All posts by Ian

Ask an author – FAQ #1: How do you know when it’s finished?

img_5171That’s a question often put to writers, and there’s no snappy answer.

I’m confident that my fourth novel, now in the hands of my agent, is ready for publication – but what is this confidence in its readiness based on? And am I really sure?

Perhaps ‘finished’ isn’t an absolute state. I can see some truth in the aphorism that ‘a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.’ (That’s W.H. Auden’s paraphrase of a remark by Paul Valéry – though some attribute the same thought to Leonardo da Vinci.) The process of rewriting can seem indefinite, as Eliot’s Prufrock reflects:

       …time yet for a hundred indecisions,

and for a hundred visions and revisions…

Many writers are familiar with the sinking feeling that comes when they reluctantly recognise that a story or poem still needs further work after they thought they had brought it to completion. Sometimes this painful moment of belated insight comes just after the premature baby has been presented to a magazine or competition.

Before submitting something for publication, even the most accomplished author usually sends off a draft manuscript to a few ‘critical friends’ for comment, people equipped and willing to make a discerning assessment and be frank about their opinions. I always do this (tending at the time to persuade myself that the ms is actually in great shape already, so my critical friends will be unable to do much more than applaud) – and then, almost immediately, I see some flaws that must be fixed. It’s as if the act of releasing one’s precious creature brings a sudden surge of anxiety, which opens one’s eyes to things that require urgent revision.

Here’s a specific instance: when I dispatched this latest book-length ms of mine to one of the fellow-writers who had generously agreed to read it, I said in a nonchalant accompanying note that it was coming to him a bit earlier than he’d anticipated because I knew I’d ‘keep fiddling retentively with my draft novel’ if I didn’t put it in his hands without further ado. But did that stop me? A few days later I had a spasm of regret, and had to follow up with a sequel message: ‘I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t stop myself from going back to it after sending the draft to you, and sure enough I can see a few glaring problems already…’

He responded with kindly reassurance: ‘Ha, I always do that too Ian (although where would we be without our obsessiveness?).’

So at once I sent him a revised version. And he liked it! Phew…




Not dead yet

Predictions about the demise of the ‘Book Launch’ ritual may have been unduly pessimistic. Nearly three years ago, in one of my first blog posts, I referred to an article in the ASA magazine Australian Author by Miriam Cosic, who saw book launches as an endangered species, ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing,’ and remarked that publishers and even some writers doubted their value.

But since then this traditional way of celebrating the issue of a new title seems to have had a comeback, at least here in Perth, especially for publications by small presses. Last year’s launch event for my novel The Mind’s Own Place brought together a cheerful crowd and resulted in a good number of sales on the night, thanks in large measure to the efforts of UWA Publishing stalwarts Terri-ann White and Charlotte Guest.

And in the last week I’ve attended two very successful launch events organised by other Perth-based publishers.


Andrew at his book launch (Centre for Stories, Northbridge)

Margaret River Press has made its first venture into poetry with the release of Andrew Taylor’s 16th selection, Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014. Fellow-poet Dennis Haskell launched the book eloquently at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, and it was a thoroughly pleasant occasion. I’ve known Andrew well and admired his poetry for more than forty years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the still-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978, and so on… It’s been a long association, beginning when we were appointed simultaneously to junior academic positions in Adelaide and continuing when we both moved (separately) to senior academic positions in Perth more than 20 years later. We’ve kept in contact with each other’s writing. So I was delighted to be present for last week’s celebration of his new book. It contains many beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness.


Dave at his launch (Buffalo Club, Freo). Note the buffalo headgear behind the author.

