Friday, July 27, 2007

Back from the Bahamas

The Sistahs have been on holidays, where they bathed, from bathing-machines, in voluminous yet child-sized bathing costumes. It was all very good for their lungs. Getting away from their father didn't hurt, either.

Many questions have been asked in their absence, so let us begin to catch up.

MINDY ASKS:Is it still easier to get published if you write under a male moniker or is the playing field level now?

Charlotte says: There are two parts to this question, and they do not necessarily have anything to do with each other. Of course it is easier for a woman to get published than it was in my day, but then everything is easier than it was in my day, and particularly than it was for me.

Anne explains: We were careful to give ourselves names that did not actually indicate that we were of the stronger sex. 'Currer', 'Ellis' and 'Acton' are not gender-specific names; we were merely counting on people opting for maleness as the default position. If people were silly enough to fall for it then that was hardly our fault. We did not mind hoisting people with their own sexist petard, but we did not wish to lie.

Emily adds: Not like that coward soul George Eliot or that pathetic cheat Mrs Henry Wood or that complete sooky la la Henry Handel Richardson, whom I believe was one of yours. Pffft.

Monday, June 11, 2007

It's all been a terrible mistake

A ground-breaking, nay, earth-shattering new discovery has revealed that the Brontë Sisters were not shy, retiring, tiny, slender, mouse-coloured Irish/Cornish hybrids from Britain's remote and mysterious Deep and Wuthering North at all. No! With the slip of a keystroke, Melbourne's Sunday Age has re-identified them as the Bronti Sisters.

This bombshell has been brought to my attention by the distinguished scholar and blogger Professor Stephanie Trigg of Humanities Researcher, in the course of whose work the discovery was accidentally made.

And in a heartbeat the mind's eye transforms the Sistahs into proud and fiery Italian heroines, statuesque of stance and flashing of glance, raven of lock, pneumatic of bosom, and altogether quite unrecognisable in every way. Reader, I give you the Bronti Sisters: Carlotta, Emilia and Anna.

Literary history will have to be rewritten.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Next time you're thinking a book reviewer's lot must be a happy one, if ever you are so foolish as to think such a thing in the first place, bear in mind that as a reviewer one has two choices: one can either (a) say everything that crosses one's desk is just brilliant, or (b) do the job one is being paid for, call things as one sees them, and lay oneself wide open to retaliation from the wounded, angry author.

Particularly if you have a blog with an email address in the profile. Just ask me.

Memo to the negatively reviewed everywhere: in all but a tiny minority of cases, and certainly always in my case, it's not personal. It's about the work. Reject the judgement of reviewers by all means, but pause to reflect that if it were a positive judgement, you'd drink in every word and call it 'feedback'.

Also, as Helen Garner has said more than once about her own work, if you're going to stick your head up above the parapet then you have to expect to get it shot at. Or, as my mum used to say, if you can't stand the heat you should maybe stay out of the kitchen.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Your questions answered

THIRDCAT ASKS: How can it be that you have all the ingredients there: the idea; the motivation; the inspiration; the knowledge that life is short; the external encouragement...and yet, in the small amount of quiet, uninterrupted time you have available you find yourself vacuuming the cutlery drawer because there's just no other way to get that pesky dust out of the corners??

Charlotte says [in the at this point thinly disguised persona of Jane Eyre]:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings or knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

This does not, I know, directly address your question, but as it is the most specific thing I am known ever to have said about housework, I thought I should put it in. Emily used to prop up her German grammar before her in the kitchen so that she could study while she made the bread, but in the case of cutlery drawer dust I should think you would need to attend to what you were doing.

Your dilemma as I perceive it is that in taking up the 'vacuum cleaner' (exactly what this may be I find it difficult to say, but the general principle is apparent from its name -- top idea) you are waging war against yourself, an activity with which I am all too familiar.

Once I was happily married, of course, it became, as became me, my first priority to ensure the domestic comfort and happiness of my dear Arthur, as was expected of me and as I expected of myself. But this is no help to you either, is it.

It is my understanding that women in the 21st century are less oppressed than I. But then, everyone is less oppressed than I.

I do not really know how I can help you. Perhaps it is the same kind of problem that people have with computers: labour-saving devices produce in their wake an expectation that you will get more done. Temptation by vacuum cleaner was never a problem at the Parsonage for reasons that one hopes are obvious.

Besides, in the era before electric light, dust in the corners of the cutlery drawers was something one had to go out of one's way to see.

PC adds: Does it surprise you to hear that this is a very common problem? Not down to the specificities of dust and cutlery and so on, but generally. I know a man, and a gay man at that, who says the only time his house is ever clean is when he has an urgent deadline. Displacement activity is an extremely powerful thing, especially where writing is concerned.

I do it a lot and my reasons are legion. They include:

(a) Fear that whatever I have in my head will look like pathetic nonsense once I have actually put it down on the page.

(b) Not being in the Zone (do not underestimate the importance of this and try to ignore how flaky it sounds -- it's a very real problem) and/or not being able to get into the outer Zone from which you can access the inner Zone. The thing about the Brontës, Emily and Charlotte in particular, was that they were in the inner Zone most of the time. I think this had something to do with being half Irish.

What I've learned painfully over many years is that (1) it's bloody hard to get into the Zone when you know you have to snap out of it at five past three, but (2) this is not a reasonable excuse to pick up the vacuum cleaner instead. My experience is that there are two writing modes, dream and slog, and slog is the one most writers spend at least 70% of their time in.

(c) I find writing (not blogging or emailing -- 'writing' as in either 'I might have to still be looking at this in print twenty years from now' or 'I have to figure out a way to develop this idea in exactly the right words and the logical order' or 'I am being paid for this so it has to be as good as I can make it') an intensely painful activity. I am slow, reluctant and fiddly and my words are written in the proverbial bodily fluids, mainly blood. It is much, much easier and less painful to get out the vacuum cleaner and attack the corners of the cutlery drawers with it.

Perhaps you could stick a Post-It on the vacuum cleaner: PUT ME AWAY AT ONCE.

Or you could recall the words of Australian writer Carmel Bird in her book Dear Writer: 'You have the choice of a clean house or a finished story. The choice is yours.'

Thursday, May 31, 2007

They're everywhere

Since I began this blog it has been repeatedly and forcibly brought to my attention that the Brontë sisters permeate modern life on an almost-daily basis. There I was the other day, reading a new crime novel by a new writer -- young Irish actress Tana French -- called In the Woods, which is incidentally an absolute cracker, the kind of book that makes you understand why the Irish are just better than the rest of us at this literature business (the Brontës were of course half-Irish) -- anyway, there I was, deep in this grim and very contemporary tale of murdered children, a story with the mist of the supernatural glimmering around its edges, when I came upon this:

'In a little bookshop off Grafton Street I found a beautiful old copy of Wuthering Heights -- thick pages browning at the edges, rich red binding stamped in gold, 'For Sara, Christmas 1922' in faded ink on the title page.

