Monday, February 27, 2006

Missed the boat

I'm ancient. I'm at least 44 - and perhaps as a sure sign of aging I can't remember exactly how ancient. I lost count in my late 30s and have had trouble figuring it out ever since.
So I'm one of those people about whom it is announced in earnest tones, "first book published at 44".
Well, I would have done it earlier - I certainly meant to, but then I forgot.
I'm too wrinkled to pretend I'm any younger without actually perpetrating a hoax, but, hell, it might be worth it.
The younger you are, the more likely a huge advance, apparently.
"Literary prizes promise large chunks of cash to the best work of fiction by somebody under 35 (the Somerset Maugham Award) as though being young and creating good fiction is to be lauded above being middle-aged and doing the same," writes Alexandra Jackson over at Spiked. Not only that, but:
"Luke Brown, assistant editor of Birmingham-based publishers Tindal Street Press, agrees that it is a 'more attractive proposition' to a publisher if a book is written by a young slip of a thing as it gives 'an extra edge' when trying to publicise the product."
Funnily enough, while Jackson bemoans the cultural implications of this Author Idol fetish, her main concern is for the poor wee things rushed into print before they're fully cooked.
"We run the risk of turning them into one-hit wonders - like Donna Tartt who disappeared for 10 years after her debut novel The Secret History's astounding success, only to return with a critical failure, The Little Friend. And Alex Garland, whose follow-up to The Beach was a fraction as successful. Or we turn them into dashing Israelites, bringing forth unleavened bread. Anna Stothard's Isabel and Rocco, for example - published when she was 19 in a gap year between school and university - is reviewed on Amazon by reader Laura Bennett, who compares the novel to 'a flower which had been forced to bloom too early'."
Granted, no book should be published before it's ready - that's the editor's job. Perhaps it wasn't ever going to get any better, or perhaps once you've written one, like anyone else, and learned the discipline and sharpened the skill, the second one may be better? Perhaps people get invested in your original voice, and don't like it if you choose not to write the same book over and over?
But what's the alternative? Tell Donna to wait a few years before submitting Secret History? Would that have made it any better? How would it have helped her write her next novel (unless you believe that great art only arises from poverty)?
The problem may not be so much at that end of the career, as the other - or indeed even the middle.
"Brown confirms that mid-range authors are now dropped by publishers rather than being allowed the steady development and natural progression that they once were."
That gives late-bloomers like me something to look forward to...

