Numbers, Solitude, Cinnamon Cookies + New Voices

travisAccording to my dashboard, this is my 200th post since I started this blog in May 2007. And you know what? In the past couple of years through this blog, my novel manuscripts, my short stories and thesis, and my work, I’m quite sure I have written over a million words. I mean, I probably average 2000-3000 a day! Other numbers: I exercise on average one-and-a-half hours a day, I read on average two hours a day (wish that were more), I sleep on average four to five hours (I’m working on this), and thus lie awake stimulated/frustrated by thoughts and ideas for about three hours a night, I see one or two movies a week, I spend on average three nights at events or with friends, I spend five days at work, I spend a very small amount of time of washing clothes and dishes, I take five minutes to put make-up on, and I watch zero television.

I was the only person in the cinema by myself last night, that I could see. This interests me. Because it doesn’t bother me to be alone. I have many friends that I could have invited, whose company I enjoy. Instead, it was just me and chocolate and Rorschach (Watchmen ‘Read and Seen’ coming soon…). Last Sunday night I saw Taxi Driver and Easy Rider alone at the Astor. I did invite someone at the last minute, but they were busy. There were many people alone in that session. I think there is a very fine line between solitude and loneliness. Solitude I enjoy, I crave, I need – but loneliness can slip in easily and unexpected. I relate to Travis Bickle at the same time as he makes me cringe, feel hollow. I love Midnight Cowboy because it speaks deeply of connection – so fleeting, possibly hurtful, possibly impossible. I love it when it all goes wrong for the characters. I feel it is truthful. I feel scooped out by the end of Easy Rider but also feel like someone has looked me in the eye and told me the truth about freedom. Often I’m afraid to share the experience with someone in case they don’t feel the same – in case they try to gloss it over. By the end of the weekend it can sometimes tip into loneliness.

* I went to two great launches this week. Bel Schenk’s book of poetry Ambulances & Dreamers was launched at FAD Bar/Gallery, down one of those fun little lanes off Chinatown. The poems are simple, modern, resonant – and many also engage with the subject of solitude.

easy-riderThe other launch was of Sleepers Publishing’s first book, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, which I reviewed earlier in the week. I got to meet Steven and eat his delicious cinnamon cookies. The introduction from Toni Jordan, author of Addition, was gorgeous. She said to the small, eclectic (and quite distinguished) room ‘look around you, look at the people on either side of you, lock this in your memory – because this will be a moment in history’. I don’t doubt it. For the record I was standing next to Dan Ducrou, who is a launch-whore like me and has been shortlisted for the Vogel, is also a Varuna alumni, and has been published all over the place; and a guy called Gus. The new editor of Voiceworks, Bel, was nearby, as was Jessica Au, a writer I’ve admired for a long time and now have met. Was very excited to hear she is working on a novel. I also got to see Emily Maguire briefly, but she had to go before I could go and gush to her about how great I think she is. I hope I’ll have a chance to talk to her properly one day. Steven Amsterdam wrote in my book ‘Be prepared for anything’. I’m not quite sure how I can do this, except perhaps keep going to the gym so I’m fit and strong and can superhero my way out of any situation (sorry, still Watchmen on the brain). I should probably also stock up on Steven’s cookies for emergency energy needs. And decide on those ‘desert island books’ that many people I know keep talking about.

I’m very happy to report that Steven will also be doing a ‘responsive’ interview for LM.

* Just finished reading this month’s Australian Literary Review. My favourite piece was Mark McKenna’s ‘Silence Shattered With a Whisper to the Heart’, because it engaged me and taught me about a writer/activist and his works – Henry Reynolds. A friend on Twitter remarked that they were disappointed with the ALR because it had no new voices. I’ve been thinking about this a bit over the last few days. My opinion is that as long as ‘established’ voices provide interesting insight (and the ideas are fresh), I don’t have too much problem with ‘established’ writers/critics taking up the pages. It’s a small country, and it is very difficult to break into the realms of reviewing and intellectual debate in some of the major newspapers/magazines, but surely we do need something to aspire to? It would be great to see ‘new’ voices, but not just for the sake of it – for the fact that they’re providing some essential addition to public cultural discussion. And there were, actually, a few names in there I hadn’t heard of, so I don’t know if it’s technically true. What do you think about old/new voices in mainstream media? I would very much miss Robert Dessaix if he got shunted just because he was becoming old hat.

* You might recall that I am curating the 15 Minutes of Fame segment at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I have been handed the shortlist by the lovely organisers, and I am trying to put together an interesting program of a mix of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s which will run over three or four nights during the festival. I didn’t realise how hard it would be. I can think of questions I’d like to ask them all. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this, and also for the opportunity it gives these writers, many of whom don’t really have the resources to promote their work otherwise.

