Thursday, December 2, 2010

Letter to my children

My work "Letter to my children" has just been published in the online Polari Journal. I hope that readers may find it of some interest. It is what I would call creative non-fiction, but there may be other names for it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Into the streets -- remembrance of times past

There are some strange memories evoked in the online exhibition related to the Into the Streets conference. There is a reprint of an article I wrote about the 1974 march for gay rights. The photo accompanying it is someone I don't recognise easily these days, but it's me all righty. In the photos in this web page, I am in the second picture scrolling down. I am the one holding the motor cycle helmet. My then partner is the long-haired, leather jacket wearing chappie to my right. Funny, I don't remember this event at all, despite my vivid account of it at the time. I guess 36 years will do that to you.

Tusk -- a story

M/C Journal has just published my work Tusk. Pigs and tusks have fascinated me for a long time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Out of the closets ... into the streets

I'll be presenting a paper to the 10th Australian Homosexual Histories Conference Into the Streets at the University of Technology, Sydney, 24-25 September 2010. This conference celebrates the 40th anniversary of the lesbian and gay movement in Australia.
I'll be giving a personal account of those 40 years, talking about my own experiences and what it has meant to be out of the closet for close to 40 years.
Details of the conference can be found through clicking on the title to this entry.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wingers Landfall by Stuart Lauder

I came across a reference to this book in a paper by Garry Wotherspoon.
I sought out a copy and read it in full. Winger's Landfall (Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1962) concerns Harry Shears, a winger (steward) on a liner, the Cyclamen, plying between Sydney and Tilbury docks in the United Kingdom.
Harry has been out in Australia for quite a few months. He takes up the position as winger after he knocks out the incumbent in a night attack. Harry is not necessarily a nice person.
The book recounts life below decks in a very lively fashion. The Merchant Navy, it seems, had its fair share of queens and queers among the crew. There are all types detailed here -- Diamond Lil, the queen of the tub; Rita, a drunk queer; sixteen-year-old flirt Marilyn (a boy); and old, fat queen Patience Strong. Harry is a butch type, but he's still attracted to the young bellboy, Prince, with whom he begins a liaison.
But Harry is searching for clues as to what happened to his half-brother, Danny, who went overboard from the Cyclamen just a day out from Tilbury.
He discovers Danny was part of a semi-religious group organised by Bernard, a wine waiter whom Harry suspects is using the group for his own sexual satisfaction. Bernard is in fact genuinely interested in the moral welfare of his charges, but Harry can't accept that anyone would be driven by noble motives.
Harry himself was in love with Danny, though he never acted on it. It turns out Danny was epileptic and threw himself off the boat in a fit.
The book descends into farce in its final pages, partly because it was forced to have a tragic ending. Written at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, books about such characters were required to have tragic endings if they were to be be published at all.
Harry tries to meet up with Prince, but as Harry had knocked out and possibly killed Bernard, Prince sends the police in his place. They arrive and Harry has a fit and collapses and that's it.
Up until then, the book was a surprisingly good read, full of observations about life on board a liner as well as in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, where the liner stops on its voyage, as well as Colombo. The scenes of shipboard meals, cleaning the ship and details of the peak (the crew's cabin) are enlightening.
The book is very candid about the relationshiop between Prince and Harry, with no comment or judgment about the disparity between their ages. Prince seems quite comfortable with the relationship, but Harry is secretive and tortured about his desires.
The book is well out of print, but an interesting example of early homosexual narrative -- with the obligatory tragic ending.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Copyright: A very basic outline

As a basis for creative income, a professional author licenses or sells part or all of the property right generally known as copyright. In reality, copyright is actually a bundle of rights, any of which may be licensed or sold. The word licence is used to cover the rights that may be granted, for example, the right to publish an author’s work as a book, or the right to first publish an article in a magazine.

Because it is a property right, copyright can be bequeathed and inherited as well. However, copyright differs from rights covering tangible property such as real estate or possessions in that the works it covers can be copied or otherwise used easily without the knowledge of the owner.

In English Common Law, which forms the basis for the Australian legal system, copyright developed as a means by which a copyright owner retained some control over use of their work. Before the advent of the printing press, books were created by hand, a labour intensive process that limited both the number of books and the ability of authors to obtain any economic return from their creation. Authors either had to have a patron or be in a religious order. There was no income from authorship per se. Mass production of books by a printing press, however, offered authors the opportunity for a payment for each copy sold.

However, where there is commerce, there is also theft. Piracy evolved along with the technological innovation of the printing press. Unscrupulous printers could quickly produce unauthorised copies that offered no payment to the author or, and more importantly in political terms, the original publisher.

