The Tortoise/Turtle creaks across the finish line


Against all odds and flying in the face of doubters, I’ve reached the end of my Masters in Creative Writing.  I handed in my final paper around a week and two days and thirty minutes ago but who’s counting.  But rather than streaking gloriously across the final hurdle like Sally Pearson on steroids (who said that???) I limped on crippled feet,  Being at the opposite end from the sorely taxed brain you may wonder what feet have got to do with it.  In a moment of  misguided euphoria I used my first free morning after the FP to walk with a friend about a thousand k’s across town and back, or so it felt.  All went well until the homeward stretch when my toes on both feet began to throb mercilessly.  WTF I thought … toes?  As if the rest of me is not sufficiently disintegrating?  Et tu Brutoes?  Can’t I rely on anything?  Then I remembered.  My circulation is failing in the extremities and I’m prone to chilblains in the cold, although after trudging said thousand k’s I couldn’t see how my toes could be anything but putrefyingly hot.  But no, when I arrived back home and stripped my K-mart runners sans socks from the nether ends of me, (which on reflection weren’t the best choice of footwear for the thousand k stroll) there they were – two on one foot, one on the other, scarlet, pulsing and grotesque in the extreme … and in extremis to boot … or not to boot as it turned out.  If you’ve ever tried to devise a cunning form of unusual torture, toe pain is a good one.  For such a small and unimpressive body part, the toe packs some big nerves.  I spent the rest of the day writhing in unmitigated agony.  Even Ugg boots were too painful.  The “for strong pain” painkillers blunted the searing knife edge stabs of hot throb not one iota and several stiff brandies only made me feel sick.

The real fun came when faced with selecting footwear to go out to dinner that evening – cancelling on the basis of sore toes seeming churlish not to mention chickenish, pathetic and too difficult to explain.  Problem was anything remotely resembling a shoe that came within the vaguest proximity of the still pulsating toes, was clearly going to be out.  Warmth of course being optimal for the treatment of chilblains, and it being a freezing winter night, I could hardly go in bare feet or heaven forbid thongs.  Socks looked as though they might be possible without the need to administer a general anaesthetic, and they proved to be bearable if not comfortable.  Then I had a brainwave … sandals.  I’ve got a great pair of black ones, with a wide strap across the instep miles away from the toe area and easily able to be slipped on over the socks with nary a touch of leather to suppurating flesh underneath.  So thus it was I ended what’s been three years or so of slog literally on a whimper.

There’s lots more to say about the last few months and how I conquered literary theory, but I’ll leave that for the next post.  When my toes are better.

Oh and also … re the new title … had one of those days when I had a song on my mind that wouldn’t go away (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) and a horny backed toad insinuated itself into my attempts to come up with a new and catchier title for my blog.

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Searching for the Literary Grail

Musings on David Lodge's "Small World"

Musings on David Lodge‘s “Small World

David Lodge’s novel “Small World” has been variously described as a “campus novel”, a clever piece of “critifiction” (a combination of literary theory and practice) and an example of “metafiction”, a literary technique which self-consciously draws attention to the fact that it is a piece of “art” by subtly raising questions about the relationship between fiction and reality (also known as Romantic irony).  In other words, unlike novels which purport to take the reader on a journey out of the everyday into another world where they can suspend disbelief to the extent necessary to feel a part of the other world, metafiction deliberately reinforces the sense that you are reading a piece of fiction that has been crafted for you by a writer with designs on your intellectual capacity for reading behind and between the lines.

“Small World”, which is a fairly unsubtle play on words in itself, given the peripatetic behaviour of the academics depicted in it, is as much a discourse on literary theory and criticism as it is a very funny and entertaining novel.

In some senses it is dated, in that although the plot relies on the “internationalisation” of the campus through the proliferation of academic conferences that arose in the 1980s, and the constant criss-crossing of the globe that entailed for academics of all persuasions, in the book universities have not yet felt the impact of the digital age and are still seemingly flush with enough funds to finance endless scholarly junkets.  This somewhat archaic rendering of campus life doesn’t however detract and may indeed make “Small World” a pleasant piece of nostalgia for any academics of today who read it.

“Small World” is subtitled “An Academic Romance”, which, taken at face value, can be interpreted as the romantic vicissitudes experienced by Persse, the main character, as he pursues his perfect woman.  On another level however, it hints at the older concept of “romance”, which it seems to exemplify, through the strange, almost farcical happenings and string of coincidences which stretch the reader’s capacity for suspension of disbelief to the limit.

The story hinges on the idea of quest, both in terms of the scholarly quest for knowledge and the personal “romantic” one of Persse McGarrigle, the “hero”, suggesting naturally enough visions of the quest for the holy grail, both in the minds of the characters and those of readers.  As a devout Catholic, but also an academic, Persse appreciates the concept in two contexts – first as the Christian legend and also as proposed by Jessie L. Weston, an authority on romantic literature, as a pagan fertility ritual.  Persse is well qualified to assimilate all possible meanings of the grail, whether it be religious faith, fame, or “the love of a good woman”.  This latter takes on special meaning for him, because of his Catholicism and his credo of chastity before marriage.  Once having met the woman who he recognises at  first glance as the woman for him, and one deserving of the divestiture of his virginity, he becomes obsessed by pursuing her.  This takes him on a feverish jaunt from one international conference to another, always arriving a little too late just in the wake of her departure for another exotic destination.  Intoxicating but eternally elusive, his dream woman haunts his thoughts and fantasies to the extent he believes several times he’s found her, but then it turns out maddeningly not to be her.  Seemingly doomed to ever-lasting frustration of his desires, Persse epitomises the knight errant and his target, named fittingly enough Angelica, the fairest of damsels.

In another feat of metaphorical virtuosity, Lodge plays on the theme of the seasons, opening with a bleak and unseasonably snowy April in an industrial midlands town in England and reaching a finale with a similarly unseasonable outbreak of freak spring weather in a wintry New York, where the sudden sunshine and zephyr like breezes serve as fitting accompaniments to the fortuitous resolution of many dilemmas and an (almost) happy ending.

