000 copies of their novels in this country. The finances just don't add up and publishing at those numbers just isn't feasible. Yet you can't blame the publishers for not publishing books at a loss. They are in the business of making money for their shareholders. They aren't a charity and shouldn't be expected to act like one. Martyn also goes on to say that a book only has a window of approximately four weeks to find a niche in the market. After that the focus of the metropolitan newspapers and magazines has moved on, and all that is left is the round of state and national literary awards. It's not looking good.

There is a ray of hope in all this, however. Small publishers such as Giramondo can make ends meet with print-runs about half those required by the big publishers. The trouble is, their resources are limited and they can't take on the whole field.

It's possible to come up with a long list of reasons why this state of affairs has come about: the marketing is ill-conceived or non-existent; the publishers don't understand the market and are publishing the wrong books; readers just aren't interested in fiction any more, let alone Australian fiction. And a case can be made for all of these. You have to add in the general societal changes involving new forms of media, greater availabilty of those forms, and the subsequent lowering of the attention spans of media consumers. I don't think there is any one reason for the fall in sales, all of those listed play a part, but not the total.

I don't work in the industry and don't have a "wonder cure" for the ills of the Australian publishing industry. I don't believe anyone has. Maybe it lies in the unearthing of a major new writing talent, the emergence of an energetic and courageous publisher, government intervention, or the introdutcon of innovative new publishing forms that are cheaper and more easily accessible.

In some ways the current state of Australian literary fiction mirrors the current problems with our male swimmers at the Commonwealth Games: what once was great has now been seen to rely too heavily on one or two heroic performers who are currently missing through injury. In the next six to twelve months I suspect major initiatives will be put in place to correct this sporting "deficiency". If only the same sort of effort could be put into the literary field we might not be having this conversation again in 12 months' time. In the meantime, don't hold your breath in hope or expectation that the Federal Government will step in to save the day. You're going to be severely disappointed.

Australian Copyright and the Web

Sometimes I come across items on the web, or in the press, that basically make my jaw drop in wonder at the bewildering stupidity that is government bureaucracy in this country. The latest involves the nation's Copyright Tribunal which is threatening to make schools turn off access to the internet if teachers direct their students to access information off the web, and if subsequently the schools do not pay a fee.

This is so mind-bogglingly stupid it defies description. Presumably they are doing this on behalf of authors who wish to obtain some return from their websites in a similar manner to the way fees are obtained from photocopying in schools.

Okay, the photocopying I can understand even if I don't agree with it. Fair usage has to come into play here. So long as a student doesn't photocopy the "bulk" of a work there shouldn't be a problem. and I don't believe you should extract fees from schools on the off-chance someone might do the wrong thing. You might as well fine each driver each year for speeding just because maybe they did it and didn't get caught.

As to the web, what are the schools looking at anyway? Information is placed on the web specifically so people can look at it, not as a means of extracting fees. If an author wants to stop people looking at their work then they can just remove it - they control the availability of it after all.

I get a number of schools accessing my webpages and I would never even contemplate requiring anyone to pay me anything for them. I place a copyright notice at the bottom of each page not to restrict access but to restrict wholesale pirating and re-badging of the content. There's a difference. I like it if people email and ask permission to link to the site, but I don't insist on it. And I prefer it if people email and ask permission to copy work I've done - either a original piece or a transcription of a poem. But I'm never going to charge for the privilege.

Given I have written some original pieces, here and on other webpages, I wonder if the Copyright Tribunal will attempt to collect fees on my behalf. If they do I won't accept them, I'll just request they refund the monies to all the schools involved and ask for a complete accounting of the funds. That might slow them down a bit.

[Link from Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing.]

Fetishism

secret_river_spine.jpg

In the November 2005 issue of "Australian Book Review" (ABR), Jack Bradstreet, gentleman bookseller of this parish, wrote to the editors with a complaint. His complaint related to the new novel, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, and specifically to the lack of any identifying text on the cloth case. If you look at the photo above you will see what he is talking about: there is no text on the spine and none on the front cover. Jack, if I may call him that, had no problem with the dust-jacket, his difficulty was with the cloth cover of the book itself.

When I first read this letter I was dismissive - surely the publisher wouldn't do that I thought. What happens if the dust-jacket is ruined or lost? There is nothing to identify the book at all. Surely they wouldn't. But they did.