... Cassie was already at her desk. "What's this?" she demanded.

"An apology. I am so, so sorry ..."'

See what French is doing there? Not just the force of Brontë books as message and gift from one detective to another, but also the most casual and effortless spin off into a very Brontë-ish narrative moment: another time, another place, faded relics of lives lived (clearly) intensely: a bit of mystery from the past that heightens this book's own use of past mysteries as part of its plot.

And who, thinks the reader in half a heartbeat, was Sara? Who gave her the book, and what sort of message was it conveying, as a gift? What has happened to these people? French momentarily positions her readers as a lot of Lockwoods, trying to decipher the messages from the past: scratches on a windowsill, scribblings in a margin, dates carved over farmhouse doors and ghostly visitations in the middle of the night. What's going on here in one apparently trivial little scene is a transaction heavily freighted with meaning and history, a complex exchange that tells you a massive amount about these two characters and their relationship.

It'd be a great Creative Writing exercise in characterisation, especially if you were trying to establish the nature of the relationship between two of your characters. What books would they give each other? Under what circumstances? What messages would those gifts convey, and how would the transaction enrich and kick along your own story?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Since the Federal Government continues to behave like a sullen and solipsistic small boy on the question of an apology to the Aboriginal people for the way this country has failed them over the last 219 years, and since it's unlikely to change its mind between now and the end of Reconciliation Week, individual apologies while we wait are, I hope, better than nothing. So here is mine.

My own passage along the road of sorriness steers perilously between the all-encompassing Mea Culpa on the one hand and the cry, on the other, of Bunty from Seven Little Australians -- 'I never, it wasn't me, it wasn't my fault!' -- both of which I reject.

From within the pro-apology camp, I don't buy 'We're white, therefore we should feel guilty', but I'm not having 'We have merely to express our sorrow that something bad happened, it's not really an apology', either.

A note on the so-called 'black armband view of history': the meaning of Geoffrey Blainey's phrase, like that of Donald Horne's 'lucky country', has been politically appropriated and badly mangled in its transition to popular rhetoric, and, in both cases, not by accident. But black armbands, as any student of history knows, actually have nothing to do with 'guilt': they are about mourning and remembrance. Happy to wear one, on both scores.

For me at least, there are some fairly direct implications. The Narungga man in the photo a couple of posts back was probably -- nobody knows for sure -- my great-great-grandfather's son. From what I can make out, he stayed with the family because he wanted to, part of one of those loose and shifting constellations of single men that move seasonally round any farm. The patriarch in question, himself a penniless young Cornish immigrant who had worked eight years on the waterfront to qualify for a colonial land allocation, was one of the white men who took advantage of the colony's land policies to displace the Narungga people from Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

I have benefited directly from that, in ways too numerous to count.

Last winter I stood in the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Centre looking in horror at a huge, brilliant, angry painting by a Narungga artist of dead bodies in the ocean being nibbled and chewed at by sea-creatures, with a little exposition alongside about the old stories of Aboriginal people on Yorke Peninsula being murdered and thrown into the sea, washed by the tide into rocky places where crayfish and crabs lay in wait to gobble them up and dispose of the evidence.

I don't know whether this story is true or not, but I hope to God it isn't. If it is, 'sorry' doesn't even touch the sides.

At that family level, I am sorry for the land-taking, which definitely happened; for the sexual exploitation of Aborginal women, which might have happened; for the murders that I want to believe did not happen -- or not, at least, at the hands of my family, 'not at all' being too much to hope for.

For whatever happened in that place, which for better or worse is also my place, that was exploitative, destructive or cruel; for whatever such activities my ancestors may have taken part in or done nothing to prevent; and for all the histories, all around the country, that are similar or worse: for all those things, on my own behalf and on behalf of my family and my country, I am truly and deeply sorry.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Mixed metaphor of the month

A reader comments today on the departure from federal politics of Jackie Kelly:

'... she’s been used as the velvet glove to disguise the iron fist of dog-whistle race-politics ...'

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Your questions answered

BABUSHKA ASKS: If I write something and read it soon after, I often think it's OK. After a very short while, reading over it makes me horribly embarrassed and sad. So how do you ever tell if something's finished?

Charlotte says: If you were not a creature of strong feelings, then you would not be any kind of artist at all. On the other hand, strong feelings by their nature are apt to overcome one.

Emily says: 'Embarrassed'? 'Sad'? Pffft. Never apologise, never explain.

PC adds: There are two possibilities here. One is that your later reaction is the right one, in which case the piece is either not finished or not working. If you think the latter is the case, grit your teeth, throw it away and start again or write about something else.

The other possibility is that your embarrassment and sadness aren't about the quality of what you wrote, but maybe to do with some other aspect of it -- like the experiences you're writing about, or maybe ambivalent feelings about writing at all.

I think there are three things you could try:

(1) Give it more time -- sure, look at it a day later, but then put it away and look at it again a week later.

(2) Ask yourself exactly what is making you embarrassed and sad. Particular words or sentences? The tone? Too big a gap between what you wanted to write and what you've actually written? Se if you can pin it down, and, if you can, whether something can be done about it.

(3) Give it to someone whom you trust to be a good reader and give you a straight answer, and ask him/her what s/he thinks.

Sometimes you'll write a sentence or a paragraph and you will know straight away that you have absolutely nailed whatever it is you wanted to say, and that you are never going to be able to say it better.

But the same piece of writing will mean different things to different people, or to the same person on a different day. You don't ever really know when something's 'finished', because writing's not an absolute thing, or a finite or a finishable one. Writing's like water. It's not going to keep still for you.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The great threes of literature at the end of the world

JINNI ASKS: Is there something PC knows that she is not telling us? I refer to her comment: 'in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism'. Pre-apocalyptic? Should I start stocking up on baked beans and bottles of water, to say nothing of several hundred novels to read while starving, and/or fighting of the hungry hordes?

PC replies dolefully: Yes.

Between the fundies and the economic rationalists (not to mention the fundie economic rationalists -- it's a big overlap), I really do think we are in for it one way or another; if the crusades don't get us the climate change will, while those in charge simply go on using the profit motive as a justification for everything from climate change denial to sending more troops to Baghdad.

If Jinni is who I think she is, she is better equipped than I to foretell the future in any case. ;-)


EMILY: "Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble" .. um ... eye of newt and toe of frog? Poison'd entrails? Baboon's blood? Bugger, I can't remember how this goes.

ANNE: This is Yorkshire, there are no baboons for miles. Will one of the dogs do?

EMILY: No! Don't you dare touch those dogs!

ANNE: Pity.

EMILY: "When shall we three meet again?"

CHARLOTTE: Oh God, don't say that. You know not what you say, Em. As usual.

EMILY: Look, shut up and play properly, will tha'? "In thunder, lightning or in rain."

ANNE: "Oh, if only we could get to Moscow!"

CHARLOTTE: "Who's been sleeping in my bed?"

ANNE: "All for one, and one for all!"


