Thursday, August 30, 2007

Great Depression

It spoils you for reading, does writing. If you read anything and think “Oh, this is far better than I can do”, you get really depressed, and if it’s not as good, you think “I don’t know why this thing got published.” Either way you lose.
~ Alan Bennett, at the Edinburgh Book Festival (listen to it here)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dream boat

The Guardian reports that "more Britons dream about becoming an author than any other job, according to a new survey.

A YouGov poll has found that almost 10% of Britons aspire to being an author, followed by sports personality, pilot, astronaut and event organiser on the list of most coveted jobs."

Needless to say, the paper blames JK Rowling for the phenomenon, no doubt along with the eclipse, the death of Elvis, and the fall of the Roman Empire.
And who am I to argue with the aspiring writers of Britain?

I'd just like to know how "event organiser" got up there along with astronaut.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

So choose carefully

To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company.
~ André Gide

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What he said

There’s been a bit of a blog flurry around David Levithan’s speech at the Reading Matters conference earlier this year.
I missed the speech, but arrived at the conference a few minutes later to find people in disarray having been blown away by the content. I’ve heard quite a few people refer to it since, so it was clearly well-timed for some of the people who were there. So I admit there’s been a bit of build up about his words of wisdom, prior to me listening to the podcast.
And don’t get me wrong: it’s good. Reminders about prejudice and the need to fight back against fear are never wasted. People come and go in any industry – new people need educating, veterans need reminding, people who didn’t want to hear from you last decade are now all ears.
He’s dead right that there could be more young adult literature that speaks of and to the experience of young gay men and lesbians – just as there should be more YA literature that reflects the reality of the lives of many other young people – most notably in this country young Aboriginal people, and young people from a range of cultural backgrounds.
But Levithan has made the classic conference speaker’s mistake of jumping to generalizations, in this case a broad and vaguely offensive conclusion that Australia is “25 years behind” the US in terms of public discourse around issues of sexuality.
I could quite easily stroll into any conference of librarians in the US (or the UK, or almost anywhere else for that matter) and make the opposite pronouncement. A public conference aimed at teachers, librarians and publishers is not the same as real life Manhattan – or inner-city Melbourne or Sydney or London.
I could quite easily stroll down the main street of a rural town in the US (or Australia) and get my head kicked in because of the way I look. Maybe that’s not so much of a threat as it might have once been, but it’s still there.
I could have my own books banned by school boards in some US districts because characters commit blasphemy or swear.
Perhaps the oddest comment was his statement that he wouldn’t ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they were gay, for fear of recrimination. I don’t know who put the fear of God into him, but I laughed out loud at that comment.
Gay men in a library? Lesbian school teachers? Perish the thought. (I'm not saying there's no discrimination - I laughed at the idea that those assembled before him were somehow more vindictive or oppressed than any other group he'd ever addressed.)
It’s a crock to suggest that Australian writers, publishers – and librarians – haven’t thought about these issues, or that good strong and sometimes even wildly popular books on the issue have never existed.
They have. Of course, not as many as there could be. And maybe not so many right now. But there are myriad reasons for that and it’s not because this country is more backward that the US or that the country’s librarians, teachers, publishers and writers have discouraged it.
I can think of a few reasons immediately. First, a whole lot of the people who might have been writing those books didn’t survive the 1990s.
Second, many of us are writing about other stuff because we are all people of many interests and we’ve said – over and over and over – as much as we can say on the topic. Indeed, many of us have raised exactly the same general issues as Levithan, over many years and to many different audiences and readers. Some of us are tired of talking about it, or would at least like to talk/write/think/listen about other issues for a while. Some - like Christos Tsiolkas - wrote a brilliant and earth-shattering book focused entirely on young people, and have now moved on to broader concerns. That's OK.
The issue of homophobia hasn’t gone away. There will be good, perhaps great books and films and albums and plays and articles and even speeches made about it – here and in the UK and the US – maybe next week or next year or next decade. It’s been like that for all of my adult life and I don’t see it changing.
It’s wonderful to challenge people, to confront them and rouse them into action or to encourage them to take on those vampires in their heads. I loved those inspiring words of defiance, and I can tell that they had an effect. I’m with him all the way on that.
It’s also critical that we question any prevailing prejudices that might affect the books to which young people have access.
But it’s never a good look to patronise an entire community on the basis of a few comments over morning tea.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What she said

Sophie Masson on writing for children:
I've written both for adults and for children, but far more for children than for adults. And that's first and foremost because I enjoy it more. Not because it's easier - it's certainly not - but because it's freer in terms of imagination and invention, more fun, more versatile, more elastic. It's the way my imagination works. Like most children's writers, I remember very well what it's like to be a child, and also what children enjoy reading--and that can range very widely. I can write many more different sorts of books, tackle all kinds of genres, periods, stories...

Read the full post (from way back in June, but I've been a bit preoccupied), and some thoughtful comments, on the Good Reading blog.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why writing matters

Earlier this week I sat in the audience while publisher Louise Adler, from Melbourne University Press, delivered this year’s Redmond Barry Lecture on Why Writing Matters.
It wasn’t, frankly, what I was expecting, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected Ms Adler to mince words.
... why does writing matter in the age of the image? When we are inundated by images of despair, disenfranchisement and deracination, why do words carry so much significance?
...Writing about terror can help us understand what we fear, but it can also engender a sense of the world as a frightening place. Perhaps writing about terror brings us too close to it? Should we resist, on principle, understanding how terror works? Or is it in fact the duty of literature to continue to explore such the question of man's inhumanity. George Steiner asked a version of this question in relationship to Nazism. “I am not sure whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on these dark places can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of the human potential”.
I have been thinking about the problem of writing about terror and the Holocaust for some time. Most novelistic attempts leave me with a sense of discomfort; the literary re-imaginings of that period can seem vaguely prurient and even self-indulgent. Today we are confronted with new horrors, new terrors to consider. The question is how can literary writing appropriately respond to the moment.
...Once we belong to a community of readers, we can begin to think aloud, to think together about hopelessness and that becomes, in itself, surely a cause for hope. And equally importantly precisely why writing matters.
Her lecture has been published in full by The Age, and will be available soon as audio soon, along with previous years’ (pardon the plug), here.
I’ll come back to the topic of writing about the Holocaust shortly.

[Days later ... you can listen to the lecture here.]