All posts by Ian

The other ABR: an Adelaide story

If an institution celebrates its 40-year anniversary, you might well think it began four decades ago. In the case of a major arts periodical, the Australian Book Review, you’d be wrong.

The Melbourne-based ABR has been proclaiming a Fortieth Birthday to commemorate its 1978 starting point, but that date actually marks only the resumption of a publishing history inaugurated in Adelaide, the magazine’s home for thirteen years until 1974. The original ABR deserves respect as a noteworthy production, distinctly local in tone but national in importance. Its role in promoting and evaluating Australian publications was innovative, if sometimes quirky.

In 1961, when the first ABR issue appeared, few people could have sensed that South Australia was a place where literary enterprise would soon thrive. The state’s cultural climate exuded no more than a faint whiff of impending change. The everlasting Sir Thomas Playford, having held office since before World War 2, was about to be elected Premier for an eighth successive term of economistic and parochial government. Though the Adelaide Festival and Writers’ Week had got under way the previous year, the burgeoning of the arts under Don Dunstan still lay ahead.

Yet over the next five years several Adelaide-based activities, propelled by Max Harris in collaboration with Geoffrey Dutton and Rosemary Wighton, brought an exhilarating vitality to Australia’s literary scene and publishing industry. Mary Martin’s Bookshop, after ownership passed to Harris, created a new business model and international outlook for bookselling, which quickly spread to the eastern states. In those days, Kerryn Goldsworthy aptly recalls, MMB seemed ‘one of Adelaide’s few real gateways to the great world.’

While MMB required much time and effort, Harris found further outlets for his immense energy during this period. He started his weekly ‘Browsing’ column in The Australian newspaper, which would continue for 27 years and generate three book-length selections. He worked with Penguin Books on developing Australian titles, including The Literature of Australia, a highly successful critical handbook which Dutton edited and to which Harris contributed a chapter. Wanting a livelier Australian list of their own, Harris and Dutton then partnered with Brian Stonier to establish Sun Books, an eclectic paperback imprint featuring brilliant new work like Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance. The quarterly Australian Letters, co-edited by Harris and Dutton, had begun earlier but came into its own in this period. And through the advocacy of this same pair of impresarios, the Union Theatre successfully staged three experimental plays by Patrick White that the Adelaide Festival had disdained. But it was the Harris-led ABR venture that, arguably, had the broadest influence.

While Adelaide hasn’t forgotten Max Harris, even now he is mostly associated with the youthful turbulence of his 1940s Angry Penguins phase and the Ern Malley hoax in particular. For a capacious account of Harris’s prodigiously extensive achievements as trenchant critic, versatile poet, bold editor, entrepreneurial publisher, unorthodox bookseller, gadfly journalist and much else, we are indebted to Betty Snowden’s definitive biography, which should be better known.

Harris’s founding and sustaining of the ABR, supported by Dutton and Wighton, merits special tribute. I remember with affection the magazine’s heyday. Though my own involvement was peripheral, as a regular reviewer I dealt directly with its editors and warmly appreciated its ethos.

My contributions were not remarkable for critical acumen, but their nature illustrates a significant aspect of the ABR phenomenon. During the magazine’s last few Adelaide years, I reviewed scores of miscellaneous titles at Max’s behest, gathering armfuls of them together for each instalment in a series of longish essays. All were New Zealand books! Why give them so much attention in a publication nominally devoted to Australian publishing? Because, like MMB, the ABR was cosmopolitan in spirit. Harris and his co-editor Wighton had the aim of not only reviewing almost everything newly published in this country but also including brief notices of many books from overseas. Impossibly ambitious, but they gave it a really good crack.

As a juvenile Kiwi recently arrived in Adelaide, I’d been browsing one day in MMB and got chatting with the genial Max about my prospective research project comparing Australian and New Zealand fiction in their social contexts. ‘Ah!’ said Max. ‘Well then, I hereby appoint you as our New Zealand editor!’ Thereafter I reviewed whatever happened to come into the magazine’s postbox from across the Tasman: not only literary work but also books on topics as diverse as ornithology, visual arts, criminal sociology and Maori culture. These I supplemented by titles I solicited myself. Max and Rosemary gave me a free hand.

