Melbourne launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature

macpen_auslit_shadowThe Red Rotunda at the Cowen Gallery at the State Library of Victoria is filled with silver-haired literary giants, and a young woman enters, sweaty and carrying two bags (she has walked from work). She sees a couple of familiar faces but is too intimidated to talk to them. She clasps a glass of champagne and waits.

On the table is a tome – a collected literary history and culture. She opens it and notes names so disparate as Gwen Harwood, Ern Malley, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Frank Moorhouse, Michael Gow, Sonya Hartnett and Nick Cave. There are some of the names she knows. There are many she does not. There are Greek and Vietnamese and Aboriginal names. She is excited by the invitation of this book – to learn, to enjoy, to grow; and of this room – to become.

When she looks up again she catches the eye of Ivor Indyk, the publisher of Giramondo, and editor of HEAT. She re-introduces herself, having heard he enjoys her blog. He compliments her for the Tom Cho interview, and they discuss the exciting potentials of the medium, and the literary culture in Melbourne. Indyk is intelligent and warm, and when two men come over, he introduces her as a ‘wonderful reviewer’. She does not catch the rest. She is still overheated and the room has become crowded and loud. But she does catch their names and repeats them as she leans in to shake their hands – Thomas Shapcott and Rodney Hall.

Hall is short with an open face, young for his years. Shapcott guzzles champagne as he talks, mustachioed and leaning on his walking stick. His speech is difficult. Indyk enquires after his health. Conversations float around the four, including one about Shapcott’s 102 year-old mother-in-law (or aunt) who is sharp and completely switched-on. The young woman thinks about that being more than four of her lifetimes, and how much she could live and write if given that herself.

She asks Shapcott if he has a piece in the book. ‘Doubt it’, he says. She finds later that he does.

Whilst conversing with Indyk, another man joins Hall and Shapcott. Indyk says ‘that’s Alex Miller’ and the young woman’s heart jumps out of her chest. Alex Miller, author of one of her favourite books of all time, Prochownik’s Dream. What a fortunate surprise. She sweats worse now, and burns up as she tries to catch his eye. Library staff bring around plates of exotic nibblies: fishy, crunchy and a little too large to be bite-size, inhibiting conversation. Hall and Miller are actually making Miles Franklin jokes – she hears them say something about ‘four between them’. She is finally introduced and tells him immediately ‘I really love your work’. Miller says ‘you’re blushing’, and his manner is spritely and confident. She says ‘no, it’s the heat’ and waves her hand at her face, then regrets the silly gesture. She says (ever honest) ‘maybe I am blushing a little’, and he smiles. She tells him Prochownik’s Dream is her favourite of his works. ‘Ah! I love that you were brave to say it like that’ he says, ‘Prochownik, Prochownik – it’s like the Americans say, how hard is it?’ She laughs uneasily – she’s never said it out loud before, is he for real or is he having a poke? Indyk says ‘I’ve always said Pro-chov-nik, how did you know?’ Did she know? She accepted a top-up of her drink.

miller_narrowweb__300x4350Miller, Shapcott and the young woman continue to talk. Miller says some Parisians are adapting Prochownik’s Dream for the screen. ‘The Parisians understand it’, he smiles (a conspiratorial smirk?). They discuss how many film options never get up. The three discuss Vladimir Nabokov, starting with Lolita. The two men give the young woman suggestions for further reading. Shapcott says he read some of Nabokov’s stories that the New Yorker published, and they were among the best he’d ever read. Shapcott corrects the other two on their pronunciation: ‘Nabokov’. Miller plays around saying ‘Lolita, Lolita’ in an American accent, sticking his neck out. He likes to do voices. Somewhere during the conversation Shapcott leans to Miller and whispers something about ‘youth’. She pretends not to hear. They segue to Joyce and others, but then the proceedings begin, and the guests turn to the front.

She cannot concentrate during the introductions, still hot and flushed, already beginning to go over the should-have-saids, such as ‘why didn’t I tell them I was a writer?’ instead of an employee of the Aus book trade magazine, and a blogger. Do writers in their 70s bother reading blogs? They really didn’t seem that old to her though. Besides feeling small and inadequate, she could have soaked up their conversation for hours.