A couple of evenings ago I went along to another lively launch: David Whish-Wilson’s third crime novel, Old Scores, published by Fremantle Press. My friendship with Dave doesn’t have such a long history. His non-fiction book Perth attracted my respectful attention in 2014, and then we met last year when he accepted my invitation to join a panel of respondents following my public lecture as the 2015 Battye Memorial Fellow. Soon afterwards we were both guests of the Kimberley Writers Festival, and now we’ve become followers of each other’s work. Old Scores, which evokes the notoriously bad mad corrupt days of Perth and Fremantle in the early 1980s, was launched in an amusing speech by tyro parliamentarian Josh Wilson (a writer himself). The venue was a tradition-soaked Freo watering hole, The Buffalo Club. I’m glad to see that this novel features again the private investigator Frank Swann, who was at the centre of Dave’s previous novel Zero at the Bone, a fast-moving, gripping, tough-as-nails story that gave me plenty of enjoyment.

Good luck to these books, and to their authors – and long life to the launching ritual!

What would those convicts have thought?


town-hall-1I wonder what would they have thought, those convicts who built Perth’s Town Hall, if they had known that this feat of construction, along with their other work during the city’s early years, would be appreciatively discussed in a heritage forum held in that same venue a century and a half later?

I think they’d have felt some pride in their efforts, tinged perhaps with a sense of irony at the fact that the struggling Swan River Colony as they knew it back then did eventually turn into a prosperous economy – thanks in large measure to the labour they supplied.

This coming Sunday, 16 October at 12.30, as part of the weekend’s ‘Perth Heritage Days’ celebration, I’ll be on stage in the Perth Town Hall for a conversation about ‘Victorian Perth in Fact and Fiction,’ with particular reference to the colonial world represented in my novel The Mind’s Own Place. My interviewer/interlocutor will be the energetic Richard Offen, Executive Director of Heritage Perth.

If you’re in Perth this weekend, I’d be glad to see you at the event! Attendance is free but registration is requested for catering purposes. Copies of my novels will be available there for signing and sale at special cash discount prices.

The theme of this year’s Perth Heritage Days, ‘The Way We Worked’, is perfectly apt as a context for discussing The Mind’s Own Place. My novel traces the interlinked tales of a group of people, based on actual historical figures, who came separately to the coastal rim of Western Australia in the mid-19th century and contributed in different ways to the growth of settlement. Two are what we would now call ‘white-collar convicts’, bringing considerable skills to this corner of the world. One was trained as an architect and engineer; the other had a merchant background. Their experiences in and around Perth after their ticket-of-leave release into the workforce provide an illuminating insight into the world of colonial employment and commercial development.

The English teacher’s task? Yes, but…

What’s the main task of a school English teacher? Is it to ensure that the personal experience and familiar environment of students should be at the centre of their learning? According to a book published half a century ago but still influential, the answer is emphatically yes. While there’s some truth in that principle, the matter – in my view – is not so simple.

The book I’m referring to is John Dixon’s Growth Through English (1967), which has continued to motivate countless teachers since its first appearance. It took shape as a report on a famous trans-Atlantic conference held 50 years ago at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. This Dartmouth symposium brought together leading educators from England and North America to consider a perennially vexed question: What is English?

John Dixon’s book argued that English teaching should focus on ‘culture as the pupil knows it,’ affirming ‘attitudes to experience…[shaped by] family and neighbourhood.’ It’s easy to agree with him – up to a point. Certainly no teacher of English will cut much ice with students unless their classroom welcomes the personal knowledge, tastes and perceptions they bring to it from their own background.

Yes – but… Is that the be-all and end-all of English teaching? I don’t think so. Encouraging students to draw on what they already know and feel and think is part of the task. On the other hand, if their ‘personal growth’ is to be a meaningful goal, it’s just as necessary that a teacher should help them go beyond the familiar, reframing their experience of their own world by introducing them to worlds elsewhere.

Often in the lives of most present-day adolescents there is much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. To recognise this constriction is not, of course, to dismiss their world or the kinds of texts that mirror everyday realities and topical tribulations in which the young students are already immersed – stories that engage directly with their own experience, their own values. No doubt such stories (whether told on the page or on the screen) may contribute to clarifying what they feel, alleviating their worries, freeing their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for a teenager to enter richly imagined worlds elsewhere through the doorway of well-crafted narrative that is not set in their own time and place.

