“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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Writers and Values: A (Final?) Response to Overland

Earlier this week, new Overland Fiction Editor, Jane Gleeson-White, posted a response to my recent article in Kill Your Darlings on political fiction. By this point, I’ve already discussed these issues at length with several Overland editors, and there’s not too much new for me to say. But it might be useful to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I even took issue with Overland’s position to begin with. I’ll also note from the outset that my article was wrong on (at least) one point: Overland is clearly not advocating social realism as such—my bad, guys!
As to Gleeson-White’s article, I think she’s misunderstood my point—it’s not that I’m necessarily against including the ‘political’ within fiction (and thus she registers surprise when I point out that it’s possible to write great fiction with explicitly ‘political’ content). My concerns, thus far, have been twofold: 1) I (still) don’t understand what it means to write ‘politically engaged’ fiction and suspect the notion rests on problematic assumptions, and 2) I worry that Overland’s position is basically proscriptive, saying that writing must be ‘politically engaged’.
Gleeson-White, however, denies this second assertion, claiming ‘It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work “must be overtly political” – and nor would I,’ but this doesn’t square with Woodhead’s previous statement that: ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’ From my perspective, an ‘imperative’ is imperative, not a matter of preference (but perhaps Gleeson-White is disputing that such fiction need be ‘overt’).
As to the first point, I’ve already delineated my concerns with Overland’s previous attempts to define ‘politically engaged’ fiction: their use of uninterrogated assumptions about ethics, aesthetics, the nature of language, and what constitutes a ‘political’ disposition in fiction, as well as a reliance on simplistic notions of hermeneutics (i.e. the interpretation of texts) and of the relationship between authorial intent, textual effect and reader response. I raised these concerns because these assumptions suggest a basically anti-intellectual notion of the ‘literary’. I expect such gestures in broadsheets, but not in Overland, one of the few journals that presents complex, critical analysis for a popular audience in Australia. (And if Peter Craven’s comments about Meanjin are to be believed—along with the (temporary?) discontinuation of Heat—it appears that we’re about to lose several of the other journals that provide such a space.)
             I also disliked the emphasis of Ted Genoways’s original piece (although he’s got his own problems right now), which Woodhead then took up: both place the ‘blame’ for problems with contemporary fiction on writers. This blame is misplaced. Over the last two decades, the publishing industry has been subjected to an incredible regime of economic rationalism. As a result, it is now incredibly hard for new writers of ‘literary’ fiction to place a book with a mainstream publisher, and those lucky/stubborn/talented enough to publish with a smaller house will rarely be paid anything even remotely resembling a liveable wage. This is not even to speak of the forces pushing writers to produce books that are ‘marketable’ rather than, you know, good.
Writers increasingly find themselves powerless in the face of a globalised, networked industry—are we now going to blame them for the output of those industrial networks? Even many ‘successful’ writers I know (I’m speaking here of people who’ve won major Australian prizes) are not able to support themselves through writing. Are the current struggles writers face—to maintain a ‘real’ job while finding time to write—not enough, or do we need to accuse them of ruining literature and laden them with ‘ethical’ burdens, as well?
I similarly took issue with Rjurik Davidson’s critique of Creative Writing programs. Not only are such programs often the only space in which emerging writers can receive both instructional and financial (via scholarships and stipends) support, but also they are one of the last institutions in which aesthetic merit is held to be a more important criteria of a text than its marketability. Whatever the flaws of such programs, they can’t be held accountable for the larger production of literature (and, indeed, few Australian publishers pay much attention to Creative Writing programs in any systematic way), and I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit. To do so is both bad theory and bad praxis.
The issue here is one of ‘value’: in the face of overwhelming economic rationalism, what possibilities exist for maintaining other forms of value—such as aesthetic merit—or, indeed, of creating new forms of value that are about something more than just the bottom line. Attacking writers, so far as I can see, does nothing to achieve this end, nor does attacking one of the few institutions that still supports some form of value outside of economic exchange.
My interest—which is reflected in both my radio reviews and this blog—is in locating the good fiction that is already out there, but, for the above reasons, has remained largely obscure. And good fiction is already out there, including ‘political’ fiction, like Martin Edmond’s Luca Antara (which offers a creative re-imagining of Australia’s discovery and colonisation placed alongside contemporary narratives of a man named ‘Martin Edmond’ driving a taxi in Sydney), or Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (a narrative about industry wreaking havoc on a small, U.S. town, in which the entire town is given a voice, thereby connecting the alienated individual with the social), or Wayne Macauley’s Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe (a surreal narrative about Melbourne’s housing crisis that also plays with notions of utopia and autonomy) or his Caravan Story (which is in fact a narrative about economic rationalism being applied to the arts!). All of these texts contain ‘political’ themes but do so in imaginative ways, and can’t just be reduced to ‘politics’ or even ‘political engagement’ as such (although they can be read that way—as I have just done). They are also all published by small publishers who still believe that there are values more important than money.
So that’s where I’m coming from, but I’m not sure that these larger objections really affect Overland much on a practical level: if these arguments for a ‘politically engaged fiction’ result, as Gleeson-White suggests, in Overland working to shape the future of Australian fiction by publishing new voices and new types of literature, then I have nothing to protest. Locating and publishing such voices (who, I presume, will include authors less well-known that Christos Tsoilkas, Alexis Wright, and Janette Turner-Hospital) is, in and of itself, a laudable goal, and I, for one, look forward to seeing what they uncover.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Genius of Wayne Macauley