To counter such piracy the Crown was urged by to regulate the book trade, especially as the number of printers in the United Kingdom increased with the uptake of the new technology. In 1556, Catholic Queen Mary Tudor granted a charter to the Stationers' Company, a London guild of printers, bookbinders, and booksellers, which gave the Company exclusive powers. As always, there were mixed motives for the Crown’s action. Mary’s aim probably was to prevent the spread of the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, in return for preventing the publication of books deemed heretical or seditious the guild's members received a monopoly over the printing industry as only Stationers’ Company members could print books. To reinforce their monopoly the guild was also granted the power to search, seize, and burn all prohibited books and to imprison anyone printing without a licence. Using the Star Chamber, the Crown continued to exercise authority over the Stationers' Company and printing until the Chamber was abolished in 1641, when the English Parliament began to take issue with the power of the Crown and civil war broke out, leading to the execution of King Charles I in January 1649 and the abolition of the House of Lords.

These political changes had little effect on the monopoly of the Stationer’s Company (the guild). The way the system worked was that Company members bought perpetual monopoly rights in an author’s work. While guild members could purchase a manuscript from an author, authors could not become members of the guild and were not entitled to any royalties or additional payments after purchase. Additionally, guild members were allowed to buy and sell rights over authors’ works to each other. The Stationers' Company developed a system to keep track of which members claimed rights in what works and for handling disputes between members by recording transactions in a registration book at the Guilds' Hall.

Despite the major changes in power in the period, Parliament continued to extend the Stationers' Company's censorship/monopoly arrangement through a series of ordinances and Licensing Acts between 1643 and 1692 (the monarchy in the person of Charles II had been restored in May 1660). The Licensing Act of 1662 also required printers to deposit a copy of each work with the guild to prevent changes to the work after it had been reviewed by censors.

The Stationers’ Company’s monopoly was threatened when the last Licensing Act expired in 1694. From that point English booksellers faced an unregulated influx of cheap books printed outside Britain. After years of lobbying Parliament by authors and members of the Company, the Statute of Anne (named after the Queen who came to power in 1702) was passed into law on 10 April 1710. It was the first copyright act in the world. Its promulgation was justified as a matter of responding to piracy (the unauthorised copying of works) as much as anything else, but there were other forces at work. While it was argued that the passage of the Statute of Anne was a major victory for authors’ rights (as indeed it was), for those in power, the open dissemination of unfettered information was most likely seen as a much greater problem. As with Mary’s monopoly, the new act continued to regulate what was published.

Nevertheless, the Statute of Anne, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors and Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” to give it its full title, gave authors some rights in their works while continuing control over publication. Fundamentally for authors, the act introduced two new concepts. An author was recognised as the owner of copyright, and the Statute created a 21-year term of copyright for all works already in print at the time of its enactment and a 14-year term for all works published after. The concept of legal deposit was also enshrined in the Statute in that printers were also required to provide nine copies to the Stationers’ Company for distribution to the Royal Library, the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge universities, the libraries of the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and Sion College and the Faculty of Advocates library in Edinburgh. When Ireland became a part of Great Britain in 1801 Trinity College and King's Inns libraries in Dublin were added as further depositories. In Australia, the legacy of this legal deposit provision lives on with publishers in New South Wales, for example, required to send a copy to the State Library of New South Wales, Fisher Library at the University of Sydney, the NSW Parliamentary Library and the National Library of Australia. Other states have different legal deposit requirements.

Subsequent legislation introduced copyright protection for other works and also extended the term of protection. Australian copyright law currently is governed by the Copyright Act 1968 (as amended), which is very firmly wedded to the principles and legislative precedents developed in the UK from the Statute of Anne onwards.

Copyright law in the US particularly has continued to follow the course of reacting to commercial imperatives and hence has not always looked to protect the rights of creators. Copyright legislation was first enacted in the US to protect the American publishers who had pirated the works of British writers such as Charles Dickens. The Copyright Extension Act promoted by the pop-singer and Californian Congressman Sonny Bono on behalf of the American music and motion picture industries, passed by both houses of the US legislature on 7 October 1998 and signed into being by President Bill Clinton on 27 October 1998, extended the term of copyright for 70 years after the death of the author and for 95 years if the work was the product of a corporate author (the Walt Disney character Mickey Mouse was a major beneficiary of this change). Bono himself had died on 5 January 1998 as a result of injuries received in a skiing accident and his wife Mary, elected as his congressional replacement, oversaw the passage of the bill.

As a result of Australia signing the United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (USAFTA), the Australian Copyright Act 1968 was amended from the beginning of 2005 to bring the term of copyright into line with US law. Currently in Australia copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author (although it is only 50 years for works where the author died before 1 January 2005). The countries that are members of the European Union extended the term of copyright to 70 years from 1993.

