“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Commenting on Overland's Comments on My Comments on Overland

Last week, I wrote a response to two pieces on Creative Writing programs, one of which was by Overland's Rjurik Davidson. Yesterday, he responded to my response, which you can read here. It's generally very thoughtful (and, in particular, I was pleased to see his fluent, if slightly tentative, discussion of the problems with 'realism' as a literary mode), but I'm still not convinced about the notion of 'engaged' literature that he, Jacinda Woodhead and others have put forward on the Overland blog.

My first set of concerns are founded on the interpretive problems that such a notion suggests, but I won't go into detail about these since I do go into detail about these issues in an article I have coming out in the next issue of Kill Your Darlings. I will note that it's got a great deal to do with what's known as the intentional fallacy in literary criticism.

My other concerns have to do with the notion of so-called 'literary value' (just to be clear, I do believe in the notion of literary value and feel that it's worth defending); I have a lot to say on this issue that I still haven't articulated in this space, but I'll save that for another time (or perhaps, even, another article).

Lastly, though, I should also note that there's a (personal) weirdness for me in even disagreeing with Overland at all; of all the literary journals in Australia, Overland's politics are certainly closest to my own, and Davidson is correct to note that my views of literary culture are heavily indebted to Marxist analytical traditions (although Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art is probably closest to my position). All of which is to say that I suspect we would agree on most matters--just not on this one.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: C by Tom McCarthy