Consider how important this factor was in the early life of Charles Dickens. He grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but literature enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured stories about worlds elsewhere: tales of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he wandered around the house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. His comment about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent: ‘They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.’

For Dickens, personal experience could be stifling and cheerless; but reading literature could be liberating. So too for many school students today – yet this is something that the author and disciples of Growth Through English don’t always acknowledge sufficiently. Dixon was critical of what he labelled a ‘cultural heritage’ attitude to literature, arguing that it tends to be a dead hand on the young learner’s imagination because it gives priority to the written word rather than to speech. Well, doesn’t that depend on how it’s taught and studied?

An earlier blog post of mine provoked lively debate about some of these issues, and you may find the exchange of comments worth reading. Two respected British educators, John Yandell and Monica Brady, both broadly aligned with Dixon’s position, thought that I was attaching undue significance to the study of literature in English classrooms, and failing to recognise the need to engage with popular texts (e.g. films such as The Wire) closer to the students’s current interests. I contended that, while it’s vital to encourage personal responses to diverse texts in different media (as I’ve argued in many publications over a long period), it’s also vital to ensure that literature doesn’t get pushed aside, because it can use language in distinctively valuable ways.

Thanks partly to John Dixon and to others who have reinforced and refined his arguments, most classrooms these days do place much more emphasis on the individual learner’s experience, language and values than was the case before the late 1960s. This is potentially a change for the better – but it can also be for the worse, if it deters teachers from challenging  students with a rich variety of textual experiences that take them outside the comfort zone of their home territory.


Help to repel an assault on Australian writing

IMG_4888Since its inception more than half a century ago  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has gained very substantial benefits for this country’s writers, and so for readers of Australian literature as well. Right now its efforts are more crucially important than ever, because Australian writing is under heavy assault.

As its current slogan proclaims, the acronym ASA could just as well stand for the range of services that this organisation offers to literary practitioners: Advocacy/Support/Advice.

Fair copyright licence provisions and public lending right legislation are among its most impressive and tangible achievements.

I’ve written appreciatively about the ASA in a previous post. At this moment it’s in the spotlight as it valiantly fights the good fight against potentially disastrous measures proposed by the Productivity Commission, particularly a recommendation to remove existing restrictions on parallel importation of books. Anyone who cares about the future of Australian writing should take heed – and take action!

(In what follows I’ve abridged a statement sent recently to ASA members by its CEO, Juliet Rogers. I do so with her permission and in my capacity as an ASA Board Director.)

On Friday 23 September the Productivity Commission will deliver to the Commonwealth Government its final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements. It is unlikely to change the recommendations of its draft report, which would have these drastic effects:

The ASA is working with the Australian Publishers Association to submit to the government within the next few weeks a joint petition protesting against these changes . Although it already contains more than 16,000 signatures, there’s an urgent need to add as many signatories as possible so that politicians with the power to influence this decision receive a strong message.

Some loyal readers of Australian books are still not aware of what’s at stake. If you’re in that category, please go to the information links highlighted above – and then consider sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and a State Senator expressing your concerns.

Some Australian writers haven’t yet signed the ASA petition. If you’re in that category, please do so without delay by following this link. And if you’re not a member of the Australian Society of Authors, NOW is a very good time to join this vital organisation.

ASA colour logo

By the way, if you live in or near Perth you may like to attend an event on Thursday 15 September at the State Library of WA Theatre, 6-8 pm: Juliet Rogers, CEO of the ASA, will talk about ‘The Business of Writing.’ This overview of current challenges, hazards and opportunities for writers is sponsored by WritingWA – a great example of the kind of partnership in which both WritingWA and the ASA have excelled. It’s a free event, open to all, but registration is required.



Pleased to meet you

ian reid at bookcaffe 1

Writing is an incomplete activity. For the most part, using language has a communicative purpose, and writing doesn’t fully become an act of communication until someone reads it. Of course you can write purely to ‘express yourself,’ but most people wouldn’t see much point in being the sole reader of what you’ve written unless it’s just a shopping list or similarly ephemeral memo to yourself. When a well-considered piece of writing (poem, story, or whatever) circulates publicly, it becomes a medium through which readers can ‘meet’ its author.