It is quite a feat to undertake literary criticism in a novel that is so “carnivalesque” (as one reviewer described it), and where satire frequently descends perilously close to farce, but  somehow Lodge manages it.

The romance promised by the title is there in spades, although not perhaps in the sense that many might have expected.  Liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it is a fun read for the budding literary theorist, providing many “ah ha!” moments among the hilarity.  As well, it’s been conjectured Lodge used a well known theorist, Stanley Fish, for his larger than life character Professor Morris Zapp, who has allegedly become such a favourite with readers, thanks to his continuing appearances in the three novels, that Lodge has been begged by his fans to bring him back.

It’s been noted that Zapp, along with a large number of the other characters in the novel, are none too subtle stereotypes.  Persse himself, young, innocent and charming, is typically Irish in his endearingly fumbling pursuit of love.  There are other nationally based stereotypes; German, American, French, Japanese, Italian and so on, all of whom could justifiably be described as characters who exist only to serve the plot and flesh out the dimensions of the “small” world inhabited by Lodge’s main characters.  But I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing.  Learning writers are indoctrinated with the injunction to avoid stereotypes at all costs.  They are glaring symptoms of amateurish writing, we are told, on a similarly base level as clichés, too many adjectives and using “he ejaculated” instead of “he said”.  But if they are amusing, fully drawn and possess just enough quirks to lift them from the hackneyed and banal, as Lodge’s characters are, so-called stereotypes  can work well.  In the style of the old British “Carry On” movies, recognising the stock “type” of the people making fools of themselves does nothing to detract from our hilarity at their antics.  Quite the reverse, I often think.  And of course the English are as determinedly mocked by Lodge along with all the rest, so it’s quite forgivable.

Satire is a hard thing to do well and must by its very nature rely on coincidence, another literary technique learning writers are admonished to cleanse from their drafts.  However this novel is bursting at the seams with them and each and every one admittedly exerts a huge downward pressure on the reader’s credibility.  But, in a curious way, they seemed not only necessary, but a strategic piece of plotting, and despite being as blatantly obvious as exposed airconditioning piping in a modern building, they never jar.  Plots that hinge on coincidence are supposedly weak ones, according to the writing experts, although I’m not quite sure exactly why.  Perhaps it’s because they’re too transparent, exposing some manipulative intention on the part of the author.  But isn’t all plot a devious writerly device, with the aim of grasping the reader by his eyeballs from the opening sentence, and persuading him to hang in there until the final climax?

The whole pretext of “Small World”, as previously mentioned, is to keep us aware of the authorial intention, to consistently alert us to the fact that the author’s got his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and to place his agenda of literary criticism as stage act well and truly front and centre.  Coincidence and slapstick characters are in fact just two of the many special delights of this book.

Contrivance, manipulation, gimmickry even, are devices of invention which all artists recognise as tools of their trade.  They are available for explicit appropriation in devising a work and you really can’t get by without them.  When they are appropriated with the kind of skill that Lodge has mastered, readers will not only happily go along for the ride, they will willingly conspire in relishing the artifice that is, after all, essential to all artistic creativity.

Posted in Books, Brilliant writers, Literary Theory, Writer's_life | 2 Comments

Vote for Me (please)!

best blogsThe People’s Choice Award in the Best Australian Blogs Competition is now open for voting.

If you’ve read and enjoyed anything I’ve written on here, I’d love it if you’d vote for me. Just go to

and vote before 5.00pm on Tuesday 30 April.

The competition has attracted over 1007 entrants so my humble blog will be fighting to be seen amongst the the throng, but every vote counts!  Blogs are organised on the voting site by blog name.  You’ll need to scroll to the “T”‘s to find “The All New Annals of Annabelle”.

If you’re into Twitter, the competition twitter hashtag is  #bestblogs13.

Thanks in anticipation for your support, dear readers!

Posted in Writer's_life | 2 Comments

Behind a Bush with Nietzsche

nietzsche 9

In his famous essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”, Nietzsche proposed the metaphoric scenario “when someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding”.   What he meant was (we assume – and one is forced to do lots of assuming with good old Friedrich) what kind of klutz would deliberately hide something (say his car keys) somewhere obscure (say in his socks drawer), make a huge fuss about having lost them, blame his wife, kids, the dog and anyone else unlucky enough to live with him, have a pretend brainwave, look in his socks drawer, then charge about saying “I found them, I found them, thank God someone around here has some brains”?  Hello????  Would we agree with the klutz’s latter statement?  No, and what a pain in the ass we’d think that guy was.  Good point Fried.

But, and one hesitates to be small minded here, it does raise the intriguing question of what the hell Nietzsche himself was hiding behind that bloody great bush of a moustache?  Did he ever go looking for his mouth in there, say to shovel in some Sauerkraut or take a slug of Schnapps?  One presumes he didn’t smoke, otherwise it would have given a whole new meaning to the burning bush.  Of course he did say in one of his books “the most welcome joke to me is the one that takes the place of a heavy, not altogether innocuous thought, at once a cautionary hint of the finger and a flash of the eye.”  So the mo was probably just his little joke, a cautionary hint of what might happen if you hide your Remington behind a bush.

I’ve been studying (and I use the word advisedly) Nietzsche for the past couple of weeks, the process being somewhat like trying to put your foot on a beetle that continually scuttles away just out of reach.  One of the world’s celebrated thinkers, Nietzsche is perhaps most remembered for his controversial pronouncement “God is Dead” – thereby setting himself up for decades to come as the target of countless jokes and toilet stall graffiti proclaiming “’God is dead’ said Nietzsche; ‘Nietzsche is dead’, said God”.  One wonders how he might have reacted to that, or indeed how God (presuming he isn’t dead) might have also.  If God is in fact dead, could someone please inform Pope Francis and tell him he’s been hired under false pretences.

