Saturday, August 5, 2017


Critics, Writers, Readers

Often in reviews of books, I read about a place called the Landscape of Australian Literature. Books and writers get placed in this landscape. When writing a book, you maybe should work out where you want to put it in the landscape. I think perhaps the critic is an ant in the leaf litter of the Landscape of Australian Literature.

Then there is a certain language that belongs to criticism.  The other day I saw on the cover of a new book:
‘The most intelligent, captivating, and exquisitely written book of this year or any year.’
For one thing I don’t know what that means. But I had to assume the blurb was trying to be funny. I didn’t actually investigate. Anyhow I looked the book up online and discovered it to be – I quote –
‘An original, poignant modern-day take on Wuthering Heights, as a high school senior searches for her teacher and meets a boy who may just be Heathcliff come to life.’
But back to critics.

The critic has a small role to play in the reception of a book.

I think the critic must somehow try to follow the project that the writer has set out to present. No use reading Shane Maloney and trying to make him into Jane Austen. But you do sometimes read reviews that accuse a writer of not being another writer. I have been accused of not being Shakespeare, and Marion Halligan has been accused of not being

Patrick White. There are really no rules by which a novel, for instance, can be judged. The reader/critic has to give over something to the terms of the particular novel itself. No use wishing you were reviewing the latest Ian McEwan if you are actually reviewing D.B.C Pierre.

I suppose you could say you need to ‘honour’ the work in hand. Give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe. But then critics also have to be able to give an opinion on how well they consider the writer has fulfilled the writer’s own criteria. In other words – what does the critic think the writer thought she was doing, and does the critic think this aim was achieved? And was it worth doing?

When a radio play I wrote was broadcast on the BBC in 1998, a listener from India called in with her response which was outrage. She vowed never to listen to plays on the BBC ever again because of the shocking racism of the first few minutes of my play. She had switched off after that. The play was a dramatic expression of MY outrage at violent racism in Van Diemens Land in the nineteenth century. This woman has gone into my vocabulary as Outraged of Bangalore, and she is an example of a critic who has no idea what she is talking about because she hasn’t paid fair attention to the whole work. 
The first thing any critic must do is consider the whole work under review. You might be surprised at how often this is not the case.

When I read a book review my first criterion is that it should not be dull. If the construction and tone and sentences of the review are dull, if the review itself doesn’t invite me in, I can’t take it very seriously. For an author, the dull review is worse than the negative review. Dull and negative – well of course that’s the pits. I want a review of any book by me or anyone else to give the sense that the reviewer has engaged with the work, reflected on it, and constructed a response that will honour the work and inform the reader-of-the-review. Does the reviewer like the book and why? If not, why not? I am a big consumer of reviews.

Way back in the early 1980s, before the internet, before book groups, before writers’ festivals, I started subscribing to the Literary Review which is an English monthly journal of book reviews written by selected experts in matters literary. I love the Literary Review and I still read it every month. I’ll read reviews anywhere and everywhere. If I start listing all the places, it will sound a bit ridiculous. But I will confess that once a month I go to the hairdresser and there I read the reviews in the Women’s Weekly and also The Monthly. I also get nice haircuts and good cups of tea.

I believe that the best way to learn to write in any form – novel, short story, poem, review – is to read and analyse many many examples of the chosen form. I can’t remember when I wrote my first review, or what I reviewed, or who published it. I’d like to read it, but I’m a poor archivist of my own work. So it’s pretty much lost, I think. I do know that my only information on how to do it was the reviews I had absorbed, since there were no courses or books I knew of on how to do it, and my formal education ended before the invention of the task called the ‘book report’. At school we used to study novels and analyse them and write essays on them. That was all. 

Because I also write novels and stories, I am familiar with having my own work reviewed, so I have at least two perspectives on the matter.

The reviewer and the reviewed. And another perspective is that of the consumer, the reader who reads reviews to discover how books are being received and described. 

Before a book is available for sale, there is much promotional activity that goes on. Some if it is kind of crypto critical – all positive of course. Also there is vigorous social media, and these days there are sometimes animations of the narrative.

But often the first piece of comment the book-buyer gets on any book is found on the cover. Such as the one about being the best book of this year or any year. The publisher provides a few words of praise from critics etc and offers them to the prospective buyers and readers. A recent collection of stories by C.K. Stead says the stories are ‘challenging, fun, urbane and brilliant’. On the cover of a selection of poems by Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy says: ‘Billy Collins is one of my favourite poets in the world.’ I actually prefer her kind of personal comment to the ‘brilliant fun’ thing. I suppose because her kind sounds alive, whereas the other one is just a collection of buzz words.  So there, at random from my bookshelf, are two different ways of presenting a book – with an authoritative list of adjectives, or with a completely personal rush of praise.

