“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Literary Links

• Tom McCarthy's Guardian article on technology and the novel is worth a read, and is also a good reminder of how funny Marinetti's Futurist manifestoes were (the Italian Fascism that came later wasn't quite as funny). There's shades of William Gaddis's proposed history of the player piano in the article, except that McCarthy celebrates the posthumanism that Gaddis despised. Regardless, I'm keen to have a look at C, McCarthy's new novel, which has been compared to Thomas Pynchon (by his publisher, at least) and is the only book on the longlist for the Booker in which I have any interest. (Every year I think the Booker can't get any more boring, and every year I am proven wrong. But that being said, I guess it's nice that they throw a few bones to the colonials.)

• If you're ashamed of your Amazon Kindle, you need be ashamed no more: you can now disguise it as a newspaper with this fancy sleeve. You could, of course, also just use an actual newspaper.

• The personal library of David Markson has been put on sale at the Strand Bookstore in NYC. It's a shame no research libraries bought the collection--kids these days!

• Here's a quick review of Cesar Aira's The Literary Conferencea book that is apparently about attempting to clone Carlos Fuentes(!). I've read two of Aira's books this year (How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter); both were brilliant and wonderful, but also completely different from each other. This one's meant to be even more strange. Hey Readings, why don't you have this in stock yet? Oh, right, that parallel importation thing. OK.

• 'Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic. Gabriel Josipovici dismisses the portrayal of Barnes, Rushdie and co as modern literary giants.' I suppose it's surprising that this is surprising; this Guardian article offers a nice little bit of schadenfreude, but it also seems like a lot of name-calling and ad hominem attacks. I agree these authors don't seem as interesting as they did a decade ago, but really the interesting question is to ask why this is the case.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Known Unknowns on Cri de Coeur

Pierz Newton-John has posted brief review of my book on his blog Cri de Coeur, which you can read here.  I would write more, but I've been encouraged not to try too hard, which is excellent, as I've been looking for an excuse to indulge my preference for sloth.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: Janet Frame's Selected Short Stories

The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories
By Janet Frame
Random House

Janet Frame, who died in 2004, was, without a doubt, one of the preeminent New Zealand authors of the 20th Century; the unusual details of her life are well-known, due to Frame’s own publication of three volumes of autobiography (as well as Jane Campion’s film adaptations of An Angel at My Table). Many people know of her lifelong battle with schizophrenia, and that fact that winning an award for her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, was the only thing that stopped her from undergoing a lobotomy in the 1950s.
But the high-esteem in which Frame’s work is held both in the antipodes and abroad (she’s had three short stories published posthumously in The New Yorker) is ultimately based on the superb and unique character of her writing. In this sense, The Daylight and the Dust, a selection of her short stories, is, unsurprisingly and absolute treasure.
Frame’s stories tend to fall into a few different, but classifiable, styles. First are her short stories written from the perspective of children, in which she documents naïve and innocent minds attempting to grapple with the adult world around them (as in the story ‘Swans’). Others describe the lives of characters who are in some way social outcasts – lonely people who are unable to engage with the larger world for reasons they cannot completely control (as in the story ‘A Sense of Proportion’). Lastly, she writes stories that read more like fables, although they are fables from which no clear moral emerges (like in the story ‘Two Sheep’). While all of Frame’s work is exceptional, I will note that the fables, for me, are the least interesting, largely for the reason that they tend to contain her most traditional prose.
And it is most certainly Frame’s prose that is the signal draw of her work. Charged with elements of modernist writing, Frame’s unusual style makes all of her stories worth reading, but she can also surprise with ironic humour, such as in her story ‘Prizes’, which opens with the line ‘Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought.’ But readers of this collection will find such gems on every page.
While most of the stories in The Daylight and the Dust are reprinted from the four collections that Frame published in her lifetime, this collection also offers some novelty in the form of the five ‘uncollected’ stories that make up the final forty pages of the book.
Although it would’ve been nice to have had a brief editorial explaining the provenance of these stories, they are absolutely exceptional, and, in fact, offer some of the best writing in the entire collection. ‘Face Downwards in the Grass’ tells the story of an escaped convict who, upon reclaiming his freedom, finds himself so incapable of readjusting to normal life that he readily submits to being recaptured. ‘A Boy’s Will’ describes the internal struggle of the allegedly ‘exceptional’ boy Peter, who resents the expectations his parents place on him; all of his actions – even the building of a kite – are treated as examples of his future promise, and, as a result, he feels that he has nothing to call his own. ‘They Never Looked Back’ tells the story of a young bohemian couple, who struggle to raise a family while adhering to their principles. This is a beautiful book; those who have read Frame already know this to be an essential collection, and, for those who haven’t, The Dust and the Daylight provides an excellent introduction to one of the great writers of the second half of the 20th Century.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Literary Agent as Publisher