By Tom McCarthy
Random House

Tom McCarthy’s disappointing new novel, C, is set in the early 20th Century and follows the life of Serge Carrefax, who is raised on the grounds of a school for the deaf. From a young age, Serge is exposed to a variety of developing technologies—particularly wireless radio—by his father, an amateur inventor. The book goes on to trace Serge's maturation as he goes to a sanatorium for treatment of an intestinal illness, serves as an aviator in WWI, and then moves to London and Egypt after the war.
C has received a great deal of praise and has even been shortlisted for the Booker Prize to the shock of many in the publishing industry. Although McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, was praised by Zadie Smith and rightly gained the status of a cult classic, his work has largely evaded more popular recognition. Moreover, both McCarthy and his publishers have claimed that C has its roots in Modernist and avant-garde aesthetics, and such difficult books don’t usually get put up for the Booker.
And in certain respects, there are significant differences between C and the standard literary novel; C intentionally never delves into the psychological states of its characters, preferring an aesthetic posthumanism that results in obsessive observations of everyday objects, and, most importantly, technological artefacts, which are rendered in almost pornographic detail. Serge (whose name is a pun on an electric surge) is an affectless narrator, who even seems unfazed by his sister’s death, and after having served in WWI, notes that—instead of being shellshocked—he actively enjoyed the War (late in the novel, Serge drops out of a drawing class because he cannot master perspective—i.e. he lacks ‘depth’). In focusing on modern systems and developing technologies, C attempts to show how the globalised networks of our contemporary world were already in place at the beginning of the 20th Century. In documenting the evolution of modernity, C undertakes a project similar to that of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, although his posthumanism perhaps more closely resembles the work of Michel Houellebecq.
But for all of this ornate framing and aesthetic posturing, C is an epic failure of a novel that manages to be both exceptionally dull and—for what is allegedly a novel of ideas—surprisingly empty of original thought. The basis for McCarthy’s work is a body of academic thought known as Systems Theory, which sees virtually everything in the world from our brains to international relations as being composed of complex interlocking systems. Anyone who has read Niklas Luhmann’s 150-page, Observations on Modernity, for example, will immediately recognize 95% of the ideas in C (e.g. the meaning of Serge’s wartime role as an ‘observer’ in an airplane is of obvious significance to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Luhmann). For that matter, the Wikipedia entry on Systems Theory serves as a cipher that will decode the vast majority of this novel’s symbolic framework—indicating the degree to which C is an oversimplified attempt to fictionalise theoretical concepts in novel form.
Worse still, McCarthy’s metaphorical deployment of these theoretical notions is incredibly ham-handed. Serge is born with a caul, and upon being told that this is a fortuitous sign for sailors, Serge’s father responds by talking about a wireless radio transmitter he’s working on, saying: ‘Sailors? I tell you Doctor: get this damn thing working and they won’t need luck. There’ll be a web around the world for them to send their signals down.’ Get it? He’s talking about the internet! McCarthy repeats this trope on several other occasions: when he depicts amateur radio enthusiasts transmitting in morse code, for example, their abbreviated messages closely resemble—shock and surprise—the syntax of modern SMS messages. This isn’t exactly revelatory stuff.
Ultimately, McCarthy includes moments like these because he simply doesn’t trust his readers enough to ‘get’ what he is talking about. Even when McCarthy does manage to strike a nice idea or passage, he inevitably ends up glossing it, just in case the reader has failed to understand. During Serge’s aviator-training in WWI, one pilot falls out of a plane and leaves a human-shaped mark in the grass where he’s landed; the mark is caused by the acid that naturally occurs within the human body. Although the import of this moment is already clear, McCarthy nonetheless feels the need to explicate:
‘All his memories, and everything he ever thought about or did, reduced to battery chemicals.’
‘Why not?’ asks Serge. ‘It’s what we are.’
The constant repetition of this heavy-handed exposition throughout the book ultimately produces the sensation that McCarthy is belittling his readers for fear that they won’t be able to keep up with his intellect; as a reader, it’s insulting.
To further his mechanistic portrayal of the human, C also fixates on bodily functions such as masturbation, erection, ejaculation, sex, defecation, and urination: ‘He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils; it, too, caries signals, odour messages from distant, unseen bowels.’ Technically, this moment does foreshadow stomach problems that Serge will later develop, but what in the world are we to make of this description of Serge’s bowels as ‘distant’ and ‘unseen’? Are they abnormally distant (in the next room, a mile down the road)? And wouldn’t he have much greater reason for concern if he could see his bowels? Not only does this sentence indicate the imprecision of McCarthy’ s prose, but also these humourless scatological descriptions quickly grow wearisome.
What annoys me the most about C, however, is both McCarthy and his publisher’s claim that C derives from a Modernist or avant-garde tradition (to be fair, McCarthy has been more measured about this claim than his publisher). If this is the case, then McCarthy must be party to a kind of Modernist literature that I have yet to encounter. In point of fact, the clearest aesthetic precedent for C is in fact the naturalist novel as it was practiced in Victorian England; in many ways, C closely resembles Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Whereas Jude is an innocent and humane protagonist forced to live in an inhumane world, Serge is an inhuman protagonist living in an inhumane world. But even this slight twist is deeply unoriginal, since Serge is the ‘schizophrenic’, postmodern anti-hero par excellence, a figure enshrined in theory by Fredric Jameson in his Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism two decades ago.
McCarthy ultimately does himself a disservice by linking his work to the tradition of Modernism because C pales in comparison to the work of 20th Century writers—such as Wyndham Lewis and William Gaddis—who have focused on the links between humans and technology. Moreover, none of the best Modernist writers would have ever produced a prose as ponderous and leaden as McCarthy’s; in Remainder, this style produced a sort of sympathetic resonance with the subject matter, but in C it simply makes for an incredibly tedious read. The fact that C is being described as an experimental novel ultimately only serves as an indication of just how conservative mainstream literary fiction has become. Whether or not it wins the Booker Prize, C is an extraordinarily dull book that is both lacking in serious intellectual content and  aesthetic invention. Readers interested in McCarthy would do much better to read his first novel, Remainder, and avoid C altogether.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Literary Links: (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Creative Writing Programs

