All posts by Ian

Reading at a tangent

Recently, turning the pages of a newly released book, I’ve been reminded of the simple truth that different ways of reading can provide different kinds of pleasure.

Most of the time, whether it’s a newspaper article that we’re reading, or a poem, a novel or whatever else – we focus intently on what the language in front of us is directly presenting. We keep within a framework provided by the author because we want to follow closely the line of argument, or the plot, or the revelation of character, or the patterns of figurative meaning. The words on the page encircle ideas and images within which our attention is held. We try not to miss anything relevant, and so we stay within that circle, avoiding stray associations that might distract us.

But there is another, less disciplined kind of reading, which can yield another kind of pleasure. This happens when we move beyond the circle that the text itself has drawn around its subject matter, and let our thoughts wander off digressively.

This is what I call “reading at a tangent.” Being easily distractible, I often do it: I find myself thinking not so much about what’s within the text as about something that’s absent from it. It may be quite legitimately absent as far as the author’s apparent intention is concerned because it’s extraneous to the topic, off to the side at an odd angle. But to me, as a digressive reader, irrelevant associations can become absorbing.

I’ve enjoyed the experience of tangential reading while looking through Amanda Curtin’s just-published book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, a study of the life and work of a notable painter who (like me) was born in New Zealand and eventually found a home in Western Australia, but (unlike me) spent most of her life as an expatriate in France.

There’s much to admire in Amanda’s meticulously researched, imaginatively written and handsomely produced book, but I’m not offering a review of it here. Instead I’m just recording a few musings that it has brought to my mind – musings about possible questions and imaginary connections that lurk silently outside the circumference of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. In several passages Amanda indicates that she herself is aware of such possibilities but chooses not to pursue them, apart from a few speculative asides, because they are beyond the book’s scope. Fair enough. I’m not suggesting that she should have treated these things differently, just confessing to my own pleasurably undisciplined habits as a reader.

In this case what sets my reading off at a tangent is the fact that so many aspects of Kathleen O’Connor’s life remain obscure despite patient research. This is especially true of most of her personal relationships. Time and again Amanda scrutinises the available evidence in an effort to discover why Kathleen’s friend X seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour, or what may perhaps have been behind Kate’s coolness towards Y, or whether Z was really more than a casual acquaintance. Often the answers cannot be found. Kate was discreet, even secretive, and covered her tracks carefully.

This can lead a distractible reader (moi) to drift into a reverie about things that almost certainly didn’t happen to Kate but could conceivably have done so.

For instance, what if she had met Katherine Mansfield (who was also Kathleen until she adopted a pen-name)? Both spent childhood years in New Zealand, including Wellington, where they lived in the same street and went to the same school. Though KO’C was twelve years older, and left New Zealand when KM was only three, their paths might have crossed briefly in that little colonial outpost… Or later, as expatriates in London or Paris? Both women spent time to-ing and fro-ing between both those cities in the years 1906 to 1908, and again in 1914-16. Both, by then, were strictly dedicated to the vocation of an artist, though they differed not only in their choice of medium – the written word for KM, paint for KO’C – but also in their tastes. They were unlike each other, too, in temperament, and in their attitudes to men. KM was wildly promiscuous during those years; KO’C seems to have had a tendency towards ascetic habits.

But just suppose they had met, perhaps introduced by one of the many other antipodean-born writers and artists working in London or Paris: what would these two have thought of each other? Both tended to be severe in judging people, and my guess is that they would have irritated one other. If they had met after April 1917, they would have had one painful thing in common: each, by then, had suffered the loss of a brother on the western front. But they reacted differently to this trauma: KO’C wrote an embarrassingly sentimental verse tribute to Australian soldiers in general (which reveals not only a tin ear but also, as Amanda comments, an “emotional lack”), while KM’s response was to inscribe particular memories of her beloved brother into that great portrait of family and place, the story “Prelude.”

Still reading at a tangent, I begin to imagine other possible meetings of expatriate artists and writers in Paris and London during the time when KO’C was there. The New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins certainly did know KO’C, who was for a while one of her pupils and friends; but there is no record of FH ever meeting KM – though one of FH’s pupils while she was in Wellington was Edith Bendell, with whom KM had an erotic affair a couple of years later. So if FH and KM did happen to meet, and get talking about people they both knew, there might well have been some delicate nuances in their conversation.

Regarding the O’Connor/Hodgkins friendship, Amanda allows herself a passing conjecture about its sudden severance. “If there had been a romantic relationship between them, might that have contributed to the irrevocable nature of the estrangement? But I have seen no supporting evidence in Kate’s archives.”

