My research is largely in the field of poetry and poetics, so not surprisingly poetry frequently makes its way into The Mind Field. I’m particularly interested in times that poetry hits not the literary pages but the political pages: when a poem by Günter Grass, for instance, made international news for its allegation that Israel poses a greater threat to world security than does Iran.
I’m also interested in moments when poetry – perennially undervalued in western nations – asserts its public worth: when an autographed manuscript of Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance fetched $15,000 – twice the anticipated price – at an auction at Bonhams; or a poet upturns a literary truism to become a bestseller.
More broadly I’m also interested in interrogating literature’s standing in public space.
Literary prizes, as one measure of literature’s standing, offer one of the few opportunities outside of the classroom for a shared-reading experience that allows us to engage in a conversation about literature, language and our lives.
Beyond being a high-profile marketing exercise – and no lover of literature should deny it that – the chief value of literary prizes is to curate a year’s worth of books. With around 8,000 titles published each year in Australia alone, this is an important if thankless task that literary judges perform on our behalf.
Literary prizes tell us a lot about of culture: not simply what they says about books, but what we say about prizes. The Stella Prize, for instance, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Miles Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011. The Miles returned rally with its first ever all-female shortlist in 2013, leading some to question whether women had suddenly become better writers or if judges were suddenly better at recognising them.
Sometimes science tells us what readers already suspect: that reading great literature can makes us better people. Recently, scientists have shown how fiction has the power to change future behaviour. Similarly, an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, has offered experimental evidence that reading literary fiction – as distinct from reading popular fiction or nonfiction – enhances empathy and makes us better at managing complex human relationships.
I’m interested in investigating the many ways that language – our most quintessentially human of arts – makes us who we are. I’m also interested in examining times when language fails us, which is another way of saying I’m looking forward to the next traumatising round-up of The Bad Sex Awards – alongside less excruciating dispatches – coming soon to The Mind Field.
You could forgive a reader for thinking that journalists were writing about 16-year-old Lorde who topped the US charts last week with her song Royals, not a 28-year-old writer who already has an award-winning book under her belt, as well as a degree in English from the University of Canterbury, a Masters from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.
That’s the extent to which journalists around the world made a fuss of Eleanor Catton’s “tender age” - which anyone reading the book pages must know by now is 28 (I can even quote her birthday without Googling: 24 September, which makes her a Libran) - when her 832-page novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Until Catton displaced him, Ben Okri held the record for youngest Booker winner when he won for The Famished Road (1991) at age 32. Before him it was Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, who were both 34 at the time of their respective wins for Remains of the Day (1989) and Midnight’s Children (1981).
There are a number of reasons why Catton’s age might have become the headline: the Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize and to win at all is a colossal achievement. And she did break the decade barrier. The profiles of Booker Prize winners show that most of them have their first success at around 30, peak in their 40s, then die twenty-odd years later.
Historically, some literary giants are late bloomers, yet many others burn bright from an early age. Alexander Pope wrote his much-anthologised “Ode on Solitude” when he was 12 and published The Rape of the Lock (1712) when he was 24. By 24, Shakespeare had written Henry VI (1591).
By age 20 Jane Austen had written Sense and Sensibility, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein - both books were published a few years later in 1811 and 1818 respectively - and Rimbaud had retired from writing.
Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther (1786) when he was 25 and Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights (1847) when she was 28 - by that age John Keats was already three years buried.
Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises (1926) at age 27, but F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t publish The Great Gatsby (1925) until he was 29 - in fairness he already had published two books before he composed his Jazz Age classic. Likewise Bret Easton Ellis published two novels before American Psycho (1991) appeared when he was 27.
But authorial precocity is not quarantined to centuries past: Zadie Smith published White Teeth (2000) when she was 25 - the same age Jonathan Safran Foer was when Everything Is Illuminated (2002) came out.
Of course none of these writers won the Booker: it didn’t exist until 1969; and American authors, until last month, have been barred from entering.
“People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” she says.
London-based New Zealand author and critic CK Stead got stuck on what he called the novel’s “chintzy upholstered tone”. He also became an antagonist in a particularly apoplectic review by Michael Morrissey, a 71-year old novelist and poet from Auckland, who writes:
“Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well?”
Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, so Morrissey informs us, was “written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so)” and “set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so.”
The Rehearsal, Morrissey concedes - published in 17 territories and 12 languages - was “an impressive achievement for one barely out of school uniform”.
But before he can find his way to the text, Morrissey has more to say about Catton’s person: “The pensive-featured, marginally beautiful Ms Catton was made an adjunct professor at Iowa University.”