Friday, February 24, 2006

So long as we don't have to wear silly hats

The Observer reports that Daisy Goodwin, the UK TV presenter dubbed the "Nigella Lawson of poetry" (why oh why hasn't she made it onto our TV screens yet?), warns that poetry is dying and will soon be as quaint as morris dancing: "really interesting to people who do it, and incomprehensible and slightly annoying to people who don't."
"Twenty years ago everyone could name a Larkin or a Betjeman poem and had read them. I think you'd be very hard pressed to find anybody who could name a poem by any of the top 10 poets today. It's an endangered species."
Really. Why could that be?
If Larkin and Betjeman were still writing today would anyone buy their poems? Of course. People still do. Betjeman might have dated, but let's say Frost or Auden. Still selling.
Frankly I'd be hard pressed to name the current top ten poets, let alone any of their work. Name the top ten Victorian poets. Or at least five. Easy. Name a few Romantics. Even easier. (Spandau Ballet doesn't count.) War poets? Forties and fifties? How about Shakespeare and co? You studied them in school. Harlem poets. Beat poets. Feminist poets.
This generation?
Well, that's another matter. When's the last time a new poem made your jaw drop - with insight, technique, humour, emotion - anything?
Christopher Logue's War Music.
Thom Gunn's Collected.
Perhaps Dorothy Porter's Crete.
At the risk of sounding like dear departed Auberon Waugh (to whom blank verse was a greater evil than nuclear weaponry) ... I don't know what the backlist/frontlist ratio is, but I imagine that most poetry that people do read was not written in the past twenty years, with a few very specific exceptions (Seamus Heaney, perhaps - even the much-awarded and commercially successful Carol Ann Duffy doesn't sell as many as you'd imagine: either of them can do the jaw-drop thing).
Apparently sales of poetry in Britain last year sank to 890,220 books, the worst performance in years. I'd bet that 800,000 of those at least were older collections and anthologies. The 90,000 were probably by Pam Ayres. I'm guessing the other 220 were by contemporary poets.
Few publishers consider books of poetry any more, unless they are classics or reshuffled anthologies suitable for the education sector. (Although there are still some popular and terrific books of poetry being written for children or young readers.)
So why be a poet? That way lies madness, starvation and infamy. Just ask Shelley.
The charming and erudite actor and writer Stephen Fry has (no, really) been called the Delia Smith of poetry. (I hate to think who's going to be the Jamie Oliver.) Fry recently described, in his book The Ode Less Travelled, modern poetry as 'arse-dribble'. It may be a little sweeping, but he's got a point.
I can't imagine Stephen Fry morris dancing, though, so perhaps there's hope for us after all. I'd like to see him and the real Nigella reading the Brownings on TV. With a live studio audience.
Still, there's progress of a sort. Says Duffy, who might have been Laureate:
"In the 1970s ... older male poets, the Larkin generation, were both incredibly patronising and incredibly randy. If they weren't patting you on the head, they were patting you on the bum".
Just to rub salt into the wound, Roy Hattersley in The Guardian reminds us what a remarkable poet was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and provides this fine insight:
... It is one of [Robert Browning'] "difficult" poems that provides the best, if an unintended, tribute to his wife. It is not one of the love poems from Men and Women but the much earlier Andrea del Sarto, subtitled The Faultless Painter. Andrea - said, in his time, to be a better draughtsman than Raphael - lacked the genius that produced "ardour and admiration". Elizabeth was exactly the opposite. There are rough passages in her poetry but the quality is beyond serious dispute. The disturbingly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Oxford's first professor of English literature, compared her to Christina Rossetti. Elizabeth, he said, often lost her footing, but - unlike Christina - never feared to leap. That is the poet whose work we ought to remember this year.
Andrea del Sarto could equally operate as a spur to would-be poets to remember vitality, drama, image and craft.
Reading it was one of those moments for me that Poet Laureate Andrew Motion would like all schoolchildren to experience.
I can still hear Mr Lewis's voice, echoing in the stuffy portable classroom on a hot Melbourne afternoon, and still get goose-pimples when I read it now:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
-Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat -
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world...
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?


"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline but that every word should tell."
- William Strunk and E. B. White

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


You don't just write a book nowadays. You have to go multimedia.
Well, I do, anyway. After years of working on the web, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't use it to promote the books. So I've spent hours and hours putting together a website for kids (no, you can't look at it yet but soon it'll be live: with lots of historical background on real pirates and ships, and stuff to read - which I'm still writing.
But it can't just be any old website, you see. I've spent years being paid to nag people about style and usability, and indeed reworking old sites and intranets to make them better. So my website has to be a model of usability and readability. Except it's designed for kids, so my usually inflexible rules are slightly bent.
But because I haven't actually had to build a website for several years, just bossed around people who do, and because I do it in fits and starts in between real work, and because I can't remember any coding, I've spent four times longer than necessary faffing around with Dreamweaver and forgetting how to do things or where I've put files or what colours go where and changing my mind - it's damn fiddly.
OK, maybe it would have been better to read the software instructions first, but that goes against the grain.
Then there's another blog, aimed at kids who have read the books, so they can leave comments there instead of writing or emailing. I've just been posting an edited version of the Malta trip notes and the thing about ships over there. That's also in hiding at present, but it is live.
But now everything has to be done before the book is launched, and like all journalists I'm better with a deadline.
Still, it's better than sorting out the GST return or preparing funding submissions, which is what writers actually do all day.

PS Isn't that weird? "Blog" isn't in the Blogger spellcheck dictionary.