That’s one kind of interpersonal encounter, though it’s an indirect one: at most, words on the page simply allow a reader to imagine the individual who produced the words. And because we’re curious creatures, we frequently want more than a mediated encounter-at-a-distance. We’d like to communicate in person, hear the author speak, ask the author questions, exchange remarks face to face.

Direct contact with readers may be an uncomfortable experience for some authors – not surprisingly: in some cases the impulse to write is associated with shyness about oral communication, while in other cases an author takes the principled view that a written work should speak for itself.

At any rate, many readers do want to hear an author talk about his or her books, so only a few rare literary birds (Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger…) can afford to be reclusive. Appearances at literary festivals, promotional talks and readings – these are routine obligations for most writers, who are well aware that their readers (prospective or already engaged) generally expect to have access to conversations with them.

A friend of mine, Brenton Doecke, has recently drawn my attention to an essay by German critic Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller,’ which meditates on historical changes in the way that narratives circulate. Traditionally, Benjamin remarks, someone would share a story with listeners (families, friends, workmates) who in turn often reframed it in terms of their own experience and passed it on to others. This communal chain of storytelling was gradually replaced, he says, by literary narration, tending to create a ‘dependence on the book’ – a dependence that separates author from readers, and readers from one another. It occurs to me that the desire of many readers to meet authors and fellow readers face to face, and discuss books together, may be partly motivated by a wish to restore a social dimension to the telling and interpretation of stories.

At any rate, I enjoy meeting readers in person and talking about my books. I hope this isn’t  just a form of self-parading vanity. I’d like to think that, whatever value it may have for the people who come along to these sessions, it has a beneficial effect on my writing by keeping me in touch with the interests and tastes of my readership.

During the year since publication of The Mind’s Own Place, I’ve met and talked with groups of actual or potential readers of my work on more than 30 occasions. These encounters include sessions at literary festivals, recorded media interviews, formal presentations to many different gatherings (various literary and historical societies, library groups, English teacher associations and other professional bodies…), plus less formal discussions at book clubs, writing workshops with school classes, and so on.

Coming up in the weeks ahead are several more meetings of different kinds: a Literary High Tea on a university campus, a talk hosted by the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a regional literary festival, a public conversation as part of the next Perth Heritage celebration… You can find the details here, and I’d be delighted to see any of my readers at any of these forthcoming events.

So although writing is done in solitude, a writer’s life can be intensively social. For me it’s a pleasure to encounter some of my readers in person. But virtual encounters are also important: I welcome the occasional exchanges that take place on this website, especially as some of the comments that come in are from people I’ve never met face to face.

English teachers who ‘don’t care about literature’?


Should it be troubling to hear an experienced and influential English teacher-educator, one who has written thoughtfully about students’ engagement with literary texts in the classroom, say that ultimately he doesn’t much care about the study of literature? That he thinks school students can get sufficient imaginative sustenance from TV dramas like The Wire?

Well, it does trouble me.

Last week I gave a couple of presentations as a keynote speaker at a combined national conference, held in Adelaide, of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE, whose members are mostly secondary teachers) and the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA, mainly primary school teachers). Another keynote speaker was a British guest, John Yandell, who in the course of one of his talks made the remark I’ve quoted.

John is a respected figure in the field of English education. He taught in inner London schools for 20 years before moving to the internationally prestigious Institute of Education at University College London, where he has worked since 2003. John edits the well-regarded journal Changing English (to which I’ve contributed this year) and is the author of The Social Construction of Meaning: reading literature in urban English classrooms – a persuasive ethnographic analysis of ways in which multi-cultural working-class groups of students interpret the writings of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and others. John’s work is always stimulating.

