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Posts tagged ‘Writing’

Ghost Species publication day!

My new novel, Ghost Species, is published today in Australia. New books are always exciting, but this one is especially so, because it’s a book I’m really proud of. Set in Tasmania in the very near future, it centres on a secret project to resurrect Neanderthals, and it’s about extinction and de-extinction, loss and love, climate catastrophe and collapse. I think – I hope – some of the ideas in it will resonate, especially at present.

If you’d like to know more, you can check out I’ve written a piece for The Guardian about some of the questions and ideas that inspired the book, and if you’d like to hear a little bit of it, you can see me reading the first few pages as part of Read Tasmania’s Lockdown Reading Group below.

If you’re in Australia you can get copies from any good bricks and mortar bookshop, or check prices online. You can also get it from all major ebook vendors. If you’re outside Australia Book Depository should have copies available. I also highly recommend the audiobook, read by Rupert Degas, which is absolutely fantastic.

My thanks to everybody who helped this book become a reality. I hope you all enjoy it.

That Glimpse Of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written

Glimpse of TruthI’m very excited to say my story, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, has been included in David Miller’s new anthology, That Glimpse of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written, which was released last week. If you’ve seen the book you’ll know it’s just insanely gorgeous object (and with the Christmas season rapidly approaching would make a perfect gift, hint hint), but it’s also amazingly good, and features stories by Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Thomas Pynchon, Muriel Spark and Colm Tóibín as well as me (and in case you’re wondering then yes, it is a little daunting to be in such company).

Obviously you can still buy ‘Beauty’s Sister’ as a Penguin Special in either electronic or print form, but I very much recommend taking the plunge and checking out That Glimpse of Truth. It’s available in bookstores in the UK and Australia, but if you can’t get to a bookstore you can compare prices on Booko (Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, Canada) or buy the ebook through all the usual channels.

Perth Writers’ Festival and the Stellas

3262_8415-width=620&height=385&scale_mode=c_PWF-Base-imageThis is a little late in the day (although it’s been that kind of month), but if you’re in Perth and heading to the Writers’ Festival over the weekend I’m doing a few sessions you might want to check out.

The first two are on Friday: ‘Critical Thinking’ with Stephen Romei, Geordie Williamson and John Freeman at 12:30pm in the Juliet Tent and ‘The Problem With Beauty’ with Ali Alizadeh and Dennis Haskell at 5:00pm in the Woolnough Lecture Theatre. They’re followed by ‘HBO and the Rise of the TV Novel’ with Sue Masters, David Petrarca and Rosemary Neill on Saturday at 11:00am in the Octagon Theatre, ‘To the Point’, with Susan Midalia, Zane Lovitt and Julienne van Loon at the somewhat brutal hour of 9:30 on Sunday morning, and my final session, ‘Inside the Imagination of China Miéville’ at 12:30pm on Sunday in the Octagon Theatre (although I’m only asking the questions in that one). They all look like fascinating sessions and I’m really excited to be a part of them and the Festival more generally (the line-up this year, which includes Margaret Atwood, David Marr and James Meek is really impressive and the programming is thoughtful and provocative).

You can also catch my partner, Mardi McConnochie at ‘Love Story’ in the Juliet Tent at 11:00 on Friday, ‘Is Happy a Dirty Word?’ in the Dolphin Theatre at 12:30pm on Saturday and ‘Of the Time’ in the Woolnough Lecture Theatre at 11:00am on Sunday. She’s also one of the guests at the Stella Prize Trivia Night in the Sunken Garden on Saturday at 6:30pm.

And while we’re on the subject of the Stellas it was great to see the release of the inaugural longlist for the award. It’s a really interesting and diverse collection of books that span fiction, non-fiction and memoir. Big congratulations both to everybody on the list and to all the people who have worked so hard to make the award happen.

That was the year that was

Polar Bear

So, it’s December, and although I’m still scrambling to get some things locked away the year is pretty much done. I’m going to post something about the books I’ve enjoyed most over the past twelve months next week (I’m leaving it so late because I don’t want to preempt the picks I’ve made for The Weekend Australian and The Thought Fox, although if you want a preview you can check out my picks for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which were published last week) and if I get really excited I might do a musical round-up as well (although I’m not going to make any big promises on that score).

Looking back over the past twelve months I’m sort of amazed by how much I’ve gotten done. I haven’t managed to write much long non-fiction, but I’ve written a lot of reviews, written and submitted my doctoral dissertation and somehow managed to stay on top of all my normal commitments (or at least mostly on top).