* Only one week until my participation in the Format Festival! Please come along if you’re in Adelaide (the 15th of March).

* Here’s a really handy blog/site created by Sophie Moon on where and when to submit stuff! It’s called SnUfft. Thanks Sophie for collecting these mags and comps for us.

* Pick-‘n-mix links:

Adoring Carly-Jay Metcalfe’s blog Chasing Away Salt Water; discovered New Zealand artist WD Hammond after I saw his artwork on a book cover; awesome to see one of my favourite writers, Joe Meno, talking about the influence of music on his work and learn about his new novel in the process; writers on writing for a living – a joy or a chore? (via Beattie) – what do you think of this?; The Short Review names 96 short story collections published in February; March 2009 in the US is ‘Small Press Month’, great idea!; a wonderfully haunting short story recommended to me by Ryan O’Neill – ‘Mary Postgate’ by Rudyard Kipling – save this for when you’ve got a moment to read and let me know what you think.

* Coming soon: Eva Hornung interview; Charlotte Wood’s literary space; a poem by Geoff Lemon; Read and Seen – Watchmen; and tons more reviews…

10 thoughts on “Numbers, Solitude, Cinnamon Cookies + New Voices

  1. 200 up hyey? I’ve only read abput 40 of them…hopefully 200 or so to go.
    Interestingly you mention one of the most inspiring Australian writers, Henry Reynolds. Reading him makes me beam and recoil. Strangely, (sadly?) some people may find Henry as a new voice, hopefully as a jewel, as voice of reason and heart. More people should know Henry and his wife, Margaret, work.

  2. Thanks Troy – and when I look back at some of the first posts I can see that I have grown as a writer and a reviewer, so hopefully the quality will also continue to grow for the next 200 (and then some). Kimbofo over at Reading Matters just celebrated eight years blogging – I would love to continue in that vein.

    Which of Henry’s books did you find most affecting? I’m deciding which to put on my to-read list after having read the article.

  3. Firstly, you do too much. Secondly, don’t stop. You are an inspiration to us TV-watching 7-hours-sleep-a-night getting slobs.

  4. Re: Henry Reynolds, being a twenty something, I’ve kind of had to backtrack from ‘Why Weren’t We Told? (2000)’, very much a memoir, it has led me into his other historical work.
    Growing up in Guyra, and having a primary school friend die from petrol sniffing still haunts me…

  5. Troy – that is the one I put on my reading list on Shelfari as it does seem the accessible inroad to his work. Thanks for your confirmation. Sorry to hear about your primary school friend 😦

  6. New voices. Well, since you asked…

    That was me Twittering about my disappointment with the ALR. Obviously, because I was Twittering, I couldn’t elaborate on the reasons for my disappointment. But I’ve been thinking about it over the last few days as well, really trying to put my finger on what it is about the ALR that irks me. I think I’ve got it, so I’ll spell it out here. Forgive me, though, if this runs long, as it probably will.

    First up, I didn’t really mean that I was disappointed that there were *no* new voices in the ALR, and I didn’t say it either. I said, “Too many old voices, too little fresh talent.” So it’s not an issue of absence, but rather an issue of imbalance.  And looking closely at what you have written here, I’m not sure we’re really in disagreement on that point. I think you already have a sense of this imbalance in the ALR, but you’re just not as bothered by it as I am…

    For instance, you write: “It’s a small country, and it is very difficult to break into the realms of reviewing and intellectual debate in some of the major newspapers/magazines, but surely we do need something to aspire to?”  Maybe, but it begs the question of why writers who are promising but underrepresented should be in the position of having to constantly aspire or break into a large-circulation publication at all.  I mean, when the ALR first came out, it was billed as Australia’s answer to the TLS, the LRB, and the NYRB.  But those publications — and the LRB and NYRB in particular, as well as the Guardian’s weekly Review supplement — have a distinguished history of spotting promising writers and actively nurturing their talent.  They did not put those writers in a position where they constantly had to battle for attention; they did not just publish their work on the odd occasion.  Instead, they gave those writers a regular publication schedule — not a fixed weekly column, but guaranteed space for several articles a year — and then they provided them with very close hands-on editorial guidance throughout the whole composition process.  Obviously, of course, it was a very nice thing for the editors of those publications to do for those writers; but less obviously, although just as importantly, it worked out very nicely for the publications themselves.  The arrangement was mutually beneficial. Those writers learned how best to develop their voices when writing for wide but well-educated audience, and in the process they contributed to the developing voices of the publications for which they wrote.