This print of Rice’s Mansfield portrait has been above my desk for many years.

What if those three – FH, KO’C and KM had at some stage shared a table in a Montparnasse café, reminiscing about Wellington days? And if that had happened in, let’s say, 1922, the little gathering of female expatriate artists could also have included Australian writer and painter Stella Bowen (five years younger than KM), who had moved to Paris from London that year with her novelist/critic husband Ford Madox Ford, and also the American painter Anne Estelle Rice (one year younger than KO’C), who previously lived in Paris before the war, then moved to England, painting a famous portrait of her friend KM there in 1918, but often visited Paris during the 1920s.

As far as I know, KO’C never mentions Rice, though they both exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in the same years, 1911-13. Nor does she make any reference to Stella Bowen, though it’s hard to believe she hadn’t at least heard of her. But then SB’s talents were considerably more versatile than KO’C’s; they extended beyond painting to writing, and her  memoir Drawn From Life (1941, often reprinted) shows that she belonged to a much more prominent community of artists than KO’C ever did. KO’C, probably knowing this, might well have felt resentful. (I haven’t read Drawn From Life, but I’ve seen extracts from it in an absorbing chapter of Rosemary Lancaster’s book Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945.)

If those five had met together in 1922, surely sparks would have been flying. I’ve mentioned the tensions between FH and KO’C, and my surmise is that KM wouldn’t have found either of them congenial. As for SB, her literary circles were markedly different from KM’s. The previous year, KM’s husband John Middleton Murry had reviewed dismissively the latest novel by SB’s husband Ford, and the two men were intensely rivalrous editors of notable magazines. It’s likely that Rice, being close to KM and Middleton Murry, would not have been comfortable in SB’s company either.

Not a relaxed social occasion, I imagine. But all the more fascinating for that. It’s the sort of thing that can take shape when one reads at a tangent.

 

Lecturing: an unfashionable art

Next Monday, without shame, I’ll be doing something that many people these days frown on, though it has been a valued part of education for centuries. I’ll be giving a lecture, the first in a course of ten that will run weekly until late October. Lecturing! What a shockingly antiquarian practice!

I’m familiar with the usual arguments against lecturing. It’s said to be an incorrigibly authoritarian, top-down, monologic way of imposing an individual’s views on a docile group of listeners. It supposedly discourages independent learning and gives the lecturer a licence to parade his or her ego.

No doubt all of this can too often be true. But need it always be? Is it self-deceptive to think I understand those potential problems well enough to mitigate them when I stand at a lectern?

Many years ago, in The Making of Literature, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that a teacher engages a class actively in the learning process, combining the roles of “a resource specialist, who puts the learner in contact with useable information, and a response specialist, with whom the learner can negotiate and test particular communications.” The format of a lecture may not always facilitate this kind of engagement, but doesn’t preclude it either. Much depends on the nature of the group, particularly the motivations of its members, the knowledge and interest they bring to a session, and their level of maturity.

This particular course of mine is for the Peel (Mandurah) branch of MALA, the Mature Adults Learning Association. Knowing MALA members well, I can be confident that, while I’m responsible for much of the content that we explore together, they will bring a spirit of active enquiry to what we discuss. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for groups of this kind in a previous blog post, ‘In Praise of Older Readers.’

In medieval universities a lecture was simply, as the French-derived word suggests, an oral reading from some text along with a commentary on what was being read. Its purpose was to impart knowledge of the text and instruct the audience in how to interpret it. Today, books are so readily available in so many ways that it may seem needless for a lecturer to read aloud even a few select passages from a chosen text. Why not leave it entirely to students to do their own silent reading? Answer: because well-written words sometimes deserve to be voiced. By reading a passage aloud, an experienced lecturer can draw attention to certain nuances of phrasing. This serves to model the process of interpretation. Marks on the page don’t supersede the spoken dimension of language.

The topic for my course is Myth in Literature and Society. ‘Myth’ signifies a range of things, from mere fallacies to fabulous old tales of gods, superheroes, creation and destruction. Why does the word have such diverse meanings? Why do many myths have long-lasting appeal? Why do creative writers go on retelling and adapting mythical stories? What can myths tell us about the societies that produced them, and what relevance can they still have in our own time and place? In exploring such questions, this course draws examples from literary sources, mainly in the western tradition (e.g. Greco-Roman classical drama, poetry and epic; biblical stories; medieval romances; Shakespearean plays), as well as from cultural practices, ancient and modern.

MALA is still accepting late enrolments. If you’re interested, click on this information.

I’ll also be presenting a different lecture course, beginning the following week (on Wed 22nd August), for the Rockingham branch of MALA. This one is on Historical Fiction. Details here.