You can see that such things don’t really mean much. You wouldn’t expect to find negative comments offered by the publisher anyway. It is also fashionable for writers to be described as writing luminous or limpid prose, but I have never quite understood what kind of prose those might be.
In other words, book reviews are often collections of rather weird ‘review clich├ęs’ which glide past the eyes of readers as code for good or bad. You know when you see a reviewer, towards the end of the glowing review, saying ‘however’ that this is the signal for the fact that they are going to say something derogatory. They go: Searingly honest, poetic and visceral, monumental, luminous, brilliant, deeply uplifting, gripping like the jaws of a dingo… HOWEVER…says the critic …here are some REALLY BAD things that will put you off.

This is a dull and routine review rhythm.

Good good good – really bad. Where did the reviewer really stand on that book? Not sure.

The next earliest commentary on a book can be found in journals on publishing, produced for booksellers and publishers. In June you will read reviews of books that are going to be published in September. This gives the reviewer a chance to discover where the book will sit in that good old Landscape of Australian Literature. For one thing. Make no mistake – it’s really the Landscape of Australian Marketing that we are talking about here. The reviewer is a very small element in the grand plan of the marketing department of the publisher.

Anyhow – what you see after the stuff in those journals might be a blurb from a bookseller. Now these are always positive, because the bookseller is selling books, but they do give you some insight into the kind of book you are dealing with. Of course these things are not without commercial support from the publisher – so they will never be altogether without bias. There exists a blurry line between criticism and promotion.

Then come the reviews in local and international newspapers, and in journals, on radio. There are the blogs, some useful, some not – it’s a given that these days anybody can publish a review, and that much of what is written online is by any average standard just rubbish – but I think the most reliable reviewing is still found in places where editors have selected experienced reviewers who know what the whole thing is about. The best things are often longish essays in which the critic has been given the time and space to deliver thoughtful and careful analysis. The Sydney Review of Books is such a place. You also get panel discussions – on TV and at Festivals and so on. Somewhere in this maelstrom of words is the critic.
The critic plays a small part in the complexity of the life of a book, and is as I said, probably an ant among the leaf litter in the Landscape of Australian Literature.

Monday, July 17, 2017


Eight Short Stories
Carmel Bird

1 – The Dead Aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate  
2 – The Whirligigge of Time Brings in His Revenges  
3 – Love Letter to Lola
4 – The Matter of the Mosque
5 – Cold Case
6 – Surrogate
7 – Cactus
8 – The Tale of the Last Unicorn

‘Carmel Bird’s short stories are ingenious, each a delicious fictional Venus fly trap that encloses you in its wonder or horror, or both. There is little terrain of the human condition that her stories don’t touch – a child’s cold case murder and a triggered memory that may have solved it, the sinister banality of suburban life and all its hidden vestibules, beauty and ugliness, creation and the future of the world, small towns and their dark undercur­rents, and of course love. Bird’s stories fizz and tingle with originality and freshness, and carry an alluring humour that can turn malevolent and deadly in the blink of an eye. Hands down, Carmel Bird is to my mind the best living short story writer in the country.’  MATTHEW CONDON   

‘Dark, intriguing, yet always witty and delightful.’  ANDY GRIFFITHS

Published by Spineless Wonders – NOVEMBER 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


(Review first published in Newtown Review of Books) 

Nearly 60 years ago, in a Hobart pub called The Man at the Wheel, I had a conversation with the novelist Christopher Koch on the subject of what he called boygirls and girlboys. It was getting to be impossible, he said, to tell the difference, and he was troubled by this state of affairs. Things have come a long way since then, and now the matter of gender reassignment and transition from one to the other and back again is not unusual. Maybe there is a pub in Hobart called The Woman at the Wheel. Maybe not.

Gender reassignment is the subject of the main plot line in Death of a She Devil, which is set in contemporary Britain. I should say at the outset that I have read all the fiction and most of the non-fiction of Fay Weldon, that I delight in each book, and that this one is now my favourite. It dances on a knife-edge of hilarious allegory.

Tyler, the 23-year-old grandson of Ruth the She Devil, who is 84, transitions into Tayla. (Ruth first came on the scene in 1983 in The Life and Loves of a She Devil.) The human body can be ‘carved and tucked and seamed into something entirely other and still survive’, although Ruth’s drastic plastic surgery was a disaster. Tyler, it so happens, is the only sympathetic character in a large collection of very flawed and nasty people.

