We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

We of the Never Never is one of those Australian classics, I never got around to reading in my school years, thinking it would be too twee. How wrong was I. We of the Never Never was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a family story, they’d be children involved, it would cover the establishment of a station, that there would be trials and tribulations and Jeannie Gunn would grow to love the land and nature etc. etc. In fact, the novel does not read like a novel at all; it is basically a series of sketches written in an arch, comic, ironic style – reminiscent of what was printed in the newspapers of the time, or in the Bulletin.

The story starts with ‘the Missus’ (based on Jeannie Gunn herself) arriving at Katherine, having come from Darwin with her husband, on the way to Elsey Station where ‘the Maluka’ (a thinly disguised Aeneas Gunn) is the new manager. A white woman is unheard of ‘in the interior’ and the bush telegraph (the station men) makes it clear they don’t want any woman bringing her fussy ways. The dramatic tension rests on whether the Missus will make it or not. There are undoubted hardships, but the Missus first shows her pluck by agreeing to be winched across a swollen river, and not complaining about it. In fact, the Missus takes most things in good spirit and is not above mocking herself.

When they reach Elsey things are not much better and the ‘homestead’ is really an open frame with the verandah being the only thing that is covered. The men, though, are mighty surprised she’s turned up at all. That she is willing to put up with hardships, earns, if not respect, then at least, not open hostility. The strange thing is that the Missus has her husband there but he doesn’t seem interested in smoothing things out for her, or taking her side against the blokes. He makes jokes at her expense and looks on wryly when she has to face new trials. Most annoyingly of all, he likes t call her ‘little ‘un’ (apparently Jeannie Gunn was slight and only 5 feet tall). But the Missus takes it all in good humour and presents these early slights in an entertaining manner.

Before too long things look up a little. They get a Chinese cook, Cheon, who is a born organiser, their belongings finally come in by bullock team after the rivers have gone down, and Johnny, a rough carpenter starts to work on walls and a ceiling but this work is constantly interrupted by more important things like going out bush for branding or mustering.  Despite some little comforts, like sheets, things are extremely primitive. I was shocked that they thought it was perfectly all right to shoot enough wild birds to get feathers to makes some pillows (the billabong surrounds were, after all, thick with them, birds that is).

One of the most irritating characters is Dan who thinks it soft that anyone should want live in a house. He thinks the Missus needs educating and much is made of this ‘education’. Of course Jeannie Gunn makes it all sound so humorous: as the Missus is exposed to hardships, Dan chuckles – that’s educating her. Like women entering a male-dominated profession, the Missus has to become one of the boys, and there is nothing they do that she disapproves of, even dog fighting. The novel is really a paean of praise, to the bush folk i.e. bushmen.

Perhaps this makes it sound less sophisticated than it is. Jeannie Gunn is a talented writer who evokes well the environment she finds herself in, she has a comic ear and no one can doubt the verisimilitude of what she describes. There is a reason that this novel was a best seller and was revised for use in schools. I wonder what the kids thought of it, though. As far as I can see there’s not a lot that they’d be interested in – while there is drama in small scenes, wild bulls rampaging through a camp and scrambling up trees to escape them, for example, as a whole it is episodic with little unfolding story.

These days, it seems dated and reads like a piece of documentary about colonial life and early settlement of the interior of the Northern Territory. I have to say I found the treatment of the Chinese condescending and verging on racist. Gunn gets away with it with Cheon because he is such a great, larger-than-life character but the only quasi-villains in the whole book are some Chinese cattle buyers.

The treatment of Aboriginal people is also problematic although, I suppose, at least, they are a part of the tale and not excised from it – like the invisibility of Aboriginal people in much of the literature of the time. But I was shocked, totally, when one of the men mentions they need to go on a ‘nigger hunt’. Okay, it was not a massacre, just moving on some Aboriginal people from where they were camping along the river (no doubt on their own land) but the term must have held an echo of real violence to the men using it at the end of the 19th century. Gunn, in typical fashion, makes light of it and the Aboriginal people have left before the ‘hunting’ party gets there anyway. But today, it is hard not to feel a chill at that term used so casually in 1902 (and accepted in 1956).

