In the immortal words of Nancy Sinatra:
these boots are made for walking
and that’s just what they’ll do …
In the immortal words of Nancy Sinatra:
these boots are made for walking
and that’s just what they’ll do …
As a reader, I’m fairly hard to please. I never used to be. As a small child I would happily read cereal boxes, ticket stubs, IKEA instructions. But, these days, my tastes have changed.
Lately, I’ve read some amazing books, including Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders (based on his Massey Lectures), and Cate Kennedy’s poetry collection The Taste of River Water.
But I’ve also read some dreadful books. Which is ok – dreadful books get published all the time. I don’t know how or why. I hope that they get published because a publisher sees that they can make some money out of the book, rather than because they’re confused about what constitutes good writing.
And I must say, here, that I have a fairly liberal view of ‘good writing’. For me, its useful to assess the quality of a work from within its own ambitions and place in the market. A good romance novel does not have the same qualities (or criteria for success) as a good crime novel, or a good children’s book. Just as the criteria for a good screwdriver are different to the criteria for a good shifter. They’re both tools, but they’re wildly different objects made for wildly different purposes.
That said, what I do find confusing is when I read glowing reviews of a work that is, quite frankly, dreadful. I doubt myself as a reader. I wonder how the reviewer could have had such a different experience of the work. I read these reviews over and again, trying to understand. I take their opinions back to the book, hold them up side by side (so to speak) and try to see what they saw in the work. Sometimes, this works. I come to understand that the work does have admirable qualities that I overlooked, or (more frequently) that the reviewer’s personal, implied criteria for a ‘good’ book differ from my own.
But sometimes … sometimes I wonder what on earth the reviewer was reading. Or drinking while they were reading.
Recently, for example, I read a review of a book that sounded amazing. Original, insightful, creative and well-written. And then I read the book. Well-written! The book has some redeeming features – almost all books do – but the writing! Oh, the writing is cringeworthy. I had to read it in a kind of squinting manner, trying to see past the sentences to the characters and story. I was not successful. Who (other than the unnamed reviewer) can see through similes as overblown, and mixed, and awkward as:
The second floor hallway and apartments filled with the stench of unresolved thoughts and feelings, resentments bubbling away like stew, tumbling inside heads, becoming smooth and rounded like a brick in a concrete mixer.
or, perhaps one as silly as the following:
They returned home to a town full of hope and optimism, chilling itself like a chocolate mousse, ready for winter.
I could go on. The confusion generated by the disjunct between my own response to the book and the reviewer’s sent me tunnelling into the work, desperately seeking what they saw. The grace, the insight, the elegance of the prose. But I failed.
As a reader, I accept that we cannot and do not all like the same books. Why should we? Taste, after all, does come into it. But, as a reader, I suppose I’m old-fashioned. I can’t accept that there aren’t some bedrock criterion for good writing. Buggered if I know what those criterion would be, of course, but there must be some. Surely. Or … no.
Perhaps there are only books, and readers, and the strange magic that occurs when a book and a reader find each other. And find they are meant for each other. And fall for each other, blindly, ignoring hammer toes and facial tics and the literary leaving up of the toilet seat. None of it matters, after all, no embarrassing release of a gaseous metaphor will dampen the enthusiasm of the reader. In fact, they may smile adoringly at the loved one’s every faltering. At the intimacy revealed by such shared awkwardness. They may even defend it as beautiful, charming. (I had a friend once who adored her lover’s farts. The simple joy with which her lover released them. Always in sets of threes, followed by a deep blush. She tried to convince her lover to allow her to record their musical emission and use it as a ringtone)
Still, here I am with this book I cannot love. And the review which glows. And the disparity between these two responses fills me with doubt. About the book, about the reviewer, about myself as a reader, about the publishing industry, about where we are all headed – you, me and the books – about whether the literary trade has lost its way. Whether publishers, reviewers, readers – all of us – have forgotten how to tell what is good, and what is not. Or at least no longer have a shared vocabulary for appreciation. A shared sense of what constitutes a good sentence, a good story.
Did we ever, I wonder, or is that just some embarrassingly nostalgic romanticism? Perhaps we will never be able to agree. Perhaps we never have agreed on what is good, or true, or right. On what books are for. Or how they are weighed in the secret scales of the literary heart.