* Roll on the heather laughing their arses off]

EMILY: You never play properly! I hate you! [Runs off sobbing.]

ANNE [sitting up]: That's funny, I never thought of Emily as a wuss.

CHARLOTTE: Very out of character. Must be the red cordial.

ANNE: Or the water supply to the parsonage, you know, the underground channel that feeds the well, the one that runs through that very overcrowded graveyard right next to the house.

CHARLOTTE: Good point.

ANNE: Or the genetic modification.

CHARLOTTE: [Looking round her thoughtfully at the blasted heath]: Actually, you know, I think it might be a bit late for that. Look how blasted this heath is.

ANNE: You mean ...?

CHARLOTTE: Yes, I think it's all over. Let's go.

ANNE: Go where?

[They do not move.]

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Your questions answered: Punctuation Corner

ELSEWHERE ASKS: Question: comma or semi-colon? I've managed to reduce my use of the semi-colon greatly over the years (esp since leaving academia) but now rather wonder if this was a rather unnecessary manoeuvre. And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups? (Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before'). Many would write the following (esp in a powerpoint display): ‘Question; colon or semi-colon?’

PC says: I’ll take this one. Punctuation is an issue for our own times as fashions in it have changed a lot and there is no knowing (short of going and looking at the manuscripts, which I don’t have the time, money or inclination to do) what the original Brontë punctuation was like.

To answer Elsewhere’s question one part at a time:

Question: comma or semi-colon?

Depends. (Also, did you actually mean to write ‘colon’ here rather than ‘comma’? The latter is a good question too, though.)

My understanding is that a semi-colon means something quite specific. The separate parts of the sentence on both sides of a semi-colon ought each to be able to stand alone as complete grammatical sentences with a subject and an active verb: ‘The cat sat in front of the fire; the dog lay on the sofa.’ (A comma would be wrong here – the curious could look up the term ‘comma splice’ to find out why.)

But the question I would have asked is ‘semi-colon or full stop?’, which is more often the choice to be made. A semi-colon (again, as I understand it) is used to signal that two separate points being made are sufficiently connected that they can be seen as two parts of a single train of thought, and to encourage the reader to think of them as such; the connection is demonstrated by making them two parts of a single sentence and joining them with a semi-colon, as I just did back there.

As for a colon: what it ‘says’ is ‘I am about to deliver, in the second part of this sentence, on the promise made or implied in the first part.’ As I just did back there.

The colon and the semi-colon are not acceptable substitutes for each other. Each has its place.

And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups?

Calling someone else a pedant is code for “I don’t care if I got this wrong, and everybody knows it doesn’t matter about grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that boring crap as long as you Be Creative. Also, I don’t know what ‘pedant’ means or I wouldn’t be using it in this situation.”

The correct response is “Do you want to write this properly or not? It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t, but if you don’t want to know the right answer, don’t waste my time asking me to help.”

Of course, in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism, when education is a product for sale and the client is always right, such a riposte will get you sacked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before')?

You say “Yes, and it was wrong then, too.” This is closely related the cry of the exasperated parent: ‘Oh I see, and if Backchatte McNaughtygirl rode her bike over the edge of a cliff I suppose you would too!’

SAJINSA ASKS: Could I ask you for your assistance with grammar? Should it be: She walked away. To never return, I wonder? Or, should it be: She walked away. To never return? I wonder.

This is actually more of a punctuation question than a grammar question, though the two are of course connected. I do however congratulate you on your correct use of the colon (though the comma after 'Or' is superfluous).

The first option is wrong, because you should only put question marks at the end of direct questions, and ‘I wonder’ is not a direct question.

In both options you have split an infinitive (‘to never return’), which, while repressively tolerated by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, doesn’t inspire confidence in the writer’s language skills, and is in any case a cliché.

Also in both options, the change of tense from past (‘walked’) to present (‘wonder’) looks odd to me, though the latter may be intended as the continuous present, ie ‘I wondered then and am still wondering now and will no doubt go on wondering’.

When you can’t decide between two versions of something, it’s usually because both of them are unsatisfactory if not downright incorrect, and a complete re-think of the passage in question is in order. So how about ‘She walked away, and I wondered if she would ever return.’

D. TILEY, ESQ. ASKS: We all get very purse-lipped about the misused apostrophe, and sometimes chew the edges of our laminex desks in a fury. But, actually, is there any need for the rotten beasts? Since some of us have learnt to do that funy riting wiv fonez, surely we can adapt to the loss of the apostrophe without the calamitous collapse of meaning?

I love apostrophes and the precise subtleties (not to mention the subtle precision) of meaning that they create, but I think the sum total of the world’s pain (the pain both of the apostrophically challenged and of their desk-chewing critics) might be lessened by a tiny fraction if we were to dispense with them, yes.

But I would really miss the ‘daily specials’ signs outside fruit and veg shops and butchers’ shops that look like this (NB -- all bona fide examples):



Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Your questions answered

KATE ASKS: I am a writer by trade but I would like to try my hand at this 'creative writing' business. I am not sure where to start -- I have story ideas but they are vague and nebulous, and I fear I don't have the discipline to get them onto the page, or the in-depth understanding of tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. Can I be helped by paying people massive amounts of money vis a vis a creative writing course? Or should I pursue some other option?

Charlotte says: I find it helpful to write out a scheme of one’s tale, complete with instructions to oneself, as with this relic from 1843 which I scribbled on the cover of my German exercise-book while improving my French and German in Brussels, and which may perhaps remind you of something:

Time – from 30 to 50 years ago
Country – England
Scene – rural
Rank – middle
Person – first
Subject – Certain remarkable occurrences
Sex of writer – at discretion
No. of characters – at discretion
Plot – domestic – the romantic not excluded
Opening – cheerful or gloomy [! -- PC]
Occurrences –
1st, reverses of fortune
2nd, new arrival
3rd, loss of relatives
4th, crosses in the affections [she means unrequited love or similar, as in
‘crossed in love’ – PC]
5th, going abroad and returning
6th [left blank]
Characters – Hero – heroine – family of do. [a 19th century convention, contraction of ‘ditto’ – PC] Rival or rivaless – villains. N.B. Moderation to be observed here. Friends – avoid Richardsonian multiplication.
P.S. As much compression – as little explanation as may be.
To be set about with proper spirit.
To be carried out with the same.
To be concluded idem.
Observe – no grumbling allowed.

PC adds: If you don’t know where to start, there are two possible courses of action. Either sketch out the story as Charlotte does above (though with perhaps less of the tongue-in-cheek and less of the self-admonition), or as you would for a movie, with a storyboard, and do the logical working-out of the chronology at that level first -- or alternatively just plunge in and see how you go. Whatever you actually write first won’t necessarily end up at the beginning of your novel.

Re the massive amounts of money: I would go out first and spend a very modest amount of money on (since it’s novels you seem to have in mind) Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book, which will answer many of your questions.