First thing’s first: there is nothing even remotely controversial in critiquing Creative Writing programs. Virtually everyone thinks there is something suspicious about them, except for the few people who actually have MFAs/MAs in Creative Writing (and even then, you’ll find a surprising amount of discontent). At the heart of this general suspicion, which has also historically applied to art schools as well, lies the notion that creativity is an inherent property that cannot be ‘taught’. This notion of innate creativity has been known variously as ‘genius’ and ‘originality’ at least since Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759).
            Geniuses, under Young’s conception are born and not made (in fact, as Young points out, the greatest geniuses are those who produce great art without the benefit of great erudition and formal scholarship); in attempting to formalise the process of shaping creative artists within institutions like universities, Creative Writing programs defy all of our cultural notions about creativity that have developed since Goethe. It’s easy to read such programs as merely an attempt to rationalise ‘creativity’ according to the logic of bourgeois professionalism: if you want to be a writer, you need a degree from an accredited institution to verify that you are one.
            But the notion of genius—if not a complete fiction—is inherently contradictory. Geniuses are not just born, nor are their works completely original; if they were completely original, then we would have no frame of reference at all for them, and such art would suffer the fate described by Honoré de Balzac in his wonderful short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’. The very ‘originality’ of a work can only be determined in relation to what has come before; in this sense, originality cannot exist in a vacuum, but rather absolutely depends upon tradition as an oppositional notion. Originality and genius are, in fact, relational rather than inherent qualities. (For a much more scholarly approach to this read the brilliant chapter ‘Genius and the Wounded Subject of Modernity’ in David Wellbery’s The Specular Moment).
            In this sense, we need to view the burgeoning semi-genre of what I’m calling ‘the Creative Writing exposé’ with a great deal of suspicion, since anti-Creative Writing screeds actually reinforce our notions of creativity rather than critically investigating them. Two more have appeared in the last week or so (and thus constitute this week’s links), being Elif Batuman’s ‘Get a Real Degree’ in The London Review of Books and Rjurik Davidson’s unfortunately titled ‘Liberated Zone or Pure Commodification?’ in Overland. Davidson’s piece is ultimately interesting and even-handed, although it runs what currently seems to be Overland’s party line on what literature should be, which is ‘a literature that takes us back into the world – that thinks about the issues that surround and affect us – rather than away from it: a culture of engagement rather than escapism, of reflection rather than consolation’. As I’ve noted elsewhere, an extremely problematic set of assumptions underpins this notion of literature (and more on this below).
            Batuman’s piece is extremely well-written, but this only serves to make it seem far less problematic than it actually is. Ultimately, including the constant references to Stuff White People Like is unnecessary, and Batuman also commits the cardinal sin of slipping in the fact that she went to Harvard (Ah, she must know what she’s talking about if she’s an Ivy Leaguer!).
But the real problem exists within the assumptions that Batuman makes, such as noting that ‘I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction…I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.’ So, right off the, uh, bat, Batuman is critiquing a kind of writing that she admittedly does not read. Right. And tomorrow I will present an argument on the failures of contemporary Romance novels. The problem with this is that so many contemporary authors have gone to creative writing programs that I am deeply suspicious of the notion that there is even a coherent ‘program style’ or that all authors who go through programs betray such a style, which Batuman might know if she, um, you know, read novels.
Which she doesn’t, by the way: ‘I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.’ I like to think of myself as an astronaut, but the fact that I‘ve never been into space ultimately convinces me that I am not one. Batuman is a non-fiction writer who reads non-fiction; she’d like to think of herself as someone who would read novels (probably for the cultural assumptions I discussed above in relation to originality, genius etc.), but she isn’t. Moreover, the point that non-fiction is, like, interesting and artful is totally banal, and to call Shield’s book brilliant is intellectually insulting. What Batuman wants is for fiction to be more like nonfiction, which is, you know, her problem. What she calls ‘the real work of the novel’ is actually a deeply conservative nostalgia for the 19th Century social novel (not surprising given that she wrote a book about 19th Century Russian novelists).