(At this point in the review, I scrolled to the masthead to see if I had stumbled onto The Onion or some other satirical site.)
He also offered Catton some grandfatherly advice, inside which is a wonderfully wrong prediction: “she must not let potential Man Booker (which will probably go to Jhumpa Lahiri) go to her thought-crowded head.”
At least Nicholas Lezard had the grace to wrap his envy in humour: “Failure is good for the soul,” he writes. “At least that’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the successful young.”
But Catton has better things to do than to contemplate the not-as-successful-as-they’d-like-to-be old.
“One of those things that you learn in school about any kind of bullying is that it’s always more to do with them than it is to do with you,” she says. “I don’t see that my age has anything to do with what is between the covers of my book, any more than the fact that I am right-handed. It’s a fact of my biography, but it’s uninteresting.”
Eleanor Catton has already sold the rights to The Luminaries, which she hopes will become a boxed set television show, rather than film. If she succeeds, which I’m betting she will, it will be a bucket of water in the face for “select male reviewers over 45”.
“I’m melting,” they will cry as they fall in a puddle - but no one will be listening.
The world of letters is in shock to learn that Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s best-loved poet, died on Friday at age 74.
“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney,” publisher Faber and Faber said on behalf of the family. “The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness.”
Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
In his Nobel lecture he described his “journey into wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one’s poetry or one’s life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.”
A lifelong advocate for poetry, Heaney credited his art “for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”
Heaney was born a Catholic in Northern Ireland in 1939 and raised in a thatch-roofed farmhouse called Mossbawn. Drawing heavily on his rural beginnings - which would remain his spiritual home long after he left - he published his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966 at the age of 27.
The opening poem, “Digging,” introduces the spade-pen metaphor that would become definitive for Heaney. In its concluding lines the poet, who has been watching his father dig potatoes in the garden, rejects the life of toil known to his forefathers and announces his vocation as a poet:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s early books “wanted to be texture,” he reflected in an interview in The Paris Review, “to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words.”
There is a sense, in reading these poems, that Heaney would prefer to write language-driven poems of love, inward reflection and deep wonderment at natural beauty: “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss,” he recalled in “Personal Helicon.”
But Heaney was a poet afflicted with a sense of history, and soon his country had him writing with a knife.
As Northern Ireland descended into violence - “a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste” - Heaney was forced to become a poet of public as well as private life. Not infrequently his state of being was at odds with the political state.
“In his writing, the public and the private compete for space,” critic Helen Vendler observes, “and the tragic and the quotidian contest each other’s dominance.” The pressures of Heaney’s public role found grim expression in works such as North and Station Island.
His later works reveal a desire to write a kind of poem that could not be ensnared in cultural debate. “This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.”
Alongside his work as a poet, essayist and translator, Heaney enjoyed a distinguished career as a teacher and professor. From 1985 until 2005 he spent part of each year at Harvard as a visiting professor, and from 1989 to 1994 he was professor of poetry at Oxford.
Heaney’s thirteenth and final book of poems, Human Chain, was written in the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in Donegal in 2006. Forward Prize judge Ruth Padel described the winning collection as “painful, honest and delicately weighted.”
Steeped in memory, the poems are marked by loss and a sense of an impending end. In a poem called “A Herbal” the poet has stepped into the future to witness himself in past tense:
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
The place inside Heaney that granted him a sense of home - even if at times it was a troubled home - was the wild beauty of Ireland. At a poetry reading at Silkeborg Museum in 1996 Heaney shared a childhood memory of the peat bog, which for him was the source of all Irish memory and ancestry:
I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear.
Seamus Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.
While Kevin Rudd was in Darwin proclaiming the need for “a national imagination” to grasp the economic potential of northern Australia, his Arts Minister, Tony Burke, was in Brisbane to celebrate the nation’s top imagination-makers at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, announced on the terrace of the State Library last night.
Burke no doubt won the gratitude of the winners, who each received a tax-free $80,000, but he also earned the hearts and minds of the audience - an assembly of publishing-industry players - when he affirmed the importance of literature as “a reminder of what is important to a nation”. Burke announced the winners in six categories:
Future Awards, Burke said, should include the categories of playwriting and screenwriting.
In his introductory remarks he said that he had spent “a lot of time reading and studying and thinking about” all of the shortlisted titles, especially the winning titles.
