Critics: Be nice, or get the knives out?

Standard

Recently I discovered a new website–one that, as a diehard fan of the printed word, has me salivating. It’s the Sydney Review of Books and it may be the reason why Not Much Gets Done in my little corner of the world for the next few weeks.

My attention was drawn to the Brain Feign in particular, mostly because at the moment I am reading All That I Am, the book Ben Etherington takes the hatchet to in this article. I have been reading the novel for some time now; last year it was on the bus to or from work, and more recently I’ve tried to fit it in where I can. (I try very hard to make time for reading; this is much easier on some days than others.) It’s not a difficult book by any means, and yet I am not drawn to it–it hasn’t grabbed me in the way that, to give two recent examples, 1Q84 or HHhH did. I am not going to suggest that Ben Etherington has given me permission to abandon the book, but his article makes some very interesting points about the nature of criticism in Australia at the moment.

His chief argument is that Anna Funder has received a pretty cruisy time in the review pages for her first novel (and second book). Many of the reviews published of All That I Am seem to come from a position of adoration–fuelled in some cases by cosy interviews with the author, so that quotes from her appear alongside the commentary on her novel. Etherington mounts an informed and reasonably forensic critique of the novel and his reasoning is difficult to fault. When I shared his article on Facebook yesterday I noted two things–I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to finish the book (I probably will) and I wasn’t sure where his article left the Miles Franklin award, which Funder won for this novel. This has been controversial in some areas, as the book is only tangentially connected to Australia. Very quickly, if you haven’t read it, the narrative is split between two characters, Ruth and Toller, who are both reflecting on their role in trying to warn people about what was happening in Germany immediately after the election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Ruth, her husband Hans and cousin Dora end up in London exile; Toller is reflecting on his role from exile in New York. (Ruth’s memories are coming from her old age in a Bondi nursing home, hence the rather flimsy Australian connection). I won’t go into Etherington’s reasons for not liking the book–you can read them in his article and I probably wouldn’t do them justice. Suffice to say, he doesn’t like the book–and not one adverse review of it has appeared in the media here.

Etherington’s wider arguments go to the role of criticism in our literary culture. One might reasonably ask–have we become Too Nice? Possibly. Arguably, and this is my phrase, we have developed a Cult of Corroboration in recent years; we are prepared simply to go with the flow rather than entertain any notion of being provocative. In retrospect, a review of Funder’s book before it won the Miles Franklin which highlighted the flaws that Etherington identifies would have been provocative. For some reason, genuine critique of this book has been off-limits, and I have no idea why–it’s clearly not perfect, if there is such a thing as the perfect novel. I won’t for a moment suggest that anyone has gone easy on Anna Funder because she’s a woman, and an attractive one at that. Rather, if had I to offer a reason, I would offer two: All That I Am treads very similar territory to Funder’s first non-fiction book, Stasiland, which I have not read; and secondly, it might be possible that people are squeamish about criticising a book about Nazi Germany, perhaps the single biggest Evil Trope of the twentieth century.

As someone with ambitions to win one one day, I am more concerned about the Miles Franklin Award. Literary awards are controversial; I think Patrick White referred to the Franklin in the 1970s as a chook raffle. I will state that Funder’s novel is well written–the language is beautiful and the characters are interesting, and certainly considerable gravity in the situation they are in; the stakes are very high indeed, and this keeps one turning the pages. But as I stated, it is only notionally connected with Australia and on one level really has nothing to with the country at all; and, as I’ve explained, it has not been subjected (until now) to any meaningful critical rigour.  So, in all honesty, I am not sure why it won. Controversy can be healthy, and debates should be had about whether a book should be eligible for the most prestigious literary award in the country if it only just meets the criteria, and if everyone who has read it has been Awfully Jolly Nice about it.

However, I don’t think Australian literature–yes folks, there is such a thing, I checked–is served very well by this. We need critical rigour: I would be happier to hear a range of views about a book I wanted to read–or even about my own books–rather than uniformly positive or negative ones. Integrity should not be a dirty word in the review pages of our country’s literary journals.

 

Advertisements

Tony and the Whitewash

Standard

Taking a break from the Next Big Thing to share this article, which was published today on http://www.tasmaniantimes.com. Cheers.
Tony Abbott should have had a pretty good week last week; by rights; he probably thinks he has. He was handed the date of the next federal election on a platter by a Prime Minister who desperately needs to claw back some ground in the polls, and who (by announcing the election date) has given the Coalition a fairly sound opportunity to verify its policy and fiscal credentials over the next two hundred days. There’s a better than even chance that Abbott may be our next Prime Minister, although a lot can happen in seven months. However, comments made by him on Australia Day, during a speech delivered in Adelaide, should give people cause for considerable concern in the event that we wake up on September 15th with a new occupant in the Lodge.

These comments have not, to my knowledge, been reported at all in the media, apart from a brief mention on crikey.com.au, which is where I happened to read them. This is the extract from Abbott’s speech, quoted verbatim on Crikey yesterday:

It is a proud people that you are joining. We had inauspicious beginnings. The first lot of Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England, not always for good reasons, and from that rather inauspicious beginning we have become a rich, a free and a fair society …

I don’t know the context in which the speech was delivered; it sounds like it was possibly a citizenship ceremony, or something similar. Those circumstances are not particularly important. For my purposes with this little article, the first half of the third and final sentence is the important bit.

