Four Times a Knight is Barely Enough

Okay, I admit I’ve dallied with republicanism (more than dallied – you might have seen the pictures of the two us?), but now that there are serious gongs on offer up to four times a year, I’m of course prepared to reconsider. And don’t try telling me I’m the only republican doing that.

Here’s my problem. No, here are my two problems. The first is specific to only a few of us. I already have a family name that outranks a knight, so Sir Nick Earls risks feeling like a bit of a downgrade. To acknowledge pre-eminent contribution in my peculiar circumstances, I’ll have to be made at least a Marquess. Don’t get me started on what to do with people called King. You’d be better off leaving now.

This leads me, sort of, to problem number two. While the Prime Minister’s grace note trilled as majestically as a hymn in the throat of an ageing English vicar, if it please you, Sir Tony, might it only be the start? Why stop at knights and dames, and a maximum of four of them a year, when centuries of somewhat dusty chivalry are waiting to be polished up anew?

Fortunately, at least one further step might already be underway. Today Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy called for Queensland to resume naming its own knights and dames. Before any of you fine-print fiends start pointing out that state governments can’t appoint anyone to the Order of Australia and the whole K&D thing is entirely in the PM’s back pocket (because that’s our democratico-feudal system at its best), there’s plenty of scope for Queensland’s adventurously retro government to do their bit.

The British have the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, used to reward the great contributions of many worthy citizens (as well as an excellent chance to slap a badge on the chest of a prince just because, and an opportunity to recognise the statespersonship of international leaders such as Josip Tito and Robert Mugabe). We’re into showers more than baths in Queensland, so maybe we could start up the Most Honourable Order of the Shower, with the most humble rank, Companion of the Shower to be awarded to all those rugby league stars who spend their hard-earned on one of those his’n’hers double showers you always seem to see in the real estate ads when they sell their mansions.

Or maybe we could make a move on the Order of St Patrick, still in existence but sadly effectively dormant since the Irish opted to go their own way on 1921. Not quite true – there were a couple more chances to sling these knighthoods the way of some princes in the 1930s (royals do seem to stumble upon these titles rather a lot, don’t they, but maybe they’re just great contributors), but other than that the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick is going nowhere. Queensland, this could be the one for us. How about it, Sir Campbell? Sir Jarrod?

Or maybe we could take our rightful turns at a few of the better royal sinecures on offer. For 800 years or so, Britain has had a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, given to an older person prepared to wear tights and exercise ‘power of muster’ in, um, fourteen ports on England’s south coast (yes, I know fourteen’s not exactly cinque but don’t be picky). Eight centuries, and how many Australians have held the role? One. Put your hand up, Queensland. Or maybe they won’t let us take that one, since we’d be likely to privatise the ports …

So, how about Keeper of the Queen’s Swans? Such a big job that in 1993 they split it into two – the Warden and Marker of the Swans respectively. And how many Australians have been favoured by appointment? None that I’m aware of. I’m confident we could mark a swan as well as anybody. And ward them, to the extent such a thing might be called for.

Or better still, we could bring back the office of Chafe-Wax, dormant since 1852 (which has me wondering how on earth the Lord Chancellor fixes wax to his documents these days).

And surely it’s about time the Earl of Denbigh and Desmond accepted that being a double earl is more than enough and stepped aside to give a Queenslander a crack at being the Grand Carver of England.

And don’t tell me that, after 948 years in the role, it isn’t time for the Lord of the Manor of Scrivelsby to step aside and let one of us be Queen’s Champion? I can’t say precisely what you need to be a champion at, but it’s a genuine official role and we’re a versatile bunch and surely able to cover whatever it asks for.

Mere knights and dames, Lord PM? Please try harder. Or let the Dukes of Ashgrove and Kawana lead the way in Queensland. There’s a whole exotic semi-royal future waiting for us to leap back to.

Now, who’s first in line for a title, sadly defunct since 1914 but until then ranking in the Order of Precedence ahead of a Companion of the Bath, if you don’t mind? Yes, I’m talking of the quasi-judicial office of Master of Lunacy. Could be a great time for us to get ourselves a few of those.

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On to the ablogatory Part 5: Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses

Source of book: second recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (again I paid RRP)
Text below : new

This is not the first book I’ve seen where someone in the publishing house has gone for something funky design-wise and cut out a chunk of the cover, but it’s a hardback and I think that’s less common. It is, though, the first book with all its back-cover text on a deliberately removable sticker, in case the aesthetics of a blurb, quotes and a barcode aren’t for you. I have a wardrobe full of T shirts that suggests aesthetics and I don’t usually see eye-to-eye, but I’m not going to object to people trying something different. The publisher in this case is McSweeney’s, so some rule-breaking when it comes to cover design is no surprise. It might add to the experience for some, and it didn’t detract from it for me (aside from a few wussy moments when the pointy bits of the front cover board spiked my hand).