The old bank in the town where I grew up is for sale. Oh, how I long to buy it, and set up house there on the wide, lazy river near Bartlett’s Wharf.
The bank was still open a few hours, a few days a week, when I was a small girl, to provide banking services to those who couldn’t make the trip into one of the larger towns nearby (although the post office also offered some banking services). It is set back from the river, and across the road from the old Royal Hotel (built by Tooheys in 1927, after they bought and knocked down the existing pub).
Between the pub and the bank is a broad strip of grassland, which used to be the site of three enormous fig trees. Only one matriarchal beauty remains. The trees were planted on Empire Day in 1935, to celebrate the silver jubilee of the Coronation of King George and Queen Mary.
Like the pub, the old bank is red brick. A beautiful, tidy, small old building. It was built in 1922, after the existing bank, which was on the river, burnt down. The building was the first in town to be built facing away from the river. Originally, although in New South Wales, the bank was built and operated by the Queensland National Bank. The bank stopped providing full services in 1949.
The small village is a river town, and the town was oriented towards the ferry and riverbanks throughout the early years of its development. The town itself is quite small. It experienced a heyday around the time the bank and pub were built, in the 1920s, although it had been a thriving township in the late 1800s.
Bartlett’s Wharf, near the bank, was named for Edwin Bartlett, who owned and operated a general store near the wharf from 1886. The store sold general goods and saddlery, as well as providing postal services and acting as an agent for the North Coast Steam Company. The town was a busy river port with at least one shipyard, where several ships docked at the wharf each day to load and offload goods, particularly after Carter’s mill was established in 1871.
In those days, the river was full of boats and punts. Locals travelled cross-river to go to church or school, or to visit friends, as well as to transport their own produce on schooners or other larger boats. The ferry operated until 1964, and was built to accommodate people, animals and vehicles. The council’s toll rates include charges for foot passengers, mares, geldings, asses, mules, gigs, buggys, wagon drays and bicycles. The ferries were replaced by a lift span bridge in the 1960s. The bridge, one of the most significant features of the current town, was built by Dayal Singh Constructions, at a cost of more than £360,000.
This is the beginning of a story – the opening ‘note’ of a story about Matilda, a young girl whose life becomes entangled in the life of the orphan king, Edward VI.
This story takes place during a time in English history that never quite happened. Here are some things you may already know, if you have studied your history: once there was an orphan called Edward, who became king of England when he was just 9 years old. Edward had two older sisters: Elizabeth and Mary.
Here is something you may not have heard: shortly before Edward ascended the throne in 1547 a channel opened between the worlds, and three ghosts, driven by fear, ambition and fury, crossed into the world.
Edward VI was the King of England between 1547 and 1553. In this story, the three ghosts that cross into the world when his father dies and he ascends the throne are the mothers of Edward and his sisters, Elizabeth and Mary: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Three furies. Three mourners. Three ghosts who are determined to see their children survive, and flourish. And rule.
Maurice Sendak has passed away.
Let the rumpus start.
May he rest not in peace, but in some wild, affectionate place, where the monsters are his friends and he is their king.
May he continue to roar his terrible roars
and gnash his terrible teeth
and roll his terrible eyes
and show his terrible claws.
The world has eaten him up, it loved him so.
He has gone into the night of his very own room;
I hope his supper is waiting for him
and that it still hot.
As you probably already know, in a recent act of outstanding idiocy, the new Premier of Queensland withdrew funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.
Plenty of people have posted detailed and intelligent responses to this outrage, while I’ve been offline, so I won’t add my indignant restating of their valid critique of his position here.
I’ll just say that the Queensland Literary Awards, a grass-roots response to the canning of the awards, will take place this year. This includes the categories that are dearest to my heart: the emerging author award and the Unaipon Award, both of which, although they won’t come with a well-deserved cheque, WILL include publication by UQP.
Please, if you have a manuscript, demonstrate your commitment to yourself, your work, and the literary arts by entering the award this year.
You can find details on how to enter at the QLA site, which has been established by Matt Condon and Krissy Kneen.