In fact a paper written in 1990 by Peter Forrest about the settlement of the NT says that there were massacres of Aboriginal people in the Territory in 1903 (after Jeannie Gunn left) because they were accused of harassing and killing cattle that were being introduced to new areas. Forrest says: ‘According to strong oral tradition in the area, one of the ringleaders in these episodes was Jock MacLennon, the Sanguine Scot [one of the characters in the novel]’. I was also fascinated to read Forrest’s thesis that one of the reasons the men were so against white women coming to the stations was a fear they would interfere with the men’s sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women.*

Gunn’s narrative treatment of the ‘station blacks’ was probably enlightened for the day. She shows that they are part of the everyday life of the station – with the ‘boys’ being stockmen and the ‘lubras’ working in the house, or at least some of them – there is some comedy made of the competition between the women to get jobs in the homestead. There is a symbiotic relationship – the Aboriginal people get food and a place to live (in humpies in their own camp) and the station gets workers. Of course, the whites do not remotely question their right to the station, or to exploit Aboriginal people as workers. The Aboriginal people are seen as humorous, and childlike (although, I have to admit, so are many of the white people).

My edition of the novel, published in 1956, still had reference to the *n* hunt but I believe, in the recent reissue, this was expurgated which is a pity because it’s important to realise what attitudes were in 1908 when the book was first published, not to mention the whole issue of censoring literary works. I also understand the 1982 edition, which was published along with Gunn’s only other book, The Little Black Princess, also had these references edited out.

There is not a lot of description of the natural environment in the novel but what there is, is beautiful and evocative. Elsey station no longer stands but there is a replica at Mataranka in the NT and the quite stunning warm mineral pools Gunn describes below are still there in the national park (Elsey station was finally handed back to the Mangarayi people in 2000) – the water is preternaturally clear and, set among palms in the arid environment, they are truly as gem-like as Gunn paints them in the book:

Clear, beautiful, limpid … set in undulating field of emerald-green mossy turf, shaded with graceful foliage and gleaming in the sunlight with exquisite opal tints – a giant necklace of opals, set in links of emerald green, and thrown down at hazard, to fall in loops and curves within a forest grove.

* They of the Never Never, Northern Territory Library Service 1990

New outlet for stories (but there’s a catch or two)

Since the digital/ebook revolution (you know the one that took Australian publishers two years to catch up with) I’ve thought about ways this could be made to work for we struggling writers. Also, being a long-distance commuter, I saw how much reading people did on the train. I’ve also been very frustrated at the few outlets for writers and their short fiction in Australia. Tens of thousands of students stream out of creative writing courses every year all competing to get their stories into the, maybe, ten literary journals that take two or three stories each.

With digital publishing it’s cheaper and easier to publish works plus the constraints of the ludicrously small word count for short fiction (usually 2,000 to 3,000 words) don’t apply – there longer possible word count means there is space for meatier, more complex stories. The problem of course is how to get these stories out to a readership, and how to get the readership to pay.

Shortfire Press did it one way in the UK (the press is run by an ex-mainstream publisher so she had contacts which is a big start). They set up a website and sold stories off the site in various e-publishing formats for 99p a pop. They got quite good media coverage of their venture plus some fairly well-known contributors, although they do take unsolicited submissions as well. They have been going for over a year and I would have expected them to have hundreds of stories to choose from on their site by now but if you have a look you’ll find they have thirty or forty, not a critical mass. Lately they have also sold some of their stories through Amazon for Kindle. But somehow to get the model to work you have to have readers subscribe to stories on a regular basis like they might subscribe to a newspaper.

This brings me to the new venture called Review of Australian Fiction. This is a digital-only publication that delivers two pieces of short fiction per issue for $2.99. The idea is to have one established writer (so far Christos Tsiolkas and Georgia Blain) and for these writes to nominate one emerging writer (Kalinda Ashton and P M Newton) for the second story. If you subscribe you will get two stories every two weeks. AFR has used the Booki.sh format so you don’t download the stuff to your device but have to log on to the web every time you want to read your purchase.

This is a good option for those with tablets or who are prepared to read fiction on their smart phones, or anyone who reads stories on their laptops (does anyone?). It will be interesting to see what the take up is for this, and while I commend the emerging writer thing and think it’s good to use established writers as the bait (OK, the cherry), it is a blow for other writers that inclusion is by invitation only. If you subscribe you will automatically get new stories every two weeks.