I was conscious that my apprentice reviews were appearing in distinguished company, including Strehlow on anthropology, Bannon on trade unions, Shapcott on poetry, Semmler on fiction, Petty on cartooning, and Harris himself on Sidney Nolan, or on book design, or on the ‘blind self-righteousness’ of Governor-General Hasluck’s speeches. I was conscious, too, that while material under review might have a foreign source the magazine’s main readership was Australian. So I’d try occasionally to show what was distinctive about a chosen NZ book by juxtaposing it with a comparable Australian book – to consider, for instance, how some Janet Frame novel resembled and differed from one of Patrick White’s.

The Adelaide provenance of the ABR remained unmistakable. Harris had a keen eye for local matters that could potently dramatise issues of larger concern, such as censorship. He didn’t hesitate to print in full a dissenting judgment by Chief Justice John Bray, running to well over 100,000 words, on the appeal against an injunction prohibiting any South Australian performance of the musical Oh Calcutta! Still, readers would often encounter exotic items as well: an article on Prague’s political and cultural scene in 1970, for instance, or a witty piece by Dutton on some curious tome picked up in a Bucharest bookshop.

In 1971 the magazine moved from monthly to quarterly publication. This partly reflected commercial trends: for one thing, advertising space was becoming harder to sell. It probably indicated also that Harris was beginning to wilt under the demands of the production process. Misprints and other errors crept in. The 1972 correspondence column carried complaints and corrigenda from publishers, one stern letter being addressed ‘Dear Max the Lax.’ Meanwhile, as Dunstan’s wave of reforms gathered momentum in South Australia and Whitlam’s federal government came to power, the whole cultural and political environment was being transformed.

Adelaide’s ABR expired a couple of years later, only to be revived elsewhere after a four-year interval. This 1978 rebirth is what the Melbourne-based ABR is now celebrating. May the magazine continue to prosper! – but let’s not forget its earlier incarnation.




Hoarding and writing

There’s a painful process I need to put myself through from time to time: discarding accumulated books. They keep multiplying until they threaten to take over the house. Recently my groaning shelves and other cluttered surfaces – desktop, bedside table etc. – told me another big cull was overdue.

It’s a cyclic pattern: as fast as I shed books, I acquire more. Costly, but for a writer it’s mental food and I also try to justify the expense by thinking of all the other people who’ll get to read these copies more cheaply when I donate them to charities for resale.

Of course I can’t ever bring myself to part with certain books. There are those I know I’ll want to re-read periodically, from Edith Wharton’s to Patrick White’s. And those inscribed to me by fellow-writers are also too precious to let go.

My hoarding habit isn’t confined to books. It’s just as hard for me to relinquish various things related to the writing life. Letters, for instance, from novelists, poets, editors, critics – sometimes responding to my work, sometimes about their own. I’ve previously recorded on this blog my thoughts about the decline of letter-writing, and I’m particularly conscious that literary correspondence is already becoming extinct, so I seldom throw away the vestiges. Whether ‘from sentiment or inertia’ (to borrow Margaret Drabble’s phrase in her novel The Dark Flood Rises), I’ve kept on file some letters received from authors in the past, while putting most of them in a special research library collection.

There may be a fundamental link between the hoarding habit and the writing habit. Writers typically collect and store away miscellaneous phrases, ideas, images, mementos, snatches of conversation, observations. Some of us record such things more or less systematically, seldom going anywhere without a notebook, obsessively preserving scraps of information for possible later development. I think of the eponymous character in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue Karshish, who describes himself as a ‘picker-up of learning’s crumbs.’

Hoarding is especially attractive, I guess, to writers who are drawn to historical subjects, as I am in my novels. We cherish all sorts of objects, documents and visual materials that preserve aspects of the past. Often we incorporate these into what we write, deploying them to reveal characters or provide narrative turning points.

Years ago I wrote a poem about the compulsion to hoard. It appeared in my book The Shifting Shore:


The old retainers are surrounding you.
From oddment jars, leftover keys implore:
‘One of these days we’ll come in handy! Don’t
discard us yet. So many things require
unlocking. In the long run you’ll remember
where we fit, and why. Some happy hour,
with a smooth click, we’ll turn for you again.’
Albums of photos clamour, ‘Keep us here!
Each picture tells your story. We contain
the moments of your memory and desire.’
Rusty-hinged notebooks hoarded from schooldays,
and never written in, say they need more
extended deadlines. Boxes of fading postcards
rattle for your attention – you can hear:
‘Just hold us tight! We’re full of messages
from misplaced friends.’ Name-tags recall each year
of conference-going. Worn-out copper coins,
scuffed shoes, wide ties, stretched cardigans, the flare
of trouser-cuffs, packets of ancient seeds,
dried-up ink-bottles …

                                                 You stare at the debris –
then fling away the keys; what they might open
no longer holds a promise. Photos and cards
belonged to earlier selves; out with them now,
and out with all the other hoarded trash,
into the bin of past expiry dates
like rhymes that have lost their grip.