So, to business. How about a blurb: ‘Lucy Corin’s dazzling new collection is powered by one hundred apocalypses: a series of short stories, many only a few lines, that illuminate moments of vexation and crisis, revelations and revolutions. An apocalypse might come in the form of the end of a relationship or the end of the world, but what it exposes is the tricky landscape of our longing for a clean slate. Three longer, equally visionary stories round out the collection.

At once mournful and explosively energetic, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses makes manifest the troubled conscience of an uneasy time.’

Don’t expect normal from this book, and I mean that in a good way. This is way down the narrowest, pointiest, nichiest end of the niche I like to call my reading home.

Did you ever read Shelia Heti’s The Middle Stories? It was a festival pick-up for me in Calgary in 2001, and I shared my copy around a few agents and publishers in Australia in the hope that they’d want to get on board. Too nichey, apparently.

Anyway, One Hundred Apocalypses had me thinking of that, and almost nothing else in my reading experience. They’re both books that have dazzled me, each containing many great glinting feats in the guise of small pieces of prose. I love this writing, could easily envy it, and yet I’ll never even try to do anything like it. Again. Perhaps I should say again. Perhaps I tried something like it with Passion in the early nineties, but not really. After that I realised characters were one of the things that count most for me when I’m writing – I invest a lot in them and they repay it with hard work, giving me all kinds of details I didn’t have and helping me find the shape of my story and the shapes within it. (Don’t worry – when pressed, I do know they’re not real.)

That’s not how Lucy Corin seems to work at all. It might be, but it doesn’t look like it. And she’s probably able to do all of that stuff, even if she seems to choose not to. Probably able to do all that writing stuff I try to do with 100% of my brain, while she’s simultaneously watching Breaking Bad, making quality linguine from scratch, contemplating small and large ends to worlds, and juggling six unlike objects adeptly with her other hand.

When it comes to writing, she’s probably able to do anything, and yet she’s chosen to do this – to flip a reader’s normal expectations of characters and story on their head (with a hand I didn’t even see), to create something whole while showing you its odd pieces, and to write it all with the sharpness of a diamond saw.

Beginning, middle, end? Blah, triple blah. Most of the time, it feels like that’s not really the game here, at least not in the regular way (by choice, and a smart choice too). The end result is genuinely and successfully artful, and the writing is brilliant.

And, yes, she too teaches creative writing (at UC Davis, in her case), but her MFA is from Brown, not Iowa, so don’t try telling me I don’t ever mix things up a bit.

I can’t think of one person in my face-to-face life to recommend this book to, but I can think of a couple of people who are likely to see this post and might end up thinking it’s their book of the year. Because, as I said 6000 words ago, it’s personal.

There is such a thing as merit, but what a book does in our brains is about more than that. I buy into the idea of reviews and rewards for the obvious shallow reasons – I’ll welcome any accolade anyone’s willing to give me, and any cash or sale that comes my way as a consequence. I’ll even buy in with a little more conviction than that (they can play a useful role in connecting with readers … we can some to some kind of collective understanding about merit, I suppose … on a handful of occasions, a review has nudged me to realise there’s something in my writing I want to make more of, or less …), but I can’t believe in them wholeheartedly. Sour grapes from someone who misses out on awards far more often than he wins them? Maybe. I’m game to put it to the test. Go ahead and throw half-a-dozen major awards my way quickly and we’ll see how I feel then. Apart from richer and smug.

Ask anyone who the fastest ever person in the world is over 100 or 200m and the answer right now can only be Usain Bolt. Ask 50 brilliant writers around the world for their picks as best book of 2013 – note, ‘best’, not ‘favourite’ – and, as the Guardian found, you’ll get about 48 different answers. Because, where books are concerned, even ‘best’ is personal, to some degree at least.

Welcome to Normal made one critic’s list of the best books of 2012. That meant a lot to me, and not because I was on a list. It meant a lot because I had an idea of what he liked and what he valued in fiction. Before the book was published, he was in my mind as my test case, however much I tried to talk myself out of loading one person’s reading up with any hopes like that. But he got it. I hit my mark. That counts.

It counts for a lot any rare time you light the fuse that sets off that brain firecracker I mentioned on Monday. Some readers have a book club of one, some have influence privileges and the chance to spread their views to thousands. Their readings have different commercial and career implications for the writer but, food on the table aside, the pay-off is the firecracker. The greatest thing is hearing occasionally that you’ve paid forward the favour that books did you in the first place, and continue to do you when the right book lands in your brain.

I’m ¾ of the way through One Hundred Apocalypses now, still with a few apocalypses to go. I have no idea how Lucy Corin does it and, after a lifetime of reading and decades of writing, it comes as a relief to be reminded once again how far I am from knowing everything, and to know that there will be other books ahead that will surprise me too.

Thanks for joining me this week, and for indulging me. May 2014 bring you at least one book that knocks you sideways, in the best possible way.