But John Kinsella’s collection of poems, Jam Tree Gully, seemed to be a particular favourite. Burke, who takes time out of every day to read a poem aloud, quoted one of Kinsella’s poems called “Sacred Kingfisher and Trough Filled with Water Pumped from Deep Underground”, which frames the intelligence of a bird that reads a coffin-like trough as a container for “dead water / from deep in the earth”. The judges described the collection “as an extraordinarily attentive chronicle” to life in the wheat belt of Western Australia:
Referencing Thoreau’s wish, in Walden, to “live deliberately”, Kinsella’s poems offer keen observations of animal life (wild, feral and domesticated), landscape, weather, and the social life of Australian country towns and the small properties that encircle them.
In his acceptance speech, Kinsella - who has written more than 20 books of poems and is known for his environmental ethics - urged people to observe “the small changes in the environment, which are actually massive.”
“My work,” he said, “is not an instruction. It is a plea to look around.”
Kinsella was not the only writer to use the platform to send a message. Michelle de Kretser used her acceptance speech not simply to thank Kevin Rudd for bestowing the nation’s richest literary prize upon her, but also to attack him for his “callous and shameful” asylum-seeker policy.
De Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel, which also won the Miles Franklin earlier this year, interweaves the narratives of two travellers: Laura, a discontented Australian tourist, and Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee. The judges commented:
As they crisscross the world and each others’ paths, never quite escaping the ties of home, de Kretser’s novel assembles an array of encounters and experiences for each of her travellers to raise questions that are droll, piquant, satirical, sometimes devastating.
Deploying a quotation from Franz Kafka, de Kretser argued that literature should be “an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” With Tony Burke standing at her side, she concluded her speech with an anaphoric address to her benefactor: “Mr Rudd, I hope you read my book. I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you think. I hope it breaks your heart.”
After the ceremony several people remarked that they had thought de Kretser was building to a refusal of the prize or perhaps an avowal to donate the money to charity. “You have given me $80,000 and I have given you a book,” she had said, suggesting an imbalance of economy.
Nobody in their right mind would deny de Kretser the opportunity to express her views, and many will be grateful that she did. But bad press offers little incentive for politicians to keep literary prizes in the budget.
Prizes that are not bestowed in perpetuity (as is the Miles Franklin and other philanthropic prizes) can be cancelled in an afternoon, as we saw in 2012 when the Newman Government cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, in part to save costs but more likely in dark response to the 2011 shortlisting of David Hicks’s autobiography, Guantanamo: My Journey, which caused furious commentary in conservative circles.
May we hope that whomever is Prime Minister following the 7 September election will continue to uphold the importance of literature in building the nation’s imagination.
Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. With de Kretser’s win the count creeps up to 15. The awards were notable this year for being the first in the prize’s 56-year history to have an all-female shortlist.
According to Neville, chair of the judging panel, the 2013 Miles Franklin was also one of the largest with 72 entries, and he described the judging process as “exhaustive”. Of Questions of Travel, which takes its name from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, Neville said:
Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful novel centres on two characters, with two stories, each describing a different journey. The stories intertwine and pull against one another, and within this double narrative, de Kretser explores questions of home and away, travel and tourism, refugees and migrants, as well as “questions of travel” in the virtual world, charting the rapid changes in electronic communication that mark our lives today. She brings these large questions close-up and personal with her witty and poignant observations and her vivid language. Her novel is about keeping balance in a speeding, spinning world.
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. She was educated in Melbourne and Paris and has worked as an academic, an editor and a book reviewer. She has written three previous novels: The Rose Grower; The Hamilton Case; and The Lost Dog, which won Book of the Year at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and was longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction and the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
Neville was joined on the judging panel by Murray Waldren, journalist at The Australian newspaper; Anna Low, a Sydney bookseller; Craig Munro, book historian and former editor at UQP; and Emeritus Professor Susan Sheridan.
Well this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist by 4:1, and now the judges - for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history - have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female:
The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.
The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.
But any point of distinction the Stella Prize sought to make has not eventuated. In fact the 2013 Stella and Franklin shortlists look remarkably similar.
Not only are both lists composed entirely of women, but Tiffany and de Krester appear on both. And while first-time novelist Romy Ash fell off the Stella shortlist, she has held her ground in the Miles Franklin.
But in what appears to be a blatant - but not unwelcome - effort to muscle its way back to Australia’s top dog literary prize, this year the Miles Franklin has increased its cash prize by $10,000 to $60,000.
And Miles Franklin shortlisted authors needn’t feel pressured to follow Carrie Tiffany’s generous lead in returning $10,000 of her Stella Prize win to share equally among her shortlisted comrades.
In another new initiative, Miles Franklin shortlisted authors will be awarded $5,000 in prize money by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, a long term partner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
It’s a win-win situation, for Australian women authors at least.