As I understand it, Nietzsche was a forerunner of the Structuralist school of thought, or was it the Poststructuralist?  So, following along with that logic, that must make him a Prestructuralist.  I haven’t yet got to the section where they tell you what these terms actually mean, but I’m wondering whether that’s strictly necessary.  It may well be enough to just toss them into the conversation here and there, on the assumption that no-one will be prepared to admit how dumb they are by asking you what you’re talking about.  In fact,  I am beginning to think this may be the whole key to Literary Theory.  As Friedrich said, there is no truth, it is all interpretation.  How can you argue with that?

David Lodge, an eminent literary expert as well as a super-successful and entertaining novelist, obviously agrees with me.  In his hilarious book “Small World” he has a literary professor waxing lyrical at an academic conference about just this subject.  Arguing the toss between the idea that the text of a literary work is fixed, immutable and carved in stone for all time, or alternatively that it is an open book, a malleable entity, thereby offering open slather to any passing literary theorist who happens to peruse it, he pours scorn on the fixed idea.  “Not so,” he says, “language is a code … every decoding is another encoding”.   Falling into line somewhat with Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence, (or the Vicious Cycle) he goes on to describe discourse as an “endless cycle of encoding-decoding-encoding” and so on.  This is a particular problem he notes with conversation and anyone who’s played that game whatever it’s called where everyone stands in a circle and the first person passes a message to the second and so on until the message, totally garbled by then, gets back to the originator, will understand this perfectly.  “Conversation,” he says “is like playing tennis with a ball made of Krazy Putty that keeps coming back over the net in a different shape”.   A bit like Pass the Parcel when you come to think of it.

Just as I was warming to this rather clever allegory of the decoding of text and thinking how brilliantly Nietzschean of Lodge, his professor got a bit carried away.  “The tennis analogy,” he said “will not do for the activity of reading”.  Reading is not a simple batting back and forth across the net of messages from one signifier to another (now I’m getting positively Saussurian), it is rather “an endless tantalising leading on, a flirtation without consummation, or if there is consummation, it is solitary, masturbatory”.  He goes on in the same vein, warming to his subject considerably, to the point where you realise he’s obviously been reading too many Playboys and most of his audience leave, but you get the point.

A vision came to mind of these two – Lodge’s fictional professor and Nietzsche – as clearly kindred spirits – sadly separated by a century or so, but you can’t help but wonder.  Good old Friedrich of course did a lot of reading as well as writing and given that he never managed to get a relationship off the ground (other than a doomed threesome which I suspect was never consummated), it may well have had the masturbatory quality about it that the professor suggested, but then I’ve already been pretty nasty about his moustache, so this is probably going too far.

Nietzsche cycle

Posted in Books, Brilliant writers, Literary Theory, Writer's_life | 2 Comments

Have Lance will Travel


Here’s a “did you know” that I bet you didn’t (unless you’re better informed on the origin of words that I am).  The word “freelance” derives from the middle ages and refers to knights  who, rather than jousting for one side only (King Arthur for example), hired themselves out to noblemen or feudal lords on a purely non-partisan basis (hired lances or mediaeval mercenaries if you like);

Allegedly the word didn’t appear in public discourse until Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe in 1819, in the following quote:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.

This concept of “freelancer” has an upbeat, liberated feel about it, connoting as it does free of commitments, fealty, obligations and other associated hang-ups.  In its colloquial sense however, it’s often used to define a writer who isn’t employed by anyone, but just plugs away in the hope he or she can flog something off to the highest bidder.  While holding out the promise of independence, autonomy and self-determination, this form of activity is, in terms of profit making, tenuous at best and often boils down to slogging away for zilch most of the time.

This was verified at a workshop I attended a week or so ago at the SA Writers Centre, run by Helen Chryssides, a prolific and successful freelance writer.  As well as disclosing the rather quaint origin of the word “freelance”, Helen attested to the sad fact that out of every ten submissions she sends off to publishers, she averages around two acceptances.  Coming from someone who is not only a regular contributor to many popular Australian magazines and newspapers, but has also published a number of successful non-fiction books, this is not reassuring news for aspiring freelancers hoping to make even a modest living out of the trade.

 All hope is not lost however, if you follow some of the very common-sense rules of the game that Helen shared with us.  Interestingly, and in the sense that common sense is probably not all that common, many of these seem so glaringly obvious that they’re almost always overlooked.  The first and most essential skills are rather like the fundamental rules for success in any endeavour, whether it’s charging into battle on your trusty steed, or anything else.

  • The ability to meet deadlines – in other words, turn up at the battleground when you said you were going to
  • The ability to work under pressure – no matter how fierce the onslaught of the opposing forces, keep astride your mount and hold on to your lance
  • Seek out the best information – keep onside with the knights who matter, be nice to Kings and Ladies and they’ll be nice to you
  • Shamelessly self-promote, build a profile and market yourself – burnish your suit of armour to a brilliant shine

When it comes to the dreaded market, freelancers of today are surrounded by swirling mists of uncertainty thicker than any the knights of old had to contend with, and it’s all too easy to get defeatist, despondent and throw in the towel before you’ve even wiped your hands.  Thanks to technology, markets however are expanding rather than shrinking.  It’s all a matter of changing one’s perspective.  Writers are not restricted to local publications, or print media any more.  With a multitude of local, national and international publications, both print and online that cater for every level and type of taste and interest, there are virtually no avenues closed to the enterprising freelancer.  What’s out there of course tends to change on a regular basis;  some publications are folding while others are starting up.  It’s a matter of keeping in touch with what’s popular and what’s not, anticipating trends and planning ahead.  It’s very obvious when you think about it, but many publications are geared to seasonal changes (winter, spring, etc.) special events (Christmas, Easter) anniversaries (of deaths, significant world events such as 9/11) and designated celebrations (UN international days such as International Womens Day, International weeks of, years of, decades of etc.) – start thinking about something several months before these dates and then it’s just a matter of tapping into the demand that will certainly be there.

One thing I’ve noticed as a writer is that people who don’t write often ask how I come up with ideas.  Whether you write fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog like this one, the most fundamental requirement is to find something to say.  Waffling on is always a temptation but one better resisted.  Ideas for a writer should never be a problem.  But although they might be thicker on the ground than sour sobs in the garden after rain, you won’t simply find them.  They are there for the finding, but as Helen emphasised, you must recognise them and then generate the bud of an idea into a blossom before it will do you any good.  This of course requires cultivation, fertilisation and plenty of creative imagination.