I can’t convey here a properly judicious indication of John’s views, either as distilled in his publications or as expressed orally at this conference. But his startling remark quoted above is well worth pondering, even out of context. It’s a salutary provocation, at least. Could it be true that some of us care too much about literature? Perhaps, having grown up in the days when the printed word was still unchallenged as the dominant storytelling medium, we’ve remained unduly attached to assumptions about its enduring primacy?

Certainly it would be perverse to deny that contemporary TV and cinema often present exceptionally compelling drama. The best of it grips my attention as strongly as anyone else’s. John Yandell mentioned The Wire, and there have been many other unforgettable films and mini-series in recent years – often made overseas (such as The Bridge in Denmark, Broadchurch in the UK and Homeland in the USA), though the ABC telemovie of Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore is an outstanding local example. Is John justified, then, in suggesting that these powerful stories can provide a substitute for literary texts, and in seeming to imply that the latter no longer need figure in the English curriculum?

There’s no doubt that the screen medium gives ample scope for complex characterisation, lively dialogue, suspenseful plotting and memorable visual imagery. So why am I troubled by a proposition that the experience these offer is equivalent to the best work in literary genres – the poem, the novel, the short story, the memoir and the rest? Because the primary medium of screen drama is the visual image, while the primary medium of literature is language itself. Words constitute the foreground, the focus. And more than anything else, it’s with the subtleties of language that school students most need to engage. Language is power. In being encouraged and helped to understand its liberating potential, students will be better equipped to take control of their future lives. Through the reading of literature, they can become attuned to the full range of linguistic resources. Literature embodies language not just in the form of fast-paced dialogue accompanying spectacular screen events and effects, but also in other forms: quietly meditative language, stylistically ingenious language, rhetorically elaborate language, rhythmically forceful language, the language of nuanced narrative exposition, language that is lambent or shadowy, supple or tight-packed, allusive or elusive…

Am I mistaken?

Why Monsieur Parizot made a fuss

Victor Parizot was refusing to pay his bill.

He hadn’t intended, on that evening in 1849, to create a scene at his local Parisian restaurant; the meal and musical entertainment were enjoyable. But when, to his surprise, the small orchestra played a particular piece of music with which he was thoroughly familiar, he decided to stand up for his rights. It was one of his own compositions and he thought he should be recompensed for its use. ‘I’ll pay for my dinner,’ he told the waiter, ‘when I’m paid for my music.’

The ensuing dispute went to court, where the composer won his case, thus establishing that the creator of a work of art deserves remuneration when it’s publicly used. A further century would pass before the principle of performing rights became extended to lending rights for authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries, and in our country Public Lending Right legislation was not enacted until 1985, after many years of dogged campaigning by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). It almost happened a decade earlier: Gough Whitlam’s bill to provide an administrative framework for PLR was scheduled for tabling in parliament on 11 November 1975 – the day of his government’s dismissal.

S&SThe scheme of PLR payment to authors, based on the number of library loans of their books, is just one of the great achievements by the ASA since its foundation more than half a century ago. I’ve recently been reading Status and Sugar: A History of the Australian Society of Authors 1963-2013, by Stephany Steggall, in which I read about Monsieur Parizot’s dispute and many other instructive episodes from the past. As one who has benefited materially from PLR, from fees for licensed copying, and from several other business arrangements designed to protect writers, I have good reason to be deeply grateful to this fine organisation.

Writers in Australia today face serious challenges, and need more than ever the advocacy and practical support provided by the ASA. Some of those challenges dominated discussion at the ASA’s Annual General Meeting held last weekend in Sydney, which I attended in my capacity as a newly appointed Director on its Board of Management. It was sobering to hear about the likely impact of recent developments such as the release of the Productivity Commission’s wrongheaded draft report on Australia’s intellectual property arrangements.

The so-called ‘Fair Use’ exception to existing copyright provisions, which the report recommends be introduced, would be culturally and economically damaging for Australia, and would rob individual authors of a legitimate source of income from copying fees. For a summary of problems that would ensue if this report were to be adopted by government, see what the Copyright Agency has to say.