More importantly though I’ve written a lot of fiction, some of which is even good. I’ve knocked over most of the first draft of a new novel (or novelly thing – in fact it’s a discontinuous narrative made up of ten interconnected stories), and with luck I’ll have something deliverable by April next year. Although it still doesn’t have a title the opening section was published as a standalone story in The Big Issue earlier this year and I’m hoping two more sections will be published as stories in the new year. What I’ve got is rough but I’m really pleased with it.

As well as the novel I’ve written and published a number of stories. Some – like my Rapunzel novelette, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, which was published as part of Penguin’s excellent Penguin Specials series (and is available for KindleiBooksKobo and Google Play), and my alien invasion story, ‘Visitors’, which was published by The Review of Australian Fiction – have been published as in electronic formats only, others, like my zombies in suburbia story, ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ are available online and in print (you can pick up ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ in Best Australian Stories 2012 as well as Overland 206). In addition to the stories above I’ve got another two which will be published in the new year and several more about to go out, all of which I’ll link to as they appear.

I’m also pleased to say my essay about growing up in Adelaide, ‘The Element of Need’, was also republished as a Penguin Special a few months back. If you haven’t read it you might want to check it out: I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in recent years. There’s a post with more details about it here, or you can buy it for KindleiBooksKobo, and Google Play. And staying with the creepy theme, you might also want to check out my essay about ghosts and ghost stories, ‘Encounters with the Uncanny’, which appeared in Meanjin earlier this year. I’ve also just finished a longish piece on 2001: A Space Odyssey that I’m really pleased with and will link to once it’s published in the new year.

At this point I’m hoping next year will be equally productive – I’ve got a pile of stories that need writing and at least two novels I want to get written once this one is done – but for now I’m just happy to have gotten so much done over the past twelve months. I hope you’ve all had equally productive years.

And, finally, because it’s summer in Australia I thought I might direct you to this piece I wrote about summer and the myths of Australianness a couple of years ago: it’s not new but I like it. Or you could check out my review of John Smolens’ Quarantine, which appeared in The Washington Post a few weeks back, or my review of Ronald Frame’s Havisham, which appeared in The Weekend Australian last Saturday.

Blogging and telling the truth

I’ve got a review of Sam Lipsyte’s scabrously funny new novel, The Ask, in this morning’s Australian, and while I don’t necessarily advocate reading the review I absolutely recommend reading the book, which is hugely entertaining.

This morning’s Australian also features a fascinating piece by Geordie Williamson about blogging, which attempts to resituate the deeply tedious debate about the value of online writing by asking some questions about the aesthetics of blogging, and how the form alters the way we write.

Before I go any further I should point out that Geordie (who’s a friend) says nice things in the piece about me and this blog, and in particular the posts I’ve got reproduced in Karen Andrews’ new anthology of Australian blog writing, Miscellaneous Voices (‘On Novels and Place’ and ‘The Day of the Triffids . . .’). But his kind words about me notwithstanding, I think the piece makes some interesting and valuable points, not the least of which is the manner in which many writers who operate in more controlled forms are made uneasy by the immediacy and gregariousness of the online environment, and the importance of recognising that for all its apparent openness, online writing still seeks to control the terms of the reader’s interaction with the writer by controlling what aspects of the writer’s life and experience they have access to.

In a way this is an unsurprising thing to say. Despite the illusion of openness, all writing is fundamentally an exercise in controlling the terms of the reader’s access to the writer’s inner life. This is probably clearest in forms like the personal essay, but it’s equally true of fictional forms, in which the raw material of feeling and experience is encoded and transfigured by the process of creation: even at their most honest writers are always withholding, shaping, controlling. A good reader understands that, just as they understand that a writer often reveals as much or more about themselves through what they don’t say, through their tics and blind spots, as they do in the things they choose to tell us. But it’s also something we sometimes seem to forget in our rush to celebrate the openness and collaborativeness of the online environment. Because whatever else it is, online writing is still about inventing versions of the self, whether as pleasing personas, disguises or simply creations to be deconstructed and analysed, and as such needs to be understood within a critical framework capable of making sense of the complexities of that process. All of which makes pieces like Geordie’s, which is attempting to make connections between the ways we talk about more ostensibly “literary” forms such as the essay, and blogging (and indeed books like Karen’s, which seeks to place blogging in a wider context) all the more valuable.

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Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change?

Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change? It might sound like a frivolous question, but it’s one that’s been on my mind for the last couple of days.

It’s been occasioned by two things. The first was a post by one of Overland’s new guest bloggers, Stephen Wright, arguing the failure of Australian novelists to engage with issues such as indigenous dispossession and climate change reflects a profound moral failure. The other was reading Ian McEwan’s startlingly awful new novel, Solar, a book that quite deliberately sets out to address the “elephant in the room” of climate change.

