Writers need discerning friends

Though writing is largely a solo activity, even the most experienced authors need appreciative responses from at least a few readers after a book emerges into the world. Without this occasional encouragement it would be hard to sustain the effort to go on writing.

Book reviews in media outlets traditionally helped to meet that need. But now that nearly all newspapers and magazines have imposed drastic cuts on their review space, many worthy books get scant public attention. There would often be a deathly post-publication silence if it weren’t for thoughtful comments by discerning friends.

Such comments are especially valuable when they come from accomplished fellow-writers who can be trusted to read with insight. Does friendship impede their judgment or lead to mere flattery? Unlikely. Tact doesn’t require them to say things they don’t mean. And after all, total objectivity can’t be guaranteed in any circumstances. Published reviews by purportedly independent critics may sometimes be coloured by undisclosed personal attitudes (friendly or unfriendly) towards an author.

In the lull following the launch of my new novel I’ve felt heartened by messages from several writer-friends. Without hesitation they have agreed to let me quote some of their comments here — which also gives me, in turn, an opportunity to mention appreciatively a few of the many things I admire in their own writings.

At an early stage there had already been encouraging evaluations of my manuscript. Among the people I asked to read A Thousand Tongues and tell me whether it seemed fit for submission was Dave Whish-Wilson. Dave had previously sought my opinion of the ms of his fine historical novel The Coves, so I solicited this reciprocal favour. Of all his books, I like The Coves best. Its storyline sustains a strong momentum, evoking mid-19th-century San Francisco’s ugly outpost of Australian gold-diggers with unforgettable power. The language is replete with acrid smells and gruesome sights of that frontier world in all its raucous, rancorous violence, and the young central character is surrounded by a great rogues gallery of mostly unsavoury adults.

To my delight, Dave had this to say about A Thousand Tongues:

What a pleasure it was to read your ms, and what a fascinating story set over three different but linked eras. Not an easy job to manage, and hold it all together! For this reader the structure is working perfectly. As well, I thought all of the characterisation was spot on, as was the integration of what must have been a significant amount of research into the different story strands.

Subsequently the person I asked to launch my book was Paul Genoni, co-author with Tanya Dalziell of Half the Perfect World — a really absorbing account of the talented international bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s and 1960s, in which Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston were pivotal figures. (The book’s cover shows them in the company of Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen, who also lived on Hydra; its title comes from one of Cohen’s songs.) Fittingly, Half the Perfect World has recently won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction, and will soon be made into a film.

In his launch speech (which can be read in full here), Paul praised my novel in terms that made the long toil of creating it seem worthwhile:

A Thousand Tongues carries all the hallmarks of Ian’s three previous novels—it is impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner. Ian is working at the top of his craft, and to my mind it is remarkable that this intricately crafted novel has been delivered in such a compact and constantly engaging form.

A few days after the launch I received a message from Nick Hasluck, one of Western Australia’s most eminent writers. I hold his work in high regard, and especially admire Our Man K, a novel that revolves around real-life Czech journalist Egon Kisch, who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Nick’s portrayal of Kisch imagines his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (whose own character ‘K’ becomes linked to Kisch), and also with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Like all Nick’s fiction, it is thoughtful and cleverly shaped. So I value his comments on my work:

I have now finished reading A Thousand Tongues and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your style, as always, is perfectly suited to the mood and theme of the story. Likewise, the historical background and related research were of considerable interest to me and handled deftly. The combination of these qualities is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary Australian fiction so, upon closing the book, I felt hugely rewarded.

Another leading fiction-writer in this state, Brenda Walker, has continued to express enthusiasm for my work since she saw a draft of the first novel a decade ago, and I’ve been buoyed up by her loyal support. Her own World War 1 story The Wing of Night made a big impression on me. It draws with great skill on a range of historical resources to create a moving tale about those who fought and those they left behind, evoking beautifully the resonance of linked events and the mystery of character. Within a few days of obtaining a copy of A Thousand Tongues, Brenda sent me this upbeat email:

I’m carefully reading your elegant book — very much enjoying the slight formality of the writing and the interesting shifts in time and location…. I think you have every reason to feel wonderful about this book and the next!

