Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

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…




Puss in Books

During the peak holiday season an injured cat dominated my life. On Xmas Day my grandson’s furry pet, having ventured onto a highway, was admitted with three pelvic fractures to a vet hospital and soon underwent surgery. For most of the next fortnight, until the ‘owner’ family returned from overseas, I spent many vigilant hours each day sitting beside this invalid, trying to administer medication, coax her to eat and drink, prevent her from licking or picking at the stitched wounds, etc.

Naturally my thoughts drifted idly through various depictions of cats in books.


Sometimes other cultural media disseminate what begins as literary material. Umpteen thousands of people who never read poetry have enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s versified portraits in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical settings.

As you probably recall, the whimsical gallery of whiskered characters includes Mr Mistoffelees the conjurer, who ‘produced seven kittens right out of a hat’; Macavity the elusive arch-criminal, ‘the bafflement of Scotland Yard’; and Gus the elderly theatre cat, who ‘suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.’ I first met them on the page, long before Cats was devised for the stage.

Unsurprisingly, cats feature in the work of several famous writers for children – among them Terry Pratchett, Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl and Lynley Dodd.


Some of these creatures have a repertoire of magical powers – as do Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire grinner in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, able to make itself invisible, and Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, a trickster whose tale liberated early childhood language learning 60 years ago from the inanity of Dick-&-Jane primers while exemplifying the value of phonics in reading.

And let’s not forget that master of deceit who cunningly presides over one of the best-known fairy tales, Puss in Boots.

 800px-Édition_Curmer_(1843)_-_Le_Chat_botté_-_1Puss in Boots is of French origin (appearing in Charles Perrault’s 17th-century compilation of traditional tales), and French writers seem to be especially impressed by cats. An example that comes to mind is La Chatte (1933) by French novelist Colette, which presents a love triangle: a woman, her husband and his Chartreux cat. The cat wins, of course.

Then there’s the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire, so infatuated with cats that when visiting a household he would often devote his attention entirely to the resident cat and ignore its human companions. His famous book Les Fleurs du Mal includes three cat poems, one of which I’ve just been re-reading, trying my hand at a translation of its final two stanzas, wrestling with the challenge of retaining their pattern of tetrameter quatrains, rhymed abba:

Quand mes yeux, vers ce chat que j’aime
Tirés comme par un aimant,
Se retournent docilement
Et que je regarde en moi-même,

Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales
Qui me contemplent fixement.

When drawn towards this cat I love
as if magnetically, my gaze
Turns inward in obedient ways
To look upon myself, then move

The line of my astonished sight
Back to those pale but glowing eyes,
Like living opals, which surprise
And fix me in their beacon light.

Baudelaire’s American counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe, was similarly preoccupied with depression and depravity, macabre stories, unorthodox sexuality, and feline companions. As a child I read his sinister story ‘The Black Cat’ and it scared me. A Perth writer, my friend Brenda Walker, has explored some of these themes in her unusual novel Poe’s Cat.

Being over-fond of cats may make some of us seem a bit crazy, but of all animals they’re perhaps best equipped to provide solace in one’s madness. In the mid-18th century, Christopher Smart’s sole companion during years of incarceration for insanity was his cat Jeoffry, to whom Smart devoted part of his idiosyncratic pseudo-Hebraic poem Jubilate Agno. Among other attributes, Jeoffry is admired for his ‘mixture of gravity and waggery’, and for the way he enjoys ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.’ There is, Smart observes, ‘nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest’ and ‘nothing brisker than his life when in motion.’


I have a cat friend just like that. These days, in her maturity, she’s more often ‘at rest’ than ‘in motion.’

And she’s a suitable companion for a writer because of her bookish inclination.

Like, don’t like, and the quality of literary reviewing

How would you rate the quality of literary reviewing and criticism in Australia today? If you count all the brief opinion pieces by bloggers and contributors to sites such as Goodreads, there’s certainly a huge amount of it around us. But does it do what it should?


Last week The West Australian printed a stimulating article on this topic by William Yeoman, the newspaper’s book editor. Its main point of reference is James Ley’s recent book The Critic in the Modern World, which discusses half a dozen influential literary critics from Samuel Johnson to James Wood with an emphasis on their public role.

Ley, editor of the excellent online periodical Sydney Review of Books and recipient of this year’s Pascall Prize for Criticism, remarks that in contrast to the work of those exemplary figures ‘the present glut of literary commentary is unworthy of the name criticism’ because ‘it takes the form of assertion rather than analysis. It shrinks the expansive notion of judgment to mere personal evaluation.’

Ley tells Yeoman that ‘a lot of what passes for reviewing’ shows no intellectual engagement with the work in question. It’s little more than a statement about what someone likes or doesn’t like.

Why does this matter? In my view, a big problem with the like/don’t like focus of so many reviews (powerfully reinforced by countless Facebook thumbings) is simply this: it encourages readers, and therefore some publishers, to give priority to the kinds of writing that are gratifying to consume and therefore commercially attractive. I’m reminded of a remark in the opening essay of Jonathan Franzen’s book Farther Away:

The striking thing about all consumer products is that they’re designed to be immensely likeable…in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it.

The latter, he says, is exemplified by ‘serious art and literature.’

The Australian literary scene certainly isn’t devoid of intelligent, well-informed writing about newly published work. Admirable reviews by critics such as Richard King, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Delia Falconer, Susan Sheridan, Nicholas Jose and Peter Pierce come immediately to mind. (They all write for Sydney Review of Books.) But critics of that calibre are not numerous, and so a serious writer must anticipate the all too possible mischance of seeing one’s book reviewed by someone incompetent whose lens for reading is hardly more than like/don’t like. Yeoman quotes Sonya Hartnett’s recent comment on this problem:

You don’t spend two years of your life on something to have it reviewed by someone who is not particularly professional – a professional shouldn’t be reviewed by a non-professional.

When I pause to consider what truly ‘professional’ reviewing should mean, I can see that in general (acknowledging honourable exceptions such as those mentioned above) there’s a real deficiency in most Australian critical practice. Even our major bookish periodicals seldom show much awareness of a shared context of traditional literary culture that could reliably guide interpretation and evaluation of new works. For the most part the frame of reference for a book review tends to be narrowly contemporary. It seems that many critics are just not familiar enough with a wide range of notable past writings to be able to recognise the often subtle ways in which a new text engages with prior texts as part of an ongoing conversation. Many years ago in his classic essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T.S. Eliot remarked that innovative writing involves a fusion of past and present. Too few reviewers nowadays seem equipped to apply that principle to their task.

Meanwhile the spread of ‘citizen reviewing’ through social media may seem a healthy corrective to what some perceive as elite coterie criticism. But on the other hand informal amateur reviews are often tendentious, producing a welter of indiscriminately enthusiastic fan-based friend-linked boosterism which almost drowns out any serious sustained attempts at independent critical judgment. So we should be especially grateful for those few who swim against the populist tide, not least James Ley and the best contributors to his Sydney Review of Books.

At the end of his review essay in last week’s West Australian, William Yeoman invited responses to the topic with the intention of printing some of them on his book page in next Tuesday’s edition (26 August). I’ll be watching that space.