Being lectured about what’s wrong with contemporary fiction is one of the more dreary fringe benefits of being a novelist. And it’s made more irritating by the fact that those who do it are usually advocating replacing one sort of (perceived) narrowness with another.

But unlike most of these sorts of tirades, Wright has a serious point, and he’s doing rather more than simply whinging about the state of Australian fiction. As he says in his post:

“It’s not about trying to fit an indigenous eco-friendly character into your novel, or writing novels full of didactic speeches. It has very little to do, I’d venture to say, with being incredibly topical or writing about Copenhagen and climate science . . .

“It’s probably got more to do with the depth of our awareness of just where we are living: on stolen land, on an ecologically devastated continent. Meanwhile, an inexorable planetary disaster unfolds around us. An awareness of this situation could enable us to write, give texture and ambivalence to our work, enable us to track and expose and map the fault lines of where we live “.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Wright about the urgency of the problem. But simultaneously I think it’s easy to make sweeping statements about the need for new kinds of fiction to address the burning issues of the day, and rather more difficult to actually write such things. So perhaps there’s a different question we could ask here, which is what would a book which succesfully addressed the issue of climate change actually look like?

One thing it certainly wouldn’t look like is Solar. For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the first reviews, the book is McEwan’s long-awaited “climate change novel”, and – not to put too fine a point on it – it’s a stinker.

McEwan gets a lot of stick, mostly for being a slick, smug parody of the bourgeois novelist. I think most of that criticism is misplaced, and fails to engage with the skill and sophistication of a lot of his writing. And while he certainly turns out the occasional dud (Amsterdam is a shocker) books like Atonement and Enduring Love are the work of a writer of pretty remarkable gifts (I challenge anyone to forget the tongue scene towards the end of Atonement in a hurry).

All of which makes the sheer awfulness of Solar even more puzzling. It’s not so much that it’s didactic, or even that it feels like the work of a writer who feels so passionate about a subject that they have to do something (though it does), it’s that it’s so under-imagined and structurally uncertain, so embarrassingly unfunny, and – perhaps most damningly – that McEwan himself doesn’t feel convinced by what he’s doing.

The plot, such as it is, seems to be assembled out of offcuts from McEwan’s other books. There’s the requisite accidental and destabilising death. There’s the requisite unloading of scientific information and musings on the interplay between the subjective interior world of the individual and the objective world of scientific fact. There’s even the requisite scene of hideous physical dismemberment/disfigurement (the already famous frozen penis scene). But instead of feeling fresh, or fascinating, they feel like attempts to prop up the otherwise faltering business of the novel. Even the scenes describing the landscape I saw Andrew Reimer waxing lyrical about in The Sydney Morning Herald sound to me like McEwan on auto-pilot. Indeed, in a very real sense, the book reads like McEwan is doing a parody of himself: the only problem is that it’s a pretty feeble parody.

Part of the problem is that McEwan has clearly decided to save himself from writing an awful “issue” novel by flicking the switch to vaudeville, a decision which clearly made sense at the time, but given that McEwan’s real strength is exquisitely modulated depictions of violence and transgression (and more particularly the intrusion of that violence into the ostensibly “safe” world of middle class life) seems a little misguided in retrospect.

But I suspect Solar’s failure is also reflective of some of the conventional realist novel’s more general limitations, especially when confronted by an issue as large, and as systemic as climate change.

The problem is that the things social realist novels are good at – characters, narrative, interiority, social context – are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to something like climate change. Obviously I’m talking to some extent about the limitations of my own imagination here, but it’s very difficult to imagine how one could encompass such a subject in a conventional novel without projecting some sort of coherence or shape onto it which does violence to the scale and difficulty of the problem.

In a way the problem is analogous to that of fictional representations of the Holocaust. The sheer enormity of what actually happened means fictional recreations of it tend to be cheapening at best, downright offensive at worse. As Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones demonstrates it’s not impossible to do (though interestingly The Kindly Ones’ success depends at least in part on its success at mimicking the authority of non-fiction, and synthesising vast amounts of factual detail into its fabric). It’s that the desire of the novel to make sense of events, and find shape in lives is fundamentally at odds with the brutal and senseless nature of the reality, so much so that attempting to impose those shapes on the events often ends up looking like the worst sort of kitsch.