Last night I was lucky enough to launch Wayne Macauley's new book, Other Stories. Below is the text of my launch speech:

Tonight I have the enviable honour of launching Wayne Macauley’s new book, Other Stories. I’m excited to speak about that, but, before doing so, I’m going to begin with a brief anecdote, as launchers of books are so often wont to do.
Several years ago I was up very late one evening trying to finish reading submissions for Wet Ink: The Magazine of New Writing in order to meet an impending deadline. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of reading unsolicited fiction manuscripts, this might sound like not such a bad gig. Those of you who have, though, know it’s quite a different story: we get several hundred submissions for each one of our four yearly issues, and if I had to identify any quality that would characterise most unsolicited submissions for literary magazines, it would certainly be that they are almost uniformly not very good.
I’m not saying this to attack those kind enough to send their work to Wet Ink or anywhere else—I’m certainly grateful to have the opportunity to read these writers’ work—but given that the vast majority of those sending in their writing are emerging authors still honing their craft, as well as my own peculiar editorial sensibilities, reading through cold submissions can often feel more like an endurance test than an aesthetic experience, especially at around three in the morning.
My reading that night wasn’t going particularly well: I’d just had a run of about ten stories in which authors had included the words ‘The End’ at the end of their stories (a note to would-be authors, I can tell when your story ends by the fact that there aren’t any more words). Then there were another five where the writers listed their name at the bottom of each page followed by the copyright symbol and the year (another note to neophyte authors: even if anyone did want to steal your story—which, by the way, no-one does—that little copyright symbol won’t stop them).  After wading through many more run-of-the-mill submissions, I then read a story that inexplicably detailed a very sincere and passionate sexual relationship between a human being and a wallaby. At this point, I could feel despair setting in.
And no doubt it would have, had I not read the next story, called ‘The Loaded Pig’, a brilliant, brutal satire based on Henry Lawson’s ‘The Loaded Dog’ about some despicable men engaging in a despicable occupation which the opening lines described: ‘We were digging way out there in the middle of nowhere looking for blackfella bones that we’d heard were somewhere around there and which we knew we could get good money for—you can get good money for blackfella bones so long as you know where to look.’ The story itself went on to offer an acerbically funny and surreal vision of the slow death of rural Australia and the brutality of our colonial past.
After finishing this story, I knew that I was in the presence of a phenomenal authorial voice and of, I believe, a great author, who was, of course, Wayne Macauley. Of all the many great stories Wet Ink has been lucky enough to print—and there are many—Wayne’s remains the one that I’m most personally proud of publishing. I’ll also note this: shortly after its publication I sent Wayne a brief email telling him how much I liked it, and he responded with the following: ‘“The Loaded Pig” was rejected seven times before it landed on your desk. This says either (a) the story is bad and you’re a fool or (b) the traditional literary magazine circuit in Australia is suffering from a serious failure of nerve. I wonder which one it is?’
There’s one slight problem in opening my talk with this anecdote, however. ‘The Loaded Pig’ isn’t actually in Wayne’s new collection, Other Stories; nonetheless, it’s good to know that Wayne has other stories beyond those in Other Stories. But there’s even more good news here: you won’t miss it, because this is a book filled with wonderful short fiction, and reading it produced the exact same feeling I got on that night many years ago.
Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent, and opens by saying, ‘Do I have bohemians? Of course I have bohemians, Matt, but probably not in the quantities you require.’ (If you haven’t worked it out by now, Macauley arguably writes better first lines to short stories than almost any other writer in Australia). 