Monday, February 20, 2006

All booked up

Ah. Two weeks of solid writing time stretches ahead.
Early morning beach walks. Decent espresso any time of the day. Cicadas in the ti-tree and chooks in the backyard. Lunch with a book in the sun. Me'shell NdegeOcello on continuous play through my headphones ("Just sit back, relax/Listen to the 8-track/I'll dig you like an old soul record"). Writing. Although I'm getting rather hemmed in by books.
I don't know where they all come from, these books. They follow me home like stray cats. It's a mystery, honestly.
I left Australia with two boxes of books: essential references and half my reading pile. All the rest were packed into dozens more boxes and sit patiently in storage in Melbourne.
I worry about them. Maybe there's a silverfish in my Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Maybe it's too damp for poor old C.E.W. Bean. He's been through enough. Perhaps a possum is nesting, as we speak, in a shredded box of travel narrative or Fiction B to C.
But there they are. And here I am. Every so often I feel a desperate need to look up something in The White Nile. Or read all the Aubrey books one more time. I've had to buy new copies of War and Peace, Tacitus and The Dam Busters because I'd left them behind. You just never know what you'll need.
I accidentally bought another copy of The Victorians - when it arrived I thought it looked rather too familiar, and then remembered it was in the other half of the reading pile.
But perhaps they are somehow making their way over the Tasman, because in the two-and-a-half years I've been in NZ the original two boxes seem to have bred rather more offspring than you would have thought possible. There are three boxes sitting here in the study now, several piles on the floor and desk and three piles on the table and every shelf crammed. Perhaps I shouldn't have bought the 1951 Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it's so nice to have some kind of definitive answer on questions that have been bothering me (when was the last Auto de Fe, for example, or the spread of movable type through Europe). Not that I sit around idly worrying about such things - it's research. Mostly.
Then there was the school book fair in Napier the other week. I picked up stacks of kids' books, including a few I hadn't been able to find anywhere (like Jill Paton Walsh's Fireweed). The day before I'd been to a bookshop in search of Ronald Welch's The Gauntlet. At the fair, there was the same bookseller, arms full of purchases, and on the top of her pile was dear old Ronald. She handed it over without even blinking, for me to buy instead.
"Found it!" Bless her.
(She was from The Little Bookshop, Latham St, Napier, and specialises in kids' books: she does run a book finding service, but I don't think it's usually that fast.)
Normally I don't buy ex-lib books, but somehow the familiar Dewey Decimal sticker on the spine of a much-thumbed Puffin makes it seem like an old friend.
Anyway, I've been threatened with divorce if I don't get another bookcase soon. Things are getting serious. I'll have to ban books from entering the house. Set up an x-ray machine at the front door. Tell the postie not to deliver anymore parcels.
In about six weeks' time my own first book will be in the bookshops. I'm going to go into Whitcoulls and stare at it. Then I'm going up the road to Dymocks to stare at it. Then I might see if it's in Borders.
I might even buy a copy. Just because I can.
We'll let that one in the door.
But now I suppose I should go and write some more of the bloody things.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Choose your weapon: pen or sword?

For many years, Lothian was one of Australia's proudly independent publishers: among other things, they published a great many memorable children's books.
Around Christmas, Lothian announced that it had been sold to Time Warner Books.
Another independent bites the dust, we all thought. Writers react cautiously to such announcements until the implication are clear. Sometimes it spells the end of a brave publishing heritage: the dearth of poetry published by major publishers is one indicator of that change.
But life's hard for small publishers these days - in fact, any days - and some authors will argue that it's much better dealing with a large house with a range of imprints and greater resources.
It's certainly been proved possible to retain an independent style, even as part of a large company: British feminist press Virago, for example, has already been part of the Time Warner company for some years, and has had some of its greatest and most controversial successes in that time.
But back to Lothian: Time Warner Books division has now in turn been purchased by Hachette Livre, owner in NZ of Hodder Moa, and a range of worldwide imprints and an impressive backlist - mostly obtained through last year's purchase of Hodder Headline.
Nobody's complaining too much about Time Warner Books finding a home in a company committed to publishing. It had been looking for new owners for some time, and there's no suggestion of mass retrenchment or backlist sell-offs. The US$537 million deal makes Hachette the first French publisher to move into the US market and the world's third largest group, after Pearson and Bertelsmann. It will also be the biggest in the UK, with a share of 16 per cent compared to 14 per cent for Random House.
But Boyd Tonkin in The Independent raises the issue of the multifaceted nature of Hachette Livre which makes money from both the "pen and the sword": book publishing and munitions. So The Kangaroo Who Couldn't Hop is not just in the same house as Tipping the Velvet - you can get a three-for-one discount on a nuclear warhead too.
Tonkin urges Hachette Livre to give up the bomb and learn to love the book.
But perhaps even more interesting is this:
"Hachette Livre will take over from the German firm Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, as effectively the biggest British book publisher. Factor in the 5 per cent or so of the UK market currently controlled by the Holtzbrinck family firm, via Pan Macmillan, and almost four out of every ten books sold in Britain will soon come from a company with French or German parents.
Talk to many French and German writers, and you will never hear the last of the way that 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural capitalism is crushing distinctive European identities under its brutal corporate heel. The balance-sheets tell a very different story."