Solar, which has a relatively simple narrative and a small cast is one example of this problem at work, but I suspect it’s also a problem for larger, multi-strand narratives that attempt to grapple with the problem. Imagine, for example, the Underworld or (to use a filmic example) the Syriana of climate change. To work either dramatically or thematically they require the imposition of order upon what is an open-ended and diffuse problem. As James Wood correctly observes of Underworld, it “insist[s] on connections (the atom bomb is somehow connected to JFK’s assassination and to paranoia) as Dickens’s plots insist on connections (wills, lost relatives, distant benefactors)”. The problem is there are no connections in climate change, unless of course you believe there really is a vast conspiracy linking oil companies to governmental inaction (which there is, of course, but it’s the sort of messy, mutating, ad hoc conspiracy that crusading journalists can’t expose). Inventing a conspiracy, even a vanishing one as in Syriana, trivialises the problem by making it a function of individual action, rather than the system itself.

So, to return to my question before, what might a good novel about climate change look like? One answer might be science fiction. But while the capacity of SF to step outside the strictures of reality makes it better at dealing with these sorts of big ideas than conventional literary fiction, it’s hobbled by many of the same problems when it comes to climate change.

Take Stephen Baxter’s recent novel, Flood, as an example. In Flood Baxter graphically depicts the consequences of rapidly rising sea levels. At least initially this process is driven by climate change, but Baxter then adds a wrinkle of his own, suggesting that the release of the melting ice’s pressure on the earth’s crust allows vast sub-surface oceans to begin to pour forth, dramatically accelerating the process, so that within the space of a few decades the entire world is submerged.

When Flood works, it really works. The scenes in which the Thames Barrier gives way and London floods are truly terrifying, and there are any number of amazing details. But because it is, like most SF, essentially realist, it’s still compelled to at least gesture towards character and story (there’s actually an oddly clinical detachment to the whole book, so in many ways it is only a gesture). And, as a result, the thing it most resembles is a fictional version of a disaster movie, and more particularly films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (with which it shares a number of important devices).

So if not SF, then what? Some sense of an answer might be found in the work of William Vollman, and more particularly books like Imperial or Seven Dreams. Imperial is actually non-fiction, but all Vollman’s books sit on the borderland between fact and fiction, and seem to be less interested in representing the world than actually recreating it. They push at the boundaries of both fictional and non-fictional forms, and indeed at the limits of what readers are prepared to read, but they also suggest a point beyond the neatness and coherence of conventional fiction. And, with them in hand, it’s at least possible to imagine a book that might be able to draw together the many strands of the climate change catastrophe without trying to impose an obviously artificial order upon them.

The question to my mind though is less whether a writer like Vollman, or a book like Imperial might be able to assimilate and represent the subject, but in what sense it would be fiction if it did, especially if it also incorporated large slabs of factual detail or reportage. In this I am, of course, articulating the same sort of anxiety about fiction David Shields explores in Reality Hunger (a book I’ll post about soon) but it’s a real question: at what point have we so exploded the idea of the novel, and of fiction, that what we’re reading isn’t really a novel anymore? And if writing about climate change demands that sort of dismantlement, what does that tell us about the “failure” of contemporary writers to deal with the issue?

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Welcome to the real world

As some of you may be aware, UK book site, Bookhugger, has been running an occasional series of online Author Panels, in which selected authors are asked to discuss an issue pertinent to their work. Past panels have included Aly Monroe, Helen Walsh and Armand Cabasson on Writing from Life and Ian Thomson, Daniel Kalder and John Geiger on Reportage. I’m very pleased (and a bit flattered) to have been asked to contribute to their newest instalment, Welcome to the real world, which focusses on the use of real life characters and settings in fiction (something I did quite a bit of in The Resurrectionist). It’s a fascinating question, both because of what it tells us about the changing nature of fiction and fictionality, and because of the creative questions it throws up. As I say in the panel:

“All of that said, as a writer I’ve always been a bit wary of over-emphasising the role of research. At some deep level it seems to me that as a writer your responsibility is to the story, and to the way you’re telling it, and everything else is subservient to that. Indeed often too much research can be a trap, because you begin to feel constrained by it, as if you have a responsibility to what really happened.”

You can read the full piece on the Bookhugger site.

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Rethinking Parallel Importation

booksAs many of you would be aware, on Tuesday Australia’s Productivity Commission recommended lifting the existing restrictions upon the parallel importation of books into Australia. Those interested in reading the full text of the Report can find it on the Commission’s website, but essentially it makes three recommendations. Firstly that the existing restrictions on parallel importation be lifted after a three year period to allow the industry to prepare for the change. Secondly that the Government review the current subsidies aimed at encouraging Australian writing and publishing, with a view to better targeting of what are rather opaquely described as “cultural externalities”. And finally that the new regime be monitored and assessed five years after implementation.