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Reading Blogblurt Part 4: Abby Geni’s The Last Animal

Source of book: recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (this time I paid RRP)
Text below : new

I pay close attention to Amazon, but I must admit I don’t think I’ve bought from Amazon. I realise this is the opposite of some people, who are terrestrial browsers and then online purchasers. But I pay close attention to Amazon because my living comes from books and I’m not in a position to ignore the biggest retailer in the world.

But I buy books relatively rarely – I’m fortunate to acquire books quite often without opening my wallet – and I enjoy the process of buying them, which features old-school browsing among physical books in physical book shops and sometimes conversation.

This, by the way, is not about to segue into an anti-ebook rant. At least some of you were starting to dread that the first homage to old-book smell was imminent, right? I am pro ebook. As a writer and reader, why would I not be in favour of technology that makes stories widely and easily available and often at a great price? I have no vessel bias when it comes to how stories arrive in the lives of readers. My own work is available as ebooks, and I am determined to do what I can to build on my toehold in that market, but that’s a story for another day. Or several other days. Oh, the book industry …

[valet passes smelling salts under nose, typing resumes …]

The web is a great source of info about books, but not designed for the kind of browsing I think of when I think of browsing. ‘People who bought this also bought that’ is no help, if they were also buying for grannie, or their two-year-old, or their dad who just can’t read enough about the siege of Stalingrad.

So, I like to visit bookshops, find my way to the shelves that feel most like my spiritual home, and pull a few books out and take a look at them my way, on my terms. Sometimes I’m looking for particular people, sometimes not. On 29 December, I wasn’t.

I’ll triage based on the obvious, such as covers, blurb and blurb quotes, though I’ve had a few books published, and am well versed in the art of selective review quoting on covers. I’m looking at what the commenter has chosen to talk about, rather than how hyperbolic they’ve been. Then I’ll read the first page. If that works for me, I’ll read more, here and there.

If there’s a bookseller in the shop who knows me and knows my tastes, I’ll ask for some tips. I specifically wanted short stories on 29 Dec, and to buy two books for the following week’s holiday reading. I put that to Fiona Stager and she showed me six or so to choose from.

This is why no one comes to me for tips on ‘holiday reading’. I’ve never had the inclination to lighten up my reading for holidays. If I’m reading, I’m reading, and I want it to be great. My kind of great. Watch me while I squeeze myself into quite a narrow niche here. What I love to read most is contemporary short/shortish fiction in the North American style. My book club therefore has one member, and it’s me going, ‘Wow, how great was that? How does that work?’ whenever something smart happens. And then, like every other book club, we eat pizza, drink a couple of glasses of wine and share salacious gossip.

Not that I’m requiring the books to be written by North Americans, but my reading of newly discovered fiction can sometimes be a little skewed towards thirty-year-old Iowa MFA grads with college teaching jobs and no more than two books behind them. I can immediately think of three Australians whose prose style fits my brief though – Tara June Winch, Krissy Kneen and Nam Le (with only one Iowa MFA among them, as far as I’m aware). I am quietly in awe of the sentences these writers manage to put together. They do precisely the things I’ve been talking of for the past couple of days, and that I tried my utmost to do with 2012’s Welcome to Normal.

I said there’d be more on that subject, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Yes, my love of the short stuff had been reawakened a few years ago, and I suddenly had a passion and a feel for it again. In 1999, I’d published Headgames, my second short story collection. Across its eighteen pieces, there was room for comedy, awkwardness, weirdness and maybe poignancy. It was generously received, and I’ve always appreciated that.

It sold 35,898 copies in Australia and New Zealand as a collection, before being sliced and diced and reissued in a variety of ebook ways more recently. It’s my only book sales figure I know for sure, and I know it because my agent added it up to give my publisher so that she could take it into the acquisitions meeting as ammo. A case needed to me made for them to sign up Welcome to Normal.

For one reason or another, they acquiesced, I got to write my collection of stories and novellas, I gave it everything I could, I thought I turned out some of the best writing of my life and the wary people at the acquisitions meeting turned out to be right. Sales were a small fraction of those of Headgames. Don’t ask me how small. Every six months, I shove the statements into the filing cabinet without looking at them and pretend the mail is yet to arrive for the day.

If I knew none of my own books, Welcome to Normal is the one I’d be most likely to read. So, I value every tweet/post/email/review/quote from anyone who got it and told me why it was great for them. And, by the way, brace yourselves for a shift in another direction, and the biggest comedy I’ve written in more than a decade, due out in July, in which I aim to take what I did with 20-something in Zigzag Street/Bachelor Kisses and 30-something in Perfect Skin and do it with 40-something in Analogue Men. Random House let me write a book for me and my niche buddies, so now I owe them something with a few prospects. Fortunately, it’s also a book I wanted to write.

‘But what of Abby Geni’s The Last Animal?’ I hear you ask, now that I’ve thrown the third bucket of cold water over you to rouse you from your me-induced stupor. Fair enough.