Amongst the speakers are Chris Wallace-Crabbe (whose poetry she adores); Alexis Wright (who she has seen read many times now but hasn’t yet read Carpentaria– it is on her long to-read list); Chi Vu; publisher Elizabeth Weiss; and the general editor of the anthology Nicholas Jose. Crabbe emphasises the need to bring our national literature back to the classroom (school and university). She remembers her own experiences and agrees that she found Australian literature on her own, through self-devised units in her honours year and so on. It seems strange and ridiculous that it isn’t taught more. Weiss also mentions the Productivity Commission’s suggestions to remove parallel import restrictions on books – a huge danger to our literary culture, for both writers and publishers. Heads in the room nod.

So the young woman feels impassioned, with this book in her hand. She also feels empowered (and young and silly and idealistic), thinking about bridges to build between communities, and education, and getting people reading, and reading broadly. She thinks of connecting stories and worlds and opening up an eye or a heart or a mind or two, somewhere, sometime. She thinks about the young guy who checked off her name on the way in, and how he said he’d read her blog a few times. He was outside the room, these authors were inside, and she was somewhere in the middle.

She thinks of being inspired, of stories and truths and ‘secret lives’, as Alex Miller might say, forging connections and pushing boundaries and remaining passionate… She is a sponge, and it’s still a little messy when she’s squeezed, but with some work and patience, a nourishing drop will form.

She talks with more people – the poet, the painter, the exhibition curator – after the presentation, but her head is full and she needs to go home and write something out. She will lie awake for hours (this is not new). She will regret being too shy to find Alex Miller again to say goodbye. She hopes they will meet again.

44 thoughts on “Melbourne launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature

  1. why would shapcott say ‘doubt it’? as if any writer is unconscious of their inclusions, especially in something like this. it’s interesting. he did it for show. i think i’ve also observed this stance (if in a perhaps milder version) with writers who have had work in the best ofs: oh, yes, i think something of mine was in the last one… not quite sure you know…

    but hey, i’m sure there is a certain tall-poppy protocol once you gain the silver hair. i can’t wait for that.

    but i love launches. it’s a shame your story didn’t go well on into the evening. i think sometimes the actual published material, & the authors in the spotlight, are on such occasions secondary to the fact of the ‘launch’. for me it’s all about drinking with like minded people, & then continuing on into the evening, creating your own worthwhile narratives. some of the best nights of my life have been after launches. & i’m not prone to hyperbole. at least not on blogs, not too often. that’s what i log into facebook for.

  2. No, he was serious. They didn’t know if they were in it or not. Miller didn’t know which piece of his was in it. It was the publishers who gave the permissions for some pieces, or something. No, Shapcott just seemed very humble. It made me realise how many writers always doubt themselves. Comes with the job?

    I’m sure my MWF coverage will have a lot more after-party conversational moments. The thing is though, I don’t always share everything, out of respect for the people I’m writing about too. And as a fiction writer, of course you want to store up some conversations and ideas for later mainfestations, y’no?

    ‘some of the best nights of my life have been after launches’. Me too.

  3. yes, of course, that makes sense. publishers. some of these writers probably have agents too.

    i liked how you presented him as ‘guzzling’ champagne.

    i share everything, with the vain hope that people will stop letting their guard down in my presence. thus far it is not working.

  4. Pingback: Melbourne launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Literary Minded) : Art & Literature

  5. Derek – I think some people (not me, mind you) find the share-all confronting – it has the opposite effect than what you intend ie. getting them to let their guard down. I find, you have to try and tune into someone and then find ways to ease them into revealing their true thoughts/feelings. Or something. Tuning in. Trying to see what it’s like in their skin. Relating. Not that I’m an expert or anything.

  6. Jealousl. I’m not sure if 70 year old writers read blogs, but we read their creations don’t we? I wonder if they get interested in other ways to create? I hope they do. Love that you admit you haven’t read Carpentaria, but you should, soon. I read in pre-apology. Also I searched for the Anthology in a large book chain store (one that may or may not want to lower prices for Australian books, not to buy as I refuse to spend my money there now) and nothing. Interesting. Instead, I’ll get two copies from Readings sent to me, one so I can forward it to Germany and a friend.

  7. FAB post, Angela. Thank you so much for the fly on the wall perspective, sounds like you did famously with the silver haired crowd 🙂 you brave (YOUNG!!) thing, you. And I agree with II, you are indeed a wonderful reviewer.