There’s already been a lot of commentary on the recommendations, most of which falls into two fairly predictable camps. On one side Bob Carr and his mates at Dymocks and the Murdoch Press are characterizing it as a win for consumers and literacy. On the other, publishers, authors and most of Australia’s booksellers are appalled by the decision, describing it variously as cultural vandalism, economic rationalism gone mad and free-market lunacy.

I won’t point you to the articles in the papers, though if you’d like to get a sense of the anger and despair amongst writers it’s worth checking out Spike. Likewise Henry Rosenbloom at Scribe always makes perfect sense on this issue and is worth a look, as does Jeff Sparrow at Overland. Or for a rather different take, check out Michael Duffy or Crikey’s Bernard Keane.

For my part I’m in furious agreement with the ASA, the APA, the ABA and everybody else lined up against the Productivity Commission on this issue. If implemented the recommendations would be catastrophic for the Australian book industry and for our literary culture. But at the same time I do worry whether we – the writing and publishing community – aren’t getting this one wrong at some level.

For obvious reasons writers and publishers are trying to frame this as an issue about our capacity to sustain a literary and publishing culture in this country. If one wanted to be crude about it, what we’re really arguing for is a form of cultural nationalism. Certainly it’s no accident the writers who are being rallied to speak are all ones who are identifiably and iconically Australian.

This is the same argument we run every time changes to public policy threaten to make life harder for the already pretty marginal lives of Australian creators. And while I think it’s correct, I’m not sure it necessarily plays the way we think it does anymore, if only because appeals to Australian nationalism seem outdated in the global world of 2009. And – to be perfectly frank – demanding protection in a globalized economy is a bad, bad look.

Part of the problem is we’re being shoehorned into an argument about book prices. As people keep pointing out, it’s extremely difficult to compare book prices, and there’s some pretty selective data doing the rounds.

But this isn’t about book prices and it never was. It’s about Australia’s capacity to compete in a global knowledge economy, and, more importantly, the right of Australian creators to commercialize their work. Nor is it about open or protected markets. It’s about ensuring we have a policy framework in place which will foster creativity and maximize the benefit of that creativity to the Australian economy.

Let me explain. At present, when I finish a book I set about trying to sell it. Since the copyright belongs to me, I sell licenses to publishers to print the English-language version of the book. These licenses are geographically defined. In the best of all possible worlds I will sell the Australian and New Zealand rights to an Australian publisher, the UK and Eire rights to a UK publisher (these usually allow the UK publisher to distribute the English-language version of the book through Europe and a number of small countries like Bermuda and the Falkland Islands as well) and and the rights to sell the book in the US and various small countries like Guam to an American publisher. Canada will usually end up parcelled off with the US or the UK rights.

The license I grant my various publishers is exclusive. That means the American publisher can’t try and sell the book into Australia or the UK, and the British and Australian publishers are similarly precluded from trying to sell their editions into the other English language markets. This exclusivity is defined contractually, but is made possible by the copyright provisions of the relevant countries, which create frameworks within which the right of creators to dispose of their work as they see fit is enshrined.

The reason for this is obvious. Imagine I take my book to an Australian publisher and ask them if they’d like to publish it. They say they would, but then I tell them I’ve already sold the rights to an American and a British publisher, and because the restrictions on parallel importation have been lifted, those publishers are likely to be importing books into Australia as well. Odds are the Australian publisher would laugh in my face, but even if they didn’t, my capacity to commercialize my work has obviously been severely diminished.

As the example above demonstrates, the exclusivity created by territorial copyright (or, to describe it as the Productivity Commission does, the restriction on parallel importation) is not trivial, it’s the basis of the market. Without exclusivity the rights are, if not quite worthless, then certainly much less valuable. And, commensurately, the capacity of Australian creators to commercialize their work is severely constrained.

For a writer such as myself, who publishes overseas, the abolition of territorial copyright will mean I lose not only that portion of my income I derive from selling Australian rights, but that the economic benefit of my work will end up offshore, in the hands of a foreign publisher, as will the economic benefit of every single Australian writer with even the smallest amount of international success.

More importantly though, the example above demonstrates why this isn’t an argument about protectionism, despite all the talk about “opening markets”. Territorial copyright would only be protectionist if it didn’t exist elsewhere. But at present the only English language market which allows parallel importation is New Zealand, a country which is of such minimal importance that Australian writers routinely dispose of New Zealand rights in a job lot with our Australian rights. Abolishing it here won’t open our markets in any meaningful sense, all it will do is create a situation where American and British publishers have access to our markets without Australian publishers having access to theirs, which would be a bizarre outcome.

It would also decimate the local industry, which, like the British and American industries, derives much of its income from managing rights to books written elsewhere. Independent publishers would either go under, or shift their focus to publishing work with absolutely no international potential, while the larger multinationals would become little more than clearing houses for books written elsewhere.