When it comes to doing this productively, untiringly and on a regular basis, there are more rules, but these thank goodness are not a hardship to follow.  All you have to do is read widely and write daily.

While there were many more gems of practical advice I gleaned from the workshop, to me the most significant message was that although there won’t be any pots of gold at the end of the rainbow or anywhere else, and it’s probably wise to keep a day job or hold on to a pension or a sugar daddy or whatever other source of revenue you can muster up, there’s every reason to think that if freelancing is your goal, some time in the future something will pop up in a magazine or newspaper or online with your byline on it, if you take the right approach.

To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott, in these bustling times, a man or woman of action and industry will always find employment.


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Home on the Range with Freud or How I’m Learning to Love Literary Theory

freud and bb mountain

Freud and cowboys aren’t concepts one intuitively links together; not like say fish and chips or (to be Freudian about it) boys and girls.  They weren’t to me, at least not until I read Clare Connors’ book “Literary Theory:  A Beginner’s Guide.”  (I’ve read several of these beginner’s guides to literary theory in these first weeks of my indoctrination into the subject and all I can say is I’d hate to read an advanced guide).

However that’s immaterial to my point (as indeed much of literary theory is to life as we know it).  But I digress again (it’s becoming a habit thanks to Freud and his mates). 

Connors’ book is in fact praiseworthy.  She makes a valiant attempt to relate literary theory to (dare I say it) actual literature.  I’m one of those people who can grasp most concepts eventually, even if in a rudimentary fashion, but find the going far, far easier with examples.  In fact, bogged down in abstruse, convoluted theorizing I find myself mentally shouting “give me an example for God’s sake… please … an e.g. ….even just a tiny i.e. will do.”  Many writers consider this unnecessary.  Perhaps they think the clarity and brilliance of their reasoning is such that examples would be patronizing.  Not to me, I want to tell them.

As I understand it, literary theory is a methodology used to criticize literature.  Theory being the slippery fish that it is, there are of course more schools than you’d ever find beneath the sea, but the purpose common to them all is to get to the bottom of someone’s literary creation.  At the outset, Connors asserts that to consider literary theory as “something purely and abstractly conceptual” can make it as dull as ditch water.  I immediately recognize her as a girl after my own heart when she goes on to say that the best way to understand something is to do it:  the “have a go” principle if you like.  How this happens in her book is that she creates a process rather similar to a degustation menu; first serving up a tasty morsel of theory, then bringing out with a flourish a dish of well seasoned actual writing, to which she skillfully adds explanation, clarification and generous examples to show us how the one works with and on the other in complementary and entirely comprehensible fashion.  I feel like cheering.  It would seem axiomatic that if you’re going to teach someone the rules of dissection, you should provide a body as well as a scalpel, but it’s obviously something that hasn’t occurred to many authors of works on literary theory.

And now we turn to Freud.  To throw some light on how his psychoanalytic theories can be applied to literature, Connors takes the Annie Proulx story “Brokeback Mountain“, which thanks to the movie of the same name shouldn’t need too lengthy an explanation.  In summary, the story begins with two cowboys who initially meet rustling cattle and soon discover more satisfying things to do around the campfire than swapping yarns.  It then follows their on-again off-again encounters over many years until one of them dies.

In superimposing a Freudian interpretation on the story, Connors provides a sterling, if perhaps overly enthusiastic rendering.  To begin with, it all seems logical.  The two men are, like all of us, driven by their baser instincts, or the “pleasure principle”, but because of the need to be civilized, or adapt to the “reality principle”, they are fated to be thwarted in their desires, hunger after what they can never attain and be forever engaged in misguided attempts at sublimation.  According to Freud, this is all a result of the dastardly Oedipus complex, whereby little boys want to marry their mothers and kill their fathers and little girls want to have babies with their Daddies and get rid of their Mummies.  This happy dream of course can’t be allowed to come to pass, and fears of castration among other things quickly quench all these rampant desires, for the boys at least.  For the girls it’s a much more murky proposition, because as soon as they realize they’ll never get castrated because they already are, the rest of their lives are spent wondering not so much where it went, but why they didn’t deserve to have one in the first place, as well as why, despite their best intentions, they’ve turned into their mothers.  Well that’s roughly how it goes.

Grasping the implications of this for Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, Connors proceeds to probe their psyches with almost as much alacrity as they probe each other.  The key, it is suggested, to figuring out how these guys tick, is to analyse their respective relationships with their fathers.  Ennis as a boy had a rough time with his, being forced to witness the castration and murder of a man suspected of being homosexual.  This nasty episode only reinforced Ennis’s original “castration anxiety” (as it would) and, according to Connors, propelled him into an overtly aggressive but taciturn masculinity, a sort of “silent stoicism”.  Indeed, she goes further, suggesting that he takes on the attributes of the phallus he fears losing by assuming a character that is upright, firm and erect.  This makes even more sense, she says, when you take note of his name, “Ennis”, not very different from that much revered male organ and potentially a deliberate ploy by Proulx.  What all of this embodies (other than a preoccupation with phallic symbols) is “the displaced fulfillment of desire and the fantasised embodiment of a presence”.

Jack, whose surname, in perhaps another cleverly constructed piece of authorial irony, is “Twist”, follows a different road to masculinity.  He has been circumcised (not castrated but close according to both Freud and Connors).  Perhaps catching sight of Dad in the shower one day, he noticed that the older man had not been similarly “dick-clipped” and felt confused as to why he had been singled out for a treatment that Dad hadn’t been prepared to undergo.  This anatomical identity crisis, it is suggested, provokes a kind of modified penis envy in Jack.  Coupled with the fact that he is described as having a bit of womanly “weight in the haunch”, Connors leads us ever so gently into the idea that Jack, despite his swaggering ways, is a bit of a girl at heart.  Reinforcing this theory even more solidly is the fact that in the sexual act with Ennis, Jack takes the passive role.  Jack, it seems, on this reading, was destined to be gay, and he was a Mummy’s boy to boot, never hitting it off with his “stud-duck” Dad.