In the following issue of ABR (Dec 2005/Jan 2006), Michael Williams for Text Publishing (the publisher), wrote in to reply to Jack's complaint. "The absence of embossing on the spine was not a production decision, rather a design one," he wrote. "We're very proud of this book and of Chong Wengho's magnificent design; the remarkable photo of the river bank on the jacket; the spine framed by the Sydney Gazette; the austere confidence of the unmarked cover boards beneath; the beautiful endpapers of the 1819 Hawkesbury map within. We felt that this was a book of such distinction that we would break with convention."

I agree with most of what Mr Williams says here. The design of the jacket and endpapers is wonderful, but referring to the blank cover as having an "austere confidence" strikes me as artistic mumbo-jumbo. Why not refer to the tabula rasa of the cover upon which the reader may imprint their own pattern, or to the cover's nihilistic simplicity? It's referred to as a design decision, but, as we're all aware, design decisions of this sort are always about marketing or money. Generally both. Mr Williams then went on to say that he hoped Jack Bradstreet would hold on to his copy of this first edition. He thought it might be worth something one day.

Jack wasn't convinced. He's a life-long book collector and book-seller. He knows the value of an item when he sees it. "Bold and unconventional this design may be, but it is at the expense of the author and the buyer." With which I can only agree.

And as to the monetary aspect, Jack went on to say: "I shall keep the volume and attempt to maintain its condition, not as monetary investment but as a novel I certainly intend to revisit. It is also an artefact of distinctive oddity."

It will be interesting to see if the UK edition follows this design decision. I suspect not. I also suspect the second edition will fill in the blank spaces on the cloth covers. If it doesn't, it should.

[Note: the title of this posting really isn't mine. It was the title placed by the editors of ABR on Jack Bradstreet's original letter. It seems to fit.]

For Want of a Genre

In the latest edition of "The Telegraph", Susanna Yager reviews new crime fiction, as she does on a regular basis. It's a section of "The Telegraph's" book review pages that I check pretty regularly - whatever is published in the UK will generally see the light of day in Australia before too long.

So this week I was interested, and confused, to see a review of the new Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel, Purity of Blood. It's the second in the continuing adventures of the author's Captain Alatriste series set in 17th-century Spain. The first of these, taking the main character's name as its title, was published here last year, and I read and enjoyed it. It wasn't anything spectacular but it was certainly pleasant enough and I was looking forward to the others in the series. My problem lies not with the publication of the book but how it could, in any estimation, be considered as "crime fiction".

In an earlier life I had a number of conversations, written and verbal, with many people about a definition of the term "science fiction", so I'm aware of the problems associated with being proscriptive about these sort of things. Whenever you think you've finally nailed it, along comes someone with a work that blurs the boundaries of your definition and you have to start again. Better not to start at all. And yet I confess to liking labelling and categorization. I like the ability to be able to say, "yes, that's a crime novel," and "no, that's fantasy, not sf". It makes it easier for me to recommend a book or dissuade someone from reading it. It's a shorthand, if you like. A shorthand with all the accompanying problems.

Now, I have no problem with genre novels. I lived in the sf "gutter" for long enough that I don't talk to people who dismiss genre novels as lesser quality purely because of how they're labelled. That's their problem not mine. I'll try to convince them of my point-of-view, but not for long. So, a definition which seems to be fairly reasonable: "Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives." This is an extract from the Wikipedia entry. There's more, though that is mainly interested in sub-genres like "detective", "hard-boiled", "courtroom dramas" etc.

Of the novels I've read this year, I can safely say that the Bruen and the Disher novels are definitely crime novels: it's what they live and die on. Yet Grace, by Robert Drewe, has, at its heart, a crime - the crime of stalking - and if you were to put to Drewe that his work was a crime novel he'd probably have apoplexy. So I think we need to add a word into our definition and amend it to read "...the genre of fiction that primarily deals with crimes..." etc. And then I get a bit happier. Bruen and Disher stay in, and Drewe is excluded.

I have no doubt that somewhere in its pages there is a crime committed in Purity of Blood. It's the 17th century, and the period was given to a certain lawlessness, not least on the part of Captain Alatriste. But it still doesn't make it a crime novel. The book is not primarly concerned with Alatriste's crimes, it deals more with his personal manoeuvring on the political, sexual and societal stages. It fits somewhere else. The question is, where? The books seem, to me, to fit into the Hornblower, Indiana Jones, Patrick O'Brien and Rafael Sabitini moulds: historical action adventures. It's got a ring to it, but it's a bit of a mouthful and I can't see the bookshops taking it up.

Purity of Blood as crime fiction? No, I just doesn't jell for me.