[Warning, unfounded emotional rant approaching]: Look, if you hate art, why not just come out and say it? Everyone who is currently holding the position that art needs to take on the real world, engage with real issues, adhere to standard notions of plot and characertisation, or think more about content, repeat after me: ‘I am a complete and total philistine. I have rejected completely the innovations of modernism and have a deep, profound and aesthetically conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature (as I have chosen to define them in my own personal cannon).’ [Rage subsiding, rant ending…]
There are so many more things I could say here, like how Batuman blames the problems of contemporary literature on writers, not publishers; while I agree that the majority of contemporary literature is bland, this is a result of the fact that books are a commodity that must be sold, and are therefore marketed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, while any novel seen as too ‘difficult’ will usually either be ignored or else edited into something that’s more in line with a saleable good (this seems to be more prevalent in the Anglophone world, as the overwhelming mediocrity of Booker and Pulitzer prize shortlists suggests). Totalitarian societies censor great art, but capitalist societies just ignore it. I’ll simply end my critique by noting this: there is no crisis within contemporary literature as such, but there is a crisis in how literature is produced, disseminated and advertised within the marketplace. The failures are systemic failures that cannot be separated from larger economic structures.
And this ultimately speaks to the value of Creative Writing programs [In a telling Freudian slip, I initially wrote ‘Creative Writing problems’ here]. It’s an ambiguous value (which Davidson registers much more accurately), but a value nonetheless. In a world in which literature seems increasingly marginal, both young and emerging writers often feel completely at sea. What Creative Writing programs provide is precisely a space in which such writers can feel that their writing (and literature more generally) matters, which is pretty useful if you’re going to devote an enormous amount of time to writing your first 60,000- to 100,000-word manuscript. I suspect that the rise of Creative Writing programs is as much a response to the increasingly monolithic, corporate, ‘superstar’ model of publishing as anything else. For this reason, I actually think that Creative Writing students would be best served by learning about the contemporary publishing industry, but in a critical and analytical, rather than purely descriptive, fashion.
As Davidson accurately notes (via one of his ‘anonymous’ interviewees), most Creative Writing teachers are engaged in larger intellectual issues and literary traditions, but most Creative Writing students are not. I don’t see how putting more ‘content’ in the curriculum will help typical Creative Writing students, who are, by and large, basically not intellectuals. This is simply a limit of these programs; while it’s a frustrating one that should be resisted, I don’t think it will go away despite the best efforts of institutions. [Added later: Also, it's incorrect to think that teaching content will result in better books. There are many very smart people who can't write for the simple reason that they have a tin ear for prose; simply put, there's more to being a good writer than just having content--or better yet, for good writers, content doesn't matter at all. The story is in the telling (note that I did not say 'showing', since language is fundamentally incapable of showing anything)].
            I, too, have written about my frustration with Creative Writing degrees, but, my point wasn’t to question Creative Writing programs as such. They indubitably are valuable, but the value they produce is as much a product of the institutional space they create for individuals as anything else (and it is for this reason that the experience of individual students is usually dependent on the way they approach this space). Yes, Creative Writing programs are not perfect. Yes, most creative writing students are more focused on a naïve ‘Romanticism’ of self-expression than any intellectual commitments. And yes, most people who graduate with such degrees will ultimately not produce particularly good writing. But there are also a great number of people coming through these programs who are nothing like this, and, for these students, the discursive space created by Creative Writing programs can be an invaluable resource.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: Like Being a Wife