The book is filled with other stories like this, all of which are funny and wonderfully odd:  in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a Melbourne man named Henry Walter invents the television in 1855, which, of course, plays contemporary American TV programs. In ‘Simpson and His Donkey Go Looking for the Inland Sea’, we hear about—who else—but Simpson and His Donkey, who have been looking for the inland sea for 94 years. These stories view the world through a satirical and often surreal lens that attempts to present what we accept as ‘reality’ as something very different indeed; in this sense they are truly Other Stories.
But this is a book that isn’t just quirky or inventive; in my opinion, it’s a serious contribution to Australian literature. In September, I reviewed Other Stories on Triple R, and part of my review sums up my feelings about the book pretty well, so I will be lazy and simply read out what I wrote then: ‘although [Macauley’s] formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories…figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work, [including] Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams…While [Macauley’s] aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.’
And this is a particularly important point in the contemporary landscape, I think. If you just went by the broadsheets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only two short story writers in contemporary Australia. And while I have nothing against those authors and think their writing is of a high quality, I do think that the contemporary Australian idea of what a short story is suggests a pretty limited cultural imaginary. Thankfully, though there are always Other Stories—and this, obviously, is part of the point of Wayne’s title. This is brave and powerful writing that seeks to do something more than simply reinforce what we already believe or serve as just another bourgeois entertainment.  These stories present an alternative—an otherness—that Australian literature desperately needs.
The other day, an interview with Wayne was posted by the online journal Verity La in which its editor, Alec Patrick, lead off with what I think is a most unusual question: in a roundabout way, after noting all of the awards that Wayne has won and all the places where his fiction has been published, Alec basically asked Wayne why he isn’t better known. It’s a sort of wonderfully naïve question; Alec may as well have asked Wayne why he isn’t taller or why he doesn’t have six arms. Wayne, of course, has already indirectly addressed the odd workings of literary recognition himself in Other Stories’ final tale about Adam Lindsay Gordon and his suicide in the face of both poverty and obscurity. But I don’t think Alec’s question is so absurd, and in fact I would challenge anyone in this room to read Other Stories and not find themselves asking the same question.
Let me offer you some proof in the form of the very first sentence of Other Stories, which begins like this: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ To ask a question of my own, who wouldn’t want to read a book that opens like this? This book isn’t just a good collection of short stories; it’s an exceptional work of Australian literature. Those already familiar with Wayne’s first two books, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, know what an exceptional writer he is; if anything Other Stories—which presents stories that Wayne has published over the last two decades—is even better.
In my Triple R review, I ultimately made what is possibly a pretty big claim about both Wayne and his work. Here’s what I said: ‘Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture.’ I stand by that statement, and I believe that anyone who reads Wayne’s three books will come to the same conclusions that I have: even though I’ve been up here talking about it for some time now, I think Wayne’s work speaks for itself. It’s my hope that, by hook or by crook, Other Stories gets the recognition that it deserves. And, for those of you who are bored by the kind of short stories that currently get passed off as ‘serious contemporary literature’, I have a quick fix for you: it’s time to put those books down and read some Other Stories instead.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: Leaving Home with Henry