Steve Waugh

The word doing the rounds is that Steve Waugh was paid $A1.3million for the publishing rights to his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone. That would have to go close to a record in this country. I have no idea how Penguin expects to get its money back from this. Waugh does have a track record, having at least four previous cricketing works that were all best-sellers. I can only assume that the rights are for worldwide publication, in which case they might have a chance.

At current exchange rates $A1.3m equates to approximately $US0.975m. For arguments sake let's assume the USA has 15 times the population of Australia, then this advance is equivalent to $US19.5m.

The closest person I could think of recently who might have commanded such a high figure in the US could only have been Bill Clinton. And some reports "only"
mentioned a figure of $US12million for the ex-president.

Penguin can only be expecting a rush for copies in India where Waugh is revered, both for this cricketing skills and for his humanitarian works. But it's a big stretch.

By the way, I don't begrudge Waugh his money. Good luck to him. I just hope it doesn't backfire on either him or his publisher.

That Harry Kid

If it's not that book by Dan Brown dominating the miniscule portions of their product that newspaper editors devote to books, it's now the turn of the other book by that Scottish author. "The Age" website books page now has eight stories relating to the imminent release of the sixth HP book this weekend. Everything from the secrecy surrounding the book's plot, to accidental pre-release sales, to the Pope putting his oar in on the whole Potter phenomenon. Frankly I can't wait till the whole thing is over. And, yes, I do have a copy on order and will probably pick it up over the weekend. But I haven't read the previous one yet, and I would guess my 12-year-old daughter will be the first to get to our copy. She and her friends have probably got a competition going to see who reads the most over the weekend. Now if I can just get her to turn the torch off under the bed-clothes before midnight...

The Cost of Australian Books

An American friend of mine commented on Saturday night that he was shocked at the prices we had to pay for books in this country. "Basically, your paperback prices are equivalent to our hardback," he said. And he's perfectly correct. Just today I purchased a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink for the sum of $32.95, in paperback. I'll admit it is one of those large-sized formats, but the print size is pretty big (a point size of about 15) and the book runs to 277 pages, including the index.

In today's "Sydney Morning Herald", Damian Kringas expresses his own view on the matter. It's partly to do with GST on books, and partly that the bookseller is probably the fourth or fifth person in line to collect money off the sale, and it's possibly to do with problems of scale with only 20 million people in the country. But you still can't get over the fact that the prices seem high.

The great future hope will be print-on-demand (or POD for short) which implies that a bookshop will also be a print-shop, carrying only one copy of each book and offering a customer the prospect of a freshly printed version within minutes. The trouble is it's a pipe-dream at present. The technology just isn't there at present to provide the service at price that are considerably less than those currently available on pre-printed books.

I hope it changes soon. With hardcover copies of Saturday by Ian McEwan retailing for $49.95, I doubt it will be too long before customers start clamouring for it. The major difficulty will be that, as customers will want the book immediately, the copy will have to be printed on site. And that implies that only the big shops, capable of housing the printing infrastructure, will survive. I fear the end of the small corner bookstore.

Essential Modern Australian Novels

In my other "life" as the owner of a batch of websites devoted to Australian literature I occasionally get emails from people who want an introduction to this branch of literature but don't know where to start. They have either read something by an Australian author and want to read more or intend to visit the country in the near future and think that reading our novels will be a good introduction.

I'm actually a bit impressed by these people. I would assume they intend to read any number of guidebooks and travelogues such as those by Lonely PLanet and Bill Bryson, but to take the leap of faith to want to read novels to round out their knowledge is quite admirable. I always respond to these, and try to spread the range to give them a good idea of where Australia is at and where it's been. I also try to provide them with a list of books that are fairly readily available here and overseas.

So my list, currently, is:

Drylands by Thea Astley
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
Illywhacker by Peter Carey
The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
Snake by Kate Jennings
The Well by Elizabeth Jolley
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Tom Keneally
The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

And it's interesting to note that two of these were only read this year.

Where to Now For Literary #2

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the problems facing literary fiction in the US, and by implication Australia, and what a few litbloggers were doing to help alleviate those problems. Now, in the first issue of the new literate journal The Monthly we are presented with Malcolm Knox's views about why literary fiction in this country is in the doldrums.