Like Being a Wife
By Catherine Harris

Catherine Harris’s debut collection of interconnected short stories, Like Being a Wife, is a book in which characters deal with what are, by and large, typical bourgeois problems: failed or failing relationships, working at dead-end jobs, dysfunctional family relationships, difficult neighbours, gaining weight, getting older and the difficulties of parenthood. But despite the quotidian nature of these problems, there’s absolutely nothing pedestrian about Harris’s collection, which infuses the everyday with the bizarre, and looks at middle-class Australian social values with a satirical eye and a deadpan wit.
Consider ‘The First Ten Minutes Are Free’, a story in which the narrator calls a psychic hotline for guidance about her future; while the call begins innocently enough, the psychic’s predictions become increasingly unusual as she says ‘Despite what you have been taught to believe, your children will not fulfil you. They won’t complete you or make you content . . . your afternoons will be spent ironing in front of the television. You will prefer The Bold and the Beautiful to Days of Our Lives, yet both programs hold some sentimental appeal.
The story ‘Phoenix’ comprises a ‘Dear John’ letter written by a wife to the husband she has just left. Whereas most short stories would play off the natural pathos of such an incident, Harris turns the story to the absurd, as the wife discusses eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and gives her husband explicit instructions on how to look after the kids and make dinner, as though she has just gone away for a weekend jaunt (this story, itself, is a sort of continuation of the narrative in ‘Mick, Agapanthus, the Unfinished TV stand’). Oh, and the wife has left her husband for the actor Ralph Fiennes, of course.
Also refreshing is the fact that the characters in Harris’s stories actually think about their jobs, and—shock and surprise—are actually described at work. Unlike so much Australian fiction, which ignores the portion of our days that we spend earning a living, Harris’s stories often engage directly with these basic issues. In ‘Our Breakfast Hostess or How I Gained 15 Kilos – A Memoir,’ the narrator deals with demanding work at a radio station, and her hatred of the new Breakfast show host, Shirley de Young. In ‘Like Being a Wife’, Daisy has just been fired from her job as a food taster at FoodTech, which is described in hysterically funny detail. Daisy reappears in the last story as well, where she has to deal with her hypochondriac father who’s been scheduled for minor surgery.
This is a brilliant collection of short fiction, which tackles contemporary Australian issues with wit and humour. Like much of the new Australian fiction that was published in the 1970s and 1980s, Like Being a Wife wrestles with everyday problems, but realises that portraying the diurnal doesn’t mean succumbing to a bland and reductionist realism. In what is already shaping up to be an unusually strong year for published collections of Australian short fiction, Like Being a Wife stands out as among the best.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
By Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) is, first and foremost, an excoriating satire of New York’s Greenwich Village art scene in the 1950s. Sorrentino was a New York writer, poet and editor, who died in 2006. Although he published more than 30 books, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (which is named after a line in William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell) is both one of Sorrentino’s best works and a great introduction to his particular style. The novel is composed of eight overlapping vignettes, each focusing on a particular artist or writer (Sheila Henry, Lou Henry, Guy Lewis, Bunny Lewis, Leo Kaufman, Anton Harley, Bart Kahane, and Dick Detective, respectively). It contains no overarching narrative thread, although there are points in which characters and events overlap and bump into each other, and even relatively few thematic connections between the various section except that the characters—each in their own particular way—are all failed and fraudulent artists.
Much of the pleasure in reading the book derives from Sorrentino’s scathing wit, which relentlessly lampoons the various sham-artists in the book. Consider Sorrentino’s description of a book of bad poetry:
'I know this book and it has those poems in it, all about Being Alive In The Fresh Air And Living With Your Woman And Eating Good Food And Smoking Pot And Watching Your Woman Getting Dinner Ready The Way Her Simple Skirt Molds Itself To Her Full Hips Outside The Voices Of The Children As The Evening Comes Down On The Mountains [Screw] You America You Can’t Change This.'
Sorrentino’s point is partially to portray these self-indulgent artists who are more attached to their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle choices than trying to make good art. As he himself puts it ‘Rotten poets who think of furthering their careers come to think of themselves as: (1) ahead of their time; (2) important minor figures; (3) part and parcel of the “exciting” art world.’ But these bohemian lifestyles come with complications, too, and much of the novel catalogues the failed relationships that result from the attempt to live like ‘real’ artists (indeed, much of the book goes into great detail about the various characters’ sex lives—this is not a book for anyone who will be shocked by explicit detail).
But Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is also a sort of aesthetic manifesto, in which Sorrentino argues above all for the importance of the imagination and the right of works of fiction to absolve themselves of any obligation whatsoever to reflect or portray the world as it exists:
'Never trust a poet, or anyone else in the arts, for that matter, who says ‘Well, to be alive, to be in life, is more important than any poem.’ When they say this they are first of all insulting you, since they assume that they have discovered some profound idea, and secondly, they are apologizing—in an aggressive way—for the mediocrity of their productions.'
Thankfully, however, Imaginative Qualities is also a book that refuses to take itself too seriously. Sorrentino constantly comments on the main text of the work through footnotes that further satirise Sorrentino’s own satire. Ultimately, this is a hysterically funny book, and its caustic portrayal of the pretentions and self-aggrandisement of artists in urban ‘scenes’ is as dead-on today as it was 40 years ago. This book isn’t particularly well known, except to those who already have an interest in ‘experimental’ fiction, but it’s humour would ultimately appeal to a much broader readership. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is, in every sense, a lost classic.