Notable among these is a cold powerful wicked young 25-year-old Australian named Valerie Valeria, whose name means ‘Strong Strong’. It is both a female and a male name. Nothing subtle there. She is generally without any moral sense, and says she has ‘never felt guilty in her life’. The She Devil also is ‘without guilt’. Valerie is ‘a dedicated feminist with a PhD from the University of Sydney’, her thesis being on ‘Feminism in Development’. She is bisexual, leaning towards being lesbian, and she falls in love with Tyler who is beautiful and, as I say, good. Valerie is the driving force in persuading Tyler to transition, because she desires him as a female partner. (Same-sex marriage was legalised in England in 2013.) Finally, there is the wedding, and Tayla wears the lovely dress while Valerie wears the penguin suit. Tayla takes ‘this woman’ to be her ‘wedded husband’. Tyler was ‘awesomely handsome’ but Tayla was ‘merely pretty’. Don’t assume that this marriage marks a happy ending – much fun is made of ‘happy endings’ throughout. They do freeze Tyler’s sperm in case they want to have a baby later.

If you go by the title, and you should, death is on the novel’s mind. Not just local domestic everyday death, but death on a grand scale. Hand in hand with nature, human beings are a destructive lot. When the day is crisp, clear, cloudless, blue, green, gold, the narrator remarks that ‘on such a clear and peaceful day a bomb fell on Hiroshima, the Twin Towers came down, the tsunami rolled over Fukushima’. The lovely thing is that as you shiver in horror at the mention of those catastrophes, you also laugh at the constant juxtaposition of reason and madness, order and chaos. And I do mean laugh out loud. Not to mention the frankness of the language – words I don’t want to print here – you must read them for yourself in the book. This is opera, this is magic. Everything is up for satirical treatment, including humourless ‘feminism’. And the weather is a constant and key player in events: ‘The sense that the weather was merely holding its horses for something worse was very strong.’ The wind will win in the end, and no need here for a spoiler alert.
In the 17th century a group of Carmelite novices escaping religious persecution in Belgium took shelter in a lighthouse on the coast of England. They were on their way to a convent on the Manhood Peninsula (nice). Their lighthouse has become the High Tower of this novel, and it has transitioned into the headquarters of the charity named the Institute for Gender Parity. In the Lantern Room at the very top lives (and eventually dies) Bobbo, aged 94, the only male in the building. Resembling ‘some garden gnome’, he is the one-time husband of Ruth, the She Devil who is President and Chief Executive of the IGP, and who ‘rules the roost’. The women live and work as a community in the High Tower. Security is heavy as a matter of course, with Ruth driving an armoured S-Class Mercedes. The windows of the tower are made from bullet-proof glass. The She Devil is estranged from her children and grandchildren, and until he is 23, Tyler’s existence is unknown to her.

The great project of the IGP throughout the novel is the organisation of a winter equinox ‘Widdershins Walk’ anti-clockwise around the exterior of the phallic symbol that is the High Tower to celebrate 40 years since the founding of IGP and also Ruth’s 85th birthday. The average age of the women of IGP is 72. The walk was Valerie’s idea, and it takes a great deal of organisation, and many meetings. Valerie has studied an ‘Events’ course at university, but has never actually organised any events. The Walk is defeated by the weather. You might have guessed, but don’t worry that I am telling you this, for there are probably five surprises on every page.

Here you will find discussion, and the dramatising and satirising of, among many other things, feminism, Alzheimer’s, euthanasia, youth, age, sex, death, abortion, drugs, psychology, religion, architecture, fashion, food, gender, suicide, fraud, funerals and computer games (in which the sound track consists of ‘warfare, terror and rapine synthesised to make a jolly jape’).
But if there is one thing that spans the whole delirious exercise it is the examination of writing and the construction of fiction. Romantic fiction is one of the evils of the universe. Momus is the god of fiction, the great ‘puppet-master in the sky’ and he is invoked by at least two of the several narrators, asking him to complete the plot and ‘bring the story to fruition’:
‘Great God of Narrative, Teller of Tales, High Lord of Mystery and the Whole Fictional Universe, hear my prayer. Do what is needed at this juncture.’ 

So there is in fact a crossover between the world of fiction and the world of the events in Death of a She Devil. Bad writing is derided: ‘History, now fashionably related in the present tense, has deprived the past of its reality.’
And Valerie invokes her chosen goddess, the Mother of All Life, Gaia. After faking an orgasm with Tyler she rises ‘naked and beautiful at the window, her arms raised to heaven’. She calls upon the goddess to send her blessings upon the young, and to ‘let the old wither and perish’.

The whole thing is really about life and death, youth and age, and it is all very very sharp and very very funny. When Ruth comments that old Bobbo is still ‘as strong as a horse’, the doctor known as Dr Pill Popper says: ‘Um, even horses die.’ Remember that.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Newcastle Writers' Festival 2017. My co-speakers on the topic of 'The Getting of Wisdom' were Dr Peter Doherty (The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize') and Monsignor Tony Doherty ('The Attachment'). The session was mediated by Lee Kofman ('The Dangerous Bride').