Speaking on behalf of The Trust Company, which manages the estate of the late Miles Franklin, Simon Lewis congratulated all the shortlisted authors:
The shortlist demonstrates how strong Australia’s pipeline of female literary talent really is, as witnessed with last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder, as well as by the growing number of first time female authors included in the long and shortlists in recent years.
“We look forward to announcing yet another outstanding Australian female literary talent on the 19 June as the 2013 Miles Franklin Award winner,” Mr Lewis said.
Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. This year the count creeps up to 15.
On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast.
Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.
“For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.
Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza - lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” - is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.
Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen - who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice - provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
The handwritten “Ode”
Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams.
The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.
Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front - many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.
Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” - meaning to despise or treat with disregard - or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.
Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.
However, the British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”
The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.
But that’s not the only anomaly.
In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra - “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” - in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.
Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.
The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors.
Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer.
Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.
It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany - who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds - looks set to do.
Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.
In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award - a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” - which is yet to release a shortlist.
It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.
Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.
“When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.”
At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:
The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth:
He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down.
But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered.
At a ceremony held at London’s stately Naval & Military Club (better and perhaps more aptly known as The In & Out) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.
The judges were impressed by Huston’s alliterative descriptions of the human body - “flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements” and “my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water” - giving special mention to this passage that reminds readers (or not) why the brain is the largest sex organ:
When our bodies unite for the third time we leave all theatres behind. What happens then has as little to do with the libertinage prized by the French (oh the blasphemers, the precious precocious ejaculators, the nasty naughty boys, the cruel fouteurs and fouetteurs) as with the healthy, egalitarian intercourse championed by Americans (who hand out bachelors degrees in G-points, masters in masturbation and Ph.Ds in endorphines).
The undaunted might like to read a more graphic excerpt at the Guardian. Huston, who now lives in Paris, did not cross the channel to collect her award, but she did send a brief acceptance speech:
I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers' bodies in all states of array and disarray.
The plural possessive apostrophe, I’m told, is not an error.
Huston - whose accolades include France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, and a shortlisting for the 2010 Orange Prize - is only the third woman to win the Bad Sex prize since its inception in 1993.
Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals.
“Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”
“It could also be that very creative types lead a Bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would. Moreover, it’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated in creative people. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.”
Maybe so, but as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award - Britain’s most dreaded literary prize - has underscored since its inception twenty years ago: quantity can be a poor substitute for quality. The literati may well be getting more sex than the rest of the population, but if the hairy, wubbering, nosh-inspired sex of contemporary novels is anything to go by we should all settle down with accountants.
Literary Review journal, which hosts the Bad Sex Awards, claims that “the purpose of the prize is to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.
The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature: “In a year in which the country’s obsession with mummy porn, red rooms of pain and Christian Grey has reached fever pitch,” the judges reassure, “Literary Review is proud to continue its gentle chastisement of the worst excesses of the literary novel”.
In other words, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was deemed not eligible, nor in any need of further attention.
Last year Australia saw a favourite son, Christos Tsiolkas, slapped with a Bad Sex shortlisting for his bloodthirsty passages in Dead Europe, of which these sentences, paeans to the abject, are emblematic:
It's okay, I whispered ... I was immersed in the slush of her moist meat ... Her body stiffened but I forced her legs apart and pushed my face into her groin. The smell was overpowering. It was as if her cunt was a cellar filled with a heady store of wines and spirits, all emitting wafts of gaseous bouquets that recalled all the possible eruptions of the body. She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.
Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn't be blamed for having skipped forward to - "flipped forward to" if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise "scrolled to" or "used the 'find' feature" to locate the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and at the same time, for shuddering at the prospect of it?
but won the 2011 Bad Sex Award for awkward jobs like this:
He was waiting for a display of need. So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man's-land between her "front parlor" and "back door" (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighbouring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried). She gave him this particular sign, this clear permission, and he began a careful prodding of her perineum, which was as good a starting place as any for Diane, because it instigated those processes of memory her sexuality required. It triggered memories with the uncanny force of déjà vu, and what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse thick with green tomatoes.
He could have won for this lurid but deadly sentence alone: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. But the judges were also impressed by his field notes - as typified by pubic hair “like desert vegetation following an underground stream” - and highlighted a passage that should caution writers against employing a sniffing possum as vehicle in a breast metaphor, especially if one intends to sup on it:
He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.
In 2010 Somerville had the good humour and courage to man up to accept the honour in person: “There is nothing more English than bad sex”, he said, “so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you”.
In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. "Give me no quarter", he commanded. "Lay it on with all your might."
Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle's own lips and maw — all this without a word.