But the empty notebooks: those, perhaps, you’ll keep.
They’ve waited blankly there for long enough,
And now you’re ready to inscribe them all.

Hating Ferdinand

What did Spanish fascist leader General Franco and American tough-guy writer Ernest Hemingway have in common? Loving bullfights and hating Ferdinand.

More than eighty years ago a gentle story for children, still popular today, first appeared. Soon afterwards Franco imposed a ban on it. Why? The year of its publication was also the year when the Spanish Civil War erupted, and this whimsical little book could be interpreted as satirising the belligerent attitudes of those in authority. It features a bull with a peaceful temperament.

The Story of Ferdinand (1936), written by Munro Leaf, wonderfully illustrated by Robert Lawson and long acknowledged as a classic of children’s literature, continues to be widely read and frequently reissued. It also goes on attracting film-makers: a new animated Ferdinand movie is due for release tomorrow, but having watched a brief trailer I don’t think this latest screen version will measure up to the one that Walt Disney produced in 1938, let alone to the quality of the original publication. Yesterday I saw a reprint edition in the window of my local bookshop, and it triggered a few thoughts.

You probably know the story, and remember its opening sentences:

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.

This quiet peace-loving bull infuriated Ernest Hemingway. In reaction to it, he wrote a story called The Faithful Bull (1951), which begins like this:

One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his own age, or any age, and he was a champion.

It’s immediately obvious – if and only if we know Munro Leaf’s prior text – that Hemingway is attempting from the outset to transform the genre of sentimental, anthropomorphic fables into something more tough-minded. We can already anticipate that this tale of The Faithful Bull will turn out in a similarly unsentimental way. Here is what a Year 11 student wrote about it for an assignment on children’s books – an eloquent passage, which I’ve previously quoted elsewhere:

A strong focus for any reader’s expectations about any story is the way it ends. When we are still quite young we develop set ideas about how stories should work, and this depends a lot on how they conclude. The ‘happy ever after’ convention is almost invariable in books for young readers because writers feel that their readers need reassurance that things will turn out well… The Story of Ferdinand is basically the same in this respect. He goes ‘home’ at the end and is ‘sitting there still’ very contentedly, having survived the dangers of the bullring just by being himself. Conversely, The Faithful Bull overturns our expectations of a happy outcome in a way that would be shocking to a young reader. In fact, just as right from the first sentence it is an anti-Ferdinand book, so its breaking of the conventional ending makes it an anti-children’s book. This matter of expectations and conventions is therefore closely linked with the matter of audience.

Parody depends entirely on a reader’s memory of what is being parodied. If we cannot recognise it, cannot ‘hear’ the remembered language of a prior text, the parodic effect is lost. This point has implications for something I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post: the need for teachers and parents to encourage learning by heart.

Franco and Hemingway had their reasons for hating Ferdinand. Many young readers have responded in the opposite way: absolutely loving Ferdinand. I won’t ever forget an experience I had a long time ago as relief teacher of an infant class, where I encountered in its purest form a reader’s emotional identification with a fictional character. With all the expressiveness at my command, I read The Story of Ferdinand aloud to my wide-eyed young pupils, and when I closed the book there was a chorus of sighs around the room. Then they turned quietly to some little task I’d set – except for one small shy six-year-old, who sidled up to my desk and whispered confidentially, ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a bull.’

Is poetry in decline?

A century ago poetry was a prominent part of mainstream popular culture – widely published, read, memorised, recited, and discussed. Even forty years ago many newspapers and magazines (not just of a literary kind) were still publishing large amounts of poetry. It was also broadcast frequently on radio programs.