If you’re the Kate I think you are, then you are a genre fiction fan – look at some of your favourite novelists and work out how they do tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. (NB -- knowing that these things matter takes you about three-quarters of the way towards dealing with them.) There’s a lot more attention paid to structure and technique in good genre fiction than there is in bad ‘literary’ fiction, usually.

THIRDCAT ASKS: I suspect this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question, but do you know when you've given a particular story and particular characters a good enough go? Or, to put it another way: will I know when I'm flogging a dead horse?

Very useful suggestion from Elsewhere, who teaches creative writing: Putting things to bed for a while can help in gaining perspective when you come back to them later and also in being more merciless in the revision process.

I've heard others say that you should look at your MS at the 30,000 wd mark and see if you think there's truly something in it before forging on.

PC adds: I’m not getting anything from the Sisters about this. They all worked within such strong narrative structures and had such extraordinary self-belief that I doubt if this question ever crossed their minds, though in the case of Charlotte’s The Professor, perhaps it should have.

Also, they had each other as like-minded and in-process critics. Now this is one of the things for which a Creative Writing course is invaluable, because in it you are surrounded by fellow-students in the same boat and by teachers (or at least one teacher) whose job it is to help you with exactly this kind of question, and who, unlike one’s friends and/or partner, aren’t so close to you personally that they can’t bear to hurt your feelings by being straight with you if they think something’s not working.

Or if it is working. I tend to do the other thing and give up tickling perfectly healthy horses with feathers after about thirty seconds. I’m not sure which is worse.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Emily, Anne and Charlotte do the Eight Things meme

Meli at The Little Book Room has tagged the Sistahs for the Eight Things meme.

CHARLOTTE: I shall speak for all of us here, for Anne is much too modest to reveal intimate aspects of her life and Emily much too psychotic withdrawn shy.

ANNE (aside to EMILY): Typical.

EMILY (aside to ANNE): You are interrupting my mystical communion with Nature. Again.

THE GHOST OF BROTHER BRANWELL: I shay, shishtersh … I am the geniush in thish family, not to menshun the man, and it ish I who shall shpeak for youse all.

SISTERS (chorus): Oh b*gger off, Branwell, you w*nker.

CHARLOTTE: No, no, those little asterisk thingies aren’t right for the period at all. This is early Victorian -- they used dashes for disemvowelment, not asterisks.

ANNE: Did not.


ANNE: Did not.


EMILY: I really do wish that you would both be quiet and go away. I care only for Nature. Hello trees, hello sky, hello treacherous horse-swallowing bog, hello ravenous ravens pecking at the entrails of dead puppies …

ANNE: Oh, Emily, have you gone off your meds again?

PC: Yes, well. Ahem. Here are eight things about the Sisters.

1) Charlotte was so tiny that she wore children’s chemises all her life.

2) Emily, on being bitten by one of her dogs, rushed inside to the fire and cauterised the wound herself with a red-hot poker.

3) Anne’s dying words were ‘Take courage, Charlotte.’ (I often think that Anne has been badly underrated.)

4) Born Patrick Brunty in Ireland in 1777, the sisters’ father changed the family name to Brontë as a young man. This may have been because one of his political heroes, Lord Nelson, had been made the Duke of Bronti in Italy (among many other honours), or because ‘bronte’ is the Greek word for ‘thunder’, as in ‘brontosaurus’ or ‘thunder-lizard.' (Or both.)

5) Although Charlotte’s death certificate gives ‘pthisis’ or tuberculosis as the cause of death, more recent observers have pointed out that tuberculosis doesn’t make you vomit yourself to death. Technically Charlotte probably died of exhaustion and dehydration after being unable for several weeks to keep even a sip of water down, in an era when they could not yet merely sedate you and put you on a drip.

Some speculate that this was a really terrible case of morning sickness (it’s generally agreed that Charlotte was pregnant), others that she had caught typhoid or something like it from the housekeeper Tabby, who had died of an undiagnosed but severe gastro-intestinal infection only weeks earlier. Some have even suggested Charlotte had Addison’s disease.

Quite possibly all of the above apply, though Addison’s disease is a long shot. ‘Over-determined’ is the expression we’re groping for here.

6) Anne refused Charlotte’s earnest request that she soften and bowdlerise her very realistic portrayal in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall of alcoholism and the way it destroys character, households and families.

7) During the last year of Branwell’s life, Emily used to sit up at night and wait for him to stagger home stinking drunk from the Black Bull in Haworth, so that she could help him up the stairs to bed. (History does not record who, if anyone, helped him up that very steep hill.)

8) The Reverend Patrick Brontë carried a loaded pistol in his pocket every day. But he was seldom glad to see you.

Trooble at t'mill

The sisters are having, en masse, a serious Celtic tanty about Blogger, which is not behaving well and keeps eating saved posts.

Normal services will resume shortly, we hope.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Introducing 'Ask the Bronte Sisters'

(Posted last week at Pavlov's Cat.)

Yet again today, as it now seems pretty much every day, I am hearing more public talk of 'education' as though it were simply a buy-able commodity, rather than what it is in fact: an abstract and infinitely complex process of self-development, where responsibility for the process rests equally on student and teacher, and where neither the acquisition of knowledge nor the ability to process it can possibly be measured in money or in any other material equivalent.

And so, in protest against this drift in general, and in particular against the allocations in the Federal Budget for lavish university funding provided the universities in question teach what the Liberal Party wants them to teach, call it 'education', and commodify in it in such a way that its content becomes 'client-driven' and thus freed from all responsibility to truth, or indeed to responsibility -- in protest, as I say, I am starting YET ANOTHER blog.

The exclusive purpose of my new blog is to provide a free-of-charge advice and education service to aspiring writers.

At 'Ask The Brontë Sisters' you can put your questions about any aspect of writing -- characterisation, grammar, manuscript preparation, how to write your Creative Writing thesis exegesis, whatever -- to Emily, Anne and Charlotte.

All three worked as schoolteachers or governesses as well as writing Timeless Classics -- no Satanic postmodernist marxist cult studs relativism for the Brontës, I can tell you -- so they have experience in this area. Their patience with students is, however, limited, as is shown by the immortal words of Charlotte in a letter to a friend, describing her reaction to being interrupted by a small pupil needing help one day while she was in a creative daydream at her teaching desk: 'Just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.'

And Charlotte is a pussycat compared with Emily. Sympathetic they are not. Nonetheless, they will respond to the best of their ability.

(If they feel like it, that is. They are all very highly-strung.)

I shall be available to provide a contemporary persepective on matters that they could not be reasonably expected to be up on. For example, I've supervised and/or examined quite a few MAs and PhDs in Creative Writing, so have a bit of an advantage over them in the How to Write Your Exegesis department, for example, though it's something of which I'm not sure they would approve.

For all your Advice to Writers needs, go here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Your questions answered

BLUE ASKS: Where does the imagination reside and what is the best method for access and being able to communicate said imaginations in such a way that the story told is not crap?

Emily says: (1) The imagination resides on the moors. (2) The best method for access is to go for a walk on the moors. (3) Why do you want to communicate?