There was a huge announcement yesterday from U.S. mega-literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who will be launching an ebook imprint called Odyssey Editions. Odyssey editions will serve as an ebook publisher for Wylie's clients. No big deal, right? Wrong! Have a quick peek at some of Wylie's clients who'll be using the service:

'Odyssey Editions will begin modestly, with 20 titles that have never been available in e-book format. Among them are “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer, “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” by Hunter S. Thompson.'

Those aren't exactly literary upstarts. More importantly, these ebook editions will actually be competing against the hardcopies produced by the publishers of these authors. The profits from the ebook sales will go to Wylie and his authors, meaning the publishers just got cut out of the ebook equation by (arguably) the world’s most important literary agency. Yikes!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Literary Links and The Big Issue Launch

Last night, I read at the launch of the The Big Issue's Fiction Edition; Shane Maloney delivered a wonderfully wry launch speech, in which he also offered me a free piece of literary advice: 'Emmett, tuck your shirt in.' 

Sam Rutter also read a brilliant short story, and fun was had by all (or at least me). I'm extremely happy to be involved with the issue, which, incredibly, has a readership of over 150,000 (those of you who know anything about magazine metrics, know that readership is distinct from actual purchases; apochryphally, The New York Times claims a readership that is double to its sales, based on the argument that every edition is actually read by at least two people, and I worked for a magazine that claimed a readership four times the size of its print run. I'm not saying these figures aren't right (I'm sure they are!), but just thought I'd clarify the term 'readership').

Anyway, I've read some really great/interesting articles online over the last week, and (because I am too lazy to write a real post) thought I might list a few of them:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: Ilustrado