  8. i was kind of joking, but you know, in the way that irony doesn’t quite indicate sarcasm. i share one tenth of the truth, if that, & really (you’re a paragon of honesty here) i’m never going to share something publicly that i know intrudes upon a personal connection, or even incidental, with a writer or friend. (you must have noticed a couple of my attempts to get you to badmouth nathan curnow… it’s only because i know he would take it in spectacularly good humour… (i shouldn’t have made a flippant comment about shapcott really, i mean, he was an even-handed father-figure to dransfield (subject of my near-due thesis) before either of us were born, & i would have loved to be there to ask him about things…)

    but i really like the way you take this public forum seriously angela, & i look forward to catching up with you in person (maybe 22nd november – fourW launch?) to discuss a few unheard cool truths, anecdotes etc, that happen in a more private sphere…

  9. ‘I wonder if they get interested in other ways to create?’ Troy, I’m sure they do. I wonder, though, if many tire of keeping up. I can imagine getting to a point of finding comfort in what you do – like writing novels, and not worrying too much about new mediums and techologies. Because the novel is everlasting (we hope). But then again, writers are curious by nature. I’d love for a comment to pop up from someone of their generation on here. I wonder if some of Romei’s commenters over at the ALR blog are that age?

    Also, Troy – I’m thinking of doing a ‘review in progress’ of the anthology. Even if it takes me three years to read it. Just so people can follow a young Aus writer/reader’s discoveries and thoughts of these ‘canonical’ writers and works. Hope you’ll be along for the ride 🙂

    Genevieve – thanks! Though when I read your reviews, I am inspired to reach new heights of knowledge, insight and articulation.

    Derek – you could never get me to badmouth Nathan Curnow, but nice try! And I look forward to meeting you and having a few bevvys and getting all d&m. FourW launch? For sure.

  10. Strangely I had a similar conversation with older, wiser colleagues recently. It is ok to go backwards to Chaucer, to Marlow, to Austen, Bronte, yet sometimes we ignore the now. I guess some teachers if not many tire of keeping up. I hope I am never like that! Yes, I hope the novel is everlasting, and really it is a relatively new thing.

  11. ‘She’ spends the entire 1,000+ words of this self-absorbed post circuitously describing ‘her’ somewhat embarrassing encounters with various literary types at the launch of the anthology — wondering whether or not they’ve read ‘her’ blog — yet barely manages to mention the thing itself. What did ‘she’ make of it? Curious minds must know. (The curious minds begin to think this is a gossip blog rather than a literary blog.)

    • Re-he-heally…

      As a matter of fact, this blog is both literary, personal and creative. And occasionally the posts are self-absorbed, yes – charting an emerging writer’s experiences in the literary world. What did ‘she’ make of what? The book? It’s 1500 pages – ‘she’ does not know yet. It has to be read.

  12. I sure do hope you haven’t yet reached your antagonistic comment quota for today, but, please, you can’t expect to say, ‘oh, but the book’s so long’ and be taken seriously as a reviewer. And same with ‘as if the book hasn’t been reviewed else where’. The Aus has a review? Wahl, sheet, I guess there’s nothing more left to say. Maybe a leetle of the ’emerging writer’ self-absorption schtick is good for colour … but, y’know, that post was essentially one colossal name drop.

  13. Wow, how incredibly rude some people are. How easy and cowardly it is to be bitter on the Internet.

    Thanks, I really enjoyed this charmingly intimate and engaging post.

  14. Odd that people reading a literary blog can’t handle a literary device being used.

    Interesting as well that on a post entitled “launch of the PEN Anthology”, people would expect a “review of the PEN Anthology”.

    Great post Ange.

  15. Given this post is quite obviously a presented as a personal chronicling of the night and event in question (and a very entertaining one, I might add), I’m struggling to see where all of the kerfuffle about the lack of a book review stems from here…

    Another excellent piece, Ange. If I’m hot for a review of the epic PEN Anthology itself, I’ll follow Genevieve’s link. For the moment, however, a creatively-spun insider’s peek at the launch would seem to be unique and, for that, of greater personal interest as a reader. To placate the people, you can always share your thoughts on the titanic tome when and if you manage to find the time to take in its 1500+ pages.

  16. Rude and cowardly? I hope not at all. I plead on my behalf only confusion and curiousity. Certainly, if I were to ever have the opp. to meet face to faces with our correspondents, she and me, somewhere, in some impossible golden rotunda, perhaps, at a time out of place, in a place out of time, where literary types might … ah, faint hope.

