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