One obvious response to the arguments above is to point to the coming revolution in publishing (something I’ve done myself from time to time). As national barriers fall, one might think, so too will seemingly outdated provisions such as territorial copyright. But as anyone who’s gazed longingly at a movie or TV episode for sale on the US iTunes Store knows to their cost, territoriality is alive and well in the digital world, and while that may change, it’s not going to happen soon.

I don’t want to waste my time engaging with the Commission’s risible suggestion that greater public assistance would produce better outcomes for Australian creators. I don’t want a handout and I don’t know any writer who does. But I do think it would be useful if we stopped talking about this issue as a contest between economic rationalism and cultural nationalism. Because for as long as we do we’re missing the real point, which is about the capacity of Australia and Australian creators to succeed in a global knowledge economy, and about ensuring we harmonize our policy settings with those of our major competitors overseas.


Never real and always true

edition_imagephpI’ve got a piece about depression and creativity in the latest Griffith Review, Essentially Creative. The piece explores the links between mood disorders and creativity, and asks what we’re losing when we define behaviours intimately connected with creativity as disorders. It’s also a very personal piece, and one I found quite confronting to write.

As I say in the article:

I am not sure that if, fifteen or twenty years ago when I began writing, I was asked whether it was connected with my troubled moods, I would have seen the connection. Yet, looking back, it seems obvious. I came to writing almost by mistake, stumbling on it in my final year at university. At first I wrote poetry, partly as a way of sublimating desire, partly because it seemed to offer the most immediate vehicle for the feelings and experiences I sought to explore. Later, when I began to write fiction, my motivations were more complex, but the writing remained grounded in these same feelings and experiences.
But these feelings and experiences, and more particularly their intensity and what seemed to me their singularity, were inextricably bound up with the cyclic episodes of sadness and irrationality that have afflicted me since I was twelve.

Unfortunately the piece isn’t available online, but you can buy Essentially Creative from Readings or Gleebooks, as well as in any decent bricks and mortar bookshop. Or you can subscribe to Griffith Review on their website.

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Felling James Wood

41r46nfjbdl_ss500_There’s no question that, for good or ill, James Wood has reigned supreme amongst literary critics for more than a decade. At least in part this state of affairs is a reflection of Wood’s missionary fervour, his sense that literature – and the novel in particular – must fill the gap left by the death of religion. But it is also testament to the thrilling force and acuity of his writing. Certainly I remember the excitement of encountering his first book, The Broken Estate, and the chastening realization that the person speaking with such eloquence and ferocity was only a year or so older than myself.

Yet for all his brilliance Wood is an oddly blinkered reader (and to some extent, writer). This is especially apparent in his recent How Fiction Works, a Ruskinesque disquisition on the rights and wrongs of fiction, which manages, by virtue of its narrowness of focus and its curious lack of interest in examining its own intellectual underpinnings, to lay bare something unsettlingly reactionary at the heart of Wood’s thinking.

It’s difficult not to contrast its fusty fury with the increasingly expansive and nuanced work of one of Wood’s first scalps, Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth Wood famously dismissed as “hysterical realism”. In a series of essays in The New York Review of Books (in particular, her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, ‘Two paths for the novel?’) Smith has sought to tease out both the crisis afflicting the novel and – whether successfully or not – to make sense of what a new mode of fiction might look like.

I’m not the only one made increasingly uncomfortable by Wood’s certitudes. John Banville wrote a typically slippery but sceptical review of How Fiction Works in The New York Review of Books (sadly not online) and here in Australia both Delia Falconer and James Ley articulated similar reservations in a pair of stringently argued reviews (Delia’s is especially worth reading).

There’s also Edmond Caldwell’s Contra James Wood, a gloriously obsessive but brilliant blog devoted to picking Wood and his pronouncements apart (although like any such endeavour, Caldwell’s relentless shadowing of his quarry is itself a sort of tribute) and now Daniel Miller has published an excellent piece in Prospect attempting to draw together the various strands of the growing resistance to Wood’s reign.

Miller’s piece is well worth a read, as is Contra James Wood, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether the pre-eminence of Wood isn’t itself a symptom of precisely the exhaustion of the novel, and in particular the realist novel Zadie Smith explores in her piece for The New York Review of Books. I wouldn’t for a moment want to diminish Wood’s very real achievements as a critic, or the capacity of the force of his conviction about literature’s necessity to remind us why novels matter, but the ease with which it is possible to caricature him as a glittering ultra deploying his rhetoric to rally the forces of the past against the inexorable logic of the future should give us pause, if nothing else. And, as Miller points out, in many ways Wood’s thundering only underlines how isolated he has become, and how much more attuned to our cultural moment critics (and indeed novelists) such as Smith, Benjamin Kunkel and others like them are.