This review originally aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program. N.B. You are unlikely to find this book in Australian book shops, but you can buy it directly from the publisher here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Literary Links: Reviewing the Reviewers

This week, virtually everyone that I've spoken to seems to have attended the event 'Critical Failure' at the Wheeler Centre, which considered the state of book reviewing in Australia. There is a weirdness, however, in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy 'event'). 
     Book reviews straddle this divide between economic and 'literary' valure, which is made more difficult by the fact that most literary types tend to ignore the fact that works of literature are also commodities. Given the fact that reviews, by their very nature, have their feet planted in these two irreconcilable notions of value, it's not surprising that book reviews have always been (and always will be) a deeply problematic genre.
     It's also worth noting that the problems with Australian book reviewing are largely economic; very few people in this country can afford to live off of book reviewing alone, because the work is typically undertaken on a freelance basis (which is always feast or famine) and there are a paucity of Australian outlets for these reviews. I'll also note that, given the gruelling and deadline-based nature of this kind of work, I don't think that the few reviewers who occupy themselves this way are necessarily producing the best work (although there are definitely exceptions to this).
     I acknowledge the commercial nature of reviews; they ultimately do attempt to tell readers whether or not to buy a book; it's for this reason that you will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It's not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what's published--certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possibile mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading.
     This modest proposal for book reviewing is quite different from, say, The Believer's touchy-feely diatribes against 'snarky reviewing'; I have no interest in privileging being earnest as a discursive mode. Rather, my position is practical: there are an incredible number of books published each week, and, rather than spend my time readings books that I don't like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion. I also have one other important criterion: I try to give preference to books that have not already received significant media attention (with some notable exceptions, of course). These successful books don't need any extra press, so I try, instead, to focus on those that do (this, again, is another way of acknowledging the book as commodity). Lastly, about one out of every five reviews I do actually covers an older work--by reviewing these 'lost classics', I try to include works that aren't simply new goods in the marketplace.
     Anyway, there's much more to say on this issue, but, for now, here are a few links of interest:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review: Other Stories by Wayne Macauley

Other Stories
By Wayne Macauley
Black Pepper Publishing

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories collects a variety of short fiction that he has published in literary magazines over the last eighteen (!!!) years.  Despite the work’s lengthy gestation, these stories demonstrate an impressive unity of vision, as well as an extraordinary—if uniquely Australian—voice. Macauley is also the author of two excellent novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, but, as good as his novels are, Other Stories reveals that he is an even better short story writer.
   Macauley’s prose is absolutely beautiful, as the very first sentence of his collection proves: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ Here readers can already see Macauley’s humour, and how his stories twist everyday situations into strange, otherworldly experiences.
   In this sense, Other Stories is an appropriate title for this eclectic, often experimental collection, but Macauley’s rigorous innovation is always inflected with mordant satire, resulting in work that is both affecting and hysterically funny. Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent. Many of his stories have similarly absurdist conceits; in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a man named Henry Walter invents the television set in Melbourne in 1855, and, in an even more unlikely turn of events, his TV broadcasts current programs, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show. In my favourite story, ‘The Bridge’, a soldier is stranded in a remote outpost and his claustrophobic circumstances recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
   And this is what is interesting about Macauley’s work: although his formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories. And Other Stories ultimately is a book that is uniquely and particularly Australian. Not only does the book possess a wry, laconic tone, but also figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work: Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams all play a key role in these stories. In this sense, Other Stories presents an excellent model for a truly Australian literature. While its aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.
   Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture. This is one of the best books by an Australian I’ve read all year. Do yourself a favour and go buy it now.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Franzen's Freedom Leaked as Illegal Download

It's official: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has been leaked as an illegal download on the webernet. I've eyeballed it myself. This has appeared really quickly, even sooner that David Mitchell's Jacob de Zoet.