In his article titled "The Ex Factor" Knox examines the role that one specific item plays in the continuing decline of the Australian novelist: Bookscan. For those not familiar with the subject you can consider Bookscan to be the literature equivalent of the Neilsen TV ratings. In fact, it is the Neilsen company which runs Bookscan in this country. In essence, it tracks book sales, at the point-of-sale, so an accurate and timely count can be kept of the number of copies a particular title has sold.

Publishers like it, of course. I assume booksellers like it as well, as they are the ones inputting the data, and it would allow them to track their sales without the expeense of setting up an individualised tracking system. The losers, according to Knox, are the Australian novelists. It replaces the old idea that one big seller in a publishing house, a Matthew Reilly or a Bryce Courtenay for example, could "carry" a host of other authors who played to much smaller audiences. A publisher used to get an overall picture of sales and as long as the total bottom line was in the black that a few red values along the way wasn't going to matter all that much. Now the publisher can see the individual lines, the swathe of small red amongst the big black numbers, and they are not pleased.

Knox contends that this has led to a reduction in the number of literary novels published in this country, oddly enough, not by the new emerging writers, but by the writers working on their fourth, fifth or sixth book. If their previous one or two books didn't rate well on the Bookscan scoreboard then they're out. Writers such as Brian Castro are struggling to find publishers even though they are winning awards once the book sees publication.

So what does this tell you?

Well, to me it implies that good books are being written, that they are out there, but readers just aren't reading them. Partly this has to do with the problems of scale. I'd guess that a first novel in the US would be considered to have been a success if it sold, say, 20,000 copies. Pretty decent numbers I'd reckon. But if you apply these numbers to Australia in direct proportion to population you get a figure of about 1,200. Not quite so decent.

I haven't worked in the book publishing business but I reckon it's safe to assume that the major expense in printing - not marketing - a new book is in the setup costs. The first thousand copies are much more expensive to print than the 20th thousand. So, relatively speaking, printing proportionally similar book numbers is going to be much more expensive here than in the US. And there's not a lot that can be done about that. At least the way books are currently printed.

So, assuming we can't do much about the way books are printed maybe something could be done to change the way they are marketed, how readers are informed that new books are available and what reviewers think of them.

I don't see a lot of book marketing in this country. I go looking for it but don't see a lot anyway. And the marketing I do see is mainly for foreign or big selling local authors who don't need the push, think Stephen King or Bryce Courtenay here. A couple of days back, the Book Standard published an article titled "Getting a Buzz On: How Publishers are Turning Online to Market Books". The title would give you a pretty good hint that some publishers in the US are trying to think outside the usual marketing constraints by trying some different approaches. The Book Standard piece considers the case of Freakanomics, a book that is subtitled "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything". Not the most inviting of subjects one might think, yet it is currently sitting at #3 on Amazon's Book sales charts.

The article explains this: "Published April 12, Freakonomics has found a larger-than-expected audience, due partly to publisher William Morrow's strategically placed advance copies, some with industry professionals, but perhaps more importantly, with bloggers." A new resource in the US has been found and tapped. "Publicists for the book sent galley copies of the title to over a hundred bloggers who, in turn, profiled or reviewed the book on their sites. The result - Freakonomics has sold 34,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen BookScan - has been overwhelmingly positive."

Again, remember we are talking different scales here but who's to say something similar might not work in this country. At least it's a thought.

[My thanks to the Grumpy Old Bookman litblog for alerting me to the Book Standard article.]

Where To Now For Literary Fiction

The La Trobe University essay in the latest issue of Australian Book Review is titled "The Tyranny of the Literal" by James Ley. It sets out to examine the current state of literary fiction, and Australian literary fiction in particular. Ley does this by looking at the subject from on high, dipping into various works (Coetzee, Castro, and Gemmell) to illuminate his theme, rather than looking at a swathe of works and getting lost in the detail. It's a pretty good essay overall, though I have to admit I had to re-read some passages a few times to get to the heart of what he was talking about. And even then I may well have missed the point.

After some extensive introductory comments Ley states his basic problem: "The latest in a rolling series of crises that seem permanently to afflict Australian literature is a crisis of declining readership. Literary fiction is losing market share to memoirs and genre fiction." Ley doesn't get stuck into either genre fiction or memoirs the same way that Shirley Hazzard implied after Stephen King was awarded a National Book Award in 2003. He concentrates on the literary fiction scene and admits that "... Australian literature is currently more diverse and robust than it is sometimes given credit for; good novels are being published, even if they are not always the most visible."

I think the lack of visibility here is the greatest problem. This is not something that had particularly come to mind before I started this weblog. But in the past few months I have come to the conclusion that a number of literate Australian novels are getting rather short shrift from the mainstream media in this country.

