“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

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.

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