See A Week in Books

A difficult man

"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
- Thomas Mann

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Asked by the Royal Society of Literature to nominate his top 10 books for schoolchildren, Britain's Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has suggested Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Waste Land and Paradise Lost.
"Of course it's a high ambition," he told the Guardian. "But I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn't read these works. They are wonderful, profoundly democratic works of art, but because some of them have a reputation as difficult they are put in a box and called elitist."
Former teacher JK Rowling's suggestions seemed all (of course) terribly commonsensical - the sorts of books you hope that everyone is still reading at some point in their school life. But she doesn't include any poetry at all.
Philip Pullman astonished me by choosing The Magic Pudding, beloved of all small Australians. He suggests, very sensibly, a range of myths, legends, fairytales, and ballads, but he's rather keen on Coleridge, saying that it had been a "mesmerising" experience when a "wise and far-seeing teacher had, without explaining anything about it, read it aloud to my class when I was about seven".
I remember it as unrelenting agony, in spite of a wonderful teacher. Same goes for Milton. And I was much older than seven. I think that's a form of child abuse, myself.
Still, Pullman does admit: "Other writers have gone for the great works of western literature on their lists. I do think it's a little bit ambitious to expect schoolchildren to read Don Quixote and Ulysses."
Perhaps. Just a little bit.
Some will, of course. I don't see any reason why a 16 or 17 year-old might not enjoy The Odyssey, if it was presented the right way. Ulysses I'm not so sure about. In fact, I've blocked out reading it altogether.
And I'm with Motion on all the poems, although I might have added Browning for a bit of drama.
I can still recall the days in Form Five I spent reading Prufrock (and I still remember most of it) and The Wasteland. It was life-altering. We had the enormous Norton Anthology of Poetry (Donne! Marvell! Owen! Auden! Langston Hughes!) thrown at us, and I found other stuff in there I'd never have seen otherwise.
I certainly read all of Motion's list in either school or the first year of college (when I was 17) so it's not impossible. For some.
But of course the problem with these kinds of lists is that everyone leaps to defend the lowest common denominator: I'm sure Andrew Motion wasn't imagining six year-olds ploughing through Paradise Lost. The argument, surely, is that all children ought to be given access and encouragement to read the breadth of English (and other) literature, without being forced to endure classmates reading Don Quixote out loud every Wednesday afternoon for an entire term. That way lies oblivion - and possibly the opposite effect to the one desired.
In defiance, Carol Sarler comes out as "one of the great unread" in The Times:
"Motion's own list included hurdles for children such as Homer's Odyssey, Henry James's Portrait of a Lady and James Joyce's Ulysses ... if we are to give Mr Motion the benefit of all doubt and believe that he honestly seeks and finds pleasure in, say, James Joyce, then I shall say this: if you want fewer adults such as me, not reading books at all, you need fewer adults like him, stuffing them up the noses of children."
Perhaps if Motion had been asked to provide a list of the ten books most likely to encourage kids to read, and keep reading, he might have chosen differently. So, perhaps the question ought to have been: which classic, familiar books can introduce young readers to literature and history (and not turn them off reading forever)?
I also note that none of these books have been written after the 60s - surely something essential has been published in the last forty years? Which reminds me, my brother told me this anecdote about Joseph Heller:
A journalist asked him why he hadn't ever written another book as good as Catch 22.
Heller replied, "Who has?"

Anyway, here are the lists:
JK Rowling
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte«
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield Charles Dickens
Hamlet William Shakespeare
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Animal Farm George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
Catch-22 Joseph Heller

Philip Pullman
Finn Family Moomintroll Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives Erich Kastner
The Magic Pudding Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
'The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens' (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairytales

Andrew Motion
The Odyssey Homer
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost John Milton
Lyrical Ballads Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady Henry James
Ulysses James Joyce
The Waste Land TS Eliot

Here's mine (but I'll change my mind in a few hours):
If This Is A Man
David Copperfield
Jane Eyre
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Pride and Prejudice
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Little Prince
The Eagle of the Ninth

(For Australian or Kiwi kids, the lists would be slightly different)

Young adults ought to be able to read The Sheltering Sky, Brideshead Revisited, I, Claudius, and Ragtime.