He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down. “The cartel, sells, to the global market”, he panted. “The price is inflated because production has been capped!” She began to pant in unison with him… “Cartel evades export controls. Market capitalisation of western miners stays low. Massive, one-way, bet”… He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness.
The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London next month.
While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize.
Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer’.
‘Mantel has recast the most essential period of our modern English history. We have the greatest modern English prose writer reviving possibly one of the best known pieces of English history’.
Bring Up the Bodies is the second instalment in Mantel’s historical trilogy, following Wolf Hall, which itself won a Booker in 2009.
‘Nobody, including me’, Mantel said, ‘expects a writer to do it twice. But it would not be human to not want to win’.
Mantel’s triumph makes her only the third person in history to win a double Booker and catapults her into the literary empyrean - along with Australian author Peter Carey, who lives in New York, and South African Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee, who lives in Australia.
But in the end Mantel’s win came down to firsts: she became the first British author to win the Booker twice; the first author to win Bookers for back-to-back books; the first author to win for a sequel; and the first woman author in history to win two Man Booker prizes.
Mantel told reporters that Bring Up the Bodies was ‘a more fully achieved book than Wolf Hall. Formally, it probably has the edge.’
At her win three years ago Mantel, 60, said she would be spending the £50,000 ($AU 78,000) prize money on ‘sex, drugs and rock 'n’ roll'. Today she joked it would be spent on rehab.
After a brief reappraisal she added: ‘my pension, probably’.
Mantel now faces the daunting task of completely the final instalment in the trilogy, to be called The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell’s story until his execution in 1540.
‘Personally’, he said in the Huffington Post, ‘it means very little to me’ because, he admits, ‘I am a miserable person. And I can’t suspend disbelief in social constructs of any kind, as you might be able to tell from my fiction’.
Nevertheless, the boon to sales for a Man Booker winner is considerable. According to the BBC since 1996 every winning book has grossed more than $AU 1.5 million. Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, which won in 2002 and has since been made into a film directed by Ang Lee, made just under $AU 10 million. Last year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, has sold more than 300,000 print editions in the UK alone.
According to the latest figures, Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies has sold more than a hundred-thousand copies, which is more than the other 11 Man Booker longlisted novels combined.
The 44th Man Booker shortlist comprised six authors: may their names be known to you and their books enjoyed.
Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets - all Nobel laureates - Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR.
Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.
The 105th Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to novelist Mo Yan from China for his many works, the Swedish academy said, of “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.
The announcement was made at 10 pm (Australian time) on Thursday evening. When the academy phoned him at home to inform about the prize, Mo said he was “overjoyed and scared”.
Born Guan Moey, Mo assumed his non de plume - meaning “don’t speak” - to remind himself to hold his tongue and avoid trouble. He is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Gao Xingjian won in 2000 but by then he was residing in Paris).
Mo admits that early on his novels were fuelled by a desire to escape poverty. But these days, as one of China’s bestselling authors, money is no longer the motivator.
Mo came to fame with Red Sorghum, a novel set during the Japanese occupation which was made into a film directed by Yimou Zhang in 1987.
His other books include his masterwork, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and the more accessible Garlic Ballads, a beautiful yet brutal novel about the suffering of farmers ordered to grow garlic crops in Revolutionary China.
Following the Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry earlier this week, the literature prize is the fourth and one of the most anticipated announcements the Nobel season. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced today at noon, followed by the Economics Prize on Monday.
Following tradition, laureates will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of the death of the prizes' eponymous benefactor, Alfred Nobel, in 1896.
Campbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website.
But miraculously - or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community - a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title.
Short on lead time and with no funding in place, the group led by Matthew Condon, Krissy Kneen and Stuart Glover assembled in April to create a website and Facebook page which attracted more than 1000 fans in under a week.
The inaugural Queensland Literary Awards, announced last night in Brisbane, were described by Frank Moorhouse - winner of the QLA Fiction Book Award for his novel Cold Light - as “the noblest prize this year.”
“It has some cache because it’s a citizen’s prize,” he said, “not the Premier’s prize.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by Anna Funder in her Miles Franklin acceptance speech earlier this year, Moorhouse expounded: “Governments are not only there to legislate, but to affirm civilised values.”
“But if citizens are going to have to fund it with two dollars here and five dollars there,” Moorhouse continued, “it is rather a shameful situation. It sends a very sad message to kids who want to get into the creative arts.”
“Style,” Gore Vidal defined, “is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” And that is precisely how Vidal – daring, bawdy, an intellectual swashbuckler – lived his life, which ended in the Hollywood Hills on the evening of 31 July.