Denmark: a story-haunted place

Last month I spent a memorable week in Denmark. Not the little West Australian town of that name but the Scandinavian country, which I was visiting in person for the first time. Yet this wasn’t a first encounter with Denmark, because in my imagination I’d often travelled there on a magic carpet of stories.

For one thing, I’d read fiction by a few Danish writers. A handful of sentimental tales by Hans Christian Andersen had assuaged the growing pains of my childhood. Later, Karen Blixen, who wrote as Isak Dinesen, had beguiled me with her novel Out of Africa and her short story Babette’s Feast, both of which were converted into memorable movies. I’d also admired Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. In a broader non-fictional sense, ‘stories’ about aspects of Nordic identity are implicit in sombre essays I’d dipped into years ago by the 19th-century proto-existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, and in the writings of his antagonist, the famous nationalist poet, educator and politician N.F.S. Grundtvig, to whose work some Copenhagen friends had recently introduced me.

But more deep-seated were certain non-Danish sources for some of the Danish images in my head. The experience of being physically present in Denmark reminded me that two of the greatest masterworks of English literature have Danish settings and vividly express distinctive elements in the cultural history of that nation.

Kronborg Castle today, hardly changed since the 16th century.

One can’t walk around Kronborg castle in Elsinore without recalling scenes or lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and recognising how much the mood of that play was shaped by the upheavals of the Lutheran reformation that had begun not far south of Elsinore. (In some ways Danish culture remains profoundly Lutheran in character.) When the play opens, the young prince himself has been studying at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther was a Professor.

The conscience-burdened self-questioning that suffuses Hamlet’s soliloquies, troubling his sense of purpose, is deeply Protestant in character. Standing in the lavishly decorated chapel, the sole part of Kronborg Castle that has survived in its original 1572 form unscathed by fire and decay, one can readily picture Claudius confessing there to the king’s murder. Several tapestries still hanging on the castle walls are original furnishings, some large enough for a ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ like Polonius to hide behind.

Shakespeare adapted his plot from an old Scandinavian legend recounted by the 12th-century historian Saxo Grammaticus, but the English stage version from Tudor times ensures that Elsinore’s 16th-century castle has become Hamlet’s home, contributing to the allure of Denmark as a story-haunted place.

In a similar way the mighty Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf belongs to both Denmark and England. Written down a thousand years ago on the basis of previous oral transmission, it’s the earliest extant long poem in the English language, but its story has a Danish origin, incorporating people and events from 6th-century Denmark. While the eponymous hero himself is actually from the Geat tribe in what is now southern Sweden, the main narrative action begins when he comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose mead-hall Heorot is being terrorised by the monster Grendel. Archeologists have recently established that Heorot had a historical reality on the island of Zealand, where modern Copenhagen, Elsinore and Roskilde (the country’s ancient capital) are located. At Lejre (near Roskilde), the site of a royal court in pre-Viking times, the remains of a huge 6th-century feasting hall have been uncovered.

So Hamlet and Beowulf, this pair of ‘English’ literary heroes, have Danish origins. Yet the influence has not been in only one direction. The two quintessentially Danish 19th-century philosophers mentioned above were admirers of the great English works that their own culture had generated. Grundtvig, an enthusiast for Anglo-Saxon literature, translated Beowulf into Danish, and Kierkegaard made frequent reference to the hero of Hamlet as a way of meditating indirectly on his own habits of melancholy introspection.

Reid and I: a writer’s double life

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion Of Creation (1892). Public domain (Wikimedia)

Reid’s public self at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

In 1960 a very short story called ‘Borges y Yo’ appeared in Argentina. Its author, on the verge of becoming internationally famous, was Jorge Luis Borges. Translation soon made this story widely known under the English title ‘Borges and I.’ It begins abruptly: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ The first-person narrator goes on to describe someone who is almost identical with himself, but from whom he feels somewhat alienated.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’

Ultimately they comprise an inseparable dyad, as the story’s final sentence suggests: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’

It’s an amusing way of depicting the tense relationship between any literary figure’s public persona and the more private self who quietly does the writing.

In the opening piece of his essay collection The Writing Life (2014), David Malouf considers the distinct selves involved in writing and living. ‘There’s a gap,’ he says, ‘a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done.’

Another essay in the same book, ‘When the Writer Speaks,’ picks up the theme:

‘The real enemy of writing is talk. There is something about the facility of talk, the ease with which ideas clothe themselves in the first available words, that is antithetical to the way a writer’s mind works when he is engaged in the slower…deeper business of writing.’

