Guest review: Lisa Down on Kill Your Darlings: Issue Four

Kill Your Darlings: Issue Four (Aus)
Ed: Rebecca Starford
January 2011

reviewed by Lisa Down

Call me a philistine, but I wasn’t previously familiar with the Australian quarterly Kill Your Darlings. It means I don’t have a standard by which I can judge this edition but I walked away satisfied that it had provided the ‘fresh, clever writing’ the KYD website describes.

Issue four of Kill Your Darlings devotes space to three pieces of short fiction. Beyond that the focus is on nonfiction including reviews, essays, commentary and an author interview. With no assigned theme the subject matter is diverse, though I did find some common threads.

‘Harvey Street’ by Peggy Frew, ‘Hind’ by Michael Sala and ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’ by Louise Swinn are stand-alone stories but there is a commonality in how they centre on women who are splintered, restless, and dogged by the past. The Frew and Sala seemed to flow into each other in particular – both possess a lyrical tone and use sublime descriptive language to create the unsettled mood within the headspace of their female protagonists. The simplest of sentences becomes a delight to read as a result, for instance from Frew: ‘I dip my finger in the glass, in the little trail of grit that runs up the side of it’.

‘Harvey Street’ is more of a traditional narrative that benefits from careful structuring, while ‘The Hind’ is less accommodating for the reader, guiding you toward an unexpected climax and leaving you there to glimpse personal implosion: ‘She at last felt her lover who was not her lover… his hand pressed against the mouth of the river exactly where it opened up… as if this was the last part of her that he wanted to see.’

I initially dismissed Swinn’s ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’, but upon re-reading admit that this was a terrible miscalculation. The story of Carly’s reunion with school friends, complete with partners and an army of children accumulated throughout adulthood, doesn’t read poetically – but for good reason. Carly is dissatisfied and has detached herself from life, more of an observer than an eager partner, mother or friend. The prose is stripped right back to reflect that: ‘Carly began, somewhat halfheartedly, to get people eating. It was something she knew women did.’ The stifling heat of an Australian summer also echoes a suffocated spirit: ‘if you were to stop and stand for a moment, you ran the risk of drying out completely’. It’s thoughtful writing deserving of multiple readings. And isn’t that one of the best things you can say about any piece of writing?

The lead essay by Emily Maguire – an uncomfortable portrait of life for full-time carers – leaves the greatest impression out of the nonfiction. Maguire deftly anchors statistics within the stories of her interview subjects, carers who are ‘exhausted from getting up every two hours throughout the night… exhausted from the stress of considering the wellbeing of another person… without relief.’ Particularly interesting – or perhaps infuriating – is the mention of the gendered nature of care, where the role of carer falls to women within families often as it is considered to ‘come innately’. Maguire handles the issue and her interviewees with care though its overall scope is a little ambitious for the space allowed. It feels as though she has enough content to write a book.

At five pages, Luke Ryan’s ‘Where Have My Ideas Gone?’ is short but sweet. It’s an entertaining piece on the link between boredom and creativity and how we urge the brain into ‘creative flux directed towards… endless stimuli rather than being left to pursue its own ends’. It’s not a new idea, yet it remains an interesting topic to ponder as we continue to accumulate more shiny things to distract and amuse us. Ryan mixes the intellectual with the personal and doesn’t overstay his welcome. And afterward I did attempt to last five minutes without fiddling with my mobile and failed miserably. Don’t judge me; you’re probably reading this on your iPhone.

‘Leaving’ is the promising taste of a memoir-in-progress by Olivia Guntarik, who was a young girl in 1977 when her mother emigrated from Borneo to Australia. The content is already interesting and she has the skill to vividly reconstruct a sense of time, place and environment: ‘The sun is seeping through the leaves, slanting shards of gold… across my body. A breeze pants on my face.’ However, problems arose for me with some of Guntarik’s internal dialogue. It felt disjointed and became a barrier to connecting fully with the overall piece.

Hannah Kent’s interview with author Sally Vickers is perhaps overlong but the line of questioning is excellent, and fully displays Vickers’s intelligence and thoughtfulness as a critically acclaimed writer.

Whether a deliberate move by the editors, another common thread emerges in KYD with analysis of three different but highly exposed figures in literature today. The first is of course Jonathan Franzen. Despite suffering from Franzen Fatigue (that glasses gate episode really did it for me) I have to hand it to Caroline Hamilton, whose piece ‘Jonathan’s Corrections’ avoids adding to the hyena-like frenzy (Franzy?) and instead provides us with a well-researched and fair examination of the man and his motivations. She mentions how he aims ‘to write himself into the role of chronicler of the contemporary American middle class’, to be a ‘reader’s writer’, and his discomfort with the industry of book promotion that destroys the possibility of being the archetypal lone writer.

From one polarising literary darling to another, Bethanie Blanchard in ‘Notes from the Underground’ explains why Bret Easton Ellis’s work fails on film. A PhD candidate on the writer, Blanchard dissects the books and their film adaptations with authority. Her argument rings true for those familiar with his work: that without the dark, spare prose of Ellis, interpretations of his stories ‘merely slide down the surface of the works, conveying only a beautifully glossy vision of 1980s America’. They are shallow, violent and lacking the meaning imprinted by Ellis’s writing. Those who consider him to be a shallow, unnecessarily violent and overrated writer in the first place may not get much out of Blanchard’s essay but admirers should appreciate it.

And then there’s Eat, Pray, Love. I haven’t actually read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller yet, but I’m all for Kate Douglas’ ‘Read, Preach, Defend’, a counter attack to those who have blasted Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve spent many hours defending some of my apparently ‘shameful’ literary favourites and Douglas gamely responds to the critical assaults that it’s anti-feminist, patronising, culturally insensitive, badly written New-Age trash. I don’t know how many new fans she will win on behalf of Ms Gilbert and the way Douglas congratulates her for writing a book with a certain amount of ‘artifice’ is discomfiting, but it defends the right to enjoy whatever writing you want regardless of what the ‘important people’ think.

‘Read, Preach, Defend’ is slotted into the review section of KYD but it feels more like commentary, especially compared to the reviews that go alongside it. Jake Wilson’s review of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer explores the nuance and atmosphere present in much of Polanski’s work without sounding sycophantic. Hannah Kent and Ben Gook review musicians Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine and Darren Liddiard from The Drones respectively. These are both top-notch pieces that aren’t overly critical but create an interesting narrative around these eccentric musical figures, as well as analysing the music itself.

Kill Your Darlings is overall a high-quality Australian journal. It feels plucky, youthful and open to experimentation. Rather than plunge through each piece like I initially did, I advise you to take your time, allowing the individual merits and nuances to show themselves and be appreciated. Well-edited and put together, an undertaking like Kill Your Darlings that provides a platform for writers certainly deserves our wholehearted support.

Note: Kill Your Darlings: Issue Five has also just been released, featuring Matthia Dempsey on Australian bookshops, Emilie Collyer on how alcoholism affects families, Daniel Golding on video games and fiction from Patrick Cullen, Sonja Dechian and Eva Lomski.

Lisa Down works for an online bookseller, which legitimises her joint passion for literature and sitting on Facebook all day.

One thought on “Guest review: Lisa Down on Kill Your Darlings: Issue Four

  1. I am quite a fan of this journal (a subscriber). I’ve tried a number of literary journals but KYD seems to have the right balance of pop culture, essays and fiction to suit my demographic (under 30). And more often than not I quite like the particular style of fiction in KYD – it’s less about style and more about the substance, as the characters can be quite intricately woven.

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