Catching On edited by Ian MacNeill

I have just had a piece published in Ian MacNeill's collection Catching On. This is an online publication and you can link to it by clicking on the heading to this item.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Twyborn Affair Patrick White

I recently re-read Patrick White's The Twyborn Affair (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-01733-0). This book was published in 1979, so it's over 30 years old now. How does it stand up?
Surprising well.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that White has no sense of humour. To me, this book is one of his funniest, but admittedly his sense of humour is not for everybody, and it is oftentimes very black.
I read this book in the light of David Marr's biography of "the monster of all time" and White's own autobiography Flaws in the Glass. With these in the back of my mind, the character of Eddie Twyborn, who is also the beautiful young woman Eudoxia Vatatzes and the aging Madam Eadith Trist, becomes similar to White himself.
The book can be read as a veiled memoir.
Eudoxia is young White playing with an older boyfriend (or two or three) in the London demi-monde before World War II. While Eddie Twyborn's experiences mirror those of White as a jackaroo in Australia before World War II, it is also possible to interpret this as his artistic experience at Dogwoods at Castle Hill. His dogged work as a writer in a historically hostile environment, forced into a man's persona, fits this allegory easily. The rape of Eddie by Prowse can then be interpreted as a clear attack on the artist, White being savaged by his Australian critics. That Prowse later allows Eddie to sodomise him to atone for the rape is a sign of White being accepted. Perhaps it is a joke too; this may well be White's interpretation of his being awarded the Nobel Prize.
Eadith Trist is White glorying in his later years. There is a man under the ample disguise of the whoremistress, but it is Eadith who is finally accepted as a daughter by the mother who had rejected Eddie.
And it all ends in destruction through the image of the London blitz, with Eddie/Eadith dying on the pavement just moments from reunion with his/her mother.
The Twyborn Affair -- a book about how an artist, or perhaps a man, sees himself. A recurring them in White's work. The Vivisector charts how a painter is condemned to paint the truth, or the truth, at least, as he sees it. The Twyborn Affair reveals how White saw himself. He did not spare himself any pity. This is a ruthless self-analysis.
But don't forget also to laugh. The joke is, ultimately, there's no joke.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Asialink Writing Residencies

Applications for 2011 residencies are now open, and close on 10 September 2010.

The Asialink Writing Residency Program, which began in 1997, is a unique opportunity for Australian writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, essays, playwriting, young adult fiction, blogs, new media and interactive content to live and work for an extended period in Asia. As well as giving talks, workshops and media interviews residents have worked on themes as diverse as Merle Oberon's mysterious origins, Jewish communities in Calcutta, foreign journalists in Beijing, historical fantasy in Japan, the politics of unification in Korea, multiculturalism in Malaysia, mythology in Vietnam, and connections between Australian Aboriginal communities and Indonesia.

Grants of up to $12,000 go towards travel, living and project expenses, and afford recipients a unique opportunity for international cultural exchange, in-depth research and sustained time on creative work.

Hosts vary from Australian Studies Centres and University Literature departments to artist retreats, writers centres and publishers. Applicants also have the option of proposing their own host organisation.

Click on the headline to this blog entry to find the application form and more details.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Transparency and graffiti

The photo above was taken by me in the Reichstag, the German Parliament House in 2009.

We know that there was a fire in the Reichstag in 1933 orchestrated by the Nazis as a means of giving more power to Adolf Hitler. In the Second World War the Reichstag was damaged further.

When the Russian forces came to Berlin in 1945, they partied in the ruined Reichstag. To show their contempt for the regime they had just displaced, Russian soldiers wrote their names and other graffiti on the stone walls of the Reichstag. That's what you can see above.

Much of this was covered up in renovations in the 1950s when the building served as the parliament for West Berlin, but after the fall of the Mauer (Wall) in 1989, the Reichstag, which sat right on the border between East Berlin and West Berlin, was renovated again to become again the centre of German parliamentary power.

It was decided to leave the graffiti on view, as a sign of transparency. The great glass dome on top the Reichstag is another symbol of transparency in government.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing within the Academy: Basic thoughts

Writing as an academic discipline sits within literature and literary theory, but Writing as a profession lies outside the academy and for purposes of making an income — if that is the sole career option of a writing graduate — within the publishing industry.

This is an uneasy fit for research institutions since Writing as an applied craft does not fit easily within the research imperatives of more traditionally focussed universities. But at the same time writing is a necessary activity in almost all professions and occupations and the ability to write well can enhance career opportunities.

The need for writing as a discipline in the Australian university context is to provide a workable nexus between the requirements of the academy and the demands of the commercial marketplace where graduates of writing programs will need to negotiate the skills they are taught within the academy For students whose first language is not English, an ability to write well in English may also help compensate for a strong accent.

But to understand the present place of Writing as a discipline in the Australian university context, we need to revisit the history of the discipline.