Contrary to the tone of this, I don’t think Connor’s interpretation is deserving of derision.  For all I know, it may be spot on.  Home on the range with Jack and Ennis may well be a microcosm of life seen through an Oedipal lens.  Freud’s theories about castration, desire, penis envy and the like may indeed be a way of understanding why some boys will be boys, some will just act like boys and some will be girls.  Human sexuality is a rich and unfathomable field of fascination and intrigue, as is the human psyche generally.

What I like about literary theory is that it acknowledges the impossibility of resolution.  However controversial, outlandish or provocative your ideas may be, no-one, not even it seems the author of the work, can ever prove you’re right or wrong.  Proulx may rise up in affront and claim she had no intention of suggesting Ennis was a Penis, but how do we know?  Her subconscious is presumably a mystery even to herself and if one night a ghostly phallus emerged from the primeval depths of her dreams with a cowboy’s face, some part of her brain may well have translated him into Ennis.  We just don’t know.

Posted in Books, Literary Theory, Writer's_life | 4 Comments

A hundred things to like about Canberra

canberra_parliament_houseLast time I visited Canberra was some time back in the 1980s, when there was only one Parliament House.  My recent visit coincided fortuitously with the hundredth birthday of the capital, which was founded on 12th March 1913.  It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that almost as much has changed in the intervening time since my last visit as in the hundred years since Canberra’s founding.

Founding of Canberra 1913

Founding of Canberra 1913

Of course on that day one hundred years ago when Lady Denman, wife of then Governor-General Lord Denman, announced the new city would be called Canberra, it was little more than sheep paddocks, dreams and visions.  Dignitaries at the original founding ceremony would no doubt have been stunned if they’d returned to earth to attend the modern day re-enactment of the founding ceremony to see that it was presided over by not only a female Prime Minister but a female Governor General.

Re-enactment 2013 (this time with champers)

Re-enactment 2013 (this time with champers)

The vision which shaped the city was of course that of Walter Burley-Griffin whose design won the Federal Capital Design Competition in May 1911.  Lesser known is the fact that his wife Marion collaborated closely with him on the project and deserves equal credit.  Speaking of his design, Burley-Griffin said, “I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.”

Walter and Marion Burley-Griffin

Walter and Marion Burley-Griffin

It is stunning to see how well his ideal city has been realised in today’s Canberra.  My 1980s memories are of a sterile, bare looking place, lacking in any sense of its own identity, let alone style.  Now, it is a place where graceful sweeps of open space, mature trees, gardens, wide avenues, sweeping views across the magnificent lake and modern, architecturally striking buildings combine to create an elegant city that would rival any of the world’s best.

explore-cities-canberra-canberra (1)

Home to the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, Australian National University, National Library of Australia, National War Memorial, National Museum of Australia, Old Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy), Parliament House, the Australian Institute of Sport and many more icons, Canberra is a microcosm of Australian history and culture of which all Australians should be very proud.  For anyone like me, who is interested in history, politics, and art in all its forms, it is a kaleidoscope of treasures, many of which I was fortunate enough to visit, even though I was barely scratching the surface.

Highlights included the iconic National War Memorial, a remarkable tribute to those who served in all Australian conflicts and one of the most comprehensive museums of its type in the world, Old Parliament House – a literal step back in time, new Parliament House where witnessing question time was rather like watching the performing animals at the zoo and the brilliant Toulouse Lautrec Exhibition at the National Gallery.  Catching up on my emails in the vast Reading Room at the National Library of Australia seemed a far more absorbing and important process than it normally is, thanks to the atmosphere.

aust war memorialAlthough the focal point for much of Australia’s important history and events, there’s nothing self-important about Canberra.  It’s a fresh and vibrant place, with lots of young families and legions of fitness fanatics.  I was lucky enough to stay in leafy Yarralumla (not chez the GG’s but close).  My accommodation was just minutes from the lake, which is surrounded by immaculately maintained walking and cycling trails, all of which seemed to constantly thrum to the sound of pounding feet or speeding bike wheels.  Canberra is obviously the place to be if you’re keen to join the ranks of the seriously fit.  If not, best stay where you are.

Also fortuitously, my visit coincided with the Lifeline Autumn Book Fair, a sale of second-hand books held to raise funds for Lifeline.  Housed in a vast auditorium at the showgrounds, the fair is a mecca for booklovers and of course was a must-visit for me.

book fairBeing greeted at the door by an endless vista of tables groaning under good quality, cheaply priced books, all catalogued and sorted was a bit like arriving at the doors to paradise and even though I knew I’d have to lug them home, I managed to score a bag full for the grand price of $15.  Even a textbook on Literary Theory from my uni reading list which at $2 was possibly the best bargain,  People are encouraged to buy up big, read their books and then bring them along to the next fair as donations.  For those literary retentives like me, this wouldn’t work, as the concept of giving books away is one I’ve not yet rationalised.

My ability to catalogue one hundred things to like about Canberra is curtailed only because of lack of space and time.  There are in fact many more, and anyone with even a passing interest in this nation of ours and the rich panorama of characters that shaped it couldn’t fail to be rewarded by a visit.

Posted in Books, Recreation, Social Commentary, Writer's_life | 1 Comment

Writers’ Week Wrap-Up

writers week

My Writers Week experience was, as noted previously, my first but it certainly won’t be my last.  What I saw of it I loved.  Regrettably I only managed four sessions out of a huge array of many more, but the heat defeated me and of course I couldn’t resist the siren song of Literary Theory, the subject I’m currently studying (my penance, as I like to think of it).

