Tuesday, June 24, 2008


There’s been plenty of ink given lately to the debate about an author’s “authenticity” in the context of the narrative they provide.

Prompting the most recent spate of discussion has been the second book by James Frey, the American author who caused all sorts of strife for writing a best-selling memoir (Million Little Pieces) that turned out to be mostly fiction.

It raised the question that if a memoir writer is found to have fudged a few things here and there, does it mean the work is totally without merit?

This time around, he’s calling his new work (Bright Shiny Morning) a work of fiction, which begs the question why he didn’t reach for the fiction label the first time around.

When it comes to memoirs, I’m definitely in the camp of readers who required – and expect – the story to be based on the author’s actual experience. Former ABC journalist Sally Cooper has recently released A Burqa and a Hard Place, her memoir about years spent in Afghanistan training Afghans to become radio journalists. The story’s real power comes from the fact that the author is writing from first-hand experience.

Surely the better option for a writer like Frey is to pen fiction that is “semi-autobiographical” (such as Helen Garner’s moving new novel The Spare Room – more on that in future a post) rather than marketing a story as memoir, only to find out there have been certainly liberties with the truth. The former at least piques the reader’s curiosity as to which bits are “real”.

But can the same measuring stick of authenticity be used for fiction?

A classic example is The Hand that Signed The Paper, a remarkable debut novel by Australian writer Helen Demidenko, which took out the Miles Franklin Literary Award and Australian Vogel Literary Award in 1995.

At first, the controversy surrounding the novel was based on the story itself: how Ukranian peasants became merciless tools of the Nazis during World War II and turned on those who previously persecuted them. It was deemed particularly powerful because the author claimed to be of Ukranian descent.

When it turned out Demidenko (whose real name was Darville) had completely fabricated her cultural background and connection to people involved in the war, the literary world turned on her with incredible savagery.

Thirteen years after the controversy, I picked the book up and read it for the first time last week. I found it to be a confronting view of genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators, but far from making excuses for them, it presented a powerful morale about how hate breeds hate - regardless of cultural background or religious creed.

Demidenko/Darville’s narrative voice is impressively strong for a debut novelist, across a range of characters, and while the brutality is wearing by the novel’s end, the story is told unflinchingly and – it seems – with intentional coldness.

From the first page, the author makes it clear The Hand That Signed the Paper is a work of fiction. Why then was the literary world so enraged that she invented an identity for herself that helped market the book? Was the book only deemed to have award-winning merit because of her supposed ethnicity?

Critics (including those speaking out before her “unmasking”) point out apparent historical and factual errors in the work, and this, at least, is a warranted criticism if the author was selling the novel as “faction”.

But what does this mean for the power of the story itself and the questions it asks about hatred, violence and war?

I’d like to pose the question: is the merit of a fictional story contingent on the author’s life experience and “authenticity” or can you judge a story on its own merits? Or is this too simplistic a view of the role of fiction?

(And I apologise for the title to this post … I couldn’t help myself).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Does the photo of an author influence how you experience their story?

Gustav, a regular visitor and contributor to this blog, posed an interesting question to me this week: do you prefer to see a picture of the author inside the cover of a book that you’ve just read and that you really loved?

Having given this some thought, I think I’d say my preference is not to see an image of the author, mainly because – consciously or not – it will influence how I experience and judge the story (either before, during or after I read it).

By seeing an image of a writer, there’s a chance I’ll form/change my opinion of their work, having been influenced by their age, gender or ethnicity; I may judge the quality of their story against who I think they are, particularly if any of those physical traits seem contradictory to the story I’ve just read.

As humans, we tend to create stories for other people based on how we perceive them – which of course will always say more about us than it does about them. Josh Weinstein captured this concept brilliantly in his short doco Cross Examination (which I blogged on earlier this year in April).

This certainly doesn’t mean I’m not interested in an author’s background, personality, motivation etc. In fact, often when I read a book I love, the first thing I do is search online to find interviews with them. But at least using that method, I fill out my ideas about the writer based on their words, not what they look like (although, granted, that will still play a part if I see them on television or at writers' festivals).

So Gustav, I agree that seeing a photo of an author can be distracting.

Of course, none of these things should matter. A good story is a good story, regardless of who the writer is and what their life experience is. Which is an excellent lead in to my next blog, when I want to talk about The Hand That Signed The Paper and its infamous author Helen Demidenko/Darville.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the topic: do you care whether or not you see a photo of an author you enjoy?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A story without words

Do you need words to tell a story?

Visual artists have proven for centuries how images alone can convey as much feeling and meaning as the written word, but in the world of books, it’s usually a given that language will be used in some capacity.
Enter Shaun Tan and his stunning picture book The Arrival.

It’s a title that’s been on my list for a while now (and one which the Ink-stained Toe Poker mentioned on last week’s post). I finally bought a copy on the weekend, and then sat down for a wonderfully unique and moving narrative experience.

For those who don’t know, Shaun Tan is an acclaimed Australian illustrator of picture books for older readers. Although his work often finds itself in the children’s section, it certainly isn’t created for youngsters. As the artist himself says, his stories “deal with relatively complex visual styles and themes, including colonial imperialism, social apathy, the nature of memory and depression”.