Damn - now I'll be making lists in my head all night.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Night Watch

Sarah Waters' new historical novel, The Night Watch, bursts out of the Victorian footlights and into the blackout: it's set in inner London, in the Blitz and the bleak years just after the war. Great reviews so far.
Rather perversely (pardon me) I haven't bought or read it yet, because she's coming to Auckland in a week or so and I'll go hear her read. What I really want to do is sit down and pick her brains, because I've recently written something for kids set in the same place and time (weirdly enough called Firewatcher) and doing the research from the other side of the world is a much longer, slower process than it ought to be.
But enough about me. Jenny Turner's review in LRB not only gives you an overview of Waters' previous work, but it's also a snappy piece of writing in itself:
There is nothing obviously postmodern about The Night Watch – no footnotes, no funny type, no authorial interventions – and yet, in an important sense, it’s a novel not set in the past at all, but in the ‘palpable present’ (the phrase again is James’s) of its own research. Everything in it is written in the footprint of the available evidence – the films, the photographs, the novels, the voice recordings, all the ‘little facts’ that James so disdained – but with every scrap of it reconsidered, reimagined, refelt. The style, completely different from that of Waters’s Victorian books, is that of a writer who has absorbed many, many novels of the 1930s and 1940s; it’s damped, inward, even a little brusque (Waters herself has called the effect ‘restrained’). It’s modern without being Modernist, exactly. It has Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann in it, and Patrick Hamilton, and Denton Welch. The language is rich in period detail, not locked up for best in the china cabinet, but out there among the everyday cups and saucers, working hard...

I, who gasped out loud several times during the reading of the book in question, love this image: "The wonderful Fingersmith surely took the queer 19th-century pastiche as far as it could go. The tale is sensationally melodramatic: while composing it, Waters recalls rubbing her hands at her desk, cackling demonically at its sudden drops and turns."
You can read the review in full here.

Just fun

The other day I noticed a kid reading on the ferry. He was about 11 or 12, a normal-looking sporty kind of kid who likes cricket and has his own surfboard. His dad was talking to him, his sister poked him a few times. He didn't even look up. He was so engrossed in his book that his dad had to force him to stand up when we docked. He kept reading all the way down the stairs and across the gangplank, his dad carefully watching his precarious progress.
But of course, we all know sporty boys don't read. Do they?
So what was he reading?
Just Disgusting, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton.
I read my nephew's copy of their Just Stupid at Christmas and it was pretty stupid. And cool and funny and even sometimes wise. They are wicked short stories, told by Andy as if he were a kid, about being rude and farting and picking your nose and picking on other kids and teasing your sister. And boys love them.
Griffiths has just been appointed an ambassador for this year's Premier's Reading Challenge in Victoria.
He's probably best known for everyone's favourite naughty titles, The Day My Bum Went Psycho and Bumageddon - The Final Pongflict. The Bad Book (also with Terry Denton) was banned by a handful of schools and bookshops.
"For a lot of kids, I think the key to the door to start reading is to make it fun," Griffiths told The Age. "For some kids that will be humour, for some it will be fantasy adventure, but once you're in, it doesn't really matter how you got there."
"I get letters from parents saying 'my kid was not interested in reading or he didn't read at all and then we found one of your books ... and now he's reading lots of different books'."
The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy report, released in December, showed that although Australian schoolchildren ranked in the top four in reading for OECD countries in 2003, 8 per cent of year 3 children and 11 per cent of year 5 and 7 children did not meet minimum national benchmarks. Results for indigenous children were even worse.
Griffiths said: "One thing that concerns me is that many primary schools don't have a full-time librarian. That really horrifies me because someone has to be in touch with what's going on with books and with the kids and be able to put the right book in the right hand at the right time. And I certainly think the research is in now on the benefits of 15 minutes of [parents] reading to a child a day."
The annual Premier's Reading Challenge encourages children from prep to year 9 to read 15 books (30 for prep to grade 2) by August 30. Ten of the books (20 for prep to grade 2) are to be from a recommended list of 3800 titles. The full list comes out this weekend. I bet The Day My Bum Went Psycho is on it.