Leaving Home with Henry
By Phillip Edmonds
Press On

At heart, Phillip Edmonds’s new novella, Leaving Home with Henry, is a sort of fictionalised travelogue about driving across Australia, albeit one with a significant twist: Trevor, who has departed from Adelaide in order to escape ‘terrifying domestic moments’ and to find ‘a way to talk about the big picture’, goes to the National Archives in Canberra, only to discover Henry Lawson living among the stacks of books. Soon enough, Henry decides to accompany Trevor, and the two set off in search of the ‘real’ Australia among the many small towns between Canberra and Queensland.
            Edmonds handles this conceit effectively by never questioning the whys and hows of Lawson’s sudden reappearance, instead giving the text over to the magical realism inherent in the premise. But, of course, having Henry along in the car also enables Trevor to reflect on Australian history and how our notions of both Australia and Australian-ness have changed over the last century; part of this notion is implicit in the selection of Lawson, himself, of course, who is both arguably Australia’s most famous writer and yet largely goes unread by most contemporary readers.
            Much of the book is taken up by dialogues between Trevor and Henry as they discuss the contradictions of contemporary Australian life; in the hands of a lesser writer, these interactions could be come off seeming forced and overly analytical, but Edmonds writes them with a wry, laconic touch that is both funny and engaging, as is evidenced when Trevor says to Henry, ‘This trip is your chance to wander innocently around the country and gaze upon the land with piercing eyes and impaired vision.’ Moreover, the inherent comedy of Lawson trying to come terms with the modern world also creates several moments of real humour, as well.
            Ultimately, the book becomes about both characters’ search for what it means to be an Australian in the contemporary world, as is clear late in the novella when Trevor is asked to describe the Australian dream to a tourist from the U.S.: ‘The idea was that working people could live decent lives and that we are generous, good-hearted people who care for one another like mates, and it’s not just a gender thing. We can send ourselves up, and even if serious, we don’t want to walk over each other. But that’s changing. Now the Australian dream is to own a bigger house than any of your neighbours.’ In these and other moments (such as in references to the death of both socialism and unions as legitimate political forces in Australian society), Leaving Home with Henry makes clear its own particular viewpoints and allegiances, but Edmond’s critique of contemporary life always turns back on itself and never devolves into a simple fictionalisation of ideological positions or reportage of political ‘issues’.
            Phillip Edmonds’s Leaving Home with Henry, which is only about 90 pages long, may be a physically small book, but it’s one filled with big and important ideas about contemporary life, politics and the continuing importance of Australian literature. I liked it, and I suspect that Henry Lawson would approve, too.

For more information, visit Press On Publishing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Literary Links: How Creative Writing Programs Are Ruining Everything...

This week, my number one link will come--in a gesture completely lacking in any humility whatsoever--from me. Recently I published an essay on Creative Writing programs and 'political' fiction entitled 'Engaging Fiction: Literature, Life and How Creative Writing Programs are Ruining Everything, Apparently', which is in the most recent issue of Kill Your Darlings. Although I wrote it back in August, it's part of an ongoing discussion with the good folks at Overland about the role of fiction in relation to the social (or, more specifically, if literature should have any such role at all). OK, enough about me; here are this week's other links:

  • Daniel Wood reviews Tom McCarthy's C for Kill Your Darlings. He ended up liking the book much more than I did, but it's a thoughtful and interesting review, and comes from a position I'm very sympathetic to: 'Maybe it’s true that fiction is now on death’s door. If there’s life left in it yet, however, it lies in fiction that upsets popular notions of what fiction should be and instead illustrates what else it is capable of...'

  • Yet another negative review of Franzen's Freedom has appeared. It's interesting that the reviews seem to run so hot and cold on this book (probably due to the fact that Franzen is such a jackass. . . er . . . a divisive figure). My ultimate suspicion is that, with the passage of time and the waning of his particular celebrity, Franzen will be remembered as he should be: a very good--but not great--novelist (see also Norman Mailer and John Updike).

    • The Guardian has run an article pointing out that characters in novels don't have to be nice to be interesting. That this is newsworthy in and of itself says something very sad about the contemporary novel. In particular, I liked this line: ' Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven't met yet.' But despite a few good one-liners and a solid basic point, this article predictably ends with the banal: 'Great art is challenging and sometimes uncomfortable: we might not like Patty in Franzen's Freedom or Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady and we certainly don't like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, despite his seductive, "fancy prose style", but these are characters through whom we may learn something of the human soul.' Oh, God. Do people still really believe that literature works like this? Apparently so...