How many people in Australia now read poems? According to a report published this year, based on a survey by Macquarie University researchers in partnership with the Australia Council, 9.2% of respondents (evenly distributed across the country and across age groups) ‘enjoy reading poetry these days.’ However, that figure includes those who read poems to children, so the proportion of adults choosing this genre for their own personal enjoyment is likely to be much smaller.

Another recent Australia Council report, drawn from its latest National Arts Participation Survey, found that a surprisingly high 14% say they are are readers of poetry – though details about the reliability of this piece of research (e.g. sampling method and size) are not clear.

At any rate there’s undoubtedly an accelerating decline in the reading of poems. The trend in Australia is probably much the same as in the USA, where the percentage who had read poetry at least once in the previous year fell from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. It’s now about half as popular as knitting. Those stats come from an American Census Bureau survey, summarised in an article in the Washington Post which also remarks that the volume of poetry-related Google searches was five times higher a decade ago than it is now.

What’s behind poetry’s decline? Has it simply moved into other genres – into pop music lyrics, or into the shapely rhythms and imagery of some prose work? Many novels contain passages in which the language has an unforgettable poetic quality: think of the opening sentence of Hartley’s The Go-Between or the final sentence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (Reviewers have described my own fiction as ‘poetic,’ and I’ve applied the term to Jim Crace’s Harvest.)

Have readers have moved away from poetry because it seems ‘ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn’ – to quote an American critic who finds little to admire in the work of celebrated contemporary poets?

Or is poetry simply adapting to new publication arrangements? While the once-familiar single-author slim volume of poems is a threatened species (some longtime leading poetry publishers like Salt in the UK have abandoned it, and some booksellers won’t stock it), optimists such as Billy Mills point to the current viability of ‘a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing’ – where cheaply produced collections are sold mainly online or at performance events sponsored by small groups.

An example that has just come to hand is the anthology Ear to Earth, published by Central Coast Poets and containing selected entries from this year’s Henry Kendall Poetry Award competition.

The judge was Jean Kent, a distinguished writer, who says in her foreword to the book that, in choosing winners, she looked first for poems ‘that would immediately delight and surprise’ her. ‘Sometimes,’ she continues, ‘this happened because the voice of the poet was both assured and beguiling, but if a poem was to remain strong in its impact through many readings – which is what judging entails – the poems needed to have a high level of craft as well as a genuinely individual voice. All of the poems I’ve chosen for prizes or commendations have this mysterious magic: they have important things to say, and they do so in language that is memorable.’

Nearly 400 poems were submitted, so I’m happy that mine was given a special commendation. In her remarks on it, the judge mentioned ‘its powerful image of an osprey’ and the way the poem’s ‘firm, unflinching voice…memorably captures the raw pain of grief.’ (Close readers of my novels may have noticed that an osprey appears in each of them.) Here’s the poem:

Ian Reid | So Long


Things that hook their talons in memory’s gut
after deep-diving down a shaft of years
are not like a standard relic or mere leftover

such as his musty coat, his yellowing silk scarf,
those books all foxed and boxed, the dry fountain pen,
his fading letters in a hand as firm as ever.

Reminders are random now, like this one,
startling, obliquely barbed: away up there
on a high roof ridge, scanning the marble river,

an osprey crouches. Its white-hooded head
could be a cowl – an executioner’s
or even a victim’s. Raptors know how to sever

a lifeline suddenly, plummeting to snatch
the quarry hidden under a samite surface,
slice it apart and savour every sliver.


As far as I know
my father doesn’t know
that he’s long dead.

Though his deadness now
is the main thing known about him,
these days only a few are left who know it.

I do. My sisters do. That’s about it.
After so long, others who used to know
have – or have been – forgotten.

His death was quick
as the stoop of an osprey
but his deadness goes on, long and slow,

travelling with me farther along the track
towards my own unknowing.
So long Dad, so long.

In praise of older readers

With each passing year, Australians are generally reading fewer and fewer books of any kind. There’s dismal downward trend – except for one age category.

Part of a MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association – Peel branch) group attending my course on ‘Reading Like a Writer.’

A 2016 Roy Morgan study of our reading habits found that the proportion of Australians who read either fiction or non-fiction declined over the previous five years across all ages from 14 up to 64.

But among those 65 and over, the picture is different: a slightly higher proportion of them is reading books than back in 2010.