The Commission also recommends the repeal of restrictions on the Parallel Importation on Books. This is a more complicated and contested topic. On the one hand it seems to some commentators that the current restrictions are anti-competitive, protecting local publishers at the expense of readers. But for a contrary view, see Thomas Keneally’s remarks in the Australian Financial Review.

You can expect vigorous public combat and private lobbying on these matters during the federal election campaign. And you can rely on the ASA to be in the thick of it. If you’re an established or aspiring writer but are not a member of the ASA, do consider joining so that you can contribute to and benefit from a vital organisation devoted to promoting and protecting the professional interests of literary creators. Its website  contains information about different categories of membership and the various services provided.

Memory loss and retrieval


Any visitor to an aged-care home knows that chronic forgetfulness, in its extreme form, is severely disabling. Few things are sadder than the bewilderment of a person no longer able to make connected sense of a series of events, no longer able to bring past knowledge to bear on present situations. Losing the capacity to remember can eventually betoken dementia and the dissolution of individual identity.

Ironically, total recall is also disabling; and this phenomenon, though much less common, sheds light on the nature of memory. It’s the theme of ‘Funes the Memorious,’ a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Because of a brain injury the character called Funes cannot forget any detail of what he perceives. He is cursed to carry all of it vividly in his head forever – an intolerable burden because he is entirely immersed in the accumulated particulars, unable to generalise or be selective, and therefore unable to interpret his world. So his prodigious aptitude is significantly different from memory, which sorts, arranges and weaves, creating a narrative structure through which experience acquires meaning.

What is true of individual identity is also true of social identity. Researchers working across disciplines have shown how personal and group memory become intertwined in a psychological process fundamental to history and culture. If a civilisation loses its memory, forgetting or repressing fundamental experiences that have collectively shaped it in the past, it will tend to fall apart; and if on the other hand it becomes submerged in a cumulative mass of information without being able to discern meaningful narrative patterns in it, that too will cause its collapse.


Mnemosyne, Greco-Roman mosaic,    2nd c. AD, Antakya Museum

Memory has a more central importance in culture and in learning than we sometimes recognise. Ancient Greek mythology provides an insight into this matter. Our word mnemonic comes from the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, who had a pre-eminent cultural status: she was mother of the nine muses, including lyric and epic poetry, dance and music, tragedy and history. Seen as the inventor of language, Mnemosyne presided not only over writing but also over the practice of memorisation required to preserve stories in oral tradition.

With Mnemosyne in mind, I find myself at a point in life (probably not quite the end, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but well past the end of the beginning) where I often look back over roads I have travelled along and forking paths that have made me hesitate. Occasionally this remembering may be regretful or nostalgic, but for the most part it draws me into inquisitive reflection. I think about the functioning of memory, about how it informs narrative linkages between personal or professional trajectories and the larger meandering history of fields of study – particularly about continuity and change in the subject called English. I recall pivotal moments in my working life, ponder conscious and unconscious decisions I made, trace the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of choosing this option rather than that. Back there in the past I see crooked lines of stepping stones (some seemed at the time to be obstacles) across which I made my stumbling way as a student, teacher, curriculum reformer, author. I glance over my shoulder at the different genres of the things I have written, trying to reconstruct a chain of circumstances that motivated me to produce those various books and articles and other items. Retrospection leads me to ask how I happened to wander into English teaching; why so much of my energy, over the decades, has been invested in language, literacy and literature; why I never confined my activities to one sector of education but kept engaging with schools as well as with universities; why I turned my productive efforts from poetry to polemics, from literary theory and cultural history to the writing of novels…

[The musings reproduced above are the opening paragraphs of an essay I was invited to contribute to the just-published issue (23.2) of the British educational journal Changing English.]

Like death at the door


In his book Untimely Interventions, the venerable Australian-born and USA-based literary theorist Ross Chambers (one of my mentors) discusses what he calls testimonial writing. He defines this as an edgy form of literature that bears witness to historical traumas, calling the dead to life and calling on the living not to forget them. Its subject matter can be any painful episode in modern social history that’s hard to confront, ‘haunting the periphery of our safe and protected world like death at the door.’ Testimonial writing insists on remembering what it would be easier for us to repress. Chambers observes:

‘National cultures, these days, seem increasingly aware of the sense in which they are haunted, both by past atrocities and by the continuing injustices those atrocities have spawned.’