So what's new, you ask. Not a lot, I admit. The decline of literary fiction, as a proportion of books read, can probably be traced back to the release of the first Penguin paperbacks so the problem has been with us for some time. It's just that I think we might be on the cusp of something new in the way literary fiction is promoted.

The big news in the promotion of literature during the 1990s was probably the advent of Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club. Love her or loathe her she brought to the public's attention a number of modern fiction works, and it has been said that having her sticker attached practically guaranteed extra sales of hundreds of thousands of copies in the US. In Australia a similar flow-on effect occurred. I don't have specific numbers but the general feeling was that an Oprah sticker entitled the book to a prominent display spot at the front of a bookstore, with its subsequent higher recognition value and hence higher sales. If you're looking for something to read then word-of-mouth from a friend is always the best recommendation, and as Oprah was considered a "friend" by many thousands, the word-of-mouth effect snowballed. In Australia "The Women's Weekly" attempted something similar, but without the added celebrity of Oprah, and the heightened publicity glare of television I doubt it had a similar effect. Even the attempt showed that publishers and booksellers thought it might sell some more copies.

Now Oprah's gone off modern fiction - maybe Jonathan Franzen was blame, and maybe not - and only appears to recommend self-help books and "classic literature". So there's a big gap in the promotion of literary fiction.

Literary weblogs are a bigger event in the US than they are here. (One of the reasons why I started Matilda was that I couldn't find Australian based weblogs that covered the same sort of territory as Blog of a Bookslut, Beatrice, and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (amongst many others), but from an Australian perspective. I don't believe I have reached the standard of any of these, by the way, I'm just marking my territory.)

Publishers, readers, booksellers and all forms of print media are starting to notice the effect these litblogs are having on sales and reading in general. And the litbloggers in the US are also aware of the promotional potential they now possess. As a consequence, at the instigation of Mark Sarvas and his weblog The Elegant Variation, about 20 litbloggers from across the US have banded together to form The LitBlog Co-Op. As Sarah Weinman puts it, the Co-Op is "a chance to showcase excellent writing that you might not otherwise be aware of. A chance to participate with some of my friends and colleagues in highlighting gems that should have the spotlight kept on them for far longer than the industry often allows. And a chance to talk books in as enlightened, informed, and enthusiastic a way possible." And Ron Hogan strengthens the aims of the enterprise: "In some ways the litblog is still a reactive genre -- we get many of our stories by noticing what's in the news, and declaiming whether we're for it or against it -- but one of our more significant strengths lies in our ability to react to what is missing from the usual media coverage of literature and the publishing industry."

The aim of the Co-Op is to concentrate attention on four books a year - books that might well not get the reviews and coverage they would ordinarily deserve. So maybe we are looking at something new here.

The first selection in the "Read This!" campaign will be announced in early May. Five of the participants have been nominated to suggest one title each, from which one novel will be chosen. In the meantime others in the Co-Op are touting books they might have suggested if they had been one of the five. I've already picked up Sarah Weinman's suggestion of Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire, the debut novel by a young Australian author. Yes, even fine, confronting Australian fiction such as this might be featured. I'd suggest you check this weblog quite often.

Spotted on the Train

Further to the review by Michael McGirr on the weekend I did a bit of "book spotting" on the train this morning.

Of the 28 people I could spy on in my immediate vicinity 7 were reading books, 4 were reading newspapers and a couple of others looked like they were reading something but I couldn't see what it was. The books that I could see were: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Magician by Raymond E Feist, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The rest I couldn't see. Most people hold their books either up against their chest or in their lap, and it's generally not considered polite to stare too intently in that general vicinity.

I don't consider this sample to be out of the ordinary for the commuters on my trains.

"Looking for Something to Read" by Helen Garner

In 1999 Helen Garner gave an address at the Age Book of the Year Awards ceremony. This essay was subsequently printed in "The Age", and later in Peter Craven's anthology, The Best Australian Essays 1999. The title of the essay is "Looking for Something to Read". A concept that all readers can relate to.

I've been asking around: I knew I couldn't be the only person in the world who's capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I've found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don't remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the fact of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry.

Garner goes on to lament this loss of memory, to bemoan the fact that, as adults, we don't read as we did when children: savouring, relishing, devouring the books. I'm seeing this with my own children. My 12-year-old daughter powers through a book a day and is always on the look-out for something to read. My five-year-old is starting to read by himself and demands a new book be read to him each night. Their appetites are overwhelming at times, both for my wife and I, and for the local libraries.