Here’s the blurb: ‘The Last Animal by Abby Geni is that rare literary find — a remarkable series of stories unified around one theme: people who use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss, and family life. These are vibrant, weighty stories that herald the arrival of a young writer of surprising feeling and depth.

[massive paragraph follows, making a bold but perhaps crazy attempt to outline each story sketchily]

Unflinching, exciting, ambitious and yet heartfelt, The Last Animal will guide readers through a menagerie of settings and landscapes as it underscores the connection among all living things.’

Do I do themes? Not so much. As a reader do I hang out, even at all, for a book themed on the human-and-natural-world interface? No. I’m seriously nichey, but not in that way. And ‘unflinching’? Isn’t that in just about every second book blurb? I’m up for flinching. Flinching is human and entirely respectable. (Does it look as if I’m saying I’m not prepared to review books, but I’m prepared to review blurbs without rhyme, reason or mercy? Maybe.)

But I’m here for the words on the page, not the words on the flap. And the words on the page were just my thing. She’s smart. A deep thinker who hides the process of thinking but gives you the window you need to glimpse what she’s thought – and you don’t even feel her leading you there. It’s as though you’ve just stumbled upon it. The language is weighed out with great care. These ten stories are stylistically slap bang in the middle of that tradition I’ve talked about, and very well executed.

And, ha, she’s an Iowa MFA grad who teaches at Oberlin, where she got her BA in 2001, suggesting she’s just over thirty. Her publishing CV is this book, plus a few more stories. She’s writing a novel, which I’ll be happy to buy at RRP.

Tomorrow – Part 5: Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (and perhaps slightly less about me)

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Reading Blogfrenzy Part 3: Philipp Meyer’s The Son

Source of book: surprise gift from my publisher in mid-2013, no strings attached
Text below: second half of my Melbourne Writers Festival ‘Read Any Good Books Lately?’ piece

The most recent novel I’ve read also makes it onto my list of books that have amazed me. It’s ‘The Son’ by Philipp Meyer. My publisher sent it to me. It’s 550 pages long, and the cover features horses. As a reader, I don’t do fat books and I don’t do books about horses. But the note from my publisher said she thought it would be my kind of thing and she knows what that is. I opened it, looked at the first page and knew she was right.

You could all it the saga of a Texan family over 160 years – I don’t do Texas much either, by the way – but calling it that makes it sound as though it might be a sprawling indulgent TV soap with oil wells and big hats and dirty deals. It’s nothing like one. Despite the fact that it does actually have oil wells and big hats and dirty deals.

It’s not awful – in fact it’s the opposite of awful – because it’s in the hands of a remarkably talented writer, who knows how to build characters and how to find and choose and reveal the details that make for great writing. So I’m back to some of the same things that I loved about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Though this time it’s in a novel that goes back to the birth of Texas and features Comanches and wars with Mexicans and enough ways of brutality that were new to me that I came away feeling that there were probably daises in Texas in 1850 that were tougher than I am.

In the midst of that – the midst of scalpings and shootings and fires – the writing is so good that sometimes it means just as much when someone picks up a hat … and then puts it down. There’s room for the small gestures that tell us big things about characters. The characters aren’t types riding across grassland on horses with at least as much personality as they have.

This book too went through a lot of drafts, and found itself in a lot of different shapes along the way. It started with the focus on six or seven characters, and in draft one it was set in the present day. Somewhere, in one of the suburbs of Redrafting Hell, Philipp Meyer switched and made it chronological, running from 1850 to the present. But that wasn’t quite right either. So he tried again, I don’t know how many times.

He ended up with a novel composed of essentially three interwoven narrative strands – one from the point of view of Eli, begun as a recording about his early life at the age of 100 in 1936, another from the point of view of his son Peter’s diaries during the Bandit Wars of the 19-teens and the third from the point of view of Peter’s granddaughter Jeanne in the near-present, when she’s 86 and running through the events in her life, and she’s the 5th-richest woman in Texas.

The recording tactic for the Eli voice could have failed and looked fake but, even if it did – it didn’t to me – you forget it quickly. The diary-novel concept is close to three hundred years old and Meyer hasn’t found a new way of doing it, but he’s under no obligation to do that and again his characterisation and details mean it doesn’t matter. And maybe some would also query the old-lady-with-head-bump-on-floor-as-narrator tactic for the third strand, but please don’t because again the detail is finely wrought and true and frankly brilliant.

I’d read the blurb, but I think it undersells the book – ‘gets taken by Comanches, family brutally killed, finds love, great granddaughter ends up a multimillionaire, etc.’ That could be an awful book – the kind of book with a lot of ripped bodice, heaving bosom, brooding good looks and bad late 20th-century plastic surgery, plus the obligatory big hats and oil, but The Son makes crystal clear the difference between drama and melodrama. Drama happens when the characters feel real. Drama happens when the details are right and are used cleverly. Drama happens when no one is overtly pointing out to you that something dramatic is going on. It’s just going on. It’s a moment we’re in.

