What’s in a name?

Aspiring to literary stardom? Look at the program for next month’s Perth Writers Festival, and you may well feel an envious twinge when you see what a head start some writers seem to have in attracting attention: their radiant surnames are a publicist’s dream.

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In a couple of cases there’s an aura of inherited prestige. How wonderfully lucky, for instance, to be able to put ‘Nicholas Shakespeare’ on the cover of one’s books! Although his illustrious namesake’s character Juliet asks rhetorically ‘What’s in a name?’ and declares that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Nicholas S. must be well aware that his fragrant patronymic is something to conjure with. Fortunate fellow! Yet he has also earned a stellar reputation in his own right.

A recurrent theme in this latter-day Shakespeare’s work is the intersection of passion with politics. His best-known novels are probably Snowleg and The Dancer Upstairs, where the action takes place in (respectively) cold-war Germany and 1980s Peru, but three of his books have an Australian setting. The latest of these is a novella called Oddfellows.

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It’s based on a bizarre incident that occurred in Broken Hill exactly a century ago, when two local Muslims, raising a homemade Ottoman flag above their ice-cream cart, gunned down several picnickers before being killed themselves. Critics are likely to ask whether Shakespeare’s imagined version of an already well-documented tragic-comic episode adds much insight to what can readily be gleaned from the historical record. It’s a question any of us who write historical fiction should expect to face, accentuated in this case by the fact that Oddfellows is a very short book, less complex than this author’s fully-fledged novels in its plotting and characterisation.

Few literary names approach the luminosity of Shakespeare’s. One such is Wordsworth, partly because its assonantal syllables join language with value in a way that invites incantatory repetition. (How much less evocative is the name of the village, Wadsworth, from which the famous poet’s family line derived!)

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Alas, no Wordsworths figure on the program for next month’s PWF event, but among those scheduled to appear is John Marsden, one of Australia’s leading writers of fiction for adolescents, and the origins of his latest novel – his first for adult readers – surely have something to do with his resonant surname. The main character in South of Darkness, narrating his own story, is transported to Botany Bay as a young convict, and the author’s family tree includes a great-great-great-great uncle well known to colonial historians. Rev Samuel Marsden arrived in New South Wales as a passenger on a convict ship at about the same time as John Marden’s fictional character. It’s said that this notoriously harsh clergyman sentenced people to death on Friday, gave them communion at church on Sunday, and supervised their execution on Monday. Part of the impulse behind South of Darkness, I’d wager, is an authorial inquiry into – and exorcism of – that murky period in his family’s past, a bit like a fictionalised episode of the TV program Who Do You Think You Are?

If you don’t happen to inherit a notable name, it’s possible to invent a pseudonym. One of this year’s Festival guests, an expatriate Australian, devised for himself a quirky brand, a brand-new name: ‘DBC Pierre’ is more eye-catching than his given label, Peter Finlay. Or, like another writer featured on the Perth program (a virtual visitor, to appear by videolink), you can adopt a moniker from someone you know: Hilary Thompson chose to replace her unremarkable surname with something more distinctive, cloaking herself in the Mantel of her unofficial stepfather. Pierre’s most recent books are Petit Mal, a strange glossy-format jumble of fictional and nonfictional pieces along with cartoons and photographs, and a creepy novella called Breakfast with the Borgias. Mantel is best known for her whopping historical novels, but her latest book is a short-story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, its title piece being inspired by what the author calls her ‘boiling detestation’ of the former British PM. As that title reminds us, certain names on book covers and in other cultural productions can be arresting even when they don’t belong to an author. Margaret Thatcher’s ghost wanders across the titles of various books, plays, songs and television dramas, and references to her are continuing to haunt dozens more.

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On the list of writers coming to Perth are other Big Names from overseas along with a number of Australian writers making a name for themselves internationally.

This latter group includes the best-selling crime writer Michael Robotham, whose latest release is the thriller Life or Death. It also includes Rohan Wilson, who won The Australian-Vogel award for his first novel, set in early 19th-century Tasmania, and has now produced a sequel, To Name Those Lost, in  which the squalid, brutish world of Launceston and its surrounding district in the 1870s bristles with menace.

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And of course there are also New Names, such as the euphonious Miranda Richmond Mouillot, whose A Fifty-Year Silence relates how the author’s grandparents escaped from Nazi-occupied France but later came to grief, and reveals their story by tracing the author’s own quest to uncover the elusive truth of it.

Yet literary festivals, after all, are much more than celebrations of ‘name’ writers. As my former colleague Wenche Ommundsen observed some years ago in one of the few serious analyses of Australian literary festivals, what they really celebrate is a set of symbiotic relationships: between writing and reading, between aesthetic and commercial ways of framing literature, between the privacy of creative effort and the spotlight of public performance, between the culture of refined criticism and the arena of popular consumption.

The readers who attend in droves may be nameless, but they are not homogeneous. To each session they bring diverse tastes and motives. Some of them may be future writers; some may remain mute inglorious Miltons. But in any case there could be no literary events of this kind without them. As the chair for two of the sessions in Perth next month (one featuring Nicholas Shakespeare and Miranda Richmond Mouillot, the other John Marsden and Rohan Wilson), I’ll be keeping in mind the simple fact that it’s as much a Readers Festival as a Writers Festival.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I see you’ll be figuring in the PWF program too, Amanda. Hope to see you at or between some of the sessions.

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