Dawson (2001) acknowledges that many writing courses emerged in teachers colleges or colleges of advanced education rather than in the Group of Eight. This was partly because English as a discipline dominated traditional universities, while other institutions were adapting to accommodate vocational demands.

Creative writing in education courses, for example, followed on from developments at school level. In universities, writers were part of the academy but as analysts of literary texts rather than teachers of writing. Thea Astley, A.D Hope, James McAuley and Elizabeth Jolley are some examples of writers within the academy. Admittedly, A.D. Hope played with the idea of teaching writing, but he was much more comfortable teaching poetic theory rather than poetic praxis.

Creative writing emerged in the 1970s as a separate discipline, with three institutions claiming credit as the first WAIT which is now Curtin where Brian Dibble initiated courses following the North American model, Canberra CAE (now Canberra University) and NSW IT, now UTS. At the same time Michael Wilding was also experimenting with writing courses at Sydney University.

Krauth (2000) notes that, in the early 1990s, creative writing programs in Australia were 'thrust' into the university domain by the Dawkins amalgamations. Prior to that, there was no established national focus: no national peak body, no discipline-based research agenda, no political or academic networking, and no statistical analysis to portray the nature of the activity advancing apace on isolated campuses. Compared with the visual and performing arts disciplines, creative writing programs were unorganised and separatist, but they were aware of their potential for the future.

Communications courses emerged in the 1970s as well and were often taught in CAEs and technology institutes across the board to enhance the ability of students to communicate effectively in the workplace and with the public. They offered students education in applied aspects of writing for example, writing reports or office communications as well as introducing some basic communications theory. As a particular example, I have taught engineering students at UTS how to write without using engineering jargon so that members of the general public could better comprehend infrastructure projects that would likely have an impact on them.

The teaching of creative writing and writing as a professional tool were often combined, as happened for example at UTS and is the underlying thrust of the teaching of Writing at the University of New England. This is a recognition that Writing is a vital professional tool across the board as well as a potential career path for, unfortunately, a small number of writing graduates.

What I have found (Fisher 2006) s that most Writing courses do not sufficiently prepare potential professional writers with sufficient knowledge about copyright, legal issues, potential income sources and other essential basics to begin a career in Writing. UNE writing courses offer a variety of potential career paths for writers, but I would want to see the Publishing and Editing options covered the isssues I have identified that are generally missing.


Brien, Donna Lee, and Webb, Jennifer, Writing courses: Who needs them? Australian Author, vol. 39, no. 3, December 2007, pp. 12–15

Dale, John, Glenda Adams (1939–2007), Australian Author, vol. 39, no. 2, August 2007, pp. 26—29.

Dawson, Paul, Creative Writing in Australia: The Development of a Discipline, Text, Vol 5, no 1, April 2001.

Kirkpatrick, Peter, The strange death of Australian literature, Australian Author, vol. 39, no. 1, April 2007, pp. 20–23.

Krauth, Nigel, Where is Writing Now?: Australian University Creative Writing Programs at the End of the Millennium, Text, Vol 4, no 1, April 2000.

Surma, Anne, Defining professional writing as an area of scholarly activity, Text, Vol 4, No 2, October 2000

Monday, May 17, 2010

Armidale: Books and Music

It's starting to cool down up here on the Northern Tablelands. I've invested in gloves and scarves and made sure the gas is connected -- a bit of a tricky exercise as this required dealing with a Wesfarmers subsidiary called Kleenheat which controls LPG distribution here. The LPG comes through metered pipes, though, so I don't have to worry about the cylinder running out.
The cold doesn't stop things happening. The Rotary Book Fair started this Saturday. It continues for a few days. I visited there with my colleague, Dr Jane O'Sullivan, and I was amazed at the number of books on offer. The racecourse had been given over to trestle after trestle groaning with books, all available for a fraction of their new prices.
The variety was incredible -- poetry, science, fiction of all descriptions, cooking, philosophy. It made me wish that there was a resale royalty on the second-hand sales of books, but I also happily purchased a number of books I'd been wanting for some time and now possess.
Sunday saw me in Lazenby Hall at UNE to hear the Armidale Symphony Orchestra (ASO) play. How many Australian towns boast their own orchestra? It was a shame that the hall was not packed to capacity, because the concert was excellent. Wendy Huddleston conducted and the three pieces played were inspired choices.
Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor started the event with a bit of a buzz. Then Deidre Rickards joined the orchestra on piano for Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. This was a first class performance, full of verve and energy.
The last piece played was the first Australian performance of Franz Berwald's Third Symphony. Berwald was a Swedish composer whose work was largely unplayed in his lifetime. This symphony was not performed until 1905, 37 years after Berwald's death. It was unusual in only having three parts.
But Huddleston and the ASO did the work justice. I want to hear more of Berwald now.
I walked home to turn on the gas heater and warm myself further with a bowl of soup.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Music from another Country now on Kindle