To my great selfish relief as the writer of 18 books that aren’t this one, it wasn’t a straightforward act of unassisted genius from the first word to the last.

To get the detail right, Philipp Meyer read 350 books about, among other things, the history of Texas, how it felt to be a captive and how to track birds. He also moved to Texas, and learned how to tan deer hides, hunt with a bow and use firearms. And he shot a buffalo so that he could drink its blood in a way consistent with Comanche rituals.

Do you need to shoot an animal and drink its blood to write a great novel? I’m going to say no. But he did, and it gives him one clear description of what it tasted like and maybe the 350 books omitted that. It does remind me though of Dustin Hoffmann making the movie Marathon Man early in his career with Laurence Olivier, who was by then a legend. Every day, Hoffmann ran mile after mile, running himself into the ground to live his character’s experience. As the shoot wore on he was worn more and more ragged. One day he asked Olivier what he did to get into character, and Olivier said, ‘Dear boy, I act.’

Sometimes as a novelist it’s okay to act, but you need to do what you need to do to feel that it’s not acting. In my book Welcome to Normal, there’s a story that takes place almost entirely in the head of a character, a member of a US Air Force drone crew, on his drive back from work at a base in the Arizona desert to the small town in which he’s temporarily living. I had some big story stuff to reveal, but I needed to be smart about it. I needed to be him.

But maybe I didn’t need to operate a drone – or drink warm buffalo blood – and maybe I didn’t even need to go to Arizona. But I spent a full two weeks on Google Earth meticulously driving every metre of his route back to town that evening, looking at every billboard and power pole and straggly tree, and researching everything I saw so that I could find exactly the cues I needed to bring my story to the surface.

Eighteen books into this career, my job is still to try to become the best writer I can be, and to try to write great books in the hope of at least ending up with good ones. It’s writers and books like the two I’ve talked about today that help me find the way, while at the same time reminding me of just how great it can be to be a reader.

Tomorrow – Part 4: Abby Geni’s The Last Animal

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Reading Blogathon Part 2: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Source of book: recommendation from Chris Currie at Avid Reader in Brisbane, book a gift from Avid for launching their Christmas catalogue in 2009
Text below: first half of my Melbourne Writers Festival ‘Read Any Good Books Lately?’ piece

Every couple of years a book amazes me with how good it is. It’s so good, I forget to be jealous. It’s the books that amaze me that most remind me why I do this job, and why I got excited by books in the first place. So I thought I’d make that my key selection criterion today. I’m going to tell you about the last two books that amazed me.

What kind of book is likely to amaze me? That’s changed over the years. A long long time ago, the first book that amazed me combined rhyme, meter, crazy wordplay and pictures, a grumpy man called Sam, green eggs and ham. It was named after the last two. My criteria have evolved since then.

Here are three quotes that have stuck with me as both a reader and a writer:

• Chekhov: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’
• Elmore Leonard in his ten rules for fiction: ‘If it looks like writing, I cut it out’
• Gary Fisketjohn, who has edited great writers like Raymond Carver, Don De Lillo, Richard Ford and Peter Carey – and this is something he once said to me – ‘It might be great writing, but if it stands out like a bump on a log, I cut it out.’

My favourite writing often doesn’t look like writing. It’s more like eavesdropping. The writer’s fingerprints are invisible, the voice is smartly in lock-step with the characters, the observations are really clever and pick up sometimes-minute details, I’m shown things rather than told them, the language is restrained and never showy and I’m given just enough material so that I can go and do the work a good book invites its reader to do.

I’m happy to form my own opinions about characters and the situations in which they find themselves, and I’d rather the writer didn’t tell me theirs. I’d like them to open a window onto something just long enough for me to glimpse what’s on the other side.

So, on to two books that do all that, and well enough to amaze me.

First, Wells Tower’s ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’. Here’s another thing I’ve learned – writers’ festival are great places to discover writers you haven’t read yet. Wells Tower was here in Melbourne in 2009 and so was I, and that’s how I ended up reading his book*, which is a collection of short stories.

It’s so good that it got me seriously excited about short stories again, and soon after that I refused to sign a two-novel contract with my publisher until they’d let me do a book of short stories too. That book, Welcome to Normal came out last year**.

Here’s the blurb of his***: ‘A man is booted out of his home after his wife discovers that the sweat-smudged footprint on the inside of his windscreen doesn’t match her own. Teenage cousins, drugged by summer, meet with a reckoning in the woods. A boy runs off to the carnival after his stepfather bites him in a brawl. In the stories of Wells Tower, families fall apart and messily, hilariously try to reassemble themselves. His characters – marauding Vikings, washed-up entrepreneurs, and jobbing hacks on local papers – are adrift from the mainstream, confused by contemporary masculinity, angry and aimless. Combining electric prose with compassion and dark wit, this is a major debut.’