If the subscription model works, then I think that is the way to go but, personally, I don’t like the Booki.sh route. I have bought a couple of things through Booki.sh to read on my iPad but I’m always forgetting the log on when I’d think of reading something while I’m out. I’d much rather get the stories on my Kindle all in one place with my other reading matter.

Best reads 2011

My book reading for 2011 was rather sparse for some reason – so many books in the world, so very few read. The top book from those I read this year is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This was the novel that affected me the most and, I thought, was the most masterfully conceived and written. A quite good film was made of it and released during the year, and it is well worth checking out but, of course, it’s better to read the book. The book is written in the somewhat prosaic voice of Kathy who is an orphan (we think) living in a boarding school in the English countryside. From her limited perspective we find out more about the children in, what becomes more and more apparent, is a very strange institution. The reader is very subtly brought into this unsettling world, so that the horrifying is normalised. I thought the novel was beautiful, sad and very challenging on a number of levels.

In supporting short stories I commit to reading one short story a week. Not a lot, I know, but I find I’m always reading a novel and it’s easy to forget stories. There is an idea going around that short fiction will come into its own in the age of the smart phone and the tablet, peoples’ busy lives and a commuting culture. Let’s hope so. Okay, my favourite short story for the year is one I just chanced upon while browsing the net. The story is “One Last Winter Moment” by Kathleen Kennedy and this was publishing online in the Canadian Room Magazine. So you can enjoy it yourself here. It’s poignant, sad and beautifully written.

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

The Distant Hours review

This is the third novel by the very successful Australian author Kate Morton. Her first book The Shifting Fog was an international bestseller and this was followed by The Forgotten Garden. Morton’s novels might be called literary mystery romances and they centre around family secrets that play out over generations.

I didn’t read The Shifting Fog feeling suspicious of a book that was over promoted. I did buy The Forgotten Garden (who could resist that title) but it languished on my bookshelf for some reason. Then The Distant Hours came along and the blurb was too irresistable.

Elderly sisters living in a castle, their reclusive father, Raymond Blythe, a famous author, a long lost letter that connects our heroine’s mother to the castle, a tragic romance causing insanity, mysterious deaths etc etc

At the time I bought it The Distant Hours was only for sale in hard copy in Austalia (huh? that usually happens only for a beautifully produced lit fiction title, or that last Harry Potter) so I bought it as an ebook. This worked out very well as I didn’t have to lug a 600 page book around on holidays.

On the whole I enjoyed the novel but found it very patchy as if a different author had written various parts, and the plot was very convoluted with turns upon turns upon turns. Add to this different time frames and numerous points of view and I found myself exasperated in parts and bored with the overly detailed narrative in others.

This is a pity because Morton can write very effectively. Her portrayal of the dynamics of the relationship of the Blythe sisters is acute – the stiff, controlling but quite funny Percy, the seemingly soft and yielding but, in reality, tougher than she seems Saffy, and the fey and unwordly Juniper is wonderfully done especially in the long section near the beginning set in 1941 when they are waiting at the castle for Juniper to return from London with a ‘young man’.

The period (wartime) setting of the novel is effectively evoked as is the moody, crumbling castle but I found some of the ‘contemporary’ (though in reality this section is set in the early 1990s) narrative forced and annoying. Why on earth our heroine Edie’s father comes in to the story as he takes an interest from his sick bed in Raymond Blythe’s Gothic children’s book The True History of the Mud Man is beyond me.

And it is really Edie’s mother, Meredith, who has a direct link to the castle (and for whatever reason has kept this period of her life secret from her daughter and her husband). But Morton does not choose Meredith, although it is she who has something at stake, but Edie to follow the trail of clues and mystery back to the castle. Perhaps Morton wanted to show Meredith’s boring life as a consequence of decisions she made long ago and thus felt Meredith could not be a compelling enough character, so young, literary Edie is given the role.

There is a trend in genre publishing for these sort of novels that meld the present with the past. Like Edie we, the reader, want to unravel a mystery and Edie becomes our proxy as