The examples he lists include Germany struggling to deal with its guilt over the Holocaust and with resurgent neo-fascism; France trying to lay the ghosts of its Vichy past; the USA living with the long aftermath of slavery and the Civil War; South Africa facing the legacy of apartheid; Israel confronting the realities of co-existence with displaced Palestinians; Australia and many other countries still dogged by the consequences of colonialism.

1624165Remarking that ‘as the “original” witnesses and survivors age and die, new means of regenerating their witness will have to be found,’ Chambers discusses the instance of Pat Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration, part of a trilogy set in England during the last year of World War 1. Its storyline testifies not only to the slaughter of huge numbers of soldiers on both sides, especially in trenches of the western front, but also to the difficulty of reporting back truthfully from the war zone to those in England. By incorporating episodes from the real-life wartime experiences of writers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and depicting their attempts to devise a new poetic idiom that would express without lyrical evasion the horror of this brutal conflict and its lingering aftermath, this novel evokes the condition of ‘perpetually surviving a trauma that is never over.’ Much of the action takes place in a hospital for shell-shocked officers, which becomes symbolic of Britain itself, physically isolated from the battlefront but haunted by its pain despite strenuous efforts to forget.

Chambers sees Pat Barker’s Regeneration as exemplifying the increasingly important role of historical fiction in ensuring we retain the kind of cultural memory that testifies to what humanity has suffered. This insight helps me to understand why in recent years I’ve devoted most of my energies as a writer to novels set in times past, especially to experiences of bitter hardship.

Beyond ‘Juvenile’ and ‘Young Adult’ Books

IMG_4003The quantity of books marketed as ‘Juvenile’ or ‘Young Adult’ (YA) Fiction seems larger than ever, but do these categories cater adequately for teenage readers? It’s a question worth posing in the light of three things I’ve just been reading: an accomplished novel, a remark by a champion of books for the young, and a reminiscence by Charles Dickens.

Duncan Mackay’s Storm Callers (Fremantle Press) appealed to me when it came out in 2007 and still seems a fine example of what a skilled writer can achieve within the framework of Juvenile or YA fiction. Its two main characters, on the brink of high school, meet in a beachside caravan park during their summer holidays, and make some discoveries together – including discoveries about themselves.

Picking up my copy of the book again after a few years, I found tucked inside it a printout of my email exchange with the author, in which I’d tried to convey what particular qualities I appreciated. As a re-reading hasn’t changed my mind, I’ll summarise here some of the things I said to Duncan about those first impressions – and then I want to step back from this particular book and reflect generally on the kinds of reading that I regard as valuable for teenage readers.

The structure of Storm Callers creates a strong momentum: it begins in an engaging way and moves to a satisfying ending. (More about the ending shortly.) The characters are convincing, too. They evoke memories (distant in my case!) of what it’s like to be pubescent – the surge and ebb of enthusiasms, all the social awkwardness, the impulsive fabrications, the flaring and fading of friendships. The language is entirely appropriate, successfully managing the considerable stylistic challenge of filtering everything through the consciousness of a not-very-articulate boy.

What I found especially impressive was the tactful manner in which the story’s implications are lifted to a level above the prosaic. Mythological allusions are introduced without strain. It’s risky for the author of a realistic tale about adolescents in our time and place to refer not only to classical deities but also to biblical motifs, but Storm Callers does so quite convincingly, gesturing towards an archetypal theme – attaining knowledge of good and evil. This culminates in a movingly understated conclusion, with the final sentence faintly echoing phrases in the final lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

While revisiting Duncan Mackay’s book I was also prompted to think about the broad category of fiction for adolescents and mature children because I came across a not-very-recent online interview in which Monica Edinger discusses a book called A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She asks one of its editors, Roger Sutton, about his own early reading.