My book Music from another Country is now available as a download on Amazon's Kindle. If you have a Kindle or compatible device, you can order the e-book through Amazon. Click on the header for this post to go straight to Amazon
The US edition of the print version is already available from Amazon here.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Farewell Deirdre Hill (O'Donnell)

I knew her only for the past few years. She was one of my predecessors at the Australian Society of Authors where she worked to help achieve one of our greatest victories, Public Lending Right, and she remained very interested in its affairs right up until her last days. For the past year or more, her frailty was very apparent.
We ceased having meetings of the Trustees of the ASA Benevolent Fund (of which she was Chair until forced to stand down down due to her physical deterioration) at the ASA because it was too difficult for her to climb the stairs.
I knew her particularly through the Benevolent Fund and her attendance at ASA events.
I was aware she was the wife of Gus O'Donnell, who was the copyright visionary who set up the Australian Copyright Council and Copyright Agency Ltd.
I'm sorry she's gone.
Pax vobiscum, Deirdre (1925-2010).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lisa Heidke: What Kate did Next

As I've stated elsewhere on this blog, Lisa Heidke is a friend of mine. Because of that I read her books. I'm glad I do, because otherwise I would miss almost entirely the genre she inhabits.
It's marketed as chick-lit. The pink cover with gold hearts gives that away, but really What Kate did Next (Allen & Unwin, ISBN 978-1-74175-933-4) is simple escapist popular fiction, and that's meant as a compliment.
Rather than expanding the generic boundaries of the Mills and Boon and Harlequin formulaic books, this is the sort of book we had on the bedside tables of our house when I was growing up. It's the sort of book we took on holidays to the beach. It's the urban Australian equivalent of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Taylor Caldwell and even Mary Renault.
Of course it recounts a journey. In this case, the journey concerns Kate Cavendish, who should be happy in her well-off middle-class North Shore lifestyle (yes, I'm talking about a very Sydney book).
She has two children, a thirteen year old troublesome daughter Lexi and an eight year old son Angus. Her husband Matthew is a successful businessman who expects her to cook dinner for visiting American clients at a moment's notice. The scene where Kate offends four Mormons with her alcohol fuelled meal is very amusing, and self-deprecating about the smug superiority of North Shore codes of behaviour.
Kate was a successful photographer before she took on motherhood. Now, she has a chance to work again at Delicious Bites magazine. Her friend Fern, perhaps a little conveniently but again in that casual North Shore way, is "a guru in the magazine world" and thus able to offer Kate a suddenly vacant assistant position.
So Kate starts work and, while she is fantasising about the thighs of Arnaud, Angus' soccer coach, who also works at the magazine publishing company, finds herself out late at night, and drunk, with Graeme Grafton, the handsome chief photographer.
At the same time, her mother is proposing to remarry her father, who left the family twenty years before, while her sister Robyn blobs around eight and half months pregnant. Robyn's husband, Dan, ran away once the pregnancy was confirmed and is now in Spain asking for a divorce so he can marry the chick he's met there. Meanwhile, Lexi has cut her hair off and is wagging school.
It sounds silly and it could be, but Heidke hangs these disparate pieces together to create a funny and pleasant read. That may not seem much, but so few books offer that these days. I find I close more at page 10 than I finish.
Yes, we have infidelity, but neither Kate nor Matthew does the dirty deed (though Kate comes perilously close). The side-story of the remarrying parents is engaging and offers a counter balance to the general craziness. And in the end Kate finds she can be a photographer, a mother and a loved and loving wife.
Is it for everybody?
I don't think so, but it is for sufficient readers that Allen & Unwin chose to publish this second of Heidke's books. It's not merely because it is set on the North Shore, where the dads drive BMWs, the mums drive Mercedes and the soccer coaches are French and handsome. My own book set on the North Shore, Music from another Country, has been praised for its honest depiction of masculinity, but, even though it is enjoying modest sales, no publisher (including Fat Frog, who published it) was ready to throw significant marketing dollars at it.
Not so for What Kate did Next. The book is everywhere, including front of the shop here in Dymocks Armidale. Heidke's book is indicative of subtle changes in the publishing industry. She is part of the feminisation of publishing -- it is women who are buying more books, who are reading more fiction. Stories for blokes are relatively high risk -- publishers are better off targetting their non-fiction lists at them.
So this is the new "middle list". And with a book like What Kate did Next, Allen & Unwin have made a good middle-brow, middle-class choice.
That may seem as if I'm damning the book with faint praise, but I'm not. This is the sort of book that is like comfort food. It's nourishing, familiar and tasty and you know what you are getting.
You can't go wrong with that.