Comparable facts have emerged from a reader survey conducted by Macquarie University researchers for the Australia Council, published this year. Almost 40 percent of ‘frequent readers’ (consuming more than 10 books in the last year) are over the age of 60, compared to just 15.5 percent who are under 30.

I wonder how many publishers of Australian books and literary magazines pay close attention to those readership demographics. Most of the people who work in the publishing industry as editors, marketing officers and so forth are much younger than this significant group of mature-age readers, whose tastes and preferences surely deserve special consideration since they are the only group whose consumption of books is not dwindling.

What, then, are the tastes and preferences of mature-age readers? The Australia Council report indicates that only 36% of the over-60s cited ‘escaping reality’ as one of their reasons for reading, whereas it was important for 55% of the 14-29 group. And the older the readers are, the keener they are on literary fiction by Australian authors. More than half of those over 50 (rising to two-thirds for those over 80) say they like Australian literary fiction; for readers under 30 the figure is just a quarter.

None of this surprises me. I write literary fiction in a realist mode, and – to judge by the feedback I receive, and by the audiences who turn up to events at which I talk about my books – a significant proportion of those who read what I write are over 60. And most of them seem to me to be discerning readers, well informed, thoughtful, enquiring and enthusiastic.

I have especially in mind various groups whose members often invite me to speak with them on literary topics in general and my own work in particular: a number of book clubs, library-based circles, professional associations, special-interest groups, and organisations such as MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association), U3A (University of the Third Age) and Probus.

That’s where you can find many of the stalwarts whose support for serious Australian books remains steady while it is sadly weakening among the young.

May these mature readers continue to thrive!

How much do authors earn?

After half a century of outstanding literary achievement, a venerable Australian author has declared himself almost penniless. Approaching his 79th birthday, Frank Moorhouse AM, winner of numerous prizes for his work in several genres including the Miles Franklin award, ruefully divulges in a recent journal article that despite plenty of reputational success he has no financial security to show for it all.

Most authors learn to live with the fact that our writing is never likely to bring in big dollars from any source. A large 2015 survey of author income in Australia indicates that, even when the sample is confined to people with at least one book-length publication to their name, the average annual income derived from practising as an author is $12,900.

No doubt earnings vary a lot according to genre; poets, for instance, generally don’t expect to earn as much as someone who writes books for children. Of course there are superstar writers with handsome incomes, but very few. Hardly anyone in Australia makes a living out of creative literary activities.

The weight of numbers is against us. Although it’s hard to find reliable trend data, there’s no doubt that the book market is extremely crowded, as I mentioned in a recent post. More and more books are getting published (about 55 per day in Australia), but with shorter and shorter shelf lives, while fewer and fewer people seem to be buying what we produce. So we jostle one another aside, unavoidably, in a struggle for attention. The increased number of contenders for literary prizes is a reflection of this. In 1973 only six books were entered for the Miles Franklin Award, and the judges deemed none of them good enough to merit it, whereas there were 64 submissions for the 2017 award – still only a selection of the Australian novels published during the eligible period.

A 2016 Roy Morgan study of Australia’s reading habits found that the proportion of all Australians who read either fiction or non-fiction declined over the previous five years in every age group from 14 upwards, except for women over 65. Correspondingly the percentage of the population buying books these days is also on the wane.

A consequence for authors is that the unofficial benchmark for a satisfactory cumulative sales result is lower than it used to be. According to the grapevine, the average number of copies sold for a work of literary fiction by a first-time Australian author is now a bit under 1000. Based on average retail pricing and royalty percentages, this would usually yield little more than $2000 in royalties.

Average figures don’t convey the full story because royalty returns can swing wildly up and down from year to year, depending on whether we’ve just had a new book released. Anyhow, like most authors, I get only a small proportion of my writing income from royalties. We supplement those meagre direct profits with whatever we can get from indirect sources – a range of writing-related activities such as paid talks and teaching writing, plus fees for copyright (threatened by a Productivity Commission report currently under government consideration) and for public lending right and educational lending right. Perhaps, with better than average luck, there may also be occasional cash from residencies, festival appearances, fellowships, even prizes – all eked out, usually, with earnings from some unrelated day job.

Most authors daydream about the utterly remote possibility that our books will be snapped up by one of the giant publishers after a sensational bidding war for global or even galactic rights, and will then be vigorously marketed, distributed, translated into many languages and turned into a blockbuster movie and a Broadway musical. Unless that fantasy turns into reality for some wonderfully fortunate writer amongst us, we’ll just have to make do with scratching along, cobbling together bits and pieces of income from whatever comes to hand. That’s where the question of pay rates for authors becomes important.