The last sentence is right: electric prose, compassion, dark wit. But it’s not hilarious. It’s wryly amusing at times, and that’s more than okay. Thousands of books get called hilarious but, with the obvious exception of a handful of my novels, practically none are [pause and change expression at this point to signal to students that they are to laugh]. But it’s brilliant, restrained writing, and it’s the consequence of a lot of work and thought. Many of the stories in the book had been published before but were substantially rewritten for the collection, often to add more subtlety and a few more shades of grey (and I mean that in the old-school non-porn way).

As an interviewer said, about a story called ‘Down in the Valley, ‘I noticed with the new version that you’ve sort of toned down Barry, the hippie who makes off with Ed’s wife. He’s still an asshole, but less of one’. To which Wells Tower replied, ‘I wanted to complicate that a little bit, sort of blur the moral line … I wanted Ed to dislike him for his own reasons.’ I like it when an author doesn’t show me the lines. Real life doesn’t come with marked out lines, so I prefer it when fiction doesn’t too.

Wells Tower said something else interesting in that interview: ‘I’m very much interested in preserving the short story tradition, in writing stories that are tight and where something happens. I love Poe and Chekhov. What I really love in Chekhov is that kind of minute action, where all that happens is somebody picks up a hat and puts it down.’

The art, I think, is in gently placing the reader in the perfect position for them to have a sense of why it was picked up, and why it was put down. Then it can mean a lot, and tell you a lot, even if it’s an action almost no one in the room might have noticed.

[* See what I did there? That’s not strictly true, is it? Wells Tower and I were both at MWF that year, and it should have been as simple as me working out then that it might be a book for me, but I was on tour and, as usual, never got around to extracting my head from my own hind quarters. Chris Currie got it over the line three months later. But it’s not a total lie either, and I wanted to at least make the point that festivals are great places to discover writers. Some writers I can guarantee I discovered at festivals include: Richard Ford, Michael Redhill, Sheila Heti, Anna Burns. I think also Etgar Keret.]
[** More on that tomorrow or the day after, perhaps.]
[*** I really promise I’ll stop dragging you down here. This’ll be the last time. Just clarifying that I’m using the term ‘blurb’ in the Australian and I think British sense, referring to the publisher’s persuasive back-cover text about the book, rather than the American sense of a flattering quote from a noteworthy somebody. And that’s it. Back to the text above. I don’t want to see you down here again.]

Tomorrow – Part 3: Philipp Meyer’s The Son

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (Part 1)

I’m not a reviewer. Or, to be more precise, since school I have prepared only two pieces that could be called reviews of books, neither of them this century.

One of them was of Rosie Scott’s Feral City in 1991. A bunch of us had spent ten days or so together on the first Writers’ train through western Queensland. I still have the tour poster on my wall. As I recall it, a publication – I can’t remember which – came up with the idea of getting a few of us to review each other’s new books.

I liked Rosie and, after our nightly performances, her writing voice was already in my head, which set me up perfectly to read her novel. There was a lot that impressed me, and it was easy to put it into writing. If I’d hated the book, would I have trashed it? No. I don’t feel I own anyone that display of objectivity. I would simply have declined to write about it.

A reviewer, I think, aims for objectivity. The reviewing business is, I think, to some extent about taking a template that fits perfectly over a good book and seeing how it fits over the book in question. But one of the things I most love about reading is its subjectivity and how personal it is.

A book is not a footrace with a clock timing each lane, or a row of insanely large pumpkins lining up to be weighed. Nor is it even paint on canvas, or ninety minutes of a roomful of people digesting exactly the same images and sounds via a screen and speakers (and then doing the template thing, or not). A book is maybe ten hours of words passing through a human brain that’s lived a life and comes loaded with baggage and insights, and it’s the look and feel and everything else that that complicated organ imparts, as well as being about the words on the page.

While two reasonable people might hold quite different views about the same painting or movie, there’s even more scope for them to differ when it comes to books, because the neurology of reading seems far more participatory. You take the words and make your own sounds and pictures, and that’s your copy of the book.

Here’s an example of how subjective it can be – three quotes from reviews of my novel Perfect Skin:

‘One of the joys of Perfect Skin is the author’s deceptively casual and conversational style which draws you into the complex texture of the characters’ lives … You are seduced into caring about the life of the central character … The greatest joy of this book is the depiction of the growing intimacy between Dr Jon and the tiny baby he calls the Bean. This sense of a man engaging at depth with the care of a child reinforced the hope I have that big changes are on the horizon … When enough men genuinely bond with their babies, in the way Dr Jon does in this book, the world will change … I thank Earls for this warm, funny and deeply moving literary contribution.’
The Courier-Mail

‘… a light and breezy tale of one man’s struggle to cope as a single father-single man. A subject tackled before, sure, but the book stands on its own simply for its humour. I doubt Earls has any delusions of literary grandeur, for this is writing at its most basic. It’s overly conversation driven, lacks any real depth and is seriously bereft of descriptive prose. But so what. It’s fun … that’s why Perfect Skin works: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. So it’s not Shakespeare, who cares? Sometimes you just can’t beat a damn good chuckle.’
The Sunday Mail

‘There is a gentle, generous feel to Earls’s humour … The comedy reaches beneath the skin to expose bereavement and loneliness … So much is said within its modest boundaries that more pretentious claims to literary worth look shallow by comparison.’
The Australian’s Review of Books

See what I mean? Same words every time, three different human brains, with their different expectations, different scoresheets and different lives brought to bear.