Also based in Perth is Tangea Tansley, but her books reflect the fact that she has lived in many parts of the world. These include the Middle East, where Out of Place is set, and Africa, the location for A Question of Belonging. I found the latter novel particularly memorable for its unflinching way of depicting the plight of a young widowed woman trying to maintain her independence on an isolated farm against the background of the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. I was very pleased to get an email from her about A Thousand Tongues:

Just to congratulate you on your lovely book. Your clever choice of epigraphs, which led so smoothly into the braiding of past and present, was right up my street. A book to savour in the reading and ponder thereafter. Very well done.

Another friend, Professor Bob White, is a distinguished literary scholar with an international reputation, especially for his numerous critical studies of Shakespeare. When I was at an early stage of developing my novel I read his wide-ranging book Pacifism and English Literature. Its discussion of Shakespeare’s attitudes to war and peace gave me much food for thought. So the following message from Bob about A Thousand Tongues delighted me:

A great pleasure to read. I admire the way you interweave so many strands together while keeping them all clear; and there are powerful moments. Thanks for the memorable literary experience, and keep writing!

Ken Spillman and I became acquainted when we were both guests at the same literary festival a few years ago, and discovered a number of common interests. He began his writing career as a historian, and then moved into the creation of books for children. Ken is probably best known for his series of Jake stories, which are immensely popular with young readers in several countries, but of his many books the one that stands out for me is an allegorical fable called The Circle. Every sentence in The Circle is beautifully balanced. Knowing that Ken is such an exemplary stylist, I was particularly happy that he said this about A Thousand Tongues:

It really is exceedingly well written — there’s a great eye for detail and your prose is so polished.

I’ve known Andrew Taylor well and admired his poetry for many years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the long-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978… It’s been a long association. Many of his poems have stayed with me, but I have a special fondness for those collected in one of his relatively recent books, Impossible Preludes. It contains beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness. Over the years, Andrew has kept a friendly eye on my own poetry and fiction, making lots of encouraging comments. While reading this latest novel, he sent me an interim message, describing it as “utterly engrossing … powerful and confronting.” And then, after finishing the novel:

A Thousand Tongues is very impressive. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, nor does it need to be. It’s a relentless exploration of what is conscience and its varied consequences, and you play that out within an extraordinarily well-realised historical and geographical context. Well, contexts, because of the two fine frames. I was very impressed by the detail with which you establish all that, and when I saw your list of sources consulted I wondered how you had time to write the novel. I also like the way certain things are left without unnecessary explanation, such as the wall the conchies are forced to build, which underscores its pointlessness. Also the exploration of ancestry is not only very topical but also very well handled.

For my part, I’m deeply grateful for all these appreciative remarks from fellow-writers  about my new book — and for the pleasure that their own books have given to me. Writers need discerning friends!

4 thoughts on “Writers need discerning friends

  1. Hi there Ian,

    I have been meaning to order myself a copy of your latest to add to my Red Centre Reading Pile (!) I’ll be sure to give you a ‘heads up’ when I get through it.

    Very pleased that your work has had such endorsements from such perceptive quarters.

  2. Hi Ian
    I have just finished reading “A Thousand Tongues” and am impressed by the way in which you’ve been able to so cleverly weave the themes of conscience together across the different historical periods that you have examined. The book is especially prescient in the current political environment where there seems to be an increasing impetus to value fast solutions or opinions over a more nuanced approach to ethical considerations and human interactions. Bravo for tackling such difficult subject matter and at the same time creating a story that is an enjoyable read.

  3. Thank you, Iris. What you say about my novel gives me special satisfaction because I appreciate the nuances of character and theme in your own fiction. And I certainly agree that too much of the public “conversation” about difficult matters of ethics is merely opinionated, not properly deliberative.

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