Footnote: In the list of acknowledgements, Heidke thanks Shelley Kenigsberg as a member of her writers' group. Shelley has been an office-bearer in the Society of Editors (NSW) and or several years in the eighties I worked with her and Lisa Heidke at the same publishing company. It's pleasing to see we're still all muddli9ng around with the industry.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fear Factor: Terror Incognito launched

Fear Factor, edited by Meenakshi Bharat and Sharon Rundle, and featuring a wide range of stories looking at the impact of terror on the world (including one by yours truly), was launched at The Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra yesterday by Melina Marchetta. The book is a unique collaboration between India and Australia.
While I wasn't able to make the launch, I look forward to seeing the book do well in sales.
You can buy copies here .

Thursday, March 18, 2010

ASA Barbara Jefferis Award 2010: The China Garden

Professor Robert Dixon (right) of the University of Sydney and myself at the ASA Barbara Jefferis Award, 14 March 2010.

The Barbara Jefferis Award 2010 was awarded on 14 March. The winner was The China Garden by Kristina Olsson, published by University of Queensland Press.

"Without feeling the need to resolve every absence or mystery, Olsson gently suggests that it is always possible to make new things out of the past, however fractured or painful.” ~ from the judges' reading report.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Australian Long Story edited by Mandy Sayer

Mandy Sayer, a Sydney writer, has edited a new collection, The Australian Long Story (ISBN 978-1-926428-00-0), for Penguin imprint, Hamish Hamilton. The concept is good; a package of longer fiction works by familiar and some not so familiar authors. As always with anthologies, the editor's choice is open to debate.
Sayer sets out her reasons for the need for such an anthology and her choice of works in her introduction, and there she offers some grounding points for those who might use a collection such as this for study of both literature and writing practice. She first speaks of her inspiration for a collection of longer fiction, being The Granta Book of the American Long Story and recent collections by Tim Winton and David Malouf. The success of Nam Le's The Boat (also published by Penguin) must also have been on her and her publisher's minds. The works of all three of these Australian writers are included in the collection, and they are certainly among the better stories here.
Sayers gives a potted history of the short story in Australia and some of its practitioners and sets out to define what she means by "the long story". I'm not convinced by her arguments, but at least she explains her reasons for making a distinction between works because of their number of words. I couldn't accept that she refused any Christina Stead as the long stories "were all set overseas". That smacked a little too much of the idiosyncrasies of the terms of Miles Franklin Award. As it is, the Peter Carey piece she includes is set in an unidentified location that could easily be New York, Cape Town or Sydney, so why could we not have Christina?
And while I'm being niggardly, I'm tired too of Kings Cross writers sneering at Patrick White. To say he "commits the cardinal sin of patronising his characters" when you include your own husband's work in your anthology pushes the boundaries a bit too far for me. Finally, I find it baffling for an anthologist to claim that she would have included a piece by Frank Hardy but "it was too different in terms of tone, style and setting (the 1930s) to keep company with what would become the final selection" -- does this mean she seeks homogeneity?
These quibbles aside, the collection offers not only solid stories from Malouf ("The valley of lagoons", an evocative, restrained, fully realised story from childhood), Winton ("Boner McFarlin's Moll", vivid in the description of small-town life, though not entirely convincing in its conclusion) and Le ("Halflead Bay", where family bonds and obligations are covert levers for a deceptively simple narrative), it also provides an opportunity for the genius of Elizabeth Jolley to shine again. Her "Grasshoppers" is to my mind the strongest work in this book. While it seems to be conventional, closer examination reveals some magic realism at work. It's a delight.
Interestingly, none of these are urban stories. All are set in small towns or rural areas, "Grasshoppers" also crossing over to India.
Two other works are also non-urban. Gillian Mears' story is set in Grafton. Unfortunately, over the years I have found myself unable to engage with Mears' work since it brings a sense of suffocation on me. I know this is my fault, not hers, and I think it is largely due to my gender. Female readers may well have a very different perspective on "The childhood gland". The work by Sayers' husband, Louis Nowra, "Ten anecdotes about Lord Howe Island", is exactly that. As a piece of writing, I suspect it sat better in its original showcase publication for the Sydney Olympic Games. I enjoyed reading it, but I wondered whether there were other "longer stories" that might have had stronger claims to be in an anthology such as this one.
Set in Adelaide, Peter Goldsworthy's "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" is a strong story about choice. If I were using this book in a writing course, I'd ask students to read this work first. The fact that a father chooses to accompany a dying child in death, leaving his wife and son alive, raises a spectrum of ethical and life issues. Death (or almost death) and reactions to it are central in a number of the other works in this collection. I would ask that students read the Jolley work next, then the Le work, then the Mears work (despite my personal reaction, I can see what the work is doing), then the Malouf work, with Carey's work, "The chance", which deals with loss and transformation, as the final piece. Carey's work is urban "speculative fiction" set in a world where people can take part in a lottery and change their bodies for other ones. It is a perfect counterpart to "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam".
The other story included in the collection is Helen Garner's "Honour". It has an urban setting yet, partly because of political references, it seems oddly dated. It is still a strong story, but the tone, style and setting vary significantly from the rest of the works selected. Should it not be here? I think it should, but so should Stead and White and Hardy.
This collection has its faults, but its strength are sufficient to outweigh them. I'm pleased Sayers took the time to assemble this collection.