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Beyond the break: On Surfing and Writing

 

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

While digging through my hard drive yesterday I came across the piece below. It’s a few years old now, and I think a rather different version of the same piece ran in Good Reading in 2004, but it seemed worth giving it an airing, not least because I so rarely find time to surf anymore, and I miss it so much.

Two or three times a week, twelve months of the year, I make my way to the beach with my brother and a small group of friends. Although the purpose of the trip is what we call “ocean time”, which is code for surfing, it is also about a sort of escape, not just from our work and from our day to day lives, but from the more controlled aspects of the selves we need to be to live those lives.

The result is a little like playing hooky: slightly overcharged and somehow suspended out of normality. It’s also almost exclusively male, and curiously, for something that is about escape, is itself highly ritualised. From the time-coded pick-ups to the arguments about which beaches we will check out to the perving on chicks these excursions conform to a script which varies only in its detail.

Explosion duckdive, Bondi  (courtesy www.aquabumps.com)

Explosion duckdive, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

How much the sense of escape is connected to the actual surfing I’m not sure. It may be that the surfing is merely a pretext for this behaviour, as shopping or golf or fishing clearly are for other people, at least in part. But although we all spend time together for other purposes, much of it also involving physical activity – running, gym, occasionally snorkelling or diving – none of these other expeditions have the same sense of excitement and freedom, either for me or the others.

I suspect most people conceive of writing – and people who write, with a few notable exceptions – as confined to a sphere which not just excludes the physical, but which actually exists in some sort of opposition to it. In fact the processes of writing, and of entering a space where it is possible to write, seem to me to be about a way of being which is almost seamlessly continuous with the life of the body.

Writing, at least the sort I’m interested in, is about communicating the nature of being. Despite its medium, it is a conversation between minds about aspects of existence – psychological, spiritual, emotional – which exist independent of language, and which are for the most part irreducible to mere words. It’s about making the apprehended but inexpressible communicable, about taking the pre-verbal and ineffable experience of emotion and passing that experience on to another. That mere words have this ability to transcend their own meanings, to offer us a glimpse of the mirrors that lie in the inner worlds of others is something we have all felt in that moment of recognition that comes when something we read or hear strikes us as somehow right or true, that sense a chord has been struck somewhere within us, its meanings neither simple nor easily explained.

Like music, any piece of writing has a shape and cadence of its own. It is about rhythms, in language, in character, in story. It is these rhythms that you seek when you write, for they are the contours you try and bring forth. What guides you is not the intellect, or at least not the conscious part of it, but something more intuitive. It is the sense that you are following a shape which somehow already exists, something not so much invented as implicit in the thing itself. Just as sculptors claim to see a shape within the uncarved stone, so the story seems to be already there, like a name half-forgotten which lingers on the tip of the tongue.

Understood like this the process of writing is more a kind of listening than anything, a quiet attendance to the thing. Like the shaping of objects with the hands, the turn of a pot upon a wheel or a lathe upon wood, it is a process in which the intrusion of the conscious mind is often a hindrance, for the important thing in trying to find these rhythms is not to try too hard, not to force it. To hear the rhythms in a thing, to let it happen, you must learn to let go of your intentions, to forget the self and just be.

Learning to do this is one of the hardest things about writing. When a book is near its end it usually has a kind of momentum, an effortlessness, as if some apex has been passed and now the run is downhill, but before that point it can be difficult to find the rhythms you are seeking. Forgetting the self and entering that state of flow is not something that can be just picked up and put down: it requires large spaces of time, room to think and tinker, or just to be.

But it’s not just a question of time. What is needed is a way of escaping the life you are immersed within, of connecting with those things which ground you and your work. Different people find this in different ways, but increasingly I have found it through the stolen time of surfing.

Surfers often talk about their sport in almost religious terms, and although I don’t have a lot of sympathy for much of the culture that surrounds surfing, this sense of the act as a kind of spiritual journey is one I understand very well. To leave the shore and swim out, through the break and over the back, is to feel yourself slip free of your moorings and give yourself to the elements. Although your conscious mind still matters, you enter a world where it is your physical existence that matters first and foremost, the movement of your body in the water, with the water.

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Sometimes the rewards for this are no more than the joy of playing in the ocean, a simple pleasure in the act itself. But there are other times, most often in the last hour or so of dusk, when the beach is quiet and the sky has begun to fade, when it is far more. Then, as the ocean moves beneath you and the long feed of the clouds passes overhead it  possible to sense the presence of a meaning which lingers just out of reach. It is to do with time, and its depth, with the rhythm of the sky and the waves, the cry of the birds as they pass overhead. Apprehended not consciously but somewhere deeper, this meaning beats like the pulse of a heart, something always there but of which we are only occasionally aware; deep and ceaseless, it fills the fabric of the world until it trembles with its weight.