Vidal knew that to write well an inner daemon must be allowed to break free. He could always be counted on for a wicked aphorism (“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”), a devastating put down - necessarily unfair but not necessarily untrue - or a contemptuous critique of the day:
“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”
Or: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half”.
But Vidal could also hold a mirror – fleetingly at least – to his own shortcomings: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
He also called himself “the gentleman bitch” of American letters. “I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Vidal’s oeuvre showcases, if barely contains, his dessicated humour and freewheeling intellect – few topics were beneath him – as well as his prodigious knowledge of politics and history and his will to live as he pleased.
Born in 1925 at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, Vidal wrote his first novel, Williwaw, when he was 19 years old and serving in the Army.
He went on to write more than 20 novels, notably the Narratives of Empire series – a heptology of historical novels, Lincoln: A Novel being the most distinguished – that chronicles the dawn of the “American Empire” to, in Vidal’s eyes, its decay.
But Vidal is most admired – and will likely be remembered into the future – for his essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for the collection United States: Essays 1952–1992. “Whatever his subject,” the judges extolled, “he addresses it with an artist’s resonant appreciation, a scholar’s conscience and the persuasive powers of a great essayist.”
In 1997 Vidal visited Australia as a guest of (then NSW Premier) Bob Carr, whom Vidal described in interview with Richard Glover “as terribly intelligent, and he reads a great deal”.
Similarly Vidal met Gough Whitlam in 1974 and considered him – in contrast to the “smooth lawyers with blow-dried hair who look wonderful on TV and don’t know anything except how to take orders from the corporations” – “far too well read for his position in life”.
Carr farewelled Vidal, describing him as a great polymath: “a thoughtful, ideologically consistent, extremely committed and an American isolationist”.
“Gore Vidal’s passing at age 86 is a loss to his country, to literature and to history,” Carr said.
“There won’t be another mind like his.”
Vidal will be buried in a plot he will share with his life partner of more than 30 years, Howard Austen, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.
In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.
From the front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.
Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing - “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” - have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.
Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.
The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction - “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” - has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.
Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body - and mind - to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain. “If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines”.
The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end - “A warning sign of any sort? God no” - leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:
... I'd picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the
I'd crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That's just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny
planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter.
Past their use-by date. The utter
Of trying to maintain one's dignity
amid one's pain.
There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams - “those private myths of plaintive distress” - yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him. “It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic”.
Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:
Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.
With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:
The world received us into its citizenship.
I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We
wept. The buildings all fell down. And even
my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning
for water, as usual.
Parched. The desert parched. The parched
lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded
syrup on the mind.
I imagined lying between her legs.
Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had
always been like that.
Her fine, hard, bared crotch.
Plus, on your death bed you would not
remember any particular tax return over
Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.
In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.
At first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it.
Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away - to the few who might enquire - their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity.
But all this bellyaching conceals an interesting fact: some poetry books actually do sell. Some sell very well indeed. Some poetry books are even bestsellers.
Immediately Shakespeare struts upon the stage. And in fact Shakespeare is the best-selling poet in English of all time. The author of - at least as we are able to count his works today - 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a handful of others, Shakespeare has been generating sales in a proliferation of editions for the past 400 years.
But what about poetry sales not mounted over time, but poetry titles that sell well in a single year? Well, things get interesting.
Figures out of the United Sates - a significant market for literature in English - do not rank Shakespeare as number one on their bestseller list for poetry. The best-selling poet in America today is not only dead but he - let gender be no surprise - he didn’t write in English and he’s not an American.
The prize for best-selling poet in America goes to a poet in translation: Jalal al-Din Molavi Rumi. A Sufi poet known to Iranians as Mawlana. Or, to Westerners, simply as Rumi.
Rumi was born in Balkh (now in Afghanistan) in 1207, but he lived most of his life in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. His major work is a six-volume poem, Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur'an. Rumi’s general theme is the concept of tawhid - union with his beloved - and his longing to restore it. He writes:
There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?
Judging by sales, Rumi’s voice touches the contemporary reader with the same fervour as it did 700 ago. It touches celebrities too: Madonna set his poems to music on Deepak Chopra’s 1998 CD, A Gift of Love. Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; Philip Glass has written an opera - Monsters of Grace - around his poems; and Oliver Stone apparently wants to make a film of his life.
American poet Coleman Barks, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for bringing Rumi’s poetry to the English-speaking masses. Barks is not a scholar - and he doesn’t speak a word of Persian. But this didn’t stop his book, The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins 1995), from being the most successful poetry book published in the West in recent years.