Am I saying there’s no such thing as merit, and that the relative merits of two books can’t be compared? No. I’m just saying I don’t believe we’re necessarily as surefooted as we like to think when we step into that territory. Genres have conventions and expectations, and aficionados of any genre can name good or bad books within it. Some books float higher on lists than others, and more consistently, and that can start to resemble consensus and the beginnings of a set of performance measures, a notion that hovers close to objectivity.

But I want a book for the magic it might work in my brain, so for me any notion of objective criteria can only be part of the story. Beyond that it’s personal. Any writer of a book I’ve loved will have done something smart that triggered the right response in my brain. Will it do the same in anyone else’s? The best I could manage is an educated guess, on a person-to-person basis. So I don’t take on the responsibility of applying objective criteria to pass judgement on a book for a wider audience. I don’t feel I want to take money for that, and I don’t feel I want to play a role in killing the market for a book that didn’t click with me. And I’m not going to talk up a book I don’t believe in, because neither do I believe that all books are equal. So it’s best to stay out of it.

Plenty of people I like and respect do review books, and no doubt see reviewing rather differently. It’s settled into their brain in a different way. I may be the odd one out and, if so, that’s quite okay. And I can see that reviewing has a role. It can help a book find its people. There’s also, though, the risk that an ugly reviewer-book mismatch can see people who might have liked the book turned away. The one Australian reviewer who really didn’t click with Perfect Skin called it banal, and I know that’d turn me off if I read it in a review. I’m sure it was an honest opinion, and I guess that’s what he was paid for, but it comes with consequences. And, while it was banal for him, it clearly wasn’t for everyone. That’s my point about some things that might feel objective but actually might not be. There is no reliably calibrated banal-o-meter to hold up to books, or any other meter, so I won’t be talking down books that didn’t work for me, particularly not to many thousands of potential readers.

I want to stand well clear of reviewing and be a reader. I want to love being reader the way I have since the first time a book went off in my head like a firework when I was a small single-digit age and marvelling at the cadences and imagination of Dr Seuss.

So, after Rosie Scott’s Feral City in 1991, I reviewed just one more book before retiring from the game. It was 1996 and it was called Art in Suburbia. There were thousands or people more qualified to review it, but I was offered a dollar a word. I came at it as a total outsider, but I found it genuinely interesting. I couldn’t give it the expert attention it deserved but, come on, a dollar a word. I had a mortgage, and there were some good things I could say about it. So, I said them, I took the filthy cash and I decided talking about other people’s books for money – with some promise of objectivity and that I had brought a template to bang around – wasn’t something I could comfortably do again.

Last August, Melbourne Writers Festival put me on their ‘Read Any Good Books Lately?’ panel. When I accepted – the answer to the topic question was ‘yes’, after all, and the question asked me to be a reader, not a reviewer – I think I knew that the audience would be 16-18, but I didn’t realise that this was a famous feature panel of the festival at which experts on young adult books each get up in turn and do a ten-minute slide show covering ten of the recent YA titles that have impressed them the most.

I was 49 then. I hadn’t written a YA book since 2006, and I don’t read YA books. Not as a matter of principal, but life’s short and reading time is shorter, and I want it to be as selfish as I can make it. I want every minute of my reading life, if possible, to be spent on those firecracker-in-the-brain books, and I’m not feeding them into a YA brain. I’m totally open to reading books about teenagers, but they need to work for me, for this old brain, whatever genre badge is on the spine. And most of the few books that get a start aren’t classified as YA.

The session started late and, the longer it went and the more that was said by others, the greater the sense of dread I had that I was going to go way down the wrong track. I had two books to cover instead of ten and those choices were locked in – their covers were in the slide show. I had crafted a ten-minute piece about two totally wrong books and I ended up with six minutes max to deliver it and I stood up and barked my way through it at high speed, with sweat gathering on my temples. It didn’t feel like my finest hour, even though I’d walked in feeling genuinely good about what I had to say on the subject of reading, and on those two books.

At the close of the session, a friendly YA expert came over and said to me, ‘You should publish that somewhere,’ probably meaning somewhere quite a distance from that room and its somewhat nonplussed teenagers.