                                    THE GETTING OF WISDOM

I am honoured to be speaking today on the ancestral lands of the Awabakal people and the Worimi people. I acknowledge the First Australians as the traditional custodians of the land and the waters. Their cultures are among the oldest living cultures in history. I pay respect to the Elders, and I extend my recognition to their descendants.

I want to show you this image. (See the picture above)

This is the tapestry on the seat of my piano stool. It’s a simple tapestry pattern for the Tree of Knowledge. Or is it the Tree of Life or the Tree of Wisdom. I won’t stop now to discuss the distinction between knowledge and wisdom – my purpose in showing you the image is to tell you a story. In 1981 I went to an auction and bought the stool. It is charming. Part of its provenance, according to the auction house, is that it was used in the movie The Getting of Wisdom. I’ve watched the movie at least three times, and most recently I watched it for the express purpose of seeing the piano stool in shot. So every time someone sat down at a piano, there I was with my finger on the pause button, waiting to get a glimpse of the stool. This did not happen. It seems that piano stools in movies disappear beneath long dresses. So it’s nice to have the provenance, but the girls might as well have been sitting on an orange crate.

However, when I sit down to play, I may be comforted to imagine that I am absorbing wisdom with my bottom.

What I have learned by this method, sitting on the piano stool playing the odd sonatina, is that science, spirituality and the arts, including fiction writing, are all concerned in one way or another with a search for meaning.
My special field is writing fiction.

One of my fictional characters bears the name Carrillo Mean, and he turns up in my work from time to time. He is a prolific writer among whose books are The Mining of Meaning and the Meaning of Mining. He also has a facebook page called The Wisdom of Carrillo Mean, but is quite lazy about posting on it. He’s a bit arrogant. So you can see that I am usually quite conscious that what I am doing when I am creating fiction is joining in the great human desire to know: Where did it all come from and where is it all going and why. Wisdom you see. The search for wisdom. But perhaps it would be wise not to ask those questions. I’m making my project, my fiction, sound rather lofty and grand. It isn’t though. But it is serious, although I can never help seeing the funny side of things, so my fiction is also funny, in a darkish kind of way. Where, you may wonder, is the wisdom in this?

The quest for meaning, the desire for wisdom, conducts itself in my head as stories. Human nature is programmed – if I can use that word – to make up stories and to respond to stories. Human beings make sense of things perhaps most easily through stories. The writer of fiction takes up the position of observer, interpreter, and ultimately teller. No matter how much you observe, how much you interpret – the important thing generally is to get the story into shape – orally or in print – and tell it to other people. Perhaps with the accumulation of all the stories in all the world, wisdom might be attained.
In one of the letters in The Attachment, Tony writes that Irish people – I think he might mean all people – value stories next after food, shelter and companionship. I’d go along with that. Great myths and fairy tales and stories from many different cultures, including religions, are storehouses of wisdom. And I think much wisdom is available in the life stories, however short and anecdotal, of other people. Listening to people is a great doorway to wisdom.
The title of this panel is taken from the Book of Proverbs 4:7 –
‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom:
and with all thy getting, get understanding.’

What I love about that verse is the constant use of the uncompromising verb ‘to get’. And Henry Handel Richardson adopted it in her title for the novel about schooldays. The Getting of Wisdom – which is somewhat tongue in cheek really, as the main character only arrives at the very beginning of wisdom by the end of the story. Of course it emphasizes the importance of experience in childhood as the key to learning wisdom, and there are examples in both Tony’s and Peter’s books (The Attachment, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize) of vivid childhood memories which remain with the writers, nourishing their long search for meaning. And if wisdom comes with experience, Lee’s book
The Dangerous Bride is a very personal reflection on experience, and carries a lot of hard-won wisdom.

Lee asked me to give some indication of how wisdom is approached in my own work. Well in my manual for writers Dear Writer Revisted there is a suggestion for which I have been famous since 1988. It is that if you want to be a writer you have to give up housework. That’s probably the wisest thing I ever said. The other one – it isn’t in the book – is what I sometimes say to students in workshops – sit down shut up and write a sentence. Now write another sentence.

Then at the end of a story of mine – ‘The Woodpecker Toy Fact’ – there’s this:
The night before they buried my grandmother she came to me as I lay sleeping. She had taken by then the form of a small blue butterfly. She resembled a forget-me-not. She alighted on my quilt and smiled at me as she always smiled. And all she said was one word. She smiled at me and she said “listen”.

Another thing is that in my novel Family Skeleton there is a comment about death, at the beginning of every chapter. Such as ‘The afterlife is our true home. It needs good furniture.’ This may or may not be wise, but it’s a thing.

Anyhow, my main source of wisdom is probably the piano stool. They really should have shown it in the movie. Have another little look at it, and marvel.