Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary prizes revisited: a simple case of misidentification

Thanks to some up-to-the-minute Facebooking by Judith Ridge of Misrule, I have just seen the shortlist for the 2009 NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction, the Christina Stead Award. It consists of five of the six books I predicted, utterly wrongly, would make the shortlist of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, plus one extra: Helen Garner's The Spare Room, Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, Julia Leigh's Disquiet, Joan London's The Good Parents, Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole and Tim Winton's Breath. The one I did not predict is the Julia Leigh; the one I was wrong about in the other direction was Murray Bail's The Pages.

I feel that at least a little of my shattered cred has been restored. They were the right books -- I merely backed them for the wrong prize. Hmf, details.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Monday, March 23, 2009

In which ThirdCat's book is launched

Finally at 2 am this yesterday morning I put this book down, about half-finished in one hit, and went to bed, but I didn't want to.

It's the story of two women, loosely and obliquely connected through family ties, and their complicated relationship with the South Australian town -- regional and industrial -- to which they are very attached, but which they fear may be making their children sick. It's a poet's novel, but it's also an activist's one.

Longtime readers of ThirdCat's blogs, especially the unique and wonderful 'blogopera' Adelaide Sprawls, will be familiar with her style and technique: restrained, almost minimalist, but with a turn of phrase and of observation that nails something you sort of already knew but would never have thought of putting quite like that.

They will be familiar, too, with her subject matter: the lives, circumstances and feelings of 'ordinary people' and all the stuff that seethes under the surface of their days and the physical objects and actions of daily life, the tea-making, the hair-washing and the car-fixing; the unresolved tensions, the suppressed exclamations, the half-understood feelings, the quality and complexity of emotional responses and transactions, the tiny fluctuations of feeling between people, the mysteries that reside in what is not said.

... she had not needed a card to know who the roses were from. But she didn't know what they meant.

Even going over the words they had said on the phone she couldn't work it out. They could mean sorry or I miss you or goodbye, because in the end she had pushed him to say, I will get over you, if that's what you make me do.

(Recycling disclosure: I have said some of this about Tracy's writing before, and it will look familiar to her if not to anyone else.) It's all there in Black Dust Dancing, though less concentrated and intense, making more room, as is proper in a novel, for the story and the setting.

So this afternoon at Sturt Street Primary School, icon and symbol of all that is best in the history of South Australian education and school to both of Tracy's boys, an assortment of family, friends and fans assembled to celebrate her achievement, buy her novel, and queue up to get her to sign it,

and then to see it officially launched by Adelaide's Sheridan Stewart, artist, comedian, radio presenter and MC of the comedy show Titters, which featured Tracy in her other life as a standup comedian and which was practically booked out for the duration of the Adelaide Fringe.

(Sheridan Stewart attended by Wakefield Press publisher Michael Bollen, behind whose left hip you can just see a bottle of the fabled Fox Creek Verdelho.)

Sheridan made a funny, warm speech but was upstaged by Tracy's boys, who came purposefully up to the bar behind her and fetched a cup of what was probably apple juice, but looked a lot like white wine, each, and melted back into the crowd, to its general appreciation. Tracy then made an excellent thank-you speech,

dividing the thankees into thoughtful categories instead of naming names, which is always a minefield.

Before and after the ceremonials I had a nice talk with the lovely Deborah from In A Strange Land and met her beautiful daughters.

Tracy and the boys and the mister have to fly back to Abu Dhabi tomorrow morning. I'm guessing she might try to have a bit of a nap on the plane.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Miles Franklin longlist: how wrong can you be?

Well. There goes my cred.

Utterly contrary to my predictions -- and my confidently nominated winner hasn't even made the longlist -- here is the actual longlist for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award:

Breath - Tim Winton
A Fraction Of The Whole - Steve Toltz
The Devil's Eye - Ian Townsend
Ice - Louis Nowra
Addition - Toni Jordan
Fugitive Blue - Clare Thomas
One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna
The Pages - Murray Bail
The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas
Wanting - Richard Flanagan

More in a bit.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's that time of year again

Over at Matilda, Perry Middlemiss has compiled a list of eligible and likely contenders for this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award. The longlist will be announced tomorrow. The shortlist is usually announced in late April and the winner some time in June.