He says that from the age of about nine he read voraciously both adult books and children’s books, the great and the trashy alike. (That was true for me too, and probably for many who are reading this blog.) Sutton adds the following comment, which chimes with my own view:

I hope that today’s teen readers aren’t pushed away from adult books. While it is true that YA literature is wider and richer than ever before, it is largely restricted to coming-of-age themes, and sometimes you want to read about someone who has been there, done that, and moved on.

It’s illuminating, I suggest, to put that comment beside an eloquent reminiscence recorded by Charles Dickens. Dickens grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but books enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured at a tender age the stories of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he went around his house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. What he says about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent:

They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.

Often in the world of present-day pubescent and adolescent readers there is too much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. Certainly some stories that reflect everyday experiences and topical tribulations in which their teenage readers are already immersed may help to clarify what they feel, alleviate their worries, free their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for those readers to encounter grown-up fiction that is not set in their own place and time, not holding up a mirror to what and where they are but opening a doorway into richly imagined worlds elsewhere.

Books: a shrinking shelf life?

IMG_3991Books are getting more and more like loaves of bread.

Bakers and bread-sellers ply their trade in an increasingly crowded market, where all sorts of shops offer all sorts of of doughy products in larger quantities than ever before. Compounding their challenge is the fact that bread soon goes too stale to attract consumers, so unsold loaves must be removed from the retailer’s shelf within a day or two of baking.

With books, too, the clear trend is for a greater number to be published each year, while the turnover rate accelerates and the number being bought decreases. (Actually there may have been a recent pause in the pattern of declining unit sales, but they are still well down from their peak.)  So although a particular new book may seem, at least to its fond author, the best thing since sliced bread, its shelf life is likely to be just as pathetically brief. Book industry figures for publication and sales tell a discouraging story.

In 2014 (the most recent stats I’ve found) nearly 21,000 books of various kinds were published in Australia alone. That’s 400 each week! Though only a small proportion of these came from serious publishers producing multiple titles and using regular distribution channels, there’s no doubt that every link in the book chain from authors to readers is being overwhelmed by a glut.

A gigantic avalanche of loaves tumbling from bakery shelves? More like a publication tsunami. Taking a Darwinian view, you might think this swelling, swirling flood isn’t such a bad thing. Many books will sink, OK;  but won’t the fittest still swim and survive?

It’s probably not so simple. Saturation of the book market makes it harder and harder for a diverse range of fine new books, even work by highly accomplished writers, to get reviewed on the diminishing literary pages of major media. Similarly there’s such intense competition for a place on other publicity platforms, like gigs at literary festivals, that many potentially important titles won’t get a look-in. More often than ever before, a marketing ploy can eclipse merit.

Sure, a few will be fortunate enough to receive a fanfare of awards and acclaim, yet the welcoming moment will quickly be forgotten as another huge dumping wave of publications arrives, then another and another. Most authors learn to be grateful if they just avoid drowning.

We’ve all heard the sardonic forecast, attributed to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous – for 15 minutes each. Will this soon be the fate of even the most celebrated authors of the most successful books?

Against that sombre background, against the odds, it’s an occasion for rejoicing when a book shows some durability. There’s a special pleasure in seeing any of one’s publlications reissued after a lapse of years. I’m delighted that two of my critical studies will have their shelf life prolonged, decades after their first appearance. Narrative Exchanges, a work of literary theory that came out in 1992, has a new lease of life in the series ‘Routledge Revivals’, and I’ve just heard that my book on English teaching, The Making of Literature: Texts, Contexts and Classroom Practices, is soon to be made available in digital form 32 years after its print debut. The publisher, AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), tells me the book is continuing to generate ‘quite a bit of interest’ internationally. Its reappearance will be timely, as I’ve been invited to give keynote addresses on topics related to this book’s themes at forthcoming conferences of English teachers both at the state level (ETAWA, in Perth this May) and national level (AATE, in Adelaide in July).