Charlotte says: The imagination resides in what will come to be called the subconscious, and if Freud ever claimed he hadn't read my novel Villette then you may be sure he was lying.

The best method for access is to be, at the age of 33, the last sibling standing out of six, which induces not only a well-founded conviction that one's days are numbered and one had better get cracking, but also a particularly intense frame of mind from which much may be dredged.

(Imagine: pregnant and dead at 38, I was by comparison with my four sisters and my poor brother Branwell a triumph of Darwinian survival -- though that concept, like that of the subconscious, was not explored until after my demise.)

Drugs are good, too, though I fear Laudanum is not so easily procurable as it once was.

PC adds: I am working on a theory about imagination, access to imagination, and communication of what you find there, but that is for a later time. I do however think that the first two parts of your question (on the one hand) and the third part (on the other) belong at opposite ends of what I'm coming to think of as a spectrum of issues in creative or imaginative writing.

The third part of your question is about technique, as you imply. Up to a point, that can be learned. There are plenty of books, courses and online stuff that will all help. But the main thing here is to read as much as you can of the kind of thing you want to write and observe how other people do it.

As for parts 1 and 2: I would argue that the imagination is a process rather than a resident, and that the best method for setting it in train is to induce a kind of waking dream that's the perfectly normal physiological state one gets into when half-asleep, meditating, hypnotised, or concentrating ferociously on something. I think most writers will tell you that there are some things in their work that they don't really remember writing, and when they've looked at it afterwards in a normal state they've been a bit scared, and have said to themselves 'J*sus, Mary and Joseph, where did that come from?'

These things are, in my experience, inevitably one's best bits of writing.

LOLCATS ASK: Does these ticklings be novvell insides ov we, or do thay are furballs?

There have be wun way only to with finding out: cough them puppiez up.

(EEWWW ... I is says 'puppiez' hur hur.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Your questions answered

BK ASKS: How do you find the time to write, in between satisfying your spouse, stopping the children fighting and cloning an army of radioactive gorillas?

Anne says: Spouse?

Emily says: Children?

Charlotte says: "Radioactive"?

BLUE ASKS: How long should a sentence be?

PC says: I was going to say 'as long as a piece of string', but someone has anticipated me there. What I would have meant by that is that a sentence, like a piece of string, needs to be an appropriate length for the use to which you are putting it.

That could be anything from 'Reader, I married him' (dramatic conveyance of a very important piece of information; works as a short exclamation; the culmination of the entire plot so gets a sentence all to itself) to 'Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further, that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself in the grounds; when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road; or when, while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line -- that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen -- that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.'

Which summarises an entire life situation and the gradual development of a particular frame of mind, and the reasons for it, and jigsaws all these things together with an epic effort of punctation* so you can see how the various factors are interdependent, like pudding ingredients.

* two dashes, four semi-colons, and fifteen commas

KATE ASKS: My favourite of all your novels is 'Villette'. Does this make me odd?

Charlotte says: No, of course not!

Emily says: Yes, very. But as your name is, I presume, Catherine, I shall not hold it against you. For the moment.

Anne says: You're asking us if you're odd?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

On plot: screenwriting and fiction

Although screenwriting had not yet been invented in the late 1840s, all three Brontë sisters had a highly developed sense of dramatisation, and some of their most powerful moments on the page have been those that could be adapted almost directly for the screen, with minimal alteration.

They therefore, along with PC, recommend this post at The View From Elsewhere very highly indeed.

What PC particularly loves about this post is the matter-of-fact way it foregrounds the importance of narrative structure and its proven models.

They are models that can, as with (say) sonnets, be easily reduced to a non-verbal diagram of a kind that über-mystical types find repellently mechanistic, an affront to the capital-R Romantic notion that an artist sits down, is struck with inspiration, and suddenly it all just comes pouring out (not unlike vomit, as PC has always thought when confronted, usually belligerently, with this view of the creative process). The truth, as so often, lies somewhere between.

Perhaps needless to say, people who hold this view of the creative process have without exception never experienced it. Ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration is about right, as Elsewhere's terrific post makes clear.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Your questions answered

Dere sistas
is spelling mor important than cretivity? why duZ my mum get upset abowt fings my teacha dusnt?

Emily says: Here is something I wrote at home in the Haworth parsonage when I was sixteen:

'The Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pittering pottering there instead of pilling a potato I answered O Dear O Dear O Dear I will derectly With that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling.' [The Brontë siblings' jointly kept diary, November 24, 1834 -- Ed.]

And here is something I wrote in the same place twelve years later:

'... I observed no signs of roasting, boiling or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.' [Wuthering Heights, Chapter 1 -- Ed.]

Do you see the difference?

PC adds: Bumblebee, spelling/creativity is not an either/or situation. Emily was born with her imagination and her talent, but it was only once she had properly learned the nuts and bolts of how language gets put together that she was able to express her creativity fully.

In between writing the two things above, she spent some time at a school in Brussels learning French and German, and there is no better way to improve your spelling and grammar, and your general understanding of how it all works, than to learn another language or two.

As for your mum and your teacher, well, that is one of the mysteries of life. My advice to one in your particular situation is to listen to your mum.

FRANCIS ASKS: Dear Mlles. Brontë,
When composing a roman of the bawdy, picaresque variety, how many gypsies is "too many"?
Regards et cetera

Anne says: One. You should not be writing such books, sir. Novels should be about real things: drunken husbands, feral children, depressed governesses and so on.

Charlotte says: Two. You should only ever have one gypsy at a time, and it should always turn out to be the hero in disguise.

Emily says: There is no such thing as too many gypsies. Now go away.

PC adds: The roman of the bawdy, picaresque variety is usually episodic rather than following a single integrated narrative line, so I'd advise one gypsy per episode. However, you might want to consult the writers of McLeod's Daughters or The Bill on this issue as there is clearly no consensus here.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Your questions answered

MINDY ASKS: Are creative writing courses worth it, or will I still be a crap writer with little or no imagination at the end of it, just a lot poorer?

Anne says: All humanity is perfectable and can be redeemed, so it is possible that you will be transformed into an imaginative genius, but this is more likely to happen by God's grace than by forking out [insert vast sum here].

On the other hand, all discipline is good.

Charlotte says: Your sense of duty should sustain you even on the bleakest and most hopeless days when you are full of despair and all seems, erm, bleak and hopeless. And desperate. But when the opportunity arises and you are at liberty to let your mind soar untrammelled, try to empty your thoughts of all daily cares and duties and you will find the people and places of your imagination sweeping in to fill your senses with nameless and turbulent thoughts and ecstatic swoonings and visions and carryings-away ...

Excuse me, must go and lie down ... bad headache ...

Emily says: Go away.

PC: The answer to your question, as to most questions, is 'it depends'. No amount of money or training will furnish you with an imagination that's qualitatively different from the one you have now. Nobody can teach you to be an artist; most competent teachers, however, can and will (or will attempt to) teach you your craft.