The Australian Society of Authors, as part of its mission to provide members with Advocacy, Support and Advice) recommends benchmark rates of pay for various kinds of writing-related activities. These recommended rates help us to negotiate fair remuneration.

But market conditions keep changing, and the current rates are outdated. Many haven’t been revised for five or six years. Getting the right balance between realistic and aspirational rates is difficult. So the ASA has surveyed writers and illustrators on this topic. The process of compiling and analysing all the data isn’t yet complete. When it is, the ASA will go back to all participant organisations (e.g. writers’ centres) with a draft of proposed new rates. Once there is a consensus, new rates will be published.

If you’re not already an ASA member, joining now would be timely! There’s plenty of information about the benefits of doing so on its website:


[This is a much-abbreviated version of a talk I gave, in my capacity as a Director of the ASA, at a WritingWA Forum on 1st August, where I was able to reveal preliminary findings from the ASA survey.]

Hard times for Australian writers

For years the right of Australian authors to receive fair payment for their work has been safeguarded by copyright law. But proposed changes, pushed by the Productivity Commission and reinforced by lobbyists for large organisations and big technology companies such as Google, will severely diminish these copyright protections.

The Australian Government is currently considering the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for change. If adopted they would be ruinous to literary creativity in this country. (For more information, click here.) Preserving copyright protections is vital not only for individual authors but also for the millions of readers who care about keeping Australian stories alive.

This threat to copyright comes at a time when the income of those who write books is already meagre and declining. A recent national survey of Australian authors found that their average annual earnings from all writing-related sources (royalties, copyright, fees for talks etc.) amounted to a miserable $12,900. The book market is overcrowded with new titles: more and more books are getting published, with shorter and shorter shelf lives and less and less publicity backing, while fewer and fewer people are buying what we produce.

So it’s timely that WritingWA, the peak support body for literary creators in Western Australia, will hold a two-day ‘Writing and Publishing Sector Forum’ on 31 July and 1 August at the City of Perth Library and History Centre, 573 Hay Street, Perth. There will be sessions on the publisher-to-bookshop supply chain, on self-publishing, on copyright and ‘fair use,’ on the recent state government review of writing and publishing in WA, and several other topics. My own invited presentation will be on authors’ incomes and pay rates. Program details and ticketing arrangements here.

Required Reading

Our notions about literature, about what’s worth reading and how to read it, get shaped largely by the books we encounter at school. Texts set for study in English classes, especially in senior secondary years, tend to stay with us and influence our tastes as adult readers.

The authors and titles figuring most prominently in Australian surveys of the country’s favourite reading matter are much the same as those that recur in lists of required reading for thousands of school students. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet comes top of the list of Australian books, or very near the top, in the annual reader polls conducted by Booktopia. It was also the highest-ranking Australian title, close behind Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, in an ABC TV survey of ‘favourite reads.’

Such popularity is no surprise, because for more than 20 years Cloudstreet has been appearing regularly on the syllabus for secondary English and Literature in most states. No doubt this is partly attributable to its general ‘literary merit’, but many other highly meritorious Australian novels don’t achieve comparable recognition, and indeed ‘Cloudstreet is not widely accepted in the academy as a literary masterpiece.’ Its status probably owes a lot to ‘its power to evoke particular emotive responses with a voice, rhythm and location that is recognisably connected to the national mythology.’ Those quoted comments are by Claire Jones, discussing Cloudstreet as a ‘classroom classic’ in her chapter of a newly published book, Required Reading: Literature in Australian Schools Since 1945, edited by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett.

Some chapters in Required Reading look at the ‘teachability’ of other authors with a lasting classroom presence, such as Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and Judith Wright. There are also several broader historical analyses of curriculum change in particular Australian jurisdictions. My own chapter argues that text lists don’t tell the full story, because items selected for study are always ‘framed’ for their readers by ‘circumtextual’ factors – e.g. resource materials designated for use in teaching; official and unofficial rubrics inscribed in classroom practices; assessment methods and exam structures that encourage some choices or interpretations rather than others, and so on.