The Women’s Memorial Gardens is a wonderful venue and assailed though it was in blazing heat for the whole week, albeit mitigated by shade trees and gaudy blue shade sails, it was appropriately festive with  refreshment and book buying marquees and plenty of chairs.  There were big attendances for each of the sessions I was at, lots of middle aged types like me, as I’d expected, but also a broad cross-section of other age groups.  Had to laugh at one dedicated grey haired couple who were planted decisively in the front row of one session, obviously devotees from way back.  She was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with the name of every famous writer who’s ever graced the festival and he was wearing one that said “Outside of a Dog, a Book is Man’s Best Friend”.  Credited to Groucho Marx, the rest of the saying goes, “… and inside of a dog it’s too dark too read.” Can’t argue with either sentiment.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the sessions I attended.

Peter Robb – “Lives”

peter robb

Billed as one of Australia’s finest nonfiction writers, Peter Robb is the author most recently of “Lives” and previously “Midnight in Sicily“, “M” (a biography of the painter Caravaggio, “A Death in Brazil” and “Street Fight in Naples”.  As a budding nonfiction writer myself, I was naturally keen to pick up any pearls of wisdom on offer.  

“Lives”, a collection of essays or portraits, mostly previously published, of various famous and infamous people, including Julian Assange, is described by Robb as composed of piece work, but on a global scale.

His secret to getting at the heart of these characters is to look firstly at their origins, their childhood, their backgrounds, to pick up a life when it is in flux, uncertain of its direction and follow it as it unfolds … a sort of David Attenborough dissection, but of souls in this case, rather than animals.  It can be difficult, he explained, once someone has reached their forties (“the age when we start to die”) to penetrate the “carapace of eminence”.  People as they grow older and further away from their origins develop what he described as “a rigidity of identity” which can prove difficult to strip away.  While he’s fascinated by the genesis and back story of the personality, one of his main themes also is its disintegration and decline.

A fascination, almost obsession with Italy is a foundation of much of his work, having lived there for many years from an early age.  In explaining what motivated him to explore Italian culture and that of other countries from the perspective of an ex-pat Australian, he explained he was born in the late 1940s at a time when immigration to Australia from European countries was transforming our culture from Anglo-centrism to something vastly more cosmopolitan.  His response to this was to pack his bags and go and explore the world  filtering through to our doorstep, rather than sit at home in a state of affronted xenophobia and for that you can only admire him.  I haven’t yet read any of his work, but will definitely be putting “Lives” on the reading list.

Steven Poole – “You Aren’t What You Eat

steven poole

While I wouldn’t describe myself as a foodie, or as Steven Poole terms it, a “foodist” , the savouring, experimenting with and cooking of food, has been an abiding passion of mine for many years.  So I was keen to hear what he had to say about it, although the title of his book is somewhat of a spoiler in that regard.

Contrary to what seems to have become an invasion of contemporary culture by Food, to the extent it’s become elevated to the lofty heights of celebrity status, Poole believes food, in today’s world, is suffering from giant delusions of grandeur.  He is scornful (in a nice way) about our current obsession with food and his book “You Aren’t What You Eat” is a witty and engaging attempt to deflate some of the nonsense, masquerading as entertainment, fad, fashion, nutritional “facts” and even science that assails us wherever we turn.

Targets that come in for particular opprobrium are farmers’ markets, organic produce, the Locavore movement and the current craze for foraging, little different in his view from “dumpster diving”.   Gastroporn and gastrotourism are equally absurd in his view.   As for the ritual of the degustation dining experience, he describes it as nothing more than a special effects show reel for the chef (or cook as he prefers) and a tedious drawn out ordeal for the diner.

While he hasn’t renounced food and in fact enjoys a bit of fairly basic cooking himself, Poole is scathing about the ridiculous heights of fetishism to which food and cooking has been elevated in recent years.  Celebrity chefs, in particular Heston Blumenthal, who has of course taken food on a rocket fuelled foray into cyberspace and into a whole other futuristic and explosive dimension, are lampooned and exposed as the rather silly exploiters of a far too gullible public that they are.

His presentation was irreverent, funny and his argument persuasive.  It certainly struck a chord with me.  While I’ve nothing against the idea of promoting the best, most nutritious and tasty food available, (indeed remembering my mothers’  fifties generation offerings of soggy cabbage and leathery chops , I’m hugely relieved we’ve moved on from that), I too lament the self-indulgent  faddishness of the current foodie revolution.   Bits of artfully sculptured foam don’t constitute a great advance in my view over the dreaded Deb mashed potato (another staple of Mum’s table).  So I didn’t hesitate to purchase Steven Poole’s book and look forward to consuming it.

M.L. Stedman

ml stedman

The story behind the phenomenal success of M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, “The Light Between Oceans”, is one that will either inspire the aspiring novelist or put them in a funk of disgruntled envy.

A lawyer by profession, M.L. Stedman apparently had a light bulb moment one day while sorting through the briefs and decided it might be fun to write.  Clearly not one to do things by halves, she hired herself a writing tutor and applied herself to the task of learning the craft with vigour, at first through short story writing and then by entering the NaNoWrMo (National Novel Writing Month) competition, in which writers are challenged to write a novel of 50,000 words in a month.  Requiring stern self-discipline to meet the daily word count required to achieve this, Stedman not only recommends it as a great way to make the transition from short story to novel, but says it gave her confidence in her ability to hang in there for the long haul that writing a book demands.  “The Light Between Oceans” was not the fruits of this labour, but a conception that came later.

Once written, the book not only found a publisher but indeed became the centre of a multi-publisher wrangle both in the UK and the US, finally being sold for a six-figure sum.  Just knowing that a bidding war was raging over your creation, would be enough you would think to send a first-time writer into paroxysms of delight.  However Stedman is clearly a cool customer and rather than sitting back mentally counting the lucre, she interviewed each publisher to ensure they were in sympathy with and fully appreciated the concept of her book and the deeper questions it raises.

Within a very short time, it raced to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  And now just to cap things off, the film rights have been bought by Stephen Spielberg’s Dreamworks.

Blockbuster seems too crass a word to describe this phenomenon, especially as Stedman herself is a modest, self-deprecating and quietly reflective personality, seemingly worlds away from the brightly lit world of celebrity author.  However , that is now what she has become and it will be fascinating to follow this amazing story as it unfolds.