I'm in no way advocating the downloading of the book (those of you who know where to look will find it anyway), but we're going to see more and more of this with literary titles (as I've noted in the past, ebook Piracy is huge already, but so far it's been mostly confined to academic books, textbooks, and 'genre' fiction), which will undermine Cory Doctorow's claim that science fiction is the only kind of writing people will illegally download.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Literary Links: Worship Our Dark Lord, Jonathan Franzen!

This week I picked up two books that I’m very excited about. The first is Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories, which I’ll be reviewing next week. I loved his first two novels (Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story), and this collection is even better (so far). He deserves a much wider readership, and I think he’s one of the finest writers in Australia right now. So buy it now! Yes, right now! OK, anyway, the other book is Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, a William Gaddis-esque fiction, which looks absolutely phenomenal. More on this one soon.

On another note, I’m participating in two events at the Melbourne Writers Festival this Sunday, so you should come along and hear me speak and stuff. For you cheapskates (yes, I’m talking to you), you can come to my free reading as part of the ‘Magazine’ event hosted by the lurvely folks at Harvest magazine.
When: 11.30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 5th
Where: Magazine, a shipping container (no, really) just near Fed. Square

For those of you willing to spend some money, I’ll also be on the panel ‘Universal Stories’ with French-Canadian Author Nicolas Dickner and Eduardo Antonio Parra, both of whose work is very interesting.
When: 4.00 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 5th
Where: ACMI Studio 1 in Fed. Square

OK, so here’s some to stuff to read while you’re busy avoiding doing actual work:

•  Do you like news stories covering totally irrelevant information that could never possibly useful? If so, this will be your favourite recurring column ever: ‘This Week’s Internet Shit-Talking in Review’, which covers flame-wars in the comments sections of literary websites. I’m mostly just sorry I didn’t think of this myself. Can someone please start doing this for Australian sites?

•  Apparently, we’re finally hearing the details of the Andrew Wylie/Random House settlement, which will result in 40% royalties for some titles that hit certain sales targets. I’ll admit, I’m surprised by this figure; it still looks low to me, and I suspect (Based on what? Who knows?), that publishers will end up paying something closer to 50% royalties for ebooks by big-name authors. We’ll see.

•  We all suspected it; Jonathan Franzen is in fact the Sith Lord known as the Emperor. For all that, he has a surprisingly genial Twitter account. I do wish this were a bit funnier than it is, but you can always check out The Incredible Franzen-Hulk, instead.

•  The Australian published a slightly cranky article about why print literary criticism still matters (although, to be honest, I think the value of criticism itself is something that we do need to assert right now, even if I’m not so keen on defending print qua print). The most interesting part for me, however, was this bullet-point list in the article:

What to keep from critical theory:
•  A healthy suspicion of fixed literary canons.
•  An appreciation of the socially mediated nature of literature.
•  The quasi-scientific rigour of theory's approach to textual analysis.
•  Greater circumspection in making broad or universalist claims.
•  An awareness of and respect for marginal, repressed, underground and countercultural traditions and communities, and the texts and voices that emerge from them.
•  A taste for the positive, spark-striking aspects of interdisciplinary research.

What to discard:
•  A lack of interest in the substance and real-world content of texts under discussion, unless it is to critique their ideological biases.
•  A disregard for literature's special status, lumping it with every other form of writing, from bus tickets to bumper stickers.
•  A refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text.
•  The outlawing of literary canons and historical traditions as a guide to merit.
•  Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create.
•  Extreme scepticism and relativism with regard to Western concepts, categories and metaphysics.’

Ultimately, I’m just impressed that the Australian would even admit that theory is useful, at all, and this isn’t such a bad list (although I would most certainly cut out the last two items on the ‘What to Discard’ list). I also have absolutely no idea what 'real world content' means, but I'm pretty sure I don't like it, either. For the record, I’m pro-literary theory, but I do think the academy hasn’t done a great job taking its message out to the public (which is, of course, one of the main reasons I have this blog), still I think it’s a good deal more complex than this, but that’s something I’ll have to write about another time.

If you’ve read this far, it’s definitely time for you to start doing something else.