Don't get even, get mad

"The best emotions to write out of are anger and fear or dread ... The least energizing emotion to write out of is admiration. It is very difficult to write out of because the basic feeling that goes with admiration is a passive contemplative mood."
- Susan Sontag

Back on deck

Apologies for the deafening silence the last couple of weeks. I've been commuting into town to earn my keep. But it was worth it: I got out on the water twice a day on the ferry, and the Auckland Anniversary Regatta a few weeks ago brought a flock of tall ships into port. Good old Soren Larsen was around for a while, and I felt sure that the Spirit visited us briefly. I recognise her profile. Now Windeward Bound, the brigantine that famously recreated Matthew Flinders' epic voyage, is tied up at Princess Wharf. She (like Endeavour) looks frighteningly small to venture out into the Tasman, let alone halfway around the world.
As if that weren't enough, one day I pounded around the corner to come face to bow with the QE2. She may no longer be the biggest ship in the world, but she's still one of the most elegant, for my money, looking for all the world like a Cunard Deco poster. I shouted aloud in excitement. I'd only seen her once before, dwarfed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but she towered over the Hilton on the wharf. Six men were abseiling down that famous funnel, painting, like tiny Action Man figures.
The next day I heard her horn, sounding the departure - it was deafening, even all the way down at my office in Westhaven (about a twenty minute walk).
The following morning, her berth was taken by Aurora, a megalithic white office block of a ship: she accommodates 1,950 passengers, has an atrium with a "Lalique-style waterfall" and three swimming pools (including one with a sliding glass roof). The day after, the brand spanking new Diamond Princess arrived, all 116,000 tonnes of her. Both seemed even more monstrous than QE2, but less dignified.
The ferries turn and dock right next to the big ships so we get a tug's-eye view of the hull.
My personal favourite is the relatively miniscule Clipper Odyssey, which looks like an elegant version of those wonderful coastal tramps that ploughed their way from Hong Kong to Vladivostok via Shanghai in the '30s. I imagine Marlene Dietrich singing Brecht in the piano bar at cocktail hour.
I grew up watching ships come and go - "under the hook," as they say in Port Melbourne. Nobody throws streamers anymore, which I'm sure is much better for the environment, but really rather sad.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Awarding history

A former diplomat and UN campaigner has won a prize for new UK children's authors with her tale of an orphan living in Georgian London.
Julia Golding won the second £1,000 Ottakar's Children's Book Prize for her debut novel, The Diamond of Drury Lane, and hopes to reawaken interest in historical novels for children. "It's a dream come true," she told the Independent. Maybe now is the time for a historical children's book. We've had a lot of fantasy."
The book tells the story of Cat Royal, who was found on the steps of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane in January 1780 by the theatre owner, Mr Sheridan.
Surprise, surprise - it has contemporary relevance. Julia Golding works for Oxfam, where she joined a UN campaign to reduce the number of arms in the Third World and their impact on children.
"We have so many cushions, such as the health service. There was none of that for my character, which is the situation facing many children today. Life is tough for most children around the world, and that's how my characters found it."
"I'm particularly interested in how people cope with historical moments in our life. I was thinking about the French Revolution and what was happening in London at that time, when to be outspoken could be a death sentence. It's not intended to be didactic, but there's a keen interest in politics which informed the book."

I like her.

The shortlist also included:
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (Random House)
Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach (Walker)
The Quantum Prophecy by Michael Carroll (Harper Collins)
Gregor and the Rats of Underland by Suzanne Collins (Chicken House )
Jack Slater Monster Investigator by John Doghety (Random House)
Ralph the Magic Rabbit by Adam Frost (Macmillan)
The Lottery by Beth Goobie (Faber)
North Child by Edith Pattou (Usborne)
Spymice by Heather Vogel Frederick (Penguin)

No message intended

"You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books 'represents' something in the world," CS Lewis once wrote to a group of schoolchildren. "Things do that in The Pilgrim's Progress but I'm not writing that way."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

