Saturday, April 18, 2009

Miles Franklin and the Mystery of Talent, or, Don't Mention the War

Because I am supposed to be a grown-up, and because I made a promise, I'm not buying into the question of the literary stag night 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award all-male shortlist beyond offering the odd brief neutral fact in other people's comments threads, and observing here, because I really cannot help myself, that if what spokesjudge Morag Fraser says is true and the judges did not realise what they had done until their shortlist was already set in stone, then the gender-blindness we thought we had diagnosed and exposed by about 1985 is actually still as bad as it ever was, even at these upper levels of cultural and intellectual endeavour.

But otherwise the howling restraint is making my ears bleed, so here by way of self-distraction is a little material on a related question: not what makes a good book, but what makes a good writer, since they are frequently not the same thing. Being a good writer is a non-negotiable condition of producing a good book, but by no means guarantees it.

I've read three books since Tuesday. All of them have been the author's first book of fiction: An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and John the Revelator by Peter Murphy. Here in that order is a sample from each, demonstrating that when somebody's a good writer it does actually leap off the page at you and grab you round the neck, and that writing talent lies as much in the quality of pre-verbal observation as it does in what ends up on the page.

Jennet loved her husband, she liked and she disliked him, and she hated him as well.

She thinks that merely by being forceful and independent she can make a decent life, but that just isn't true -- life is tended and weeded and watered, is created out of effort, and is made from other materials than oneself.

Rows of stalls and tables laden with cheap jewellery, gimcrack stuff, necklaces and rings and charms and amulets and stones. Caravans with signs in the windows advertising Tarot and palm and crystal-ball readings. I counted my money and went up the steps to one of the caravans and knocked on the open door. A woman in a baggy jumper and a pair of sweatpants was watching a portable television blaring some sort of game show. She turned the sound down and waved a hand at an armchair beside a flimsy table.
'Fiver for your palm, tenner for the cards,' she said.
I gave her a tenner. She donned a pair of glasses and took my hand and pulled my fingers apart and peered at the lines. Her head jerked up. She stared at my face.
'Out,' she said.
'Out.' She pushed the tenner across the table. 'And take your money with you.'
I stood and stammered, but she reached for the sweeping brush. I backed out the doorway and stumbled down the steps and into the night. The door slammed and the blinds came down. The funfair whirled around me.


Anonymous said...

One day there will be a Miles Franklin hens' night. Wait and see.

Lucy Sussex

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Next year, I should think.

I can certainly see how they got that shortlist out of their longlist. I've read two of the three women's books on the longlist and although Toni Jordan's Addition is delightful it still doesn't stand up to competition with the final five, and the other one I've read has its charm but certainly also couldn't compete. Don't know about the third one. But my real quarrel was with the longlist: how did any of those three and several of the boys' books make it onto the longlist ahead of (and I've read all of these) Lohrey's Vertigo, Garner's The Spare Room, Grenville's The Lieutenant and London's The Good Parents?

(Someone was mentioning Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog, but that got snubbed last year, also quite inexplicably.)

Anonymous said...

'Vertigo' was probably too short (big fat novels are still prized over elegant, economical novellas). Don't know about the rest. Expect much of the longlist, if not all of the shortlist to suffer from what I regard as the usual failing of the oznovel--falls over in the last quarter of the book, due to insufficient pre-plotting.
May even hold a protest hen's night meself. With many gel writers, a waratah cup and the shade of Miles invoked.

Lucy Sussex

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Ah oui -- le salon des refusées!

naomi said...

Yes, Miles would be cross - but given her moniker, mebbe it's time we followed suit and collaborated for an Ernestina Malley hoax?

Bernice said...

Yes well, I don't think Lohrey has collected a gong from anyone yet which is A COMPLETE MYSTERY as far as I am concerned. Repeating myself but if Winton wins, there will be a long night of Bernice head beating at Villa Seedia. Though you gotta wonder what dear Miles would make of The Slap. Pursed lips, a crossin' of the arms, the tappin' of the feet..

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh yes indeed. Picture the scene. No waratah cup for young Christos, I'll be bound.

And yet, Bernice, for the fifteen minutes or so that I was a MF judge in 2004, we gave it to Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire and as a fairly unhappy dissenter from this majority decision, swayed in the end to accept it by the democratic principle, my own newbie status and Hazzard's unarguable 'literary merit' (the two heart-stopping death scenes, for example), I wondered myself what Miles would have thought of a novel in which stereotyped caricature Australians are represented with disdain if not hatred, and in which the whole point of the heroine is that she is a tabula rasa if not a total cipher (which is apparently being proposed by Hazzard as a large part of her charm), absolutely and utterly the product of training, moulding and ideal-projection by three different men, one of whom is a lover twice her age and all of whose values she accepts without question.

Meanwhile, how is it possible that the readers of Breath (which I grant is, like the Hazzard, a novel of great technical achievement and emotional power) seem unable to see what's going on with 'Eva' (!) and her nasty dirty sick twisted destructive life-denying apple-eating ... erm, man-eating sexual allure? Or that they do see it and think that it's correct, right and proper?

Go Christos!

Francis Xavier Holden said...

Lost Dog was a great read, Breathe I easily put down before I finished it, Slap should be on the compulsory High School reading list or whatever it is that makes kids and their parents read relevant stuff.

sigmund marx said...

I don't like the shortlist much and think The Good Parents, Breath and The Spare Room were excellent books. Addition was fun, but not in the same class. But neither do I think the shortlist should be chosen on the basis of gender; if they happened to choose books that were all written by men, why should they change what they believed to be a merit-based list in order to include women writers? The whole affair just shows what a subjective and politically compromised exercise book competitions can be. The Slap is a good read, but Christos' dark, instinct-driven view of the world is pretty idiosyncratic. That awful, over-weening female character is pretty extreme isn't she, but the Christos-style character whose story he focuses on at the end is the most sympathetically written.

via collins said...

FXH, not sure about Reading Lists for Da Slap, but I reckon it's well on its way to being a "phenomenon" book.

Finishing it off on the tram last month, I saw two other women reading it as well - it does stand out being all big and green. I haven't seen that many people reading the same book since Harry Potter!

I enjoyed Breath a lot, thought The Spare Room could easily have been an essay, and felt short-changed as a result. Not sure what parameters are from one prize to another, but I reckon The Good Parents should stand very tall in any kind of best of 2008 list.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

What I really love about this comments thread is that is shows me how many people are powering through Australian fiction pretty much as it rolls off the presses.

I don't want to harp on this point or anything, but the longlist for the Orange Prize for 2009 (a prestigious international prize for the best novel by a woman) contains Michelle de Krester's The Lost Dog (completely ignored by the MF judges last year) and Debra Adelaide's The Household Guide to Dying, ditto either last year or this year, not sure which period it fits, but if it's this year then you can add it to the list of inexplicably unmentioned women's novels for this year.

The Orange Prize shortlist of six is due to be announced later today. I'm tipping that The Lost Dog will be on it, and would really, really love to see it win, though it is up against some extremely heavy hitters and veterans. By and large Michelle de Kretser has consistently had a better critical response internationally than in Australia. I wish I wasn't so depressed by this.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

yes Pav as they roll off the press - I picked up (and finished) Garry Disher's latest before it was reviewed or I knew it was out!

Usually it's weeks after review that the book is available.