Malouf refers to a short story by Henry James, ‘The Private Life,’ in which the narrator is astonished to discover that the person who publicly poses as the admired author Clare Vawdrey, entertaining people with plausible literary conversation, is not the person who, invisibly secluded, writes Vawdrey’s books. There is an arrangement of convenience between those two distinct people. As Malouf remarks, James’s tale dramatises a fundamental truth about literary activity: ‘The social self is a front…behind which the real writer can hide.’ The latter is ‘a creature of solitude, of the inner life.’

Like any writer, I’m acutely conscious of this tension described by Borges, Malouf and James – and I feel quite ambivalent about what often seems to be my double life. When I glance back at the ‘Events’ page of my website I’m reminded of the umpteen different literary and para-literary activities that have engaged much of my time in recent years. I’ve attended numerous meetings related to the writing life, such as Board sessions of the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve given presentations under the auspices of the Copyright Agency, WritingWA, the State Library, national and state English Teaching conferences, the National Trust and other bodies. I’ve run writing workshops for several schools and for groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. I’ve lectured on literary topics to metropolitan and regional branches of the Mature Adults Learning Association, and to U3A and Probus groups.  I’ve been a featured guest speaker at several different literary festivals. I’ve given countless talks about my books in libraries, town halls, universities, community centres, bookshops, local museums and other venues. Book clubs have invited me along to the-author-meets-his-readers discussions. And so on.

While I enjoy all such encounters, I’m also haunted by Malouf’s admonition: ‘Too much time talking about writing, not enough doing it.’ Perhaps I should follow the example of Henry James’s Vawdrey and hire someone to impersonate me in public so that, unobserved, I can get on more productively with the solitary task of writing?

 

Manuscripts then and now

For any writer there are few experiences as satisfying as the transformation of one’s manuscript into the finality of a published book. When at last the precious assemblage of thousands of mulled-over sentences emerges into print publication, a surge of pride mixes with huge relief at the culmination of a long and laborious process.

“Manuscript,” of course, literally means handwritten. Although it’s seldom the case these days that producing a manuscript (conventionally abbreviated “ms”) is a matter of putting pen to paper in the way that authors did for centuries, in its modern usage the term is no misnomer. For while a computer now does the work of converting what we compose into a readable form, we still use our fingers to tap out every word.

But imagine how much more painstaking – and how final – the production of a manuscript used to be before the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg perfected the art of printing with movable type. Until that revolutionary technology appeared, there was virtually no distinction between a manuscript and a publication. Books were entirely written by hand, each copy being unique even if it was transcribing something already written.

From the 8th-century Codex Amiatinus (discussed by Hamel): Ezra writing beside his bookshelves.

I’ve just finished reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2018), a wonderfully detailed account of a dozen outstanding medieval books. Hamel invites us “to accompany the author on a private journey to see, handle and interview some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.” Its chapters are framed as celebrity interviews with famous documents that are inaccessible to most people. “It is easier to meet the Pope or the President of the United States,” Hamel remarks, “than it is to touch the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” So under Hamel’s expert scholarly guidance we visit each beautifully decorative ms in its particular archival setting, questioning it about its often complicated physical production, historical significance, changing ownership and serendipitous survival.

Hamel is the perfect companion, not only a brilliant palaeographer but also a warmly witty writer with a gift for lucid exposition and lively narrative. “The life of every ms,” he says, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge.” Mss he discusses at length range from the 6th-century Gospels of St Augustine (belonging to an era when a new Christian literacy was emerging from the collapse of Ancient Rome) to the 16th-century Spinola Hours (a gorgeously illustrated work, embodying a culture of high Renaissance luxury).

As I read his book, it occurred to me that some of my own earliest “publications” were childish versions of the kind of production that de Hamel celebrates. Hand-written and hand-illustrated, co-authored with one of my primary school classmates, they testify to the immense pleasure that the physical making of a book can yield.

Looking at them now, I recognise how tritely formulaic they are, how full of verbal and visual stereotypes. But those home-made thrillers were also amateur in a better sense: we loved the process of putting them together ourselves. Nostalgically I salute here The Valley of the Headhunters, Pioneers of Space, The Creeps of Crumbly Castle and our other humble latter-day examples of the art of the illustrated manuscript.

Though we produced those little books of our own accord and primarily for our own enjoyment, they did reach a wider audience: an indulgent teacher read them aloud to our school class. In this respect, too, our publication method echoed what had been normal practice in the Middle Ages, when the literate few gave voice to words on the page for the benefit of groups of listeners.

Did any readers of this blog have similar childhood experiences of hand-producing books?

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:

HANGING ON

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

1.

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.

2.

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: www.asauthors.org

 

[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.