As for the book itself, I haven’t yet read it but bought a copy after the presentation and had it signed by the author.  According to the reviews, there are a number of interwoven themes or dichotomies of darkness and light, isolation and sanctuary, safety and danger, all symbolised by the lighthouse.   These themes are underlined also by questions of morality, what motivates us to choose one option over another, and the dramas that unfold within the human psyche set against a remote and elemental landscape of an island off the coast of Western Australia.

I am looking forward to reading it and discovering what all the fanfare has been about.  Although undoubtedly a little green with envy, I’m heartened to know that in this day and age a writer can come out of nowhere with a great book and take the world by storm.

Tom Holland and Tom Keneally – The Art of History

tom holland

tom keneallyThis session featuring two great writers who are equally great historians packed a powerful punch.  It was practically standing room only, despite the heat, which by this time had become fierce.  Tom Keneally of course needs no introduction, with his prolific output of best-sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, and his famous novel “Schindler’s Ark” subsequently made into the celebrated Spielberg film “Schindler’s List, which elevated him to international celebrity status.  British novelist and historian Tom Holland is perhaps lesser known, but is also a prodigious author, of books such as “Millennium”, “Rubicon” and “In the Shadow of the Sword”, focusing on ancient history and also in a lighter vein some vampire novels.

It was fascinating to hear what motivates these two very different writers and what it is about history in particular that engages their imaginations.  Keneally of course has written largely on the history of Australia and considers that it is a highly fertile field, providing huge scope for a writer with sufficient energy and enthusiasm, with much of our history being so far “under-dramatised” .  He admits it’s the “vulgar gossip” of history that initially draws him in, but once started finds the process of taking a sometimes obscure person and focusing on their life immensely rewarding, providing as it does a canvas on which to paint a portrait of a country and a whole people.

They touched on the ever-intriguing question of truth in history and to what extent the writer should conform to truth as he knows it, or take some poetic licence in an attempt to “jazz things up”.  Holland said it was difficult with ancient history to find enough material and detail to improvise to any great extent, and that he tended to prioritise historical accuracy.  They both agreed however, that history is a form of fiction in as much as it’s inevitably shaped by who perceives it, who relates it and how close or how far away they may be from their subjects.

In terms of how they made the momentous decision to embark on an epic historical project, Keneally explained it as getting to the stage where “you feel pregnant with the material”, it begins to burgeon inside you and you just have to get down to the business of writing it.  Holland on the other hand described it as “sinking into a huge warm bath”, immersing himself  totally in the experience and the story, to the extent he said where he probably bored everyone around him.

Neither of them have any difficulty in finding inspiration for the next project.  Holland is well developed in the planning stage for his next book which is to be about ancient Rome, after the death of Julius Caesar and is obviously looking forward to the challenge with relish.

Keneally, conscious of the fact that “the long box beckons” fears he has too many plans and too little time, but this doesn’t seem to faze him.

They both agreed we are shaped by our past as much as by our present and that there is perhaps more fascination to be found in life as it’s actually been lived as there is in story.  The multiplicity of voices that are there to be exploited in history adds to the resonance of stories that may be old, but when resurrected with a fine eye for craft and an inspired imagination as these two writers do, continue to delight and educate readers well on into the future.



Posted in Books, Brilliant writers, Writer's_life | 4 Comments

Best Australian Blogs Competition

best blogsWith the aim of celebrating the diversity, power and fun of blogging, The Best Australian Blogs Competition (an initiative of the Australian Writers Centre) is back!  The 2013 competition opened for entries last week. If you’re a fellow Australian blogger, you can enter here. It takes two minutes. The competition hashtag on Twitter is #bestblogs13.

With a judging team of publishing and blogging veterans, special awards for outstanding posts and an optional People’s Choice round, there are heaps of ways to win in 2013.

There is over $18,000 worth of writing training, books and cash available to win and Random House is the 2013 competition sponsor.

The Best Australian Blogs Competition is one of Australia’s largest and leading
blog competitions. The 2012 competition saw 1024 blogs entered, and over 17,000 votes cast in the People’s Choice round.

Here are the categories:


For those who are blogging about a particular industry or area such as politics, media, sport, marketing and PR, technology, cultural industries such as theatre and the arts, international relations, advocacy and human rights.


For those who are writing about their lifestyle and hobbies. This category is for blogs about travel, food and beverages, health, fashion, craft, interior design and any other wonderful topic you’ve dedicated your blog to.

Personal & Parenting

For bloggers sharing their lives, reflections and their story online. Your blog will probably cover topics from the other categories but if it’s mainly your story or ideas, this is the category for you.


For business owners, marketing managers and professional community coordinators. Blogging to build a community and promote an online business is a unique challenge facing business today. This category celebrates the blogs that communicate their expertise, workplace culture and industry well.

Words and Writing

For those who are blogging mostly about their writing experiences, book reviews, publishing, self-publishing, epublishing, book design, book publicity, and author blogs. We realised this category could also fit into commentary, but at the Australian Writers’ Centre we are committed to celebrating this valuable part of the blogosphere in a separate category. After all, it’s the wonderful world of writing that inspired this competition in the first place.

Special Awards

  • Outstanding New Blog (under 6 months old)
  • Outstanding Advocacy Post
  • Outstanding Humorous Post
  • Outstanding Use of Photography
  • Honourable Mention

How does the judging work

The team at the Australian Writers’ Centre read all the entries and create a longlist for each category. After hours and hours of discussion and re-reading, these become shortlists. The shortlists are announced finalists. Each shortlist is sent to the relevant category judge, who scores the finalists and selects the category winner.

The category winning blogs then go into a final round. In the final round, these blogs are scored again by the category judges and competition coordinator. The blog with the highest score wins the 2013 title.

An Australian Writers’ Centre initiative
Suite 3, 55 Lavender Street, Milsons Point NSW 2061

Entries close March 28

I’ve entered – so if you’re a blogger too, be in it!!

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Laying Waste


If I was the mother of a teenager in today’s society I’d be seriously worried about their chances of making it to adulthood as a whole, healthy, fully functioning and mentally stable human being.