My father was a big fan of Frank Herbert's sf classic Dune when it came out in the sixties, and, in the mid-seventies when he saw me with the book, said that he envied me the opportunity of reading it for the first time. He felt it was an experience he couldn't go back to.

My father's feelings would seem to contradict Garner's earlier assertion that novels become fuzzy the nano-second after completion. And that would be the case if the extra ingredients of time and experience are ignored. My children devour books and remember them because the bucket of their reading lives is still practically empty: anything new that is tipped in can easily be differentiated from those already floating in the depths. As time goes on and the list of books read starts to reach the hundreds and thousands, the fine details of the books start to fade into each other, colliding and interacting, until it is almost impossible to tell one from the other. In her essay, Garner acknowledges this, listing a number of scenes from books that come immediately to mind; the scene appearing vivid and life-like, the author and title lost in the mist.

Every now and then a sentence that seems vaguely familiar flashes past my eye - was that something about all happy families all being the same? A soldier lying face-down on the field after the battle of Waterloo with a bullet though his heart? A bloke with a daughter on a gumtree plantation? A cloud of torn-up paper scraps being flung out of a closed carriage by a woman's languid hand? Some hippies eating bacon for breakfast every morning of their lives? Now where the hell did I read that?
I don't find this a problem; at least not a major one. It's been happening to me for years. It provides for some opportunities I had thought lost, namely the chance to re-read with an almost blank slate. I can go back to The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles in full knowledge that I remember next to nothing about the novel's twists and turns, its little post-modern tricks, and its Victorian setting and plot, yet being fully aware that the last two or three times I read it I found something new, and which re-inforced its standing as my all-time favourite. I won't be reading it for the first time but it will be near enough for this tired old reader as to make no nevermind. I look forward to it. The essential thing here is that I did enjoy it when I read the book last time. All the fine details might be lost or blurry, but that feeling still remains, and if I use that as my direction-finder I should be all right.

Letters from a Detention Centre - Follow-up

A couple of weeks back I posted a note regarding an article written by Greg Egan in "The Age". The article dealt with the situation of Peter Qasim, Australia's longest-serving detainee at Baxter Detention Centre.

News now comes that Dick Smith (well-known Australian electronics, travel and food entrepreneur) is to visit Qasim in Baxter today, and has offered to help undercover Qasim's background. This visit will be followed tomorrow by Federal Government back-benchers Petro Georgiou (my local member), Phil Barresi and Bruce Baird. "They have all pushed for a more compassionate policy on asylum seekers and refugees."

So what has this to do with a literary weblog you may ask. Well, Smith was asked why he is making the visit and said "he had become interested in the Qasim case after reading a newspaper article."

May I hasten to suggest that this was the Egan article? I said at the time it was well written. And now it might just be forcing a beneficial outcome. One can only hope so.

Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge

I put it down to the fact that I was working at my paid job of IT dogs-body on Sunday as the reason for not listing the next instalment in the Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge. Why? Cos the list came out on Sunday and by the time I got home I was knackered and I hadn't read the paper properly and...

Anyway, the full list of books involved in the challenge has now been released. I thought of ego-scanning the list (fan-speak for checking to see if your name is listed) but as I haven't written any kids books it'd be a waste of time - I haven't written any either books either so I'm just kidding myself really.

I haven't been through it all but it looks like a pretty impressive list, with quite a smattering of Australian authors such as Wrightson, Marsden, French, Tan, Thiele and Rubinstein. Lucy Sussex gets included with The Penguin Friend for years 3 and 4 (ages 8 and 9); and this note will make sense in the next few weeks.

[My thanks to Michael Schaub of Blog of a Bookslut for pointing out the error of my ways. And thanks for the kind words mate.]

Letters from a Detention Centre

Celebrated Perth-based science fiction writer, Greg Egan, writes of his communications, first by letter and then face-to-face, with Peter Qasim who is currently being held in the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. Qasim was born in Indian Kashmir and fled the country in 1997 as he feared persecution due to his association with separatist politics. He landed in Australia, was arrested as an illegal immigrant and has been detained ever since. He has now spent over six and a half years in custody, with no end in sight. By any stretch of the imagination this is patently ridiculous.

It beggars belief that the Australian Government can't work out what to do with this man after this amount of time. No, actually, they probably have detemined his fate. They want him out. But the Indian Government won't take him back as he has no identity papers and they refuse to acknowledge him. So Qasim has become a man without a country and by any set of morality the Australian Government has the obligation to care for him. And their response is to put him in prison.