Emboldened by past successes, I'm going to have another go and predict a longlist, a shortlist and a winner. Please note that these are not necessarily my picks -- I've read fewer than half of these books -- but rather my very early predictions based on what I know, think, feel or guess about the books, the writers, the judges, the prize and the general tenor of the times.

Naturally, I reserve the right to change my mind.

I think that there will be a longlist of between ten and twelve, chosen from among the following novels:

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
The Pages by Murray Bail
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
The Biographer by Virginia Duigan
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Addition by Toni Jordan
The Good Parents by Joan London
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Breath by Tim Winton

I predict a shortlist of six:

The Pages
The Spare Room
The Lieutenant
The Good Parents
A Fraction of the Whole

(with the possible, but unlikely, substitution of The Slap for The Lieutenant

And a winner:

Joan London's The Good Parents

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Illustration, obfuscation

This post began life as a comment on this post over at Helen's Cast Iron Balcony, but once I'd violated the three-paragraph comment rule I decided to bring it over here. There are, at last sighting, no comments yet on Helen's post. My guess is that we're all too horrified to speak.

In brief, Helen links to two recent newspaper articles by conservative antifeminist Miranda Devine and shows the two really vile caricatures of women that were drawn to illustrate these articles. In her post, Helen asks among other things whether the writer has any influence in what the illustrator draws.

I've had two experiences of what might loosely be called the opposite. The first occurred in 1983 when I edited a book of Australian short stories that included far more than the (then) usual number of stories by women, as well as stories about cities and migrants, and focused, in the detailed introduction that I wrote, on the traditional idea of the 'Australian' as a white Anglo-Celtic bushman or Anzac being something we needed to move on from. I was then horrified to discover that the publisher had chosen, for the cover of this anthology, the Tom Roberts painting 'The Breakaway', which shows an apparently white Anglo-Celtic male on a horse chasing a sheep with a lot of native trees in the background.

When I brought this up with the publisher he literally did not understand my point (it was 1983) and just kept saying over and over 'But it's very Australian, and it will sell the book because it's an image that people will recognise.' If I'd been older and more experienced I would have tried harder to explain how his response was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, and was trying, in terms of cultural stereotypes, to move beyond, but I still don't think I would have won. (I love that painting, which didn't help.)

Two years later I wrote a conference paper on media and other cultural representations of Lindy Chamberlain (who was still in jail at the time) that got picked up by one of the dailies for the weekend features and given to an artist to illustrate. I certainly had no say in the illustration and I assume this is the norm, at least with newspapers where there simply isn't time for such consultation.

The illustration, which I didn't see till the paper came out, exemplified all the sexist media habits and assumptions that I was attempting, in the article, to deconstruct and undermine. It was a head-and-shoulders caricature of Chamberlain looking bloated, ugly and malevolent, wearing a lurid orange tent-like dress patterned in ironic little hearts. It's possible that it was a kind of meta-comment, but frankly I doubt it.

Now I was, and remain, a fan of the artist in question as a usual thing, but this particular drawing was unfunny as a caricature, unsuccessful as a portrait, and -- most importantly -- wildly misleading as an illustration of the text that it was supposed to be derived from. To this day I don't know whether he and/or the dude from the publishing house were either just so impermeable to feminist ideas that they were incapable of processing what I was saying, or whether their responses constituted active (conscious or subconscious) resistance to what I was saying, attempts to use their images to undermine my words.

'Illustrate': to illuminate, clarify or shed light on, to add lustre. The drawings shown at Helen's post certainly illuminate and clarify Devine's meaning and line of argument in both cases. But sometimes illustration can, in defiance of its name, be used to obfuscate: to conceal, confuse, darken, cover up.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat