Last Night by James Salter

This story was someone’s suggestion for a perfect short story. It was published in the New Yorker in 2002. It begins with a translator, Walter Such, at home in his lounge room with a guest, Susanna, having a drink. His wife, Marit, comes downstairs in a red evening dress ‘in which she had always been seductive, with her loose breasts and sleek, dark hair’. She asks for a drink too. It transpires that Marit is sick and, as the group talks in a desultory way, ominously the narrators tell us, ‘It was the night they had decided would be the one’.

Immediately a tension is set up and the rest of the night (they are going out for a last meal) builds in the light of this revelation – most poignantly, Marit noting the beautiful night sky on the drive home: ‘The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight’. Perhaps the reader is a little surprised at the presence of Susanna, a ‘family friend’ who is only twenty-nine and wearing a ‘short skirt’, but we push this to the back of our minds. Salter is very good at describing Walter’s nervousness and difficulty in bringing himself to give Marit the fatal injection of morphine and there is the wonderful line: ‘Now he had slipped her, as in a burial at sea, beneath the flow of time’. At this stage we are in a sad, emotional place.

This could have just been a story about euthanasia, but the Salter does something I’ve noted before in short story writers; he twists the story to make it something else. Walter comes downstairs after the deed, after he has kissed his wife’s hand farewell, and goes to find Susanna. Although she resists being seduced at that time, Walter ‘devoured her, shuddering as if in fright at the end and holding her to him tightly’. They had been having an affair.

The next morning, they are having breakfast when they hear a footstep on the stairs. Marit appears saying to Walter ‘something went wrong … I thought you were going to help me’. A coda tells us that that was the last time Walter and Susanna were together. We are left to wonder whether Marit devised the whole thing to expose Walter, certainly the decision to invite Susanna to be there on the night of the euthanasia (Marit’s decision) suggests this.

As with some ‘twist’ stories, I felt a little manipulated by this one. The reader is led into the poignancy of the initial situation. We get a little of Marit’s backstory and empathise with the emotiveness of her last thoughts, looking around her house, the things that she would see for the last time, the world moving on and she not in it. Then, Marit is diminished in our eyes, if indeed she has devised a cruel revenge on Walter. Marit does indeed have terminal cancer, so whatever revenge she gets can’t mean much. I was left annoyed with this story. Yes, it is clever, but the emotional resonance is cheapened by the cleverness.

2018 books in review

Of the 53 books I read in 2018, 14 were by male authors and 39 by women (27% to 73%) The year before it was was even fewer by men (22%). A fifth of the books I read were non-fiction and the rest fiction. The year before I lamented the amount of ‘shlock’ I read (the guilty pleasures) with only eleven books being classified as ‘literary’. Unfortunately last year I fared no better – I managed just twelve literary fiction works. In my defense I did read a lot of ‘serious’ non-fiction. A new thing is the number of audiobooks listened to. These are turning out to be supplementary to my reading of physical and ebooks so I’m fitting more books into my life which suits me. Here are my highs and lows for 2018.

Best book of the year: Educated. ‘Wild Swans’ blew my mind in 2017 and ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover blew my mind last year. It is a searingly honest account of growing up in a survivalist family, revealing her complicity in it. Education is her eventual way out but she, and we, are educated in another way by reliving the violence, trauma, beauty and belonging of the narrative. As with the most successful of these real-life stories – ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed is another example – ‘Educated’ is cleverly and beautifully structured. It deserves the acclaim that has been heaped on it.

Book that opened my eyes: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. One of the things about borrowing audiobooks through the local library is having to trawl through the limited range to find something I might like. For some reason I thought I might try ‘Marie Antoinette’ by Antonia Fraser. I don’t know why as I had no particular interest in this period of history. Historians who take on well-trodden material have to have a new angle and Fraser’s is to write sympathetically about a woman who has been traduced in the popular imagination. As with most things, the story is more complex and less black and white, and as with much of history, women are viewed through the misogyny of male record keepers. Fraser presents a woman who is of her class but who tries to do her best in the circumstances meted out to her (Marie Antoinette was an outsider, a German, so held in suspicion by the court). She is circumscribed by dress codes and the minutiae of court traditions. She appears to have cared for the king and been a loving mother to her children at a time when they were often left to be brought up by nannies and tutors. When the revolution began she was vilified brutally in pamphlets, even accused of incest with her eight-year-old son. It did remind me of the ‘lock her up’ hatred thrown at Hillary Clinton.

Most absorbing page turner – The Living and the Dead in Winsford: Isn’t this the sort of book we yearn for? Something that draws us in as gives us a deep satisfaction? There were a couple of contenders for this. ‘Lorna Doone’ was a rollicking read and I really enjoyed ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, but two psychological thrillers really gripped me: ‘Fear’ by German writer Dirk Kurbjuweit and ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ by Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. I chose the latter as it is one of those stripped down, taught novels that use a small canvas to build up tension and apprehension. The narrator is a woman living under the radar in a rented cottage in remote Exmoor with her dog (coincidentally she reads Loorna Doone also set in Exmoor to while away the time). The reader slowly finds out why she is on the run and what she has done but by that time we are totally on her side hoping she can remain undiscovered. It has one of the great first lines: ‘The day before yesterday I decided that I would outlive my dog. I owe him that.’

New author discovery – Amie Kaufman: I had heard of Amie Kaufman and the phenomenon of the Illuminae files but had never read any of her books. In 2018 I read her children’s book ‘Ice Wolves’ an enjoyable fantasy where selected children have special powers. Our hero, Anders, finds out he is an ice wolf, a regimented life he is not looking forward to. His eyes are opened to the problems of his society when he finds out his twin sister is a scorch dragon, a sworn enemy, thus making her an outcast. I was interested enough to seek out more Kaufman such as her YA fantasy, ‘Unearthed’ (with Meagan Spooner). An immensely fun adventure set on a seemingly dead planet where archaeologist, Jules, is marooned with artefact scavenger, Mia. Mistrust and misunderstandings abound but they have to work together to solve the clues left by the Undying in their labyrinthine temple. I usually eschew double author narratives but as the story alternates between two voices (Jules and Mia) it works well in this instance.

Best audiobook: Lorna Doone. I was spoiled for choice here. I listened to many fantastic audiobooks. Tim Curry narrating Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series was a delight. I loved his characterisations (dear Mogget and lovely Disreputable Dog). ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ and the Elena Ferrante books were also beautifully narrated. However, my overall favourite was ‘Lorna Doone’ narrated by Jonathan Keeble. What a fantastic narrator he is bringing this wonderfully funny, poignant and wise picaresque narrative to life. That many people dismiss this book as a mere romance is so unfair. You may as well say that ‘David Copperfield’ or ‘Great Expectation’ are romances. I adored Lorna Doone.

Most disappointing book: The House at Bishopsgate. Why did I persevere with this long and boring book by Kate Hickman? It sounded so good. Set in the 17th century, a married couple – he a merchant, she weak from a devastating experience – return to England from Constantinople to the eponymous house. Seeking help for his wife, the merchant allows another woman to insinuate herself into their lives. How could people with such interesting backgrounds be so tedious? Does the wife, Celia, have to be so pathetic? What on earth does the subplot around the merchant’s brother and their father’s crumbling estate have to do with anything? Who cares?

Best non-fiction book: I Am, I Am, I Am. This collection of autobiographical essays by novelist Maggie O’Farrell was a delight. Each essay read like a beautifully executed short story and combined they had the interconnectedness and thematic depth of a novel. Absolutely revelatory and wonderful.


Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.

Reviewed also at Goodreads

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.


  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

I was so angry that I decided I’d better write an essay

(Excepts are from a Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen)

A lot of people think Jonathan Franzen is a pompous git but I suspect he is vilified for speaking his mind and not being afraid to shake up the received wisdoms. I loved ‘The Corrections’ and enjoyed ‘Freedom’. This article is a mea culpa for an earlier essay he wrote critical of those who (in his opinion) mislead people by suggesting we, as a global community, still had time to avert devastating climate change. I thought he had some interesting things to say about writing that I’ve collected here.

Essays are like fiction writing

‘To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?’

‘Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.’

Essays against the ‘silo’ effect

‘Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed – students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them.’

‘And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.’

Apocalypse now

‘Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming.’

(Equally substitute indigenous Australians for indigenous Americans)

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

A Book for All and None – Clare Morgan

a book for all and noneWhat do you make of these strands: female academic (40ish) with an interest in Virginia Woolf asks to meet male academic (60ish) with speciality in Nietzsche view to exploring possibility that Woolf was influenced by the work of Nietzsche; in 19th century, Nietzsche develops romantic interest in Lou von Salome, although she is involved with Paul Ree (ménage a trois?); Walter Cronk CEO of CronkAm is involved in shonky deals in post-invasion Iraq, has affair with obliging middle-class Julie, travels to Kuwait and Iraq where he confronts the violence of the region (Oh, and he is the husband of aforementioned female academic); Virginia Woolf goes to stay at remote sea-side cottage; male and female academic develop romance as they follow up their academic hunches …?

I have read reviews that say Morgan‘s novel is ‘neatly plaited together’ and that it ‘unfolds like a paper-sharp origami’ – I’d say Morgan tries to force together disparate threads that were never going to fit; the result is misshapen and terribly dissatisfying. If ever the truism ‘it is not the sum of its parts’ applied, it applies here.

And what a pity because there is some beautifully insightful writing in this novel but Morgan does not do justice to her material. If you tease out the storylines you see that there is more than one novel’s worth of material. The affair between Raymond (the male academic) and Beatrice (the female) is subtle and sad. Raymond has an interesting family background that has left him damaged and reclusive; Beatrice is a reserved woman, elevated by the rise of her husband into a world she is not interested in. However, the development of this relationship is abbreviated so the really quite nauseating relationship of Walter and Julie can be examined, and so that Walter’s pretty unbelievable exploits in Kuwait and Iraq can be played out. What on earth is torture, multi-national shenanigans, Iraqi politics etc. doing in a book about Virginia Woolf and Frederick Neitzsche? If there is a link, Morgan doesn’t make it clear, or I’m being dense.

And that brings me to the next juddering misalignment – of all the interconnections that might have been made, why force a connection of ideas between Nietzsche and Woolf? And the ridiculous thing is, that it isn’t even a literary influence that Morgan finally reveals (I won’t spoil the extremely far-fetched denouement by saying any more).

I can only conclude that these disparate topics are some pet interests that Morgan wanted to explore, so she jammed them all together (the acknowledgements say that Morgan spent a year in a friend’s ‘lovely’ villa in Cyprus to write the book – in her shoes I’d explore my pet interests too).

Quite a lot of the book is spent on portraying Nietzsche’s mental deterioration as he begins his pursuit of Lou, and the consequences of this, and this was all well done. And the relationship of Raymond and Beatrice had potential but there was too much distraction from other parts of the book to make this really work. The parts on Virginia Woolf were less developed, leaving her a wafting, insubstantial character.

Clare Morgan is a creative writing academic at Oxford and this is her first novel. I know a writing teacher who always asks his students to define ‘whose story is it?’ – I wonder if Morgan can answer that question or if she even thinks it matters.

To story, or not to story

Here are two passages from the journal Kill Your Darlings about writing. The first by Laurie Steed bemoans the conservative nature of Australian fiction writing, and the second taken from an interview with the Scottish author Andrew Nicoll (The Good Mayor) by S A Jones has a dig at meandering no-story, literary fiction.

The thing I’d say about Laurie Steed’s argument is that there are outlets for experimental fiction and there is plenty of literary fiction written in an urban setting. In fact most of the grants available go to this type of writing, and so they should. Where are the “traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling” that are so exclusive? For twenty or thirty years the literature board etc has ruthlessly rooted this out. Only recently has it made a feeble comeback.