If you're really seriously thinking about mortgaging your car and your cat to pay for a course in creative writing, you should do at least three things first:

1) Ask yourself what you hope to get out of it (write a list), and whether these hopes are reasonable (mark items on list R or U).

If you all really want is encouragement, your mates will give you that for free. If you want specific information, hands-on training, and/or guidance about what to read, proceed with caution to step #2.

2) Remind yourself of the paradox of money-driven "education": education gets constructed as a product in a commercial transaction. The student becomes a client and the teacher a vendor, under extreme pressure to give the client what s/he wants. What most people think they want out of a Creative Writing course tend to be things that are actually unlikely to make them better writers, as many people who want to be writers already have very definite ideas about what 'A Writer' is and does, and sometimes these ideas don't include hard slog, self-education in language issues and writing techniques, or lots and lots of reading. Bear in mind that courses will inevitably evolve, from one year to the next, to adapt to whatever the student demand is.

3) Bearing #2 in mind, go and have a talk to everyone involved in your course of choice who is likely to be teaching you. Don't just drop by their offices: ring them up and make an appointment to sit down and talk to them for a while. (All academics are now permanently overworked, much of the workload being pointless admin and compulsory fund-raising, so if you just drop in they are unlikely to have time to sit down with you.) Discuss with these people the courses they are offering and how well those courses sit with your own aims and goals, as defined while answering question (1).

Now ask yourself whether you liked all of these people. If the answer is No, then you are unlikely to (want to) learn much from them, so don't do your dough.

UPDATE: Read Jinni's excellent comment (#7) for a detailed view from a writing student.

LOLCATS ASK: can we has writing advices?

You is be kittehs with not having teh opposable thumz for with hit teh space bar LOL!!! Kittehs shud be stik to puttin thir best por forwoods wich are incredibl cutenessage.

Teh Sisterz is not avayla aveili here -- they is be goes for walk WITH TEH DOGZ IN TEH RAIN OMG.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On Authority

'I've walked upon the moors
On many misguided tours
Where Emily, Anne and Charlotte poured their hearts out,
But what would they know ...?'

-- Kate and Anna McGarrigle, 'Love Over and Over and Over'

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On not giving away the plot

I've just been reading Alison Croggon's stunning review of the current Melbourne production of The History Boys and thinking about some differences: between the 1950s and the 1980s; between England and Australia; and, most of all, between reviewing theatre and reviewing fiction.

What this last difference seems to come down to is that you only 'review' a novel when it's new. And what that means is that part of your unbreakable contract with the reader (to say nothing of the publication for which you're writing) is that you must not give away the plot.

Anyone who's ever studied literature knows that there are some thumping big differences between literary reviewing and literary criticism. The main one is that in literary criticism you are not only free to discuss every aspect of the plot in question but pretty much required to do so. Fiction reviewing, on the other hand, is a bit like foreplay; the pleasures of reading narrative lie mainly in its unknowing, in the way that narrative desire lures and drags you forwards through the story, lustfully wondering what will happen next, revelling in the deferred pleasures of finding out.

So unless it's a new play (and in Australia it relatively rarely is), the theatre reviewier has a shared understanding with her/his readers that (almost) everyone knows more or less what happens in it. The artifact of the play's text is a given, and the reviewer is therefore not only free but, again, required to discuss aspects of the play as a whole thing, entire and intact: structure, characterisations, plot, meaning, ideology. What's being discussed is not just the text, but also the latest onstage interpretation of the text.

With book and theatre reviewing for MSM publication, obviously both are subject to the strictures of publication: in both cases, if you're writing for a newspaper you've got a non-negotiable and usually small word limit, and an editorial requirement that your ideas and language will remain punter-friendly. But on a blog you are freed up to write at a greater level of complexity and at as much length as you like. You can insert spoiler warnings, which is a rather good way of getting around the strictures on giving away the plot, though with fiction as with film reviews this can be frustrating for the reader.

But Alison's review of The History Boys seems to me to be one of those blog posts that demonstrate the possibilities of what blogs at their best can do. It's an ideal medium for reviewing theatre. Theatre reviews are by their nature ephemeral and need to appear straight away; theatre productions are 'news', in that they quickly get old, in the way that books are not. And there's certainly no publication in this country that would run a theatre review of even a quarter this length and complexity -- probably at all, much less in time for potential punters or recent audiences to read it.

In the blogosphere and freed from the cash nexus, though, it becomes possible for someone like Alison to share with her readership the expression of what she thinks and knows, without having to withhold any information or dumb anything down; to share it while it's still current and breathing; and to elevate the level of cultural discussion, among people who find it interesting and important, to far greater heights than anything in the MSM infrastructure could possibly allow.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Predicting the Miles Franklin shortlist

Some time in 1981, I made my first-ever soufflé (cheese), from a recipe by Julia Child. To my astonishment, it rose, and it stayed risen. It was delicious. It was, in a word, perfect.

And I have never made another one. I figure the only direction one can go from there is south and I go south way too often by accident as it is.

By the same token, a freak effort off the top of my head last year meant that a couple of hours before the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist was announced, I listed my prediction and got a perfect score, which means that any attempt to do it again is doomed to failure.

However, here on the day before the shortlist is to be announced, pressure is being applied. It's sheer madness, considering I have actually read fewer than half the novels on the longlist -- this reviewing-four-novels-a-week-for-the-SMH caper means that my reading patterns have radically changed. But okay, for what it's worth, here is my prediction:

I predict that the judges will take the slightly unusual step of choosing a longlist with only four novels on it rather than five, and that those novels will be, in alphabetical order, Careless, Carpentaria, Dreams of Speaking and Silent Parts.

And I think Carpentaria will win.

Monday, April 2, 2007

New prize for writers: the Barbara Jefferis Award (part 1)

From Susan Wyndham in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald:

'... the Barbara Jefferis Award ... is launched today by the Australian Society of Authors.

Offering prizemoney of "at least $35,000", the award will be given annually from next year to "the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society. The novel may be in any genre and it is not necessary for it to be set in Australia."

Among the country's most generous book awards, it is funded by a $1 million bequest from Jefferis's husband, John Hinde, the ABC film critic who died last year. Hinde has also funded a new film script award for the Australian Writers' Guild.

Rosalind Hinde, a Sydney biologist, said her father established the Jefferis Award in his will with "the very clear and strong intention to honour my mother's writing, her feminism and her devotion to other writers".'

I'd hoped to have a long, considered post about this award up at this site before I went to bed last night, but the more I think about it, the more worms -- big fat wriggly ones -- I realise there are in this particular can. Here are a few of them:

What is an Australian author? What does 'positive' mean, and what 'empowers'? What is a level playing field, and why do we need one? How are women currently represented in Australian fiction, how were they in the past, and why is it more complicated than a simple 'for women only' literary prize? Why do people think it's their right to condemn and interfere with what other people choose to do in their wills with their own money?