Abbott is someone who often seeks to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’. He is a volunteer firefighter; Christopher Pyne puffed his chest out last year and reported that his leader had recently helped a blind man run in a Marathon. In 2009, he spent time in the remote indigenous community of Aurukun and helped with several community services. Part of his public appeal strategy, it seems, is to roll the sleeves up, set his face to Concentrate and muck in. Perhaps he is no different from other politicians in this respect; they want to remain ‘in touch’ with their electorate. Or so the reasonably simple orthodoxy goes.

This makes it very hard, indeed perhaps impossible, to place his comments above into any kind of helpful context. An enlightened, educated person living in Australia in 2013 must have considerable difficulty ascribing to the view that ‘the first Australians’ to arrive on the land of this country were convicts. Such a view flies in the face of decades of widely reported archaeological findings, of decades of reconciliation initiatives, of matters that are considered in historical archives to be factually accurate. This is notwithstanding that the term ‘Australian’ is itself a European appellation, drawn from Latin; I concede this and use the term here purely for convenience. The first occupants of our country would not have known this name and convicts transported here were not referred to as such either.

So, although very few people seem to know about it, Abbott has commenced his genuine bid for the Lodge from a very difficult position. Perhaps he is genuine about the very serious and pervasive issue of indigenous welfare, if we take his visits to remote communities as an effort on his part to inform himself about the ‘on the ground’ issues. (And if he is genuine, this will mark a pleasant change in Coalition values from his predecessor, who did next to nothing about the issue in eleven years as Prime Minister; the Intervention arguably had some merits although it came very late in Howard’s term, was wildly unpopular among many indigenous communities and could be considered a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem the then Government had hitherto ignored.)

Abbott may well believe that Australian history begins in January 1788—this would seem to be a fair conclusion to draw from his comments, which also reinforce the notion that celebrating our “national day” on the 26th of January is inherently problematic; but that’s another story. Perhaps there are Australians who listen and nod appreciatively when he says such things—this is their right and I am not here to argue otherwise. But I am here to say categorically that Abbott is wrong, and that his comments are insulting and ignorant. They smack of the ‘dog whistle’ that John Howard liked to blow.

Put another way: given the strength and diversity of evidence available, it seems reasonable to conclude in our high school history classes that human beings occupied the land that we now know as Australia anything up to 60,000 years ago, possibly longer. Further, that explorers and traders visited this land and interacted with indigenous groups anything up to 300 years, and possibly before then, prior to 1788. So who does a reasonably articulate and well informed student sitting in a high school history class who researches this and forms well-based conclusions, and then hears the Leader of the Opposition completely erase tens of thousands of years of existence with a single sentence, believe? Their teacher, or the Honourable Member?

Statements such as those he made in Adelaide render Abbott’s position inconsistent, at best, and at worst incorrigibly racist. His inconsistency is something we are well used to; his position on climate change, to give but one example, has been especially adaptable to any given audience. This aside, though, it’s often very difficult to know exactly where the potential Prime Minister stands on important issues. I consider that the indigenous heritage of this country is a fairly important issue. If Tony Abbott is posing for photographs with indigenous schoolchildren while helping them in their classrooms on one hand, and completely refusing to acknowledge their cultural heritage or identity on the other, then he’s taken the Aussie tradition of having two bob each way to a discomforting alarming extreme.

At a time when he will be desperate to demonstrate inclusivity and fairness, when he will hope that all Australians consider him in a favourable enough light to let him switch sides of the House of Representatives, this is a terrible attitude to demonstrate. His comments belong in the Australia that existed prior to 1967, when our sable brethren were preferably seen but not heard. That Australia, really, no longer exists. Someone should let Tony Abbott know, and well before September 14.

 

 

Cameron Hindrum lives and writes in Launceston. His novel The Blue Cathedral (Forty South Books) was published in 2011 and his two-volume chapbook of poems, Private Conversations Volumes 1 & 2, appeared in 2012, published by Another Lost Shark and Walleah Press respectively.

The Next Big Thing: Matt Hetherington

Standard

In the third of my ‘Next Big Thing’ series, here we delve into the creative molecules of Melbourne’s Matt Hetherington. Matt did me the honour of launching The Blue Cathedral at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, and marked the event by presenting me with a mix-CD ‘soundtrack’ of the novel that he’d compiled. For that alone, he’s uber-cool. But he’s also a fabulous poet. Take it away, Matt.

What is the title of your book?

‘Eye to Eye’.

What genre does your book full under?

Poetry.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Poets don’t do synopis! Ok…it’s a book about the loss of romantic love, and finding the heart [cour-AGE] to recover from and transcend the pain of such loss.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My life! It was very much necessary for me to write these poems.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The large majority of the poems were written over a 4/5 year period, though one or two are older than that, but fitted in with what the book’s about.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My own sterotypically broken heart! And an enormous amount of of superb love-poetry out there… But espcially collections like Eric Beach’s ‘Weeping for Lost Babylon’, Claire Gaskin’s a bud’, Ian McBryde’s ‘Slivers’, and Jordie Albiston’s ‘The Fall’, all of which deal with great loss and grief [and all Victoria-based poets!]. I was also inspired by many musical sources, such as Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ and the songs of my old mate Yilton Kreen, but maybe particularly great ‘break-up albums’ of the past, particularly Bob Dylan’s ‘Time Out of Mind’ and ‘Blood on the Tracks’, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches [for My Sweetheart the Drunk’], and Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Did it myself, with layout by the rock-steady Stefan Morris.

What other books would you compare this book to in your genre?

Oh, see above.

What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?

Greta Garbo to play me. After that…hmmmm…

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think it’s a good book. More poetry for ALL of us!

[‘Eye To Eye’ is available at Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, or i can be emailed at mattheth@gmail.com.]