      Tuesday, October 19, 2010

      Book Review: The Literary Conference

      The Literary Conference
      By Cesar Aira
      New Directions

      Argentinian author Cesar Aira has recently started to gain some recognition in the Anglophone world, due largely to the fact that Roberto Bolaño named him as one of the most important authors currently writing in Spanish. But so far, only a tiny percentage of his work is available in English; although five of his books have been translated, Aira has allegedly written somewhere between 50 and 70 books, although the precise number is difficult to know for certain (even his Wikipedia page only lists a ‘partial bibliography’), as many of his books have been put out by small and relatively unknown publishers.
                  Aira’s output is so large for two reasons: first of all, most of his books are novellas of about 100 pages or so, and secondly, if we believe Aira’s own claims (and I’m largely inclined to do so), he never revises his own work. Aira’s lack of revision does not stem from laziness, but rather from an artistic methodology that uses an aleatory technique (i.e. the employment of random chance for aesthetic ends) in the tradition of artists like John Cage and the Dadaists. This ‘flight forward’ technique, as Aira terms it, forces him to be constrained by whatever he has written, and thus find an imaginative way out of any difficult situations he accidentally writes himself into.
                  Although such a technique could readily produce a sprawling mess, in Aira’s hands, this approach produces books that are wildly inventive and hysterically funny. The Literary Conference, Aira’s most recent novella to appear in English, is no exception.
                  The novella itself tells the story of a writer, also named Cesar Aira, who also happens to be a mad scientist and a world-leading expert in cloning technology. Aira desires to take over the world—as all mad scientists do—but quickly realises that he lacks the will for such a task, so he happens upon an ingenious solution: he will clone the world’s greatest genius and give him the job of taking over the world. After much careful thought and selection, Aira finally settles on the perfect candidate, who is, of course, none other than the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes.
                  In order to facilitate the cloning process, Aira travels to a literary conference that Fuentes will be at, and at this point the story begins to unfurl in a variety of even more unexpected directions. Despite it’s absurdist character, however, this is a book not without literary merits; in particular, Aira plays with notions of translation and transformation that are highlighted when he, inevitably, loses control of his cloning machine with hilarious results.
      This novella, ultimately, is a comic farce that employs wilfully absurd plot twists in a way that would almost certainly appeal to fans of writers like Flann O’Brien and Jorge Luis Borges. This is the third of Aira’s novels I’ve read this year (which isn’t too impressive given their relative brevity), and every one of them has been a different and entirely worthwhile experience. That being said, those who have yet to read Aira might be better off starting with his book An Incident in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which at least proves that Aira is capable of successfully writing a more traditional narrative when he wants to, and is, above all, an exceptionally beautiful book that shares many thematic elements with Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. 

      Monday, October 18, 2010

      Book Launch of Wayne Macauley's Other Stories, etc.

      • In September, I gave a glowing review to Wayne Macauley's new collection of fiction, Other Stories. As a result, I've now been given the honour of launching his book on Tuesday, October 26th at 6.30 p.m. at the North Fitzroy Arms. Come along!
      • Ryan Paine has done a sort of book review by synecdoche, reviewing one of my stories as a way of reviewing the whole collection (I like this technique, but would like to push it to the extreme, i.e. reviewing a book by reviewing one page, one paragraph, one sentence, even one word...). But yeah, it is a review, written in review form, that reviews a story from my book in the review-like manner that reviews have. Things are said, judgments are made and whatnot and whatnot, etc.
      • As those of you that read this blog know (yes, I'm speaking to both of you), I've been engaged in a pseudo-dialogue with some of the editorial staff at Overland on the relationship between politics, the social and fiction. Well, over the weekend that dialogue resumed in the comments section of my previous post entitled 'Commenting on Overland's Comments on My Comments on Overland', which I suppose means that I'm now commenting on Overland's comments on my post 'Commenting on Overland's Comments on My Comments on Overland', which is perhaps confusing for those who, like me, are easily confused.

      Thursday, October 14, 2010

      Literary Links: Rethinking Self-Publishing

      Despite my love of all things small press, like most people who've worked in the publishing industry, I've tended to remain suspicious of self-published books. Part of my reasoning is ideological: to me, creating a small publishing house is about building a community of readers and, ideally, even creating a dialogue between the publisher and readers. Self-publishing, on the other hand, seems more an act of individual self-expression--the very kind of libertarian ideal that strikes me as an essential characteristic of neo-liberalism. (I realise this logic is tenuous at best, and also more than mildly hypocritical since blogging is a form of self-publishing, albeit a form that is inherently community-minded. And given that this blog was initially created to generate some extra publicity for my book--although I hope it's clear that I've ended up doing something more than that--who am I to talk?). Mostly, though, I've just worked on the (unsubstantiated) assumption that self-published books would, you know, suck.