Monday, February 15, 2010

ABR's Favourite Australian Novel

I voted for The Vivisector by Patrick White in the Australian Book Review survey of favourite Australian novels. It made it into the Top 20 at place 14.
The book is also in the running for the 1970 Lost Man Booker Prize. That year, the rules were changed and 1970 books were not considered. The prize is now being reconsidered. Would Paddy have cared? (Probably -- he was a dark horse.)
If you are frightened of reading Paddy and who isn't, The Vivisector is a good place to start. It's a very Sydney novel. I'm thinking of the humidity and dampness there at the moment and the book's atmosphere is already with me. I like to think it is close to being a self-portrait -- the cruelness of the artist cutting through emotional sinews in pursuit of his obsessions.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Copyright cases: Comment

The recent decisions in the iiNet and "Dowununder" cases are quite straightforward, steady-as-she-goes affirmations of the solidity of the legal decision-making processes in the Australian copyright system. On the one hand, the courts have cleared an internet service provider (ISP), that is, iiNet, of providing a means for people to carry out illegal activities. This decision will be challeneged, of course, and the issue will go to the High Court. Why? For the content providers, there's too much money at stake.
With "Downunder", the primacy of 'material form' is again demonstrated. But the offending part of the song is only a very small part.
The real issue, as in all copyright disputes, is how much is it worth. That will be the interesting part of this case.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Anna Goldsworthy: Piano Lessons

I could not fail to notice that Anna Goldsworthy (author of Piano Lessons, Black Inc., ISBN 9781863954433) is the daughter of Peter Goldsworthy. His name is on the back cover, he is thanked for his editorial suggestions in the acknowledgements and he makes his appearance on page 1.
Peter Goldsworthy was awarded a gong, an AM, in the 2010 Australia Day Honours List. He's a South Australian and he chaired the Literature Board of the Australia Council (in which capacity I met him and found him to be professional, courteous and concerned) and he's a doctor and he wrote Maestro. Don't forget this last -- well, forget it if you like -- Anna will remind you of it often enough in her "memoir" about how she overcame the impossible odds of her deprived South Australian upbringing -- private school, dux of school, private piano teacher, both parents doctors, piano recitals -- you know, the usual thing. Personally, I prefer Peter's Honk if you are Jesus, which I think is one of Australia's funniest "serious" novels, even though the title probably hurt sales. Regrettably, Peter's Three Dog Night was not a book for me, and I've never been more than luke-warm about Maestro, but Anna collaborated with her father on a stage adaptation of it, so let's mention it again shall we?
Oh, and Anna had a car accident once, and she was at fault. And then she had another a day before she was to play with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but a drugged-out truck driver who called her "mate" was to blame for that one.
And did you know Maestro -- have we mentioned the book by her father yet? -- was in part inspired by her music teacher, Eleonora Sivan? While Anna was horrified her father was recording her teacher's conversation in a notebook, that horror didn't stop her producing this uninspired piece of self-aggrandisement, which does little justice to Mrs Sivan, despite that being, I imagine, the author's intention.
Why uninspired? I like to think a memoir is not simply a recount of episodes of a life, but a cumulative narrative that ultimately proffers some revelation or illumination. I accept that the truth of the memoir may only be such as can provide a basis for an engaging narrative, but the more a reader can accept a memoir as true, the more successful the memoir. A Fortunate Life is an excellent example. Piano Lessons, to me, suffers from offering too much of what I regard as the techniques of fiction (and I do hope this is not because of the editorial suggestions of the father).
One particular irritation is the repetitive use of numbers or superstitions to suggest Anna has some obsessive-compulsive or ADHD problem. The Fibonacci sequence (hey, Dan Brown!) is mentioned several times as she counts it down, supposedly calming herself when panicked by what never fails to be success. She'll have you believe (but I don't) that she plays superstitious little games to hold herself together in the face of the enormous pressures facing her -- like winning the Tennyson Prize for being best SA student in English AND the Don Maynard Prize for best SA music student -- at the same time!
It's a device that could have worked, but why should I accept it from a writer who offers me, after all the prizes and successes: "Afterwards I rushed from the room, disgusted with myself, and climbed the steps to the top of the opera house [yes, the Sydney Opera House], where I assumed a tragic, windswept pose". Really, that's what is written.
Melodrama this memoir may be, but Wuthering Heights it is not.
I'm not pointing the finger solely at the author here. The acknowledgements reveal Black Inc. asked her to write the book. These days, she is well-known both for her writing and her musical performances in the Seraphim Trio. I am not questioning her talent in either area in any way. For the publisher, the book may have seemed an easy sell, but there are serious problems in its structure and writing that do neither author nor publisher any good.
Still, I admire Anna's chutzpah. Several times she quotes her father saying "you have to put yourself out there". One time she quotes him suggesting her Trio be called the Stiletto Trio, with the marketing gimmick being the three musicians wearing stilettos on stage. Following this advice, she has put herself out there, but her self-portrait is not a flattering picture and much of this I think lies in the haste to get a saleable book to market, rather than working more thoroughly on a memoir that offers the reader some revelation or illumination.
For instance, "Debra" is mentioned a few times and appears to have some role in music, but we don't ever meet this character. Then there's poor old Sam, who bought the Paddington Bear. He is is dumped and forgotten in a most offhand fashion -- the star has to practise, practise, practise. No time for a boyfriend. Until Nicholas waltzes into the Coda, not a boyfriend but a husband. And finally, there's the caricature of Eleonora Sivan -- the intent was obviously meant to be inspirational, but it all falls flat. Why ?
In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald following his AM, Peter Goldsworthy noted he loathed piety, something he attributed to his Methodist upbringing. My Methodist upbringing causes me to loathe immodesty, hubris and vanity -- all of which are present in Piano Lessons in spadefuls. All of it about Anna. I wanted to smash the lid of the piano down on her selfish fingers, which I am sure is not what either author or publisher intended.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kate Grenville: The Lieutenant