So I am working on a long post trying to tease out all the different strands of our assumptions about writing and writers, about essentialism and feminism, about nationalism and whatever the other thing is, that are woven tighly up in this new award and the discussion about it. But I may, as Captain Oates remarked, be some time.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Reading notes: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The other day I bought a copy of something that everybody else read two or three years ago but that had passed me by. I hadn't realised it was a novel -- I thought it was some kind of dreary earnest American soul-searching self-help kind of thingy -- or I would have read it sooner.

I'm talking about Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Now I have been putting in marathon efforts to get up to date with the piled-up Magic-Puddingesque workload (I cut, it comes again) of other work apart from the weekly fiction reviewing, and have actually been making tiny inroads here and there -- ensuring in the meantime that I do not actually forget what my friends and family look like, run out of clean knickers, or die of botulism or bubonic plague.

But all such efforts have been blown out of the water over the last 48 hours. Because when I haven't been asleep or out, I've been reading this appalling, brilliant book.

I gather there's some amazing twist at the end. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT TELL ME WHAT IT IS and if anybody does I will stalk you down the Interwebs for all eternity. (Has it got something to do with her very very wonky 'handwriting' in the signatures? Are the husband and the daughter, in fact, both dead?)

In the meantime, here's how to win the Orange Prize: write a passage as good as this, and then keep it up for 468 pages.

'But I have a theory about Dream Homes ... Regardless of how much money you lavish on oak baseboards, an unhistoried house is invariably cheap in another dimension. Otherwise, the trouble seems rooted in the nature of beauty itself, a surprisingly elusive quality and one you can rarely buy outright. It flees in the face of too much effort. It rewards casualness, and most of all it deigns to arrive by whim, by accident. On my travels, I became a devotee of found art: a shaft of light on a dilapidated 1914 gun factory, an abadoned billboard whose layers have worn into a beguiling pentimento collage of Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and Burma Shave, cut-rate pensions whose faded cushions perfectly match, in that unplanned way, the fluttering sun-blanched curtains.'




Well, there's an almost Shakespearean breadth and transcendence at the very end, that looking-family-matters-in-the-eye-no-matter-what business that you get at the end of the four last plays, and quite a few of the others as well. 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.'

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Remembering Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley, who died in mid-February after a long illness, corresponded with my Austrian friends the Wimmers, Adi and Irene, from the time she met Adi in Perth in 1989 until she became incapable of writing letters, in 2002. Adi, who has taught Australian literature and film at the University of Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia for many years, has kindly provided his own memoir of Elizabeth for me to post here.

I met Elizabeth in March of 1989 in her Claremont home, as part of an “orientation tour” of Australia’s most important universities, funded by the (then) generous Australia Council. Somehow we hit it off straight away, and I was allowed a second audience two days later when she showed me round the campus of Curtin University. I remember her appearance the same way as Helen Garner does: she was dressed in simple, unfashionable clothes, and wore good sensible shoes over sensible stockings. I liked her for that.

We talked about Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of our favourite authors; I told her there was a glorious “Rilke path” running atop the cliff to the east of Duino, overlooking the Adriatic, where Rilke had spent three years at the expense of the castle’s owner, the Count of “Torre e Tasso.” “Ah nice” was her standard reply to me enthusing the beauty of the site. I asked her about Vienna, one of the locations in her hilarious novel Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, and although she knew Vienna slightly she told me she had made up most of the locations as they appear in the novel.

At the end of my visit she asked me where I would travel next. “Ayer’s Rock” I said, not knowing the name Uluru at that time. “You’ll need a bush hat” she proclaimed and disappeared upstairs, returning in a minute with a sand-coloured hat with a floppy brim. Can you imagine my delight? At my request she signed it with a felt pen. I usually wear that hat when I do my gardening, another interest we shared.

From 1989 to 2002 we conducted a correspondence; she also exchanged letters with my wife Irene. Elizabeth was interested in our descriptions of the aftermath of Nazism in Austria, which unlike Germany had got away with sweeping its involvement with Nazism under the carpet, at least until the Waldheim scam.

She also took a keen interest in my research about Jewish exiles, and wrote movingly how her father between 1933 and 1939 had so often put up Jewish refugees fresh off the boat. She had mixed feelings about these visitors; while she understood that they were deserving of support, she also resented that when she came home from school (Sibford, a Quaker boarding school) she had to kip on the living room settee, as her own bedroom was usually occupied. Once such a refugee walked off with her father’s greatcoat, an episode that must have firmly stuck in her mind because she told me that story twice.

Not long after the publication in 2001 of her last novel An Innocent Gentleman, to my growing consternation, her handwriting became unsure, then frail. The lines would begin to dance on the page, and she made spelling errors. Or she added '(spelling?)', like that, in parenthesis. With hindsight, I realize what agonies she must have experienced at the time. Here she was, one of the cultural treasures of her country, a writer with a wheelbarrow full of medals and awards, and she was losing control over her most precious tool, the English language.

There was quite a flurry of letters in that year, as if she had a premonition the time for letters was fast running out, letters in which she would often repeat a narrative of the previous one. But on the other hand, she also told me a very touching and new story, how her mother Grete had quite recklessly ruined the peace of Christmas Eve (it must have been that of 1939 or 1940) with bitter recriminations because upon getting home from her shift at the hospital, she had dared run a bath for herself to get the hospital smells out of her hair. Mother had expected her to join in the singing of Austrian carols under the already candle-lit Christmas tree, and not even Elizabeth’s conciliatory Quaker father was able to calm down his irate wife.

She had an incredibly hard life in the decade 1939-1949, how hard only a few people know, and they are very protective. The full story has never been told.

Elizabeth’s last letter started with the words, “Dear Franz.” I stared at the page and knew we were going to lose her.

Adi Wimmer

Monday, March 12, 2007

New prize on the horizon (with the inevitable segue to Patrick White)

Susan Wyndham at Undercover has some advance knowledge of a new Australian literary prize to be announced at the end of this month.

If it's as lucrative as the Miles Franklin and its terms 'are likely to be inspiring to some but also controversial', then it should get a lot of press when the official announcement is made on March 31. What the 'controversial terms' part suggests to me is that the prize may favour a particular demographic. The young? The female? The gay or lesbian? The *gasps, makes sign of cross* multicultural?

If that's the case, here in the land of literary hoaxes, such a substantial offering will no doubt attract people out to make some sort of point. I know other countries have literary hoaxes too, but it seems to me that what with Ern Malley, Gwen Harwood, Helen Demidenko, Paul Radley, Wanda Koolmatrie, Wraith Picket and that's just off the top of my head, we are punching well above our weight.

I've been on a few judging panels for literary prizes over the last decade or two, and in that capacity have kept an increasingly jaded and suspicious eye out for anything that looks as though it could be a hoax. Most of these things are perpetrated by people out to either get around the terms of the prize in order to (a) win it (Paul Radley's uncle wrote the book he won the Vogel with), (b) fight skirmishes in ideological/aesthetic flame wars (Ern Malley), or (c) (closely related to (b)) make various ideological/political points (Demidenko, Koolmatrie, Harwood, Picket. Spot the real person in that list).