By Miguel Syjuco
Random House

Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado, which won the Man Asian Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2008, tells the story of a young Filipino expatriate, also named Miguel Syjuco, who is investigating the death of his mentor, the writer Crispin Salvador. But this metafictional novel, which is clearly influenced by – and even explicitly references – such authors as Nabakov (the fictional poet, John Shade, from Pale Fire is named and the first line of Lolita quoted by a character) and Borges (who is directly referenced, as is his story ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’), is not a straightforward narrative at all. What most readers of Ilustrado will note right off the bat is its playful and eclectic literary style; almost half of the novel is actually made up of ‘excerpts’ from Crispin Salvador’s novels, essays, and interviews. Other forms of writing, including blog posts (with comments!) and jokes, recur as well. Syjuco displays an exceptional mastery of these various devices, which often serve to contextualise, frame and ironise the main narrative of the work itself; in one passage, for example, the narrator states that ‘The thing is to write a straight narrative. That’s the trick: no trickery,’ a piece of advice the novel wilfully ignores.
But these gestures aren’t just virtuoustic literary trickery – they are extremely funny, inventive and engrossing all on their own. I was particularly impressed by Syjuco’s ability to effectively portray blog culture in novel form; I’ve read many novelists attempt this without success, but Syjuco succeeds by revelling in the comic miscellany of blog discourse, where insightful political commentary can sit next to banal assertions and advertisements. Ilustrado is also full of great one-liners; one character, for example, is described as being ‘kind in the way only the ungenerous can be.’
But there is also a more straightforward narrative in the book, which tells the story of the fictional ‘Miguel’ as he returns to the Philippines in search of Crispin’s final manuscript, his masterwork entitled The Bridges Ablaze (but typically rendered as the acronym TBA, as in ‘to be announced’). But, for all of its intrigue, the narrative actually ends up being less compelling than Syjuco’s metafictional tropes for a few reasons. For one thing, the fictitional Miguel in the book isn’t a particularly sympathetic character (although it remains unclear to what degree he’s meant to be sympathetic); ‘Miguel’ is the son of a wealthy political family who has an apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan. Although he has suffered hardship – including the deaths of his parents, drug addiction, and heartbreak – he seems to take his own privilege largely for granted in a way that most readers will find alienating. But, of course, this fact is both acknowledged and ironised in the novel when Miguel’s own writing is described as ‘bourgeois angst’. There are a few other minor problems as well: the novel loses a little bit of cohesion midway through as the detective story at the heart of this narrative disappears. The introduction of a romantic interest for ‘Miguel’ at this point also feels unlikely and forced, and the woman in question seems to be a one-dimensional vehicle for his desire of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ variety (and while these aspects are acknowledged through irony in the novel, this acknowledgment still doesn’t mitigate their problematic nature).
But this very minor stumble also precedes what was, for me, the absolute highlight of the entire novel: a dinner party scene written as a dialogue that contains some of the funniest writing I have read in recent memory; this is ultimately a testament to the strength of Syjuco’s work: even if he loses you for a few pages, his relentless invention and humour draws you back in. Most impressively, the ending of the novel, itself, reveals an incredibly clever and well-conceived formal conceit to the novel that is simply wonderful to behold. As its prize-winning pedigree suggests, this is a very good novel that most novelists would be lucky to write – that Syjuco has managed a first novel this good is even more exceptional.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm Reading at the Big Issue Fiction Edition Launch

I'll be reading at the launch of the Big Issue Fiction Edition at Readings in Carlton this Wednesday, July 21st, 2010. The launch starts at 6:30; details are here.

The issue will be launched by Shane Maloney, and will also feature a reading by Sam Rutter. The issue also contains work by Michel Faber, Toni Jordan, Christos Tsiolkas and many others, so it's well worth checking out. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom

So the dust-jacket description of Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, is up at Amazon:   

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.’

Wow. This sounds awful. I know it’s not acceptable to judge a book by its dust cover, but this just seems like it going to be really, really didactic (although the suggested satire of bourgeois, knee-jerk lefty politics (Whole Foods, recycling) implicit in the above will probably be pretty good in the way that his satire of Chip and ‘hip’ academia was pretty good in The Corrections). To me this sounds like the result of Franzen’s increasingly populist aesthetic proclamations, which is something I’ve always found weird coming from him, because he’s pretty clearly at his best working in the other direction (like the more experimental scenes that reflected Albert’s disorientation on the cruise ship in his last novel). Here’s to hoping my assumptions are wrong…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Songs about Washington: Fellini - Teu Ingles

Fellini is a great Brazillian postpunk band from the 80s that most people (unfortunately) don't know about. But this is a great song, which nominally mentions Washington (for our purposes, we'll assume they mean Washington, DC, and not Washington the state, which is probably incorrect given the reference to Westerns in the song). For those of you who don't know Portuguese (I sure don't), here is a rough translation of the lyrics, courtesy of Babelfish and my Portuguese-English dictionary. Also, some of the lyrics are in English, so I'm pretty certain about those bits:

'Washington finds your English funny?
Please come back. Please come back.
If the world explodes into pieces again,
please come back. Please come back.
All I see are Westerns on TV.
Please come back. Please come back.
If you're walking through the airport all alone,
please come back. Please come back.'