      They say it takes a big man to admit when he's wrong, but I'm about to disprove this rule: despite being generally small-minded and self-absorbed, I've been forced to admit that my above assumptions are untrue. This proof has taken the form of two books. The first is Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularitywhich I just got yesterday. Sure, the book itself does look amateurish in some aspects: the cover is all wrong for the genre (it looks more like a mass-market paperback than a literary novel) and the gutter is so narrow that you have to hold the book wide open to read to the end of the line. But, wow, the novel itself is great so far. I've only read 100 pages or so, but if the rest of it is even half as good, it will quickly become one of my favourite books I've read all year. The book is largely about a public defense lawyer in NYC, but the style recalls David Foster Wallace and Evan Dara...

      And speaking of Evan Dara, I also read his first novel, The Lost Scrapbookthis year. But his second novel, The Easy Chainappears to be effectively self-published. Technically, Dara has created a publishing house called Aurora, but so far it only publishes his own work. The website claims that Aurora will be bringing out two Italian novels in English translation, but I can find nothing about either the authors or translators anywhere online. But, given that Evan Dara is a pseudonym, and no-one even knows who he or she really is, the whole thing is pretty murky.

      One thing both of these books have in common is that they are long (over 600 pages) and 'difficult'; I wonder if we will see more and more books of true literary merit, especially of this type, being self-published. Anyway, I now admit I was wrong, and as a penance, here are this week's literary links:

      • Richard Nash's imprint Soft Skull seems to have temporarily folded since its owning company, Counterpoint Press, has ceased to exist. He does, however, already have something new called Cursor on the boil, which appears to be a cross between a publishing venture and an online community (Hey, didn't some really smart dude argue this was a good direction for publishers in the digital age?). 
      • You can now officially pre-order David Foster Wallace's The Pale King on Amazon. The release date is set for April.
      • Another upcoming book that I am very interested in is Mathias Enard's Zonewhich will be published in English translation in December. Infamously, the 500-odd pages of the book comprise one single sentence. It should definitely be worth a look. You can get some more info here.
      • The Quarterly Conversation, a great online journal, has started releasing a weekly list of notable new releases, which skews toward world literature and avant-garde lit.
      • And lastly, the National Book Award is about to be announced, so check for updates here. As more or less the last U.S. Award with a modicum of literary credibility (the Pulitzer has been a joke pretty much since Gravity's Rainbow didn't win in 1973), it's at least usually worth checking out (even if only one small press book made the shortlist).

      Wednesday, October 13, 2010

      Janette Turner Hospital's Creative Writing Emailgate

      Although this story has been circulating for over a week, I just came across it a few days ago. Basically, here's the situation in brief: Janette Turner Hospital used to run the Creative Writing program at the University of South Carolina; this year she either left or retired from USC, and took up an adjunct position at Columbia University in New York City. In September, she sent an email to all of the USC students, informing them of 'opportunities' they could take advantage of in NYC. The email, however, spends a great deal of time discussing how great the Columbia program is, with the implicit suggestion that USC's program is second rate, leading Gawker to describe it as 'the world's haughtiest email'. You can read it for yourself and decide.

      Since the email appeared, former students have also come out of the woodwork to complain about Hospital. Moreover, a Huffington Post article has also pointed out that many of the email's claims about the Columbia program are untrue (and that USC is arguably a better program).

      I don't know Hospital and have never read her books--what interests me about this is that this emailgate could only occur in a 'prestige' system like the U.S., where rankings are hugely important to university programs, and particularly to Creative Writing. In the most recent issue of Kill Your Darlings, I discuss the differences between U.S. and Australian Creative Writing Programs, and why I prefer the latter. While there are, of course, distinctions between Universities here in Australia, they are much less rigid, and, personally, I'm quite thankful for that.

