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Archive for June, 2014

SWF 2014 logoOne of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.

Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.

The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’

The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.

How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.

Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.

The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.

McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!

The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.

It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.

In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.

She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”

A great session. A treat to savour.

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SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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