Anyone who actually knows Portuguese is encouraged to leave a better translation in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lost Classics: Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a Small Winner
By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Bloomsbury Publishing

Epitaph of a Small Winner was originally published in 1880 by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis; the novel’s English title, however, is fairly strange given that a literal translation of the original Portuguese would be The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas. Indeed, this original title is instructive, since the narrator, Braz Cubas, is a writer who finds himself in an extremely unusual condition: he is quite literally deceased. Unlike the typical bildungsroman, which usually opens with the birth of the protagonist, Cubas begins his tale by describing the moment of his death. This sense of morbidity continues throughout, and the book is even appropriately dedicated ‘To the first worm who gnawed my flesh’.
As the unusual conceit of employing a dead narrator would suggest, Epitaph of a Small Winner is filled with strange and unusual narrative techniques. Machad de Assis is particularly fond of the technique known as parabasis, in which Cubas directly addresses the reader and acknowledges the fictionality of his own story; one chapter is entitled ‘The Defect of this Book’, while another is composed only of the sentence ‘And if I am not greatly mistaken, I have just written an utterly unnecessary chapter.’ At other points the reader is treated to drawings, philosophical digressions, and even one chapter that is left completely blank for the reason that ‘Some things are better said without words.’
In its absurd and inventive humour, Epitaph of a Small Winner reveals a strong debt to Lawrence Sterne’s classic Tristram Shandy, which uses many of the same devices (including a blank chapter!).  But on another level, the book is also possesses a far more straightforward plot than Sterne’s novel; after quickly recounting the details of Cubas’s maturation and first loves, the vast majority of the book relates an extended affair he engages in with the wife of a well-connected politician. While there are many vivid and moving descriptions of this affair, Cubas, himself, is, in many ways, an extremely flawed person, who is economically privileged, selfish, blind to his own motivations and, at his worst, simply self-destructive.
The tone of the book is also considerably darker than Sterne. Epitaph of a Small Winner ultimately paints a fairly misanthropic picture of humanity, and the sense of the book often suggests that the self-invested aspects of humans will always triumph over their best intentions. Part of the darkness is derived from the constant background presence of slavery, which was legal at the time in Brazil; although it is merely implied in the book, the suggestion remains that the easy lives of the affluent characters in the book are made possible by slave labour.
 In its negativity, the Machado de Assis’s novel recalls Voltaire’s Candide. Indeed, Epitaph of a Smaller Winner alludes to Candide in the person of Quincas Borba (about whom Machado de Assis wrote another book, Quincas Borba aka Philosopher or Dog?), a philosopher who creates an absurd system called ‘Humanitism,’ which closely resembles the philosophy of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss with hilarious results. Under any title, Epitaph of a Small Winner is a clear classic of world literature and deserves both greater recognition and a wider readership; despite being written in 1880, it’s a work that still feels thoroughly contemporary.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

Monday, July 5, 2010

From The Australian's Review of Known Unknowns

‘These stories contain beautiful passages of writing...when Henry Adams in “Local Knowledge” fails to make a coherent narrative out of his local history, reflecting the fact his own life is just as lacking in meaningful plot points, we can sense a writer in charge. I look forward to Stinson's next collection.’ -- Tegan Bennett, The Australian, July 3rd, 2010.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Read My Story in The Age!

My short story, 'The Anomaly', is in The Melbourne Age today; it's not online, so you'll actually have to like, you know, leave your house and buy a print copy at a physical store if you want to read it. I can, however, confidently recommend the story to you, and I might humbly add that it has been called 'the best work of short prose written in the English language since the Magna Carta' (by me, just now, in this blog post). What's that you say? The Magna Carta wasn't written in English? Ugh, whatever, details...
          I've also got a review in the The Australian, which you can read here.
          Today's Age also mentions my article on book piracy,'The Pirate Code',  in a review of the new issue of Overland, too.
          Over the last few weeks, Known Unknowns has also  been reviewed (twice!) in The Melbourne Age (once in the A2 and once in the Sunday Age). Sadly, the reviews aren't online so I can't link to those, but I can link you to this.
          I'm happy about all of the mainstream press coverage, I've received, but, unfortunately, my master plan to build an American media empire here in the heart of Australia by publishing a book of literary short stories in a run of a few thousand with a small publisher has recently been uncovered by Mel Campbell at The Enthusiast, who has argued that my book of short stories is a work of 'cultural imperialism'. Erm, OK.