      Tuesday, October 12, 2010

      Book Review: The Mary Smokes Boys

      The Mary Smokes Boys
      By Patrick Holland
      Transit Lounge

      Patrick Holland’s second novel, The Mary Smokes Boys, is a seemingly straightforward tale. Grey North grows up in rural Queensland outside of Brisbane. When he is still an adolescent, his mother dies in childbirth, and, since neither his grandmother nor his alcoholic father have either the will or the ability to look after him, he and his newborn sister are effectively orphaned. Grey soon joins up with a roving pack of boys—all orphaned or neglected—who congregate at the Mary Smokes River every night.
                  In a sense, the boys of Mary Smokes are sort of like the Lost Boys from Peter Pan: a group of almost feral children who, despite having to fend for themselves in an adult manner, have retained a sort of otherworldly innocence. What the book does effectively is to unfurl the inevitability of their innocence intersecting with the corrupt world outside. Despite Grey’s best efforts to protect both his young sister and his friends, it becomes clear very early on that the fragile paradise he has constructed is ultimately untenable.
                  But to focus on the plot of this novel is to miss what actually makes it so incredibly effective; the main character of this story is ultimately Holland’s prose. Although Holland’s writing is hardly expansive, neither is it a minimalism. His sentences, though often simple, posses an unusual and engaging syntax, and at the moments where he jumps into high rhetoric, the result is incredibly moving:
      • ‘And while the woods were burning he lead her to the bank of Mary Smokes Creek and he brought her a drink of the water in his hands and they stayed there on the other side of the water, on the opposite bank from the world, on the wide and starry plain where the wind and the sound of rushing water were their only companions and they needed no others, for every speechless word she spoke was intended only for him and intended only for this night where there was no future.’

      In moments like these (and, indeed, in the plot itself), The Mary Smokes Boys recalls aspects of William Faulkner’s writing and similarly is able to find a rare beauty in the cadences of common speech.
                  As the clear sense of foreboding throughout the novel suggests, this is ultimately a sad book, but its particular power exists in watching the destruction of these characters arrive as slowly and quietly as the Mary Smokes River itself. Much like the way that Grey observes the natural world with a careful but detached eye, the reader, too, feels simultaneously close to these characters and incredibly removed from them. Although this novel is ostensibly a realist work, it ultimately reveals itself as a sort of fantasy or romance (in the medieval sense), since the boys’ perspective on the world is inherently remote from reality, even outside of it.
                  It is this otherworldly quality, which makes The Mary Smokes Boys such an interesting and unusual novel; even when the looming disaster coiled within the book finally springs, it—thankfully—lacks a clear rationale or moral framework. These aren’t characters being punished for their sins, but rather powerless, marginal people being overrun by forces more powerful than they are; their particular ends are irrational in the way that all violence is. The Mary Smokes Boys is a beautifully written novel that appears to be much more simple than it is. It’s an incredibly engrossing book, and I can’t wait to read whatever Holland comes up with next.

      Monday, October 11, 2010

      About This Blog (According to the Internet)

      According to what Mr. Internet says, this blog 'is probably written by a male somewhere between 66-100 years old. The writing style is academic and happy most of the time.' I guess this is proof that I am no longer an angry young man.

      Friday, October 8, 2010

      Son of Literary Links

      I've already posted links for this week, but yesterday I kept coming across interesting articles I've missed. Stupid world, stop producing interesting things! I have real work to do. OK, here they are.
      • Stupid article of the week. Hannah Duguid 'takes on' conceptual writing, which results in exceptional banalities like this: 'What separates these writers from conceptual writers is imagination. Conceptual writing is only imaginative as an idea, though its appeal to the intellect can leave one feeling cold.' Ah, the 'imagination'! Ooh, the 'cold intellect'! Any other cultural cliches you'd like to recycle while yer at it, luv? That being said, the stuff she's talking about here doesn't sound great, but that's because the ideas themselves are neither particularly new or interesting; the 'heart' doesn't factor into it.
      • Slate has a really interesting article on the use of homemade scanners to find valuable used books in op shops. This is actually a great lesson in the book as commodity...
      • Attributor has released a study that shows a massive increase in book piracy. Of course, they would say that, since they provide a paid service to publishers, in which they police they interwebs for copyright violators. My own research (which is more anecdotal) suggests that book piracy is happening faster and more frequently, mostly due to the increasing number of ebook versions for new releases. Still, it's harder to find things then you might think.
      • The LRB review of Franzen's Freedom is in; in summary, James Lever's response is 'meh' (although for interesting reasons). N.B. this review more or less spoils the ending, if you're like into plot and whatnot. After an early romp with the critics, it seems like the backlash on Freedom is building, with other fair to middling (to negative) reviews in The New Republic and The Complete Review. Although I find the continuing media circus around Franzen fascinating (in a car wreck/reality TV kind of way), I'll admit that I haven't read Freedom yet, and have no immediate plans to. My theory is this: if the book is really that great, it will still be great in six months or a year--so there's no rush.
      • There's also a swipe at Franzen in (weirdly) Greil Marcus's review of the new Phillip Roth:
      'Reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, one can be overwhelmed by the contempt of a writer for his characters: by his proof in almost every sentence, as one person after another is introduced to the reader as a small figure of vanity, smugness, stupidity, venality, or pettiness, of his superiority to his characters.'