 Since binge drinking became fashionable among the young, there are many who are unlikely to survive this rite of passage unscathed.  Some, who could be expected to be parental role models, seem to take the attitude kids will be kids, they’ll grow out of it, let them have some fun, and so on.  It’s always been the prerogative of the young, in recent decades at least, to run amok, frighten the wits out of their parents and generally have a wild old time.  But things seem to have gone way beyond the level of a bit of harmless wild oat sowing.

What’s different about the binge drinking phenomenon is that when kids go out they make it their mission to get very very drunk.  Alcohol is and has always been a social lubricant and I’ve never seen anything reprehensible about having a couple of drinks at the end of a hard day, or when relaxing with friends, or to celebrate a special occasion. 

But this is beyond using alcohol in that context.  Forget loosening up the inhibitions, these kids are drinking like they have suicidal intent.  For a start, it’s not just a few beers or several glasses of wine, it’s hard liquor – often followed by shots, thrown down the throat to get the fastest possible buzz.  Or, God help us, the latest craze, vodka eyeballing which allegedly produces drunkenness at breakneck speed, notwithstanding that it can cause blindness in the literal sense as well.  If any parent thinks their child would be too sensible to attempt such craziness, have a look at

What appalls me about this is not that kids are getting drunk.  Drinking is unquestionably, for a large proportion of young people, a rite of passage.  It’s peer pressure, the culture, fear of being seen as a wowser, desire to experiment with the previously forbidden, all kinds of things, but essentially getting regularly pissed is more or less obligatory for lots of kids from their early teens on.  I did it myself, on a number of forgettable occasions. 

What I don’t understand is why these kids go out with the deliberate intention of wasting themselves.  What is it that compels them to utterly obliterate the rational world through booze? It’s as though their lives, sober, were so unbearable, so beyond endurance, that they are forced to choose escape through alcoholic stupour.  This behaviour goes beyond escapism, it’s pathological and hugely dangerous. 

The young of course cannot be singled out in terms of alcohol abuse.  Plenty of adults get shit faced on a regular basis and live to regret it the next day.  However, it’s the nature of the drinking that does differentiate this behavior of young people from that of adults.  Most adults don’t indulge in binges, benders or what might be described as orgies of drinking unless they’re alcoholics and their disease renders them physically incapable of resisting the compulsion.  And here I know whereof I speak, having had a relationship with an alcoholic at one stage of my life.

No-one knows the cause of alcoholism, but perhaps one contributing factor might be to regularly ingest huge amounts of  alcohol at a young age.  Whether that is a causal factor in alcoholism is hypothetical, but what isn’t is the proven link between binge drinking and brain damage.  Medical evidence on this point is unequivocal – long term abuse of alcohol will cause brain injury.  Kids indulging in binge drinking aren’t just having fun, they’re playing Russian Roulette. 

While the impact of this insane behavior is all too obvious, through alcohol fuelled violence, drink driving, injury and illness, to the extent that police and medical professionals caught up in the spiral of destruction are saying the problem is at crisis levels, tolerance of intoxicated behavior in our society seems to be at an all time high.  Other than those who, because it’s their job, have to deal face to face and body to body with the gruesome after-effects, not too many people with the power to make a difference seem unduly concerned.

Many of these people of course have a vested interest in denying the critical nature of the problem.  On the Four Corners episode aired last week, the CEO of Australian Hotels Association NSW denied that alcohol is responsible for the escalation in late night violence, claiming that it was the mixing of drugs and alcohol that causes problems.  He had the temerity to state, “it’s not the AHA’s problem … it’s society’s problem.” Since when was a powerful and influential industry body in this country not part of society? 

Refutations of his ridiculous claim were quickly forthcoming.  In an article in “The Conversation” published the following day, experts from two universities pointed to the well established evidence that alcohol is by far the drug most likely to provoke interpersonal violence and homicide offenders are twice as likely to have been drinking prior to the crime than taking drugs.  See the report at

Alcohol manufacturers and those in the hotel and entertainment industries will always be opposed to limiting consumption regardless of its implications because it’s their bread and butter.  The government pays lip service in terms of regulations in regard to alcohol advertising, but these are in reality ineffective.  Industry self-regulation exists in relation to alcohol labeling, but the extent to which this is an oxymoron can be seen in the outcomes. 

How many young people intent on getting off their faces take any notice of messages in small print on labels that say “drink responsibly”?  Or, for that matter, seriously consider another oft-touted and equally impotent suggestion:  “is your drinking harming yourself or others?”  When compulsion subjugates the brain, anything resembling responsible behaviour has absolutely no chance.  The concept of harm is only vaguely interpreted as something that happens to others, less fortunate.

In a way, it’s equivalent to the petrol sniffing epidemic that’s plagued Aboriginal youth in this country for years.  How credible is it to think that if petrol companies put up billboards in Aboriginal communities saying “sniff responsibly”, this would help in any way?  Substance abuse and responsibility, surely, amount to a contradiction in terms. 

This problem isn’t going away.  I doubt whether anyone in the forthcoming federal election will be campaigning on this platform, but they should be.  It’s good to see however that the media have been getting the message out strongly this past week.  On Monday 25th February, Four Corners devoted an episode to the issue, entitled “Punch Drunk” and the “The Conversation” ran a series of excellent articles on alcohol and the highly toxic drinking culture in Australia.  Details at

One of the most trenchant comments came from a key judicial figure interviewed on “Four Corners”, who said “one day someone is going to sit down and weigh up the benefit in terms of taxes to government from the sale of alcohol against the detriment or the cost to government of servicing the consequences of violence”. 

It’s self-evident that the government is unwilling to do more to reduce the amount of alcohol sold and limit opening hours because they are afraid to offend the powerful liquor industry. 

Why won’t the government do something of course is a constant refrain when it comes to society’s ills.  Government may well need to grow a backbone and confront the monopolistic forces that in their headlong frenzy to make money don’t give a damn about what damage they inflict, but it doesn’t just rest with them.  It’s a problem that should directly concern every family with young people at risk or anyone in the community who cares that the people who will shape the future of this country are laying waste to their potential.


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