On the other hand

Storylines (the Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand) has announced this year's list of Notable New Zealand Books.
Ten books in four categories have been selected, from more than 120 books published during 2005.
Rosemary Tisdall, chair of Storylines, said "creating the list was an exciting challenge as the overall quality of New Zealand children's writing and illustrating continues to improve, except in picture books where too many were quite ordinary, with no real attention to quality writing, illustration or design."
The selectors "were impressed by the increasingly varied range of topics, styles and genres coming through from New Zealand publishers."
Given that many of the Notable Books are on the list of New Zealand Post Book Awards for children's writing announced last week, it's interesting that one group of judges believes the "days of political correctness are over", while the other panel recognises that the already well-endowed field "continues to improve."
Surely there's something else going on here. This year, the NZ Post Book Awards proclaimed: "Some people might be concerned with the content and language used in some of the novels, but it seems writers and publishers are really beginning to ask what, exactly, our young people want to read about."
It made me wonder what they said last year...
The 2005 young adult fiction winner was Malcolm and Juliet by Bernard Beckett and the judges' comment at the time was:
"Malcolm and Juliet is the winner because of its startling originality, breathtaking turn of phrase and diamond sharp wit. The frank depiction of teenage sex might be a little confronting for parents, which means it's probably right on the money for its target audience."
The wonderful Clubs was the outright winner last year, lauded by the judges as "a new way to tell stories, new ways to use pictures and new ways to mix the words and pictures together".
So this latest crop isn't a breakthrough at all. I can only assume that this year (and last) the NZ Post judges are trying to encourage good behaviour, by which they seem to mean realism and tackling contemporary issues.
But in doing so they run the risk firstly of making it seem as if they are criticising authors such as David Hill, Kate De Goldi and many others who have been writing smart and relevant contemporary work for years. It's unfair to suggest they haven't previously asked themselves "what, exactly, our young people want to read about".
Secondly, they are in danger of dismissing books that are not about or set in contemporary NZ, or which are in other genres - such as Margaret Mahy's fantasies.
I'm not sure that they actually meant to do either of those things, but I do worry about this general idea that the only fiction that kids ought to read is stuff that is about the modern world that they know, realistically described.
There are many ways of looking at, living in, describing, understanding and reading about the world.
There's nothing wrong with pure escapism, either, especially if your little corner of contemporary society is too much to bear.
But writers of historical fiction (and fantasy) often make clear - and sometime obtuse - parallels, analogies and insights that can be drawn from writing set in other places, or other times, or perhaps other worlds. You don't have to hit readers over the head with it, or hector them. But the lessons of history anywhere in the world can be just as compelling, sometimes more so, than the lessons of modern urban Kiwi or Aussie life.
Applied history, if you like.
I'll write more on that again soon.
In the meantime, here are some of the Notable Books of NZ published last year, with congratulations to all concerned:
Janie Olive by Fifi Colston (Scholastic New Zealand)
Through Thick and Thin by Shirley Corlett (Scholastic New Zealand)
Hunter by Joy Cowley (Puffin)
Super Freak by Brian Falkner (Mallinson Rendel)
Stella Star by Brigid Feehan (Scholastic New Zealand)
Sil by Jill Harris (Longacre Press)
The Moa Cave by Des Hunt (HarperCollins Publishers)
Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy (HarperCollins Publishers)
My Story: China town Girl – The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland, 1942 by Eva Wong Ng (Scholastic New Zealand)
What about Bo? by Jillian Sullivan (Scholastic New Zealand)

Deep Fried by Bernard Beckett and Clare Knighton (Longacre Press)
Sea of Mutiny by Ken Catran (Random House New Zealand)
Talking to Adam by Sarah Ell (Scholastic New Zealand)
Like Wallpaper. New Zealand Short Stories for Teenagers edited by Barbara Else (Random House New Zealand)
Bodies and Soul by David Hill (Scholastic New Zealand)
Running Hot by David Hill (Mallinson Rendel)
With Lots of Love from Georgia by Brigid Lowry (Allen & Unwin)
Kaitangata Twitch by Margaret Mahy (Allen & Unwin)
The Unknown Zone by Phil Smith (Random House New Zealand)
Land of Milk and Honey by William Taylor (HarperCollins Publishers)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Awards silly season

The Herald reported yesterday that:
The finalists in the 10th annual New Zealand Post Book Awards for children's writing were announced today, with organisers declaring the influence of political correctness on subject and content matter was over.
Judging panel convenor Julie Harper said all the finalists had demonstrated a pride in New Zealand and its heritage, from the natural world to the country's recent history.
Ms Harper said fellow judges - TV3's Carol Hirschfeld and writer Graeme Lay - had spent the summer reading books written by New Zealand authors which included tales of cannibalism, Maori land and environmental issues and smart young characters taking on international corporations.
"The age of political correctness is over with our children's writers becoming more confident in writing about - in particular - issues related to race and Maori land."
The finalists were selected from more than 120 children's books published in New Zealand in 2005 and submitted for the awards. The winners will be announced on May 17.