        • Oh, and Mario Vargos Llosa has won that Nobel Prize for Literature thing. Question: do you think this prize would have gone to a South American author without the Roberto Bolano effect?

          Tuesday, October 5, 2010

          Book Review: The Convalescent

          The Convalescent
          By Jessica Anthony
          Hunter Publishers

          Jessica Anthony’s debut novel, The Convalescent, is a wildly imaginative comic fiction that combines two narrative strands. The main narrative focuses on one Rovar Pfliegmann, a hairy, mute midget with a bad leg who lives in a field in rural Virginia and sells discount meat out of a broken-down bus. Along with recounting the details of his own life, Pfliegman, who considers himself to be the last descendent of a lost and persecuted Hungarian tribe, tells the story of one his forebears named Szeretlek (which means ‘I love you’ in Hungarian), who accidentally saved the Hungarian nation in the 10th Century A.D.
                      Anthony does an incredibly effective job taking this exceptionally absurd premise and making it both fun and easy to read: as a narrator, Rovar is both engaging and wonderfully unreliable; the book is populated with a cast of comically idiosyncratic characters; the deft pacing enables smooth narrative shifts; and more often than not the comedy is legitimately funny. But despite these many exceptional qualities, there’s something about this novel that doesn’t completely work for me.
                      Part of the problem is internal to the book. Anthony slightly mishandles the main narrative strand: as a character, Rovar is a static figure who is constitutionally incapable of true change, and so Anthony ends the book by relying on a magical realist device (although, to be fair, it could be read as something else entirely—but I won’t say what), which feels like a bit of an easy out. Moreover, the hidden truths about Rovar’s past that emerge at the story’s end are so explicitly telegraphed earlier in the novel that their revelation lacks any real surprise.
                      But despite these qualms, this is a book that is largely successful on its own terms. My larger reservations are external, and ultimately about what kind of book it is. Anthony first rose to prominence by winning McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and The Convalescent was originally published by McSweeney’s in the United States. Ultimately (in a gesture that’s also probably deeply unfair to Anthony as a writer, since I’m using her book to stand in for a broader kind of ‘literature’), this book serves as an excellent cipher for my larger concerns about McSweeney’s: while I very much respect their socially progressive good works, the aesthetic physical beauty of their publications, and their ability to draw in a larger readership that draws on a younger demographic, I simply don’t like the kind of literature McSweeney’s publish.
                      The Convalescent, to me, exemplifies the problem with McSweeney’s conception of literature. The book has all the outward signifiers of a literary novel, as its many allusions and jokes suggest: Pfliegman is clearly a pun on ‘phlegmatic’, for example (they Pfliegmans are described as having ‘An aura of general malaise.’), and the store Big M that Rovar goes to in the contemporary narrative is mirrored in the ancient narrative when Szeretlek meets a giant horse also named M. Rovar, in his panoply of physical disorders, recalls the protagonist of Beckett’s The Unnamable, and his unreliability as a narrator is distinctly Nabokovian. Another late moment in the book is a (particularly unsatisfying) gloss on Kafka’s long story ‘The Metamorphoses’. But these references don’t ultimately add up to anything greater, and for all of its outward cleverness, The Convalescent is a surprisingly simple book.
                      In this sense, The Convalescent is, without a doubt, an effective and intelligent entertainment, but it’s too lacking in complexity to be literary in the way that it seems to want to be (Note that I’m not simply using a standard high-art definition of ‘literature’; the best ‘genre’ writing—and I’m thinking here of writers like China Mieville and Neal Stephenson—is both ‘literary’ and considerably more complex than The Convalescent). In this sense, the ‘McSweeneys novel’ (which this book represents) strikes me as the literary equivalent of American indie films, like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine; we get ‘inventive’ premises and a cast of lovably ‘wacky’ characters, but for all of these embellishments, there’s something surprisingly conventional and ultimately trivial about these tales. And for me, as for many readers, there’s something about this experience that is slightly unfulfilling.
                      That being said, what you get out of The Convalescent will ultimately depend on what you are expecting: for all of its playfulness and seeming erudition this novel isn’t really a work of art. But The Convalescent is a witty, diverting entertainment, and will make for perfect light reading on the tram, if that’s what you’re looking for.