My first encounter with Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (Text, ISBN 978-1-921351-78-5) was in a warm winter in Alice Springs. Kate was a member of a panel I chaired at the Eye of the Storm writers' festival there, and she read from the book and talked about what had influenced her to write it. I didn't read the book in its entirety until some months after this, but encountering it first in what to me was -- is -- the foreignness of Alice Springs helped me understand the central character of Daniel Rooke a little more.
A visitor to Alice Springs can feel very much the stranger, divorced and alien from both the black and white people and the land. This feeling is at the heart of Grenville's powerful historical novel. She explores it through Daniel Rooke. Grenville hints in the early chapters that today he might be diagnosed with Aspergers or some similar form of autism. He has a gift with numbers and categorisation and "he had no memories other than of being an outsider". He is mistreated by his peers, who ridicule his poor social skills.
These improve somewhat when he joins the marines, but this leads to him being wounded in a naval battle in the American War of Independence. Recovering from this, he learns that an expedition is to set out for New South Wales and he contrives to be on board the Sirius as astronomer.
I had some problems with history here. The Sirius of course was a ship in the First Fleet, which was under the command of Arthur Phillip. In Grenville's book, Phillip becomes James Gilbert, Rooke is a character inspired by William Dawes. I am not sure why the historical names do not have a place in this fiction. Sydney Cove and Botany Bay are there, as are the Cadigal people themselves. Grenville even has a little joke as Rooke, sailing out of Sydney Harbour, stands "at the stern and looked towards the point the natives knew as Tarra, and which he had tried to name after Dr Vickery, but which people seemed determined to call after himself". She is referring, of course, to Dawes Point. Why then can we not have characters called Phillip and Dawes?
Grenville also acknowledges that she is using Cadigal words and conversation in the book, and her story is inspired by "recorded events". So why do we have this need to shuffle in extraneous characters?
I am conscious that there has been some debate about novelists interpreting history, but history is not Grenville's key theme. She is telling a story about, fundamentally, communication, and she is using the well-established genre of the historical novel. I would have been more then happy to have had Rooke named Dawes and Gilbert named Phillip.
But that is immaterial to the core theme, and where this novel excels. It transpires that Rooke, the outsider, has more in common with the Cadigal people than his own. With Tagaran (again, historically Patyegarang), he forms a close bond and sets out to record the language of the Cadigal. This is perhaps the most moving, though problematic, part of the book.
Grenville very clearly defines her crucial message: "This exchange was not a language lesson. For the first time, he and Tagaran were on the same side of the mirror of language, simply speaking to each other. Understanding went in both directions. Once two people shared language, they could no longer use it to hide".
But for this reader there was a problem with a lack of sexual tension between Rooke and Tagaran. We know that Rooke is a man with a mighty member, which he is able to use, from the Antigua scene. It's difficult to accept him almost sexless in his interactions with a naked Tagaran.
That quibble aside, this is a book for a rainy Sunday afternoon, biscuits to hand, and constant cups of tea.