While Nicoll’s critique of literary fiction is harsh, and probably sexist, he does have a point that that much literary fiction is overworked, precious and dismissive of the story-telling imperative. Great, enduring literature melds the two. In Australia, with the exception of few of our top writers like Peter Carey and Kate Grenville, we haven’t worked out the formula for literary best sellers. Where are our Ian McEwans or Zadie Smiths?

I was also fascinated by Nicoll’s suggestion that the success of crime fiction is a hunger for novels with story. I’ve often pondered what readers see in the procedurals or the blood and gore serial killer stuff, but it’s true there is an undoubted satisfaction in the unravelling of threads and the depiction of relationships, often fairly mundane ones, against a world of menace and danger brought back to order at the end. The huge popularity of historical fiction could also be attributed to the desire for story (on an epic scale).

“Thematically, much of Australian literature has for too long been focused on what Jo Case described in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings as ‘bush and beach’. It’s been locked in traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling both culturally exclusive and gender biased. These modes are of little relevance to a predominantly urban contemporary Australian society, shaped as it is by multiculturalism, globalisation and neoliberalism. More importantly, regionalist literature is driving away a potential readership, a readership that can readily find more relevant and compelling characters, settings and narratives in various other media.”

– Laurie Steed

“I am bemused by the obsession with writing everything in the present tense. I’m told that this is supposed to create immediacy but it just creates neuralgia. I mourn the death of story. Page after page after tedious page where nothing happens and nothing is supposed to happen, just a failed drunk and an angry lesbian sitting in a cellar watching mould form while they internally agonise about the meaning of life. Stop! I get enough of that at home, I don’t want to read a book about it. That’s why the only books that sell are detective slasha shockas; because people know they are going to get a story. Why can’t we have stories that actually have something to say about the human condition too? Homer managed it, Dickens managed it. But the critics go along with it. I don’t know whether it’s symbiosis or parasitism but it’s a self-serving daisy chain. They tell people what is good and worthy and people buy the books, but they don’t buy them twice.”

Andrew Nicoll interviewed by S A Jones

Who pays for the editing?

I was interested to note some comments in a review of S J Finn’s new novel This Too Shall Pass in the Australian’s Review section by Sue Green. The reviewer thought the novel had great potential but that it was let down by insufficient editing by the publishers.

The reviewer’s comments that “how better for [the author] had she been given mentoring, tough editing and closely supervised rewriting” show a pie-in-the-sky notion of Australian fiction publishing.

I believe the average print run for a work of Australian fiction by a new writer is 2,000 and (I read recently) the average sales for said work is around 1,000.

A writer nets 10% of the cover price of their book – so, that means, a writer would receive around $3,000 for something they have probably worked on for several years.

This shows the tight, tight margins for fiction publishing. It is just plain uneconomic for a publisher to spend very much at all on a new work, whether this be in editing or in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this situation is bad and short-sighted, but it’s a reality.

When you look at the cost for editing, you see how expensive it is. If an editor charges a modest $60 per hour, on the tiny margins of a first novel, 10 hours or 20 hours would eat into any profits, and that amount of editing on a manuscript of 80,000 words is miniscule (the editor needs the time to read the ms for a start!).

The fact is, these costs fall back on the author. I know authors who pay for an editor go over their work before submitting it to a publisher. After all, this compares favourably with the cost of a manuscript appraisal ($500 and upwards), mentoring ($1,500) or a university creative writing course ($8,000 – $10,000).

Mentoring and the uni course are the only places you are going to get “closely supervised rewriting”.

I can see where Sue Green is coming from – often you read a book – even from a well-known author, and think it could have been a much better, even brilliant, book, if only…

But whatever happened to the notion that an author’s works and career build over time? I know I’m being utopian here – the brutal reality is that an emerging author usually only gets one shot at it, when everything is stacked against them. This can only be terribly detrimental to the maturity and diversity of our literary world.