The book is based on a recently compiled database called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. It makes available for the first time a comprehensive source of syllabus details about English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in the texts prescribed for study over that period.

What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? You can find absorbing answers to those questions and many others in Required Reading.

Revisiting Patrick White: The Aunt’s Story

Most of what we read tends to be restricted to what’s topical. Review pages, bookshop displays, literary prizes, festival programs and reading-group lists all usually focus our attention on the Latest Thing.

It can be salutary to resist this tendency by returning occasionally to durable books from the past. So from time to time I post on this blog a few thoughts about some memorable literary work first encountered years ago that may have more lasting value than anything currently featured in the literary marketplace. I’ve previously written in that spirit about Kate Grenville’s comic masterpiece The Idea of Perfection and about early fiction by Peter Carey.

My well-thumbed copy, with its haunting cover picture by Sidney Nolan

This time I’m revisiting The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White, one of the first Australian novels I came across (when I hadn’t yet migrated to this country). Published in 1948, a quarter of a century before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s a novel that retains a capacity to startle me. I admire all of White’s fiction and regard him as Australia’s greatest writer. It’s odd that he isn’t as widely read today as he still deserves to be, especially as he has had such a palpable influence on some of the best compatriot writers (e.g. Shirley Hazzard, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Michelle de Kretser). White was brilliantly successful in his determination to prove, as he once put it, ‘that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.’ None of his works shows this with more verve than The Aunt’s Story.

At the novel’s centre is the character of Theodora Goodman, a middle-aged single woman. The narrative structure follows her erratic journey through the 1930s from rural New South Wales to middle America by way of a disintegrating Europe. To most of those who encounter her she appears strange and awkward. But as we see her world through her eyes, her gradual move into a kind of lucid madness is compassionately rendered. The novel’s richly textured language, full of nuances and disjunctions and arresting images, is a vehicle for conveying how Theo perceives what is happening around her and within her.

To a large extent this is a story about the limits and possibilities of storytelling. At the beginning, Theo sees herself as typical of ‘people who do not have many stories to tell,’ and several passages refer to storytelling in similarly negative terms: ‘There is nothing to tell’… ‘There is very little to tell.’ Seldom in the first or last of the novel’s three Parts do characters tell stories to each other. When they do, it’s usually just idle chatter. They show no confidence in being able to span ‘the distances that separate,’ either with tales of mundane personal experience or with grand modernist narratives of social progress. Theo is often described as ‘waiting.’ She is suspended between those two kinds of stories, the trivial and the portentous.

Part 1 (Meroë) includes glimpses of Theodora’s childhood, shaped by her extraordinary capacity for empathy – yet also by her experiences of painful exclusion. It ends with her feeling that ‘there is no lifeline to other lives’ – and therefore no worthwhile storyline. She is mistaken about this. Parts 2 and 3 move towards her discovery that our lives may become more bearable if understood as story-shaped.

The first paragraph of Part 2 (Jardin Exotique) repeats that Theo (now staying in a small French hotel filled with displaced eccentrics, the flotsam of cultural upheaval) is ‘waiting,’ just as Europe is ‘waiting for the crash’ – of markets, of tradition, of modernity. She feels directionless, ‘waiting to be told.’ Her travels in Part 2 take her through a wasteland of failed master-narratives:

Holding back the sun with her hands as she stepped out, she hoped that the garden would be the goal of a journey. There had been many goals, all of them deceptive. In Paris the metal hats just failed to tinkle. The great soprano in Dresden sang up her soul for love into a wooden cup. In England the beige women, stalking through the rain with long feet and dogs, had the monstrous eye of sewing machines. Throughout the gothic shell of Europe, in which there had never been such a buying and selling, of semi-precious aspirations, bulls’ blood, and stuffed doves, the stones arches cracked, the aching wilderness, in which the ghosts of Homer and St Paul and Tolstoy waited for the crash.

In fantasy, she begins to project herself imaginatively into the lives of her fellow-lodgers – Sokolnikov, Mrs Rapallo, Katina Pavlou and others. The borderlines between individuals, and between fact and fiction, blur in her mind.

Part 3 (Holstius) takes her through the rural American mid-west, which turns into a surreal landscape. In a deserted shack she communes with a mysterious figure called Holstius, who seems to be a comforting figment of her own invention.

In the peace that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music in Katina Pavlou’s hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo’s baroque and narcotised despair were the same and understandable. And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, […] these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.