Once more with feeling: "The age of political correctness is over".
What's that mean?
That shrinking violets such as Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and David Hill have been in previous years too timid to tackle issues affecting young people in New Zealand?
A similar claim from Linda Kelly about "whitewashing" in publishing in a recent NZ Author was greeted with a fiery response by authors such as the redoubtable Tessa Duder, who wrote: "the extravagant, unsubstantiated claims made in this piece could be easily be refuted by any author, publisher, bookseller, librarian or teacher with a working knowledge of just what is being currently published here and elsewhere."
I'll have to do some more thinking and talking to understand what's going on here.
In the meantime, here are the fiction finalists:
Junior fiction
Hunter, by Joy Cowley (Puffin)
Maddigan's Fantasia, by Margaret Mahy (HarperCollins Publishers)
My Story: Chinatown Girl - The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland, 1942, by Eva Wong Ng (Scholastic NZ)
Sil, by Jill Harris (Longacre Press)
Super Freak, by Brian Falkner (Mallinson Rendel)

Young Adult
Deep Fried, by Bernard Beckett and Clare Knighton (Longacre Press)
Kaitangata Twitch, by Margaret Mahy (Allen & Unwin)
Running Hot, by David Hill (Mallinson Rendel)
The Unknown Zone, by Phil Smith (Random House New Zealand)
With Lots of Love from Georgia, by Brigid Lowry (Allen & Unwin)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pure reading

The truth is that literature, particularly fiction, is not the pure medium we sometimes assume it to be. Response to it is affected by things other than its own intrinsic quality; by a curiosity or lack of it about the people it deals with, their outlook, their way of life.
- Vance Palmer

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Historical fiction dilemma #4: Character

Sometimes characters come easily. Other times they slip through your fingers like baitfish, or change imperceptibly through the writing until they become someone completely different. Sometimes they are natural, and the dialogue spills out of them as if they've had a few beers after work. Others grind and scratch - usually because I haven't understood them properly from the first.
Historical characters are all too often caricatures. The women are feisty. The working men are gruff and unshaven. Ship's captains are either Hornblower without the seasickness or Ahab without his whale. Officials and governors are duffers.
It's easy to understand how this happens. Sometimes it's done playfully, or in tribute, or as part of an infexible rule of genre. I've done it.
But unconsciously, what we think we know about people of the past is fixed in our minds by our own reading (or even movies) so it feels natural to recreate favourite Austen or Dickens figures. When I think of the French Revolution, what I'm imagining is Carton on the scaffold while Madame Defarge knits, or Hilary Mantel's tragic Desmoulins - or perhaps even the Scarlet Pimpernel. That's in spite of having read thousands of pages of non-fiction on the subject.
It also feels natural to imbue them with our own contemporary attitudes. Sometimes this works, especially if it's done consciously. In Fingersmith Sarah Waters rendered a Dickensian London around a Collins plot topped by a layer of feminist perception - perfectly. In other cases, the characters simply don't ring true, no matter how meticulously their outfits are described.
Readers expect some post-Freudian, or even post-Flaubertian, depth - and fair enough, too - which results in self-aware characters, living in pre-Freudian fictional worlds.
You won't get away, nowadays, with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens, for all his intricate plotting and forensic detail, was hardly a light touch with the quill.
When, recently, I read Adam Zamoyski's 1812, I saw Pierre trudging through the snow with the other prisoners of war, and Denisov in every guerilla attack.
James Wood touched on Tolstoy's genius for creating historical characters and detail in his rather scathing review of John Bayley's The Power of Delight in the LRB:
"For Tolstoy, Bayley suggests, creation of character was not really a voluntary act, a willed thing; it was something he almost could not help, and his favourite male characters, like Stiva Oblonsky or Pierre Bezukhov, or even, in a way, Napoleon, share with Tolstoy this infectious, involuntary solipsism: they cannot help being themselves. It is the same with Tolstoyan comedy: 'In general we feel about Tolstoy's humour that he is not concerned with it himself, and probably rather despises the notion, but that it comes out from under his hand involuntarily when his narrative is at its best.' This is very subtle, and similar subtlety is brought to bear on Tolstoy's superlative use of detail. Detail is not lovingly fondled and fetishised as it is in Flaubert or Nabokov or Updike; it is always on the move: 'At their best, Tolstoy's details strike us neither as selected for a particular purpose nor accumulated at random, but as a sign of a vast organism in progress, like the multiplicity of wrinkles on a moving elephant's back.' At moments like these, Bayley seems to see literature from the inside, as writers themselves do.
Tolstoy, like Chekhov, makes most writers seem forced, hysterical, self-indulgently 'stylish'."

Historical fiction dilemma #3: Readership


I am told that I talk in shorthand and then smudge it.

- J R R Tolkien