    The ALR, however, doesn’t really take a similar approach to nurturing talent, even though it aspires to a level of quality comparable to those transatlantic periodicals. It’s far from a revolutionary idea, though; newspapers do it all the time.  But more than simply not doing it — and this is the point I tried to distil into a 140-character tweet — the ALR actually does the very opposite and grants most of its space, and just about all of its most prominent space, to writers who are already so well-established that they are the literary equivalent of celebrities. This would be the equivalent of a periodical of political opinion giving voice to the likes of Woodward and Bernstein, Sy Hersh, John Pilger, et al, month in, month out. We already know who they are and what they think, so where’s the vitality of the publication?  Robert Manne is this month’s case-in-point, Frank Moorhouse was last month’s case-in-point, and alongside them I would also name Gideon Haigh, Peter Craven, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Judith Brett, Peter van Onselen, Waleed Aly, Raymond Gaita, George Megalogenis, and, hell, even Carmen Lawrence!  Don’t get me wrong, I think the ALR is a high-quality publication and a superb outlet for writers who want to bring a close engagement with literature to the Australian reading public.  But I do find it troublesome that even as there are innumerable writers, underrepresented in public discourse, who would really benefit from a chance to speak into the ALR megaphone, the editors apparently prefer to source their most lengthy and most prominent content from the already-prominent list of Black Inc. contributors.  The result, unfortunately, is a loss not only for those writers whose work isn’t making it into print, but also for those readers who aren’t actually given a *chance* to read their work because the literary celebrities have sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

    I’m sure you anticipated that line of argument, though, because you also write: “My opinion is that as long as ‘established’ voices provide interesting insight (and the ideas are fresh), I don’t have too much problem with ‘established’ writers/critics taking up the pages.”  And neither do I, so I’m with you on that score.  But I’d take a closer look at your qualifying remarks: “as long as ‘established’ voices provide interesting insight (and the ideas are fresh).”  Do the established voices in the ALR actually provide interesting insight?  I’d say they do. I’d say, in fact, that the ability to provide interesting insight is precisely the reason for the success these writers have achieved in their efforts to establish themselves.  But do they offer fresh ideas?  I’d say they do not.  Rather, I’d say that the ideas of an established writer cannot be fresh ideas *by definition.*  Obviously I don’t mean that to be an absolute claim; everyone will be able to provide their own list of exceptions, of writers whose ideas are regularly invigorating and invigorated.  But by and large, I think it’s the case that established writers tend to repeat, revisit, or at least refine the ideas that helped them to establish themselves in the first place. That doesn’t mean their ideas aren’t interesting, but it does mean that they are not new.  And although that’s not such a problem for pieces that appear in, say, an academic journal specifically devoted to putting such ideas under intense scrutiny, I find that it is a problem for something like the ALR, which, as a newspaper supplement with a focus on current affairs and current publications, contains in its format a sense of immediacy and a sense of novelty, but unfortunately does not extend either of those senses to the content it publishes.

    Sorry if that’s a garbled way of putting it.  More simply, what bugs me about the ALR is that it could follow the route of the LRB and the NYRB and give voice to writers who really do test the limits of the status quo of public discourse with ideas that really are new and fresh, but instead it gives voice to writers whose work elsewhere has already set the limits of the status quo of public discourse and so it only ends up perpetuating the ideas that are already out there.  It mostly confirms existing opinion, and rarely provokes a change or reassessment of opinion.  As well-written as some of the work from established writers may be, those writers have already articulated their ideological positions so thoroughly in other essays in other publications that, at this point in their careers, they are now incapable of saying anything that can truly arrest us and take us by surprise.  That’s a shortcoming of the ALR, I think, because it means that for the most part we already have a sense of what an ALR feature writer is likely to say about a given subject before we even begin to read what he or she has actually said.  We know what to expect from just about any issue of the ALR purely by glancing at its cover — not in a general sense, but in a substantive one — so that the bulk of its most prominent content is already going stale before we even reach the first page.  That’s why I said what I said in my tweet — not that the ALR is bad, but that it’s disappointing.  It’s a reliable let-down.  It aspires to extend the boundaries of literary conversation in public, but consistently fails to live up to those aspirations because it gives the megaphone to voices that are content to simply remain within those boundaries. Although that means that the ALR rarely publishes anything other than good writing, this is the literary periodical with the broadest public reach in the entire country and for that reason I think it has a duty to do more than simply publish “good writing.”