At the Hôtel de Midi, Mrs Rapallo had urged Theo to relax with ‘a book where things happen.’ The Aunt’s Story isn’t that kind of book: instead of a chain of external events it provides inward-turning images and imaginary interrelationships.

My battered copy of this wonderful novel testifies to many readings, and I’ll continue to revisit it, discovering and rediscovering further details to cherish. I’ve written at length about The Aunt’s Story in one of the chapters of my book Narrative Exchanges, but I still feel I’ve hardly scratched its surface. No doubt it will continue to release new meanings each time I go back into its dreamlike world.

Reading groups: keeping the book industry viable

While book sales generally may not be thriving, one positive feature of the contemporary reading scene worldwide is the growth of reading groups, book groups, book clubs – call them what you like. The ritual that brings friends together regularly to discuss their recent reading is so widespread that, in the aggregate, it’s surely keeping the book industry viable.

These groups take various forms, from quasi-academic study circles to (more often) informal chat sessions. They meet in various places, from members’ houses to libraries and cafes. Though essentially self-managed, many have links to particular stores through which chosen titles are bought at a discount or borrowed through a consignment scheme; e.g. there are several hundred reading group members under the wing of my little local indie, The Well Bookshop.

Other groups may belong to a network coordinated by a small business operation, which provides fee-based services such as lists of recommended titles and discussion notes. A lively and well-run Californian example is Literary Masters.

Some groups known to me have been going for very many years, with original members continuing to participate actively as their tastes ripen. Other groups are newly established. I see no sign of a decline in the phenomenon, and in fact it seems to be burgeoning. According to John B. Thompson in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century, reading group membership has doubled in less than a decade. It’s estimated that there are now some 20 million members in the US alone.

Oprah Winfrey’s book club choices, publicised since the mid-1990s through TV and the internet, have had a demonstrably huge effect on sales.

A comparably influential British example is the Richard and Judy Book Club, which began as a TV chat show and was credited at its peak (2008) with 26% of all book sales in the UK. Subsequently, in association with the retail chain W.H. Smith, it became a website, and still has a large following.

In Australia the ABC’s nationally televised Book Club, hosted by Jennifer Byrne, is now a decade old. Its popular website and wide social media outreach have generated a high level of interest across all parts of the country in forming and joining satellite reading groups.

Several Perth-based reading groups have invited me along to their meetings to discuss one or more of my novels. I’ve always found it pleasurably informative to make this direct connection with a sample of my readers, respond to their questions, listen to a range of opinions, and observe how differently they go about comparing their literary experiences.

To judge from conversations with the groups I’ve attended as a guest and from positive comments that reach me from other such groups, it seems that my novels work well as a stimulus for the exchange of readers’ views. If you belong to a book group that hasn’t yet chosen one of these titles, you may like to consider doing so in the light of discussion notes that my publisher’s website provides on The End of Longing, That Untravelled World and The Mind’s Own Place.

Happy reading, happy talk!

Ask an author – FAQ #3: Why are your stories so dark?

While I’m not filled with gloom myself, it’s true I don’t write happily upbeat stories. Why dwell so much on shady characters, sombre moods and grim situations?

Although we may all want plenty of sunshine in our lives, most of us don’t want to read a lot about it, because the state of happiness is not particularly complex and there’s little of interest to be said on the subject.

Being conscious of unhappiness (some of the time, and in various ways) is surely one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals, and also stimulates the narrative impulse. It’s pleasant to listen occasionally to birdsong or to the purring of a cat, but birds and cats have no stories to tell us. Storytelling is the main medium through which we make sense of experience, and it doesn’t lend itself to cheerful chirping or merry miaows.

More often than not, I suppose, people tell or read stories in order to equip themselves to look unblinkingly into the shadows – to cope with difficult and dismal feelings, such as loss and grief, guilt and shame, fear and loathing, remorse and rejection.

Or just plain disappointment.  In large part, my novel That Untravelled World is a tale of dreams that don’t come to fruition – though it’s also a tale of consolations. I’ve tried not only to convey an impression of that troubled formative period of Australia’s development – covering the Great War, the Great Depression and the build up to WW2 – but also to get the reader thinking about the things that, during times of adversity, can either pull us apart or bring us together, especially in family relationships of different kinds.

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!