Coleman has come out with a new book of Rumi translations every September for the past decade. Even the 9/11 attacks didn’t subdue the public’s interest in mystical Islamic verse: Coleman’s The Soul of Rumi, released days after the Trade Centre bombings, went on to become a bestseller. Barks himself seems surprised by his sales and confesses:
“I once calculated that Rumi books sell at least a hundred a day right through weekends and holidays, while my own writing goes at about twelve copies a month, worldwide. In other words, Rumi’s work sells at about 365,000 copies a year; Barks sells 144. Those numbers keep me humble.”
Rumi is popular not only in America but also in Australia. Nevertheless his book sales - Barks’s translations as well as other scholarly editions - fall short of granting him primacy. Neilsen BookScan, which records book sales in Australia since 2002, reveals twentieth-century Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, as the clear favourite.
Born in 1883 in Bsharii in modern-day northern Lebanon, Gibran died of liver failure at the age of 48 in New York. The Prophet, his first book, was published in 1923. Its fame spread by word of mouth. By 1931 it had been translated into 20 languages, and in the 60s it was a hit with American youth culture. It’s been popular ever since.
In the fictional set up for The Prophet, Almustafa has lived for 12 years in the foreign city of Orphalese and is heading home when a group of people stop him. He offers to share his wisdom on an array of issues pertaining to life and the human condition: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, crime and punishment, beauty, death and so on. The chapter on marriage is perhaps the best known, as it’s a regular in wedding ceremonies. A testament to love (and an argument against co-dependence), it concludes:
Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and they cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
It’s interesting to consider why Rumi and Gibran are so popular with the reading public. Surely it’s not a matter of quality.
We live in an age where spirituality-lite is a hot commodity in the marketplace. (Rumi himself is not ‘lite’ - he was a devoted Muslim and a respected theologian - but Barks’s bestselling translations have bowdlerised almost every reference to Islam from his poems.) As Western culture has become increasingly secularised and a widespread suspicion of organised religion pervades, it seems many readers have turned to the mystical poem as a vehicle for contemplation.
But thinking about bestselling poetry, there’s one more quality worth mentioning.
Laughter. In terms of sales for an individual poetry title, the second ranked poetry title in Australia is Michael Leunig’s Poems (Viking 2004). Which goes to show that while Australian readers like thinking about god, they have retained a sense of humour.
“Poetry makes nothing happen”. It’s the most often quoted line of W.H. Auden’s famous elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” - it could even be the most quoted line of his career. People draw on it when they want to denigrate poetry: if one of last century’s great poets thinks poetry is more impotent than important, why should they have to read it?
But these readers tend to forget (or choose to ignore) what comes next: poetry survives, Auden asserts, “in the valley of its making”. It is “a way of happening”, he continues, “a mouth”. Auden was a realist and knew that poetry couldn’t stop the approaching machinery of war – the elegy was written in 1939 – nonetheless he upholds the human need to commune with other humans.
But might literature – novels, plays and, yes, even poetry – be more than a mouthpiece?
Literary aficionados and librarians have long argued the edifying effects of the literary arts, but until now they have been noticeably short on evidence. A recent study at Ohio State University, however, has confirmed that literature does in fact “make things happen”.
In the right situations, the researchers found, reading fiction can lead to measurable changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers. In jargon that Auden no doubt would have choked on, the researchers coined the term “experience-taking” to describe the phenomenon in which readers feel a character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs as their own.
In one experiment, 70 heterosexual male college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions: in one the protagonist was revealed to be gay early in the narrative; in another the protagonist was identified as gay late in the narrative; and in a third the protagonist was identified as heterosexual.
Results showed that students who read the narrative in which the protagonist was identified as gay late in the story reported higher levels of experience-taking than those who read the narrative in which the protagonist’s homosexuality was announced early.
“If participants knew early on that the character was not like them – that he was gay – that prevented them from really experience-taking,” Libby said. “But if they learned late about the character’s homosexuality, they were just as likely to lose themselves in the character as were the people who read about a heterosexual student."
Perhaps more importantly, the version of the story participants read affected how they thought about gays: those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.
Significantly, those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.
Similar results were found when white students read about a black student who was identified as black early or late in the narrative.
Experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to empathise with another person’s experience – but without losing sight of their own identity. “Experience-taking is much more immersive", Libby explains, “you’ve replaced yourself with the other”.
Interestingly, experience-taking only occurs when people are able to “forget” themselves – their self-concept and self-identity – while reading. In a fascinating experiment researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle that contained a mirror.
When people do undergo experience-taking, however, it can affect their behaviour for days afterwards.