Egan's piece is very elegant. He must be seething at the way his new friend has been treated, yet he writes in a compassionate yet unemotional manner about his relationship with Qasim. There is no way I would have been able to maintain my temper if I was to write something like this. I'm glad this piece has received publication in a national daily newspaper. I hope it might make a difference, but I fear it may just be in vain.

Reading Patterns

My wife and I read in completely different ways. I like to take my time with a new author and gradually work my way through their backlist rather than rushing headlong through the lot. My wife, as you might have guessed, does the exact opposite. I think it took me over a year to catch up with Ian Rankin when we came across him in 2000, my wife finished him off in just over a month. How many McCall Smith's are there? Five or six? She started at the front and read the lot, one straight after the other. I must admit this allows her to catch up, so she gets first shot at a new book we both want to read, as I've still got two or three in the to-be-read pile. And there's something about the way she gets a level of sly enjoyment out of knowing this... I reckon two or, at the outside, three in a row by any one author and I'm about done. Little things start to grate: characters' names being too similar; a turn of phrase re-used too often; and, hang on, didn't that other character say that two books back? No, a bit at a time is all right. Too much of a good thing all at once and I may not come back.

Two years or so ago I decided to re-read Ursula Le Guin's back catalog. I'm not sure how many there are, maybe twenty. I don't think I'm halfway through yet. And I'm loving it. Just taking it slow and steady, and savouring the experience.

Premier's Reading Challenge

Paul Jennings, award-winning children's author and ambassador for the Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge, gives his formula for helping children to get involved in reading. "Keep everything fun - fun, fun, fun - don't do anything that's a struggle, that's horrible, that's unpleasant," he said. Which is a good basic start, and to which can be added: get to know your local library, read books yourself - and let your children see you doing it - and read to your children as often as you can. Both my children have been read to every night and both consider books to be as much a part of their lifestyle as film and video games. I suppose it helps that both my wife and I read a lot, have lots of books around the house (probably too many if that is possible), and visit the local libraries once a week. We're lucky in that we live in a society that allows for all this, that gives us the disposable income to buy the books we want, and to have a number of good local libraries nearby. The trick is to take advantage of it. Get involved in your kids' reading and, as Jennings says, make it fun. It'll work itself out.

Assistance for Australian Writers

In the February 2005 issue of the National Library of Australia News periodical, Ann-Mari Jordens looks at the continuing story of the Public Lending Right and Educational Lending Right schemes. In essense, these schemes are administered by the Federal Government to assist writers, compliers, translators, illustrators and publishers: the Public Lending Right Scheme aims to compensate recipients for lost royalties due to their books being available in public libraries around the country; the Education Lending Right scheme extended this compensation to books held in educational institutions. The NLA has undertaken a reseach project into the history of these schemes and Jordens's article outlines the people they have interviewed and the documents they have collected.

A Change at the Top

A recent visit to a branch of Angus & Robertson revealed during the week that that book by Dan Brown has been displaced at the top of the bestseller lists - at least in that store. Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion - Second Edition has moved to the head of the list and a worthy book it is too. The original was published back in 1996 and you'd be hard-pressed to find a Australian foodlover's kitchen without a battered old copy lying around somewhere. Ours is starting to look like a total mess.

Carey and Courtenay

Is it really possible to compare Peter Carey and Bryce Courtenay? Simon Casterton in "The Age" seems to believe so. And he makes a fair argument for it. It all revolves around the point that "They may work different sides of the publishing street, but Courtenay and Carey are equally effective at getting their message across." So it is really all about marketing and positioning oneself in front of the customers/readers? Probably, and both came from advertising backgrounds originally so past experience is a major help. In addition:

Courtenay appeals to that part of Australian culture that is perhaps more overtly populist, nationalist and materialist. Carey, on the other hand, appeals to a more rarefied, cosmopolitan stratum, and has an additional appeal to overseas readers and literary prize givers. Courtenay is an immigrant made good, while Carey is a well-connected expatriate. Each, though, comes across as "good bloke", which is the acme of social acceptability in this country. Neither is as challenging to the general reader as, say, a Patrick White, or perhaps a J. M. Coetzee.
I've talked about Patrick White here recently and have decided that I have to read at least one of his books this year. But is Carey not as challenging as Coetzee? It's not a question that has occurred to me before. Courtenay's books sell very well in this country - I believe he was the top-selling local writer last year - but I haven't read anything by him. Maybe it's about time I did. God, not more books to add to the list.