So, partly in the interests of spreading the word about some books I think are great, that’s what I’ll do, and a little more. After a blog hiatus following a pre-election rant in August, it’s back to core business here, and this week a blog rush on the topic of reading and books. One post a day for five days, with each of the next four to be about a chosen book, and perhaps loosely associated thoughts around it.

I make no guarantees that these books will work for other people, but I’m going to try to work out why they worked for me. Please feel free to opt in and have your say, about these books and others, and how we read them.

Tomorrow – Part 2: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

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The Greater of Two Evils

When I’m angry, I’m prone to write too much. When I’m crossing over to the dark side and talking politics, I tend to load up with evidence, since haters abound. But no one’s going to thank me for 5000 words of sandbagged armour-plated essay, so watch me attempt to cut to the chase here.

[... edits bulging dissertation about post-WWII European refugees and migrants, 80s Vietnamese refugees, contributions to society of same despite challenges, plus notes on the 2001 Tampa election, queues and the alleged jumping thereof, and the financial costs/benefits of various asylum-seeker options ...]

In fact, I’ll pare it back to just two questions to the major parties.

1. If your policies concerning unauthorised maritime arrivals are still to any extent about protecting us from terrorism in the guise of ‘tough border protection’, why are they so contrary to the evidence?

The recent history of developed nations shows that terrorists are either locally born or arrive on commercial airliners.

Frankly, there could hardly be a dumber way for a terrorist to try to get here than by a leaky boat from Indonesia. Why risk death when you can fly here and risk nothing worse than crappy airline food? Why come the most detectable way possible, when you can be one of the anonymous millions coming in through airports?

Clearly terrorists don’t choose the leaky boat. If the navy was pulling terrorists out of the water, we’d be hearing all about it. Given time and a process with even a shred of fairness, the great majority of boat arrivals turn out to be legitimate refugees – the kind of people we are morally and by treaty obliged to assist. And the rest don’t seem to be terrorists either – they just don’t tick enough of the right boxes to be refugees.

You have had 12 year since the Tampa to show us we are being attacked by sea and you have failed. Because we are not being attacked by sea.

2. If your policies concerning unauthorised maritime arrivals are driven by compassion and saving people from drowning, as you have sometimes told us, was a solution reliant on inflicting visible cruelty on those people seriously the best you could do?

Because that’s what it is, this whole ‘breaking the people smugglers’ business model’ thing. The people smugglers have a business model as long as asylum seekers have hope. Your answer has been to shred that hope and set your own hopes on the possibility that what you’re offering them can be more off-putting than tyranny or limbo.

Will the latest policies work? Despite the way our political discourse skews it, push factors have always been a bigger influence than pull factors, so far.

The urge to, for example, get the hell out of Afghanistan or Iran in order to escape persecution has counted for more than ‘Hey, Sydney looks nice this time of year.’ Variations in arrival numbers since the 90s have reflected changes in other countries far more than policy changes here.

Tens of thousands of people have not been deterred by the risk of death at sea, let alone our policy settings. Exactly how ‘tough’ do we have to be to top death at sea as a deterrent?

Recent reports suggest 50 Iranian asylum seekers are choosing to go back to Iran, rather than roll the dice and get on a boat to test the new policy.

Before we hail that as a policy triumph, let’s take in a few highlights from the government’s own June 2013 Country Guidance Note on Iran (I owe it to John Birmingham for bringing this material to light – his Fairfax blog has more, and footnotes it precisely):

  • “[t]he government disproportionately targeted minority groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse
  • apostasy is punishable by death or lifetime imprisonment

  • detainees arrested in connection with the post-election protests were held in harsh conditions, with many being subjected to torture

  • In its May 2013 report covering events of 2012, Amnesty International noted that “government critics and opponents were arbitrarily arrested and detained by security forces. [.. ] Many were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.”

So, what both Labor and the Coalition are saying is that, rather than focusing on a regional upstream anti-people-smuggling initiative, or better resourcing refugee facilities along the way, or accepting that we have a humanitarian duty and honouring it, or (allow me a moment’s lapse into crazy cock-eyed optimism) trying to fix some of the issues that turn people into refugees in the first place, the best that they, our major parties, can do is to manufacture a prospect less desirable than the circumstances refugees are fleeing.

 
Are we seriously driving people back to Iran by making it the lesser of two evils?
 
How bereft of ideas and heart and leadership are we that it has come to this? How depressing is it that our major parties might see it as a vote-winner? How disheartening is it if they’re right in thinking that way?
 
We could do far better, and we have no good reason not to. We have done better before – after WWII, after the Vietnam War, with far more new arrivals in each case than now – and ended up better as a nation for it.
 
One day, we will look back on this with shame. I had hoped that day would come long before now. In 2001, we were talked into politicising desperate people, and talked out of understanding them.
 
I can’t say which major party won the race to the bottom on this issue, but I’m pretty sure that, from where they stand now, to see the bottom they both need to look up.
 
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