In an experiment which took place several days before the last US presidential election, 82 undergraduates (who were registered and eligible to vote) read one of four versions of a short story about a student who overcomes a series of obstacles (car problems, rain, long lines) on Election Day before arriving at the booth to cast a vote.
After reading the story, the participants completed a questionnaire that measured their level of experience-taking. The results showed that participants who read a first-person narrative about a student at their own university had the highest level of experience-taking. And a full 65 percent of these participants later reported they voted on Election Day. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person narrative about a student from a different university.
But what are the practical applications of this research?
While the findings would seem to validate the librarian’s clarion call to get reading - for our higher good - other implications are not so heartening.
Might the findings, for example, be used to justify whitewashing, a disturbing practice in which publishers put white models on the covers of books featuring non-white protagonists?
In 2009 Australian author Justine Larbalestier was appalled to find her American publisher, Bloomsbury, had changed the cover model on her novel Liar from black to white in an effort to sell more books. Larbalestier was successful in her campaign to have her publisher to redo the cover, arguing that the perception that covers featuring non-white models do not sell is merely self-fulfilling prophecy. But what if a deeper psychology is at play?
And who is to say that a reader’s experience-taking of less virtuous characters is not an argument for censorship? Might the psychopathy of Patrick Bateman be contagious after all, as censors insist?
Recently fierce arguments have erupted in Germany over whether Hitler’s Mein Kampf has the power to make things happen. Some might argue that the diatribe is more fiction than fact, but this side of history, at least, it is hard to imagine anyone losing themselves in the character of Hitler.
Perhaps to be safe, though, it should be stipulated that the book only be read in cubicles containing a long mirror.
If ever there was a doubt that bookmakers (as in bet-takers, not publishers) are the clear-eyed prophets of the future, it should be put to bed now.
Online bookie Tom Waterhouse called Anna Funder as the $2.75 favourite to win the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her debut novel, All That I Am.
And win she did.
Waterhouse set Gillian Mears and Foal’s Bread at $3.50, Favel Parrett and Past the Shallows at $4.50, Frank Moorhouse and Cold Light at $5 and Tony Birch and Blood at $9. Not that there appears to be much need for the views of literary critics, but if I were oddsmaker I would have shortened the odds on veteran Moorhouse for the third instalment of The Edith Trilogy.
This year, for the first time in the award’s 56-year history, the Miles Franklin awards ceremony took to the road, and the announcement was made last night over cocktails at the State Library Queensland in Brisbane.
Unfortunately, Funder wasn’t present to accept the honour as she was on a book tour in Britain. She wasn’t prepared to cancel the tour - and rightly so - unless she knew that she had won. The judges acknowledged that it was a big ask on the shortlisted authors to attend - Moorhouse, Birch and Pavel were present - without knowing the outcome.
The judges praised Funder’s All That I Am as “a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places”.
In a pre-recorded video, Funder said she was “hugely honoured and grateful” more than she could express: “Like any big prize at some level there is no way you can deserve such luck”.
Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 13 times. Anna Funder takes the count to 14.
The gender imbalance might have gone unnoticed, if it hadn’t coincided with the latest VIDA research that revealed an alarming under-representation of female authors and critics in international literary pages.
Back in Australia, female authors were horrified to find VIDA’s inequities replicated in Australian publications. In sharp response, Sophie Cunningham and a handful of writers, publishers and commentators decided to do something about the lack of profile accorded female authors.
The result is a $50,000 literary prize for a book in any genre by a female Australian author: The Stella Prize. The eponymous award retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin believed she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer.
Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Whitlock framed the shortlist in terms experience rather than gender:
“The breadth of the shortlist includes well-known and loved Australian authors, as well as featuring two wonderful first-time novelists.”
She also highlighted the power of historical fiction (Funder and Moore) and an observable turn to trauma narratives and childhood (Birch, Mears and Parrett).
Debates on gender - along with the concurrent debate on the invisibility of Australian literature - are useful and will lead to greater understanding of our literary milieu. But it would be a travesty if these conversations were to throw doubt over the merits of the female authors shortlisted amid the uproar.
Frank Moorhouse is the heavy hitter on the list, but from what I hear the contest is still very much alive. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane on 20 June.
Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.
To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.
As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.
At least that’s the message the Vogel Award - which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin - delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.
Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.
Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.
Annie Proulx - of Shipping News fame - was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.
And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.
The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.
Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?
Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin - who has since turned 35 - could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.
The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.
(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)
But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.
The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?
There’s a famous anecdote - possibly apocryphal - that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.
“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”
Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.
But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel - and a good story can be told at any age.