    Credit where it’s due: Ross Fitzgerald and Nicolas Rothwell are stellar, and they *have* been nurtured, to some extent, by the editors of the ALR.  I’d like to see the editors extend that opportunity to Brian Castro, too, who is reasonably established but whose work is nowhere near as widely read or as frequently published as it deserves to be. And, like you, I wouldn’t want to give up Dessaix just yet.  But Fitzgerald and Rothwell are the exceptions rather than the rule — and both have been “promoted” from within the ranks of The Australian anyway — and I think that needs to change.  I’d love to see the editors go back to some of the really terrific small articles that they have printed in the past and persuade the writers of those and similar articles to sign a long-term contract, and then work very closely, very intimately with those writers to develop their voices and so develop the voice of the ALR itself.  It’d be as good for writers as it would be for readers, and I say that not as a writer but as a reader.  The ALR is an optimal vehicle for the development of a new space in our national literary discourse.  When will the editors take advantage of that?

  7. I’m so glad you came here to expand on that Tweet! First of all, sorry that I did get the wording of it wrong.

    I’m really glad you brought up the TLS, the LRB, and the NYRB, and the fact that ALR was heralded as Australia’s answer to these. This isn’t something I had really thought about. When I do think about it those other publications do ‘have a distinguished history of spotting promising writers and actively nurturing their talent’. And there aren’t many publications in Australia (with a broad readership) that really do this. Some of the literary journals, sure, but there has been discussion on here before about whether the ‘established’ journals really leave much room for new voices either. But there are publications which certainly do – Harvest, Wet Ink, Sleepers, Page Seventeen – to name a few, but comparing their readership to something like the ALR is… well incomparable, really. And they publish fiction, mostly – new critical/cultural voices are much harder to come by.

    ‘they gave those writers a regular publication schedule — not a fixed weekly column, but guaranteed space for several articles a year — and then they provided them with very close hands-on editorial guidance throughout the whole composition process.’ I didn’t know this. I think it would work very well in the ALR, or ABR also. And in the critical pages of journals like Overland, or the essay pages of Meanjin.

    ‘We already know who they are and what they think, so where’s the vitality of the publication?’ With many of those critics, you may be right. But I have to say, I hadn’t read any Frank Moorhouse, and after reading that essay, I now own three of his books. So they are always new for some people. But you are right in that the majority of readers, particularly older ones would know by seeing the front page of the ALR how the writers would approach the topics, as they are a version of literary ‘celebrity’. Perhaps it is just more balance we need – so that older readers discover the new voices, and younguns continue to discover the likes of Moorhouse and Dessaix.

    ‘Do the established voices in the ALR actually provide interesting insight? I’d say they do. I’d say, in fact, that the ability to provide interesting insight is precisely the reason for the success these writers have achieved in their efforts to establish themselves. But do they offer fresh ideas? I’d say they do not.’ I haven’t read it for long enough to agree or disagree with you there, but it is definitely something I will think about further with future issues.

    ‘Sorry if that’s a garbled way of putting it. More simply, what bugs me about the ALR is that it could follow the route of the LRB and the NYRB and give voice to writers who really do test the limits of the status quo of public discourse with ideas that really are new and fresh, but instead it gives voice to writers whose work elsewhere has already set the limits of the status quo of public discourse and so it only ends up perpetuating the ideas that are already out there.’ Yes, you might be right. I suppose this is why I anticipate Overland much more than I do the ALR.

    ‘The ALR is an optimal vehicle for the development of a new space in our national literary discourse. When will the editors take advantage of that?’

    Thanks so much for this detailed and thoughtful response D, I really appreciate the time you took to reply and it has given me a lot to think about. One question – besides Castro, are there any other ‘new voices’ who you would specifically like to see in the pages of ALR? Anybody else reading this also care to think of some? We might be able to come up with some writers and let these established publications know about them.

  8. I agree with DJW83’s comments about the ALR…. but I also think that perhaps that is the nature of the publication and perhaps the formula – mostly white, mostly male voices – works for them; it’s certainly a safe option. Presumably these established writers need minimal editing and can churn out copy that will be read regardless, so it’s also more cost and time effective than commissioning talented but inexperienced authors who may need a bit of coaching to produce something publishable. Smaller literary magazines such as Heat and blogs such as this one are where you will find more variety and a more diverse readership. That is the beauty of the internet – you can simply stop reading publications that don’t speak to you and choose from the many that do, whether they are published in Melbourne or Honolulu! I grew up in a state with one paper so I can’t tell you how much this thrills me…

    • Hi Delly, great to have you on board! Yes, I’ve never given much thought to the balance of male/female voices in ALR. I’ll have to pay more attention. The lead essays are mostly by men aren’t they? Yes, Heat and Overland etc. do have a very diverse range of voices – and like you said, with the internet you can choose what to read. I’m actually really enjoying ALR editor Stephen Romei’s blog!

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