George Whitman passed away yesterday, in a room above his bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, on the Rue de Bucherie, Paris.
Today, I was reading Barry Lopez’s essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ from the collection Crossing Open Ground. Lots to think about here, but two things that I want to come back to, and think about some more:
A story draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the interior landscape. The purpose of storytelling is to achieve harmony between the two landscapes, to use all the elements of story – syntax, mood, figures of speech – in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior. Inherent in story is the power to reorder a state of psychological confusion through contact with the pervasive truth of those relationships we call ‘the land’.
[This is a beautiful sentiment, and very appealing, and it makes sense in the context of the essay, but I want to explore the 'but' here, too. Not all stories operate this way - as consolation, reparation, solace, etc. Just today I was reading Rjurik Davidson's essay on 'torture porn films and politics' at Overland, which is about stories (albeit in film, but they have their corresponding narratives in print) that are at least partially the opposite of the kind of stories Lopez is describing here. Do Lopez's ideas hold when applied to narratives of horror, dislocation, or despair? To Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, to Shakespeare's King Lear? Or even to less dramatically or diametrically different works: Peter Carey's Theft, say, or Kris Olsson's The China Garden? To comedies, romances, urban grunge. Perhaps the question is moot - perhaps he doesn't mean to refer to all stories, but only to some kinds of stories. But then, what kind of stories does he mean ... I need to chew that over. Read the essay again. Think more.]
Elsewhere in the same essay, Lopez writes:
This feeling, an inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm after storytelling, is familiar to many people. It does not seem to matter greatly what the subject it, as long as the context is intimate and the story is told for its own sake, not forced to serve merely as the vehicle for an idea. The tone of the story need not be solemn. The darker aspects of life need not be ignored. But I think intimacy is indispensable – a feeling that derives from the listener’s trust and a storyteller’s certain knowledge of his subject and regard for his audience.
[Do I, as a writer, ever feel certain knowledge of my subject? Is that essential? What relationship might there be between this idea and Camus's: I have nothing to offer but my confusion? Does a lack of 'certain knowledge' lead to the writing of stories that evoke a different response in readers? What kind of response, or responses, are the natural result of stories written from a place of doubt, of uncertainty?]
Loving a child is a dangerous thing. I think I knew this at the beginning, with my first daughter, when they laid her in my arms. But then again, not really. You can know things and not know them at the same time. I don’t know how this can be true, but I believe that it is so.
In order to take her home, I had to not look too hard at how dangerous it was to love her.
How can I say how dangerous that love is? How can I articulate what it’s like to stand in the ruins of your parenting?
I think often of the story of Tam Lin, whose true love must save him from the Queen of the Faeries. If she doesn’t, Tam Lin will be paid as a tithe – as a sacrifice – to the Lords of Hell. In order to rescue him, Tam Lin’s love must tear him from the arms of the Faerie Queen as she passes by on the Faerie Ride on All Hallows Eve.
That is hard enough, but when she catches him, she must hold him. All night. And all through that night he shifts and changes, into all manner of snarling, raging, hurling, furious beasts. All manner of strangenesses. All manner of monsters. She must hold him tight, until finally he becomes a burning coal. This coal she must throw into the well, from which he will emerge his own true self. Saved.
I can feel the heat of that coal in my hand. The way it burns through the skin as she carries it to the well. The way it marks her.
In the legend, Tam Lin’s lover is assured that though he may take the form of all manner of beasts during the night, he will not harm her.
This is not true of a child. A child is a weapon you fashion from your own blood and bone. A weapon formed perfectly to wound you as no other ever will. And the Faerie Queene may be an addiction your child cannot shake, literally or figuratively. Your child may not so readily give up his grip on her when you reach out and haul them from the saddle. The Queene is, after all, beautiful, magical, eternal. Dangerous, yes, but intoxicatingly so.
And still you must hold them. And love them, until the night is over and they are a burning coal in your hand.
Until they are returned to their true form.
I have a new story in the December issue of Fantasy Magazine. The magazine is online, so you can get the issue online and read an interview about the story as well on December 5. The magazine is a little unusual and innovative in its format. Each week they publish one story and one interview, which you can read online, or you can purchase the whole issue as an ebook.