Until recently, his works were more along the lines of graphic novels, but Tan took the narrative form a step further with The Arrival, by producing a story without a single written word in a comprehensible language. (And then confounding the literary establishment by winning the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award.)

The story is about a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.

With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

The Arrival is a tribute to anyone (like Tan’s own family) who has left their home behind in search of a better life in a foreign land. While the traveller in this story ventures to a fantastical world of weird creatures, food and social customs, his experience is no doubt no less startling that those of immigrants in our “real” world.

Tan’s narrative magic is woven two-fold: through his imaginative, evocative and detailed drawings, and the story (and stories within stories) of a man finding his place in a new world.

And it’s the nature of this man's struggle - to understand his environment without sharing the language of its inhabitants - which makes the absence of words all the more powerful and appropriate.

There are moments of humor, fear and pathos, as the immigrant makes a new life in the hope of bringing his family to join him. It’s a gentle story, full of meaning and emotion, and one which moved me to tears.

Perhaps even more so than a book with words, this is one story I will revisit again and again, with the promise of new detail to be discovered in the images with each viewing, along with the emotional pay-off of an uplifting story.

The Arrival is a perfect addition to any bookcase. It's a collection of art and a beautiful story. I can’t recommend it enough.

(As a side note, the book as a physical object plays a part in the experience as well. The cover is wonderfully tactile, and I found myself repeatedly running my fingers over it, and the pages inside.)

You can find out more about Shaun Tan and his work at http://www.shauntan.net/.

I’m now keeping an eye out for his next work, Tales from Outer Suburbia.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Discovering literary nonsense down the rabbit hole

It’s been almost two decades since I first followed Alice down the rabbit hole.

I recently picked up a cheap copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, repackaged together by Vintage Books, and was curious (and curiouser) how I would find Lewis Carroll’s stories now.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by pipe-smoking caterpillars and rabbits in dinner jackets, and frustrated that nobody seemed to understand each other (yes, even as an eight year old I was apparently preoccupied with clear communication).

Reading the stories as an adult, I was surprised by the violence and dark undertones of the story, but, more than that, I was fascinated by the endless word plays and bizarre conversations based on nuances of conversation and logic.

The two “Alice” works are classified as literary nonsense, a genre I must confess I didn’t even realise existed until I started researching the Alice phenomenon.

Wikipedia defines literary nonsense as “a genre of literature, whether poetry or prose, that plays with conventions of language and logic through a careful balance of sense and non-sense elements. Its strict adherence to structure is balanced by semantic chaos and play with logic. Usually formal diction and tone are balanced with an inherent topsy-turvyness and absurdity. The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it”.

Probably the closest relative to literary nonsense is absurdist theatre, best experienced in Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot.

Like Alice, Godot can be frustrating for a reader looking for plot, character develompent resolution. You’ll find neither in either story.

But – particularly in the case of Alice - once I let go of that need for things to make sense, and just enjoyed the language and sheer cleverness of how Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) uses it, the experience became sublime.

Given the emphasis on altered states (often brought about by magic mushrooms or cookies), it’s easy to understand why readers over the years have assumed Carroll was either a nutter or a heavy drug user.

But there is a pattern and rhythm to his nonsense that I think speaks instead of a writer who has used his grasp of language and logic to create a timeless tale that still resonates with children because of its fantastical nature, and adults for its cleverness and wit (who knew that most flowers don't speak because their beds are too soft and it puts them to sleep?).

Clearly Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland back in 1865, has been an enormous influence on countless stories across many genres, and I’m pretty confident JK Rowling took some inspiration from Alice’s adventures in developing her magical world.

I’m interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the topic.

(The Vintage Books version I read included wonderul illustrations by John Tenniel, and the image above is the cover of the 1898 edition.)

Tagged: author meme

I've been tagged by Charley over at Bending Bookshelf for this author meme.

I'm a relative novice with the tagging as well (and had mixed success with my last attempt), so I appreciate Charley including me! (And hope I'll be forgiven for not tagging others this time around.)

Regular readers of this blog will find no surprises here, but for those who haven't heard my favourites before, here we go:

1. Who's your all-time favorite author and why?
Based on sheer numbers of books by a single author in my collection, it would be JK Rowling, and - as storytellers go - she definitely rates up there. However, on literary quality, I'm still sticking with Markus Zusak. I just love everything he's written, across young adult and adult fiction.

2. Who was your first favorite author, and why?
Sadly, it was probably Carolyn Keen, the psuedonym used by the collective authors who penned the Nancy Drew series. I also loved Elyne Mitchell's Silver Brumby series (so much so, that I - and I'm ashamed to say this - failed to return one of those books to the library when I changed schools. I still have it, and still feel guilty .... but clearly not enough to send it back after all these years!)

3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favorite authors, and why?
A dead heat between Meg Rosoff and Peter Temple, for different reasons: Rosoff because of her haunting narrative style, and Temple for his excellent characterisations, witty turn of phrase and excellent dialogue. I'm also keen to read Mark Abernethy's next offering (yes, I still have a penchant for blokey fiction.)

4. If someone asked you who your favorite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection?
Immediately: Peter Temple, Meg Rossoff
On reflection: will get back to after I've reflected!