Germaine Greer Out of Touch

So says Associate Professor Catharine Lumby, the director of media and communications at Sydney University, in today's "Age".

"Greer's claims about the advice women's magazines offer to their readers is simply wrong. Lurid cover lines aside, the focus of many articles is on encouraging women to stand up for themselves, to explore their own sexuality and not to put up with violence or harassment from men. Just ask Mia Freedman, a bright young feminist, who edits Cosmopolitan...Greer's original criticisms of Big Brother - which she offered some years before her decision to go on the show - are another example of her tendency to jump to conclusions about pop culture. She famously noted that the kind of people who like watching the show are the same kind of people who'd enjoy watching torture - and she wasn't joking."
Maybe it's just a case of being out of touch.

Greer reminds me of a Clive James lecture I went to some years back. It must have been near the end of the 90s as the debate on whether or not Australia should become a republic was all the rage. During his lecture James defended the English Royal Family (he had been a close friend of Princess Diana) and couldn't see why Australia would ever need to drop the monarchy, and didn't think the majority of Australians wanted to either. His major problem was that he hadn't spent a lot of time in Australia since he left in the sixties and had no real understanding of what the issues really were, and what the average Australian thought of them.

Greer has also stated that the Australian suburbs are a cultural wasteland where books, film and art are never discussed. But when was the last time she ever spent time in those self-same suburbs to actually find out if this is the case or not? Watching Neighbours or Home and Away doesn't count; in the same way that watching NYPD Blue is a reflection of the streetscape of New York. Greer seems to skimming modern culture lately. Dipping in only so far as to re-inforce her already well-established points of view. And when she does jump in the deep end, as with her recent foray into Big Brother territory, she finds herself lost. It's what's known as getting old Germaine.

Patrick White? No thanks

Edward Champion wonders if Patrick White is "Australia's most unreadable novelist", after linking to an article by Thor Kah Hoong in The Star Online. I couldn't rightly say as I haven't attempted to read anything by White since I was 16, at high school, and had his Tree of Man foistered upon me as part of the English wider reading list - I couldn't finish it. Although I have a number of "literary" conversations with friends over the course of a year I doubt if White is
mentioned more than once in that time. Which is a bit sad, given that he is Australia's only Nobel Laureate for Literature.

The Rising Cost of Australian Books

During my regular morning scan of various literary weblogs (mostly based in the US) I came across a new one from Richard S. Wheeler called The Iconoclast. The amusing thing that caught my eye was his note: "Seven or eight dollars for a throwaway paperback is too much; that will buy a lot of hamburger."

Gee, I wish I could buy paperbacks, even throwaway ones, in Australia for seven or eight dollars, or, even translated from the US, for ten or twelve. The two I have sitting on the desk next to me are Monica Ali's Brick Lane, and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Both are trade paperbacks, ie hardback sized softcovers, which is the publication method of choice for most non-Australian fiction reprinted in this country. The Ali novel has a price tag of $29.95, and the Hollinghurst $28.00. These prices are pretty standard, but I have been noticing similar publications sneaking over the thirty dollar mark of late. It's hard to get a similar view of non-fiction, either in hardback or softcover as what I buy from overseas is rarely available here, and what I buy here is, probably, rarely available overseas. The best example I can come up with is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, listed at $49.95 here and at $28.95 in the US. Oddly enough, that seems almost reasonable.

It's the fiction I have most trouble with. I've heard all the arguments: size of market, supporting local authors, supporting local bookshops, etc, etc. But you have to wonder if the price of these books is deterring people from buying them. You then have the publishers saying that readers don't buy paperback fiction anymore, so they increase the price to compensate for the lack of sales, and then readers buy less, and then the publishers... It seems a pretty specious argument to me. And now the word is that local publishers are not taking on any new local writers because the market just isn't there.

So I'm at a bit of a loss. I can't see the prices stabilising or reducing, and I can't see more local authors coming on to the market. The future doesn't look that flash for anyone involved, readers, writers or publishers. The only ones who seem to be making a living are the distributors.

Noisy Reading

In today's issue of The Age, in the "Health & Wellbeing" section, there's a list titled "Ten Ways to Put a Smile on Your Face". At number 5 is "Read a book in complete silence." So that's the problem: the muttering noise I make as I move my lips when I read is making me unhappy. There had to be some reason. My life is now complete.

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