The 'Gotcha!' impulse behind this kind of thing has always struck me as a bit of a double-edged sword. If the motivations of the people behind the Wraith Picket/Patrick White hoax (and I still think that if they were going with anagrams then they should have called him Keith Crapwit) had been different, they could have spun that puppy 180 degrees and said 'Look: no fewer than twelve literary experts have said this guy isn't any good. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate him. Perhaps his work was mediocre all along.'

Not that I would ever claim such a thing myself, believing as I do that literary value is not absolute, and belonging as I do to the generation for whom Patrick White's work was a major formative experience, for whom his literary gifts are self-evident, and for whom his ideological freight was and is a great deal less simple and more radical than was claimed in Simon During's correct-line little book. But it's something that they could, if they'd been on the other side of the culture wars, have very easily done.

As it is, the conservative hoaxers seem to have shot themselves in the foot. What they wanted was to cause further damage to all those naughty lefties who are trying to destroy "our" heritage by not teaching Australian literature in "our" universities. (Which is, of course, factually quite wrong, as with the claims from other conservative culture warriors that "the feminists" have been silent on the subject of repellent fundamentalist-Islamic practices and beliefs regarding women. When in doubt, make stuff up.)

What they have created instead, quite unintentionally I'm sure, is a new upsurge of interest in White himself: there's now a blog devoted specifically to an online Patrick White reading group, an upcoming conference devoted specifically to his work and reputation, and an all-day event at the National Library, where Friday March 30th will be Patrick White Day.

But creating this new wave of interest in a writer who was an acknowledged homosexual and whose work introduced the country's fiction readers to new ways of thinking about Aborginal Australia, about class relations, about multicultural issues long before that was what they were called, and about autonomous, unforgettable female characters at the centre of a story (Theodora Goodman, Laura Trevelyan, Elizabeth Hunter, Ellen Roxburgh ... the list goes on) may not have been quite what the conservative elements had in mind when they set out to humiliate the contemporary literary left and score points in the culture wars.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Let's just try that again

Oh dear, look at this poor shockingly neglected blog.

For some reason, posting about things literary on a separate blog got much harder after the Google/Blogger upgrade made it impossible to keep this blog completely separate from Pavlov's Cat. That and the flat-strap workload since Boxing Day have kept me away from here, but I'm going to have one more go at keeping this as a separate reading/writing blog, rather than merging it with PC completely.

I wouldn't want the people who are only here because they're interested in literature to have to wade through all the other stuff at PC (photos of cats peeking up out of shopping bags or sound asleep on piano stools in front of the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata, long raves about movies, bits of song lyrics, short raves about the lies of politicians, recipes for gingerbread, polemic, garden photos, cultural analysis, smart-arsed remarks about Ralph Fiennes, Peter Garrett, Dolce e Gabbana and so on, tales of What I Did on My Holidays, hymns of praise to the ripeness of the tomatoes, and various other such grab-baggy threads and patches as daily life is made of) just to get to the bits about books and writing. So I will try to write here regularly at least once a week.

Let us begin, then, with the ongoing task for which I've been trying to get into a method and a rhythm (though perhaps not the rhythm method -- productivity is the goal here) of reading four novels a week to write short reviews of them for the Sydney Morning Herald. I've been doing this job since Boxing Day and it is, as I was warned by my editor, gruelling -- especially as it would be suicidal to give up any of my other gigs, even if I wanted to -- but it is also quite exhilarating.

There's the excitement of finding unfamiliar writers whose work I really like, the discipline of reading the occasional book I hate and then writing a fair review of it in 180 words, the sanity-enhancing requirement of the routine necessary to meet a regular deadline, and the pleasure of being able to pass on the books when I finish them to people I know will really appreciate them.

(I'm trying to remember when it was that I stopped collecting and hoarding books and began to do desperate, frequent culls in order not to get pushed out of my own house by the encroaching piles. Probably about 1990.)

But the best thing about this gig is the astonishing breadth of subject matter and material in the books that arrive at my door. In only two months of doing this job I've read books set in France, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Botswana, Nepal and Wales; in Beijing, New York, Canberra, Oslo, London and Vienna; in 19th-century Louisiana, 1940s East Germany, the Arctic in the 17th century, and in various fantasy worlds both futuristic and medieval-derived.

I've read novels translated from the Norwegian, the Spanish, the Danish and the Dutch. I've read crime fiction, romance, fantasy, chick-lit, high-lit, low-lit, lit lite, and lit extremely heavy. I thought I knew a fair bit about fiction, but it turns out I only knew a fair bit about the fiction I knew a fair bit about.

People who don't "get" fiction no doubt think that it teaches you nothing. But I know a hell of a lot more than I did eight weeks ago about Cuban refugees to New Jersey in the 1960s; about the state of Christiana (old name for Oslo) in the late 19th century and the fact that the Missing Link between Crime and Punishment and The Trial is Knut Hamsun's Hunger; about the forced evacuation -- Die Flucht, 'the Flight' -- by the Russian Army of twelve million East Germans in 1945; about the Sri Lankan civil war and the methods and motives of the Tamil Tigers; about class tensions in the town of Syracuse in upstate New York; about octopusesque corruption in contemporary Beijing ...

You get the picture.

During my life as an academic, fiction was what I mostly taught and a lot of it was 19th-century fiction at that, so reading two, sometimes three novels a week, some of which were six or seven hundred pages long, was the norm -- and as all academics know, reading or re-reading the things you have to teach is the most pleasant part of the work and is merely the tip of the iceberg.

So by comparison, this job is heaven. Occasionally when I'm whingeing about my Wednesday deadline, my best mate reminds me that what I do for a living is read stories, at home, and, more often than not, lying down on the sofa.

It's a hard life, but somebody's got to do it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the Difficulty of Teaching Creative Writing

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

I've been teaching creative writing on and off for 25 years and have written and spoken many, many words on the subject. But this -- from a short story called 'WritOr' in a book called Touchy Subjects by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, of whom I had not previously heard but of whom I most certainly expect to hear more in the future -- says it better than anything I've ever said myself, or anything I've ever read or heard. It doesn't quite cover all the bases -- but it covers most of them.

The writer considered whether to tell BJ that to print five hundred copies of his so-called coming-of-age novel was a criminal waste of trees as well as his ex-girlfriend's money. That it would never get reviewed, stocked, or bought. Instead he dragged the dog-eared manuscript towards him and opened it at random. "This sentence doesn't have a verb."

The gilt shades looked back at him blankly.

"If you don't know what a verb is, BJ, why the fuck do you imagine you can write a novel?"

Tears skidded down BJ's face. The young man tried to speak; his Adam's apple jerked. He bent over as if he'd been stabbed. There were salt drops on the writer's desk, on the manuscript.

"I'm sorry," the writer said, breathless, "I'm so sorry --"

But BJ didn't seem to hear him.