This sense of the world’s presence in its pieces, of its divinity is one which runs deep in my writing. But the knowledge of its existence grounds me in a more mundane way, binding me to the act of surfing, to the escape it offers. For in the loss of self that surfing demands, the submission of the conscious mind to the rhythms of the ocean, I find a sort of peace, a capacity to move and think freely, and ultimately, to attain the sort of equilibrium I need to write.

(The images on this page are provided courtesy of Eugene Tan at www.aquabumps.com, whose daily email chronicle of the changing moods of Sydney’s beaches has been a bright point in my day for more years than I care to remember).

© James Bradley, 2009

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Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass, Florence 1993.
Image via Wikipedia

Having just watched Scott Hicks’ biographical documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve always found intriguing about Glass is the curious way his work blurs the line between the popular and the cerebral. He seems as home writing film scores and occasional music such as the Sesame Street piece below, as he is writing symphonies and operas.

I’d always assumed this was partly to do with his relatively unconventional career trajectory – until well after Einstein on the Beach was a hit he was still working as a taxi driver, for a time before they fell out, he and Steve Reich ran a moving business together, and I’m sure everyone has heard the anecdote about him installing a dishwasher in the apartment of a suitably appalled Robert Hughes during his time working as a plumber (in Hicks’ film they reproduce a comic strip in which Hughes is identified as “art critic John Hughes” which might be a deliberate slight but is probably just a fortuitous mistake). A career which so deliberately eschewed the conventional path for a composer and performer must, I’d always assumed, bring not only its own financial pressures but a preparedness to step outside the traditional parameters of high and low art. But interestingly, in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ history of twentieth century music, he suggests it is as easily understood in historical terms:

“Riley, Reich and Glass came to be called minimalists, although they are better understood as the continuation of a circuitous, difficult-to-name development in American music that dated back tot he early years of the century, and more often than not took root on the West Coast. This alternative canon includes Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, who drew on non-Western traditions and built up a hypnotic atmosphere through insistent repetition; Morton Feldman, who distributed minimal parcels of sound over long durations; and La Monte Young, who made music from long, buzzing drones. All of them in one way or another set aside a premise that had governed classical composition for centuries – the conception of music as a self-contained linguistic activity that develops relationships among discrete thematic characters over a well-marked period of time. This music was, by contrast, open-ended, potentially limitless.

“It was a purely American art, free of modernist angst and inflected with pop optimism . . . Reich and his colleagues borrowed from popular music, especially from bebop and modern jazz, and they affected pop music in turn”.

It seems curious to me that even now Glass is so routinely derided. How anyone could engage with the beauty and intelligence and rigour of his work and not be affected is difficult to understand, not least because it isn’t really necessary to take on the major works to appreciate him: the sheer profusion of his work means that often the details and the seemingly throwaway moments are – ironically, given that his music is so much about the construction of soundscapes – themselves things of extraordinary beauty.

But – and I think this is what I wanted to say to begin with – it was particularly fascinating to hear Glass speak about his process in Hicks’ film, and the sense that he often doesn’t know what a piece – even, or especially a major piece – is about until quite a long way into the process, a feeling I’m sure any writer knows very well (as indeed they know the worry Glass jokes about, that you may not realize what it’s about until it’s being performed). But I was particularly touched by his remark immediately afterwards, that for all that he is used to working with this uncertainty, sometimes for younger artists it can be terrifying.

Oddly, given all this, Glass has more than intellectual interest for me. When I was writing The Resurrectionist I listened to Glass a lot, not just for the hypnotic effect of the music, but because there was something in the way the pieces worked as larger cycles I wanted to understand, and use. And it must have worked. When I met my French translators (brothers, who work together, and lovely guys, both of them) in 2007, they asked me whether I’d listened to much music when I was writing the book. Yes, I said, Radiohead’s Kid A when I was writing the sections in the centre in which Gabriel loses his mind, but mostly Philip Glass. And at this last they began to laugh. ‘We knew it,’ they said. ‘We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Glass must be 71 now, but in 2007, when he turned 70, The Guardian ran this piece which is well worth reading.

Here, in one of the odder cross-pollinations, is a segment from Sesame Street which used Glass’ music.

And for good measure, here’s Branka Parlic playing one of my favourite pieces of Glass’ music, Metamorphosis One.

And here, out of interest, is the trailer for Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.

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