    Seriously, though, it’s not a question of whether I liked the post, only that I wondered at the point of it. Creative commentary? Well, excellent. Please, if you care to, expand upon this. Eg comment upon what? Again, this is not depreciatory; it’s an opportunity to discuss–

  17. Lovely post, Angela — I’ve linked to it at my own (similarly personal — they’re blog posts, people, not book reviews with rigid rules and conventions in newspapers you’ve paid for) account of comparable events in Sydney the week before, which I attended as one of the section editors of the anthology. It’s a shame some people think they know exactly what a blog post ought to look like, and trash it if it doesn’t fit their (usually extremely narrow and unimaginative) idea of one.

  18. Penni,

    Indeed, it’s easy to be rude on the internet and it’s equally easy to be uninhibitedly self-indulgent. I would never presume to question anyone’s right to explore the minutiae of their experience on their blogspot or wordpress blog, but from something on a widely read journalistic network like Crikey (on which the redoubtable LM is the representative blog on books, writing, etc.), one expects something more, erm, telling and insightful.


    If you’d prefer, we can meet to discuss in person the ways in which I found this post to be self-obsessed and, pace Andrew, a colossal name drop. You have my email address, and I’m ready to oblige. I’ll be polite about it, of course, but if you ask me directly, yes, I’ll say the same things. From what I can see, nothing of any note is being communicated in this post except your attempt to schmooze various silver-haired luminaries. Perhaps that’s enough; to me it falls very far short.

  19. ‘Creative commentary? Well, excellent. Please, if you care to, expand upon this. Eg comment upon what?’ Comment upon one person’s experience of a literary event.

    Klaus, Crikey chose my blog and my voice as it was and as it is. In fact, they chose it after my ‘commentary’ of last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, which you would probably also find a ‘colossal name drop’. Perhaps I should stop going to things, meeting people, and writing about them, just to please you. Or, you can just choose not to read this blog. Plenty of people enjoy it the way it is. And there are critical (yet personalised) book reviews on here as well as the ‘self-obsessed’ posts (I see we’ve moved on from ‘self-absorbed’).

  20. Hey Angela,

    I really enjoyed reading this and can totally relate to ‘she’. Though I think that my ‘she’ is a bit shyer than your ‘she’ or I might have something to blog about after the opening night party at Byron Bay Writers Festival. But all I can offer is wall to wall people, a fine speech by Geoffrey Robertson and a big delay on food. Maybe next year I’ll be braver.

    You’ve come such a long way, don’t let them get you down.

    • It’s hard to not be shy. I just hate when I walk away and think ‘should have introduced myself’. So I think about that now and just leap in. But a few drinks help to calm the nerves!

      Coming to MWF this year? I’m sad about missing Byron. Hope you had a fantastic time.

  21. Fantabulous post LM. You transformed what could possibly have been a bit of dry subject matter (launch of esteemed anthology) into an inclusive, engaging and wholly interesting piece. Although ome readers seem to have self-constructed ideas about exactly what this type of post should convey, don’t stop your inimitable style and voice.

    And Ange, I think ol’ Klaus back there is trying, in his own roundabout, roguish and rather annoying way, to ask you out on a date. ‘Meet to discuss in person’? Oh, they’ll try anything, these closeted types.

  22. Lack of fundage prevents me from making it to MWF this year. Though I may see if I can get to the Young Writers Festival, unless I’m too old to be let in.

  23. Why do The Parisians “understand” Prochownik’s Dream?? It’s a strange thing to say. It’s like saying “the Australians understand it”. Or “The Chinese like chicken”

    The questions is, which Parisians?? Attention- Parisians, not French? Surely just half a dozen, really!

    Having said that, I really should read it, perhaps I’ll understand then….!

  24. We-he-he-he-hell! You sure got some cats among the pigeons on this post Angela! I really enjoyed your write-up of your fab night out. I also enjoyed the ‘should-have-saids’. Sounds like you handled yourself pretty well to me. And how exciting to meet fave authors. Name drop away! It’s not often we get to hobnob with those who inspire us. And for those of us at home with littlies, it’s nice to live vicariously through those who aren’t!

  25. Great post Angela…. the review can wait, I like a bit of personal commentary myself. As for the critics, well, they always say that writers need a thick skin, so maybe they’re doing you a favour…..!

  26. I enjoyed your fly-on-the-wall acount of the event, Angela, as someone who missed it on acccount of not having a babysitter. Now I feel like I went … and I didn’t even have to dress up and leave the house.

    I think you’re ceaselessly brave in the way you put yourself out there, both online and in person. Ceaselessly brave and insatiably curious. And that’s what has got you where you are, with a blog on Crikey and 44 comments and counting. (That and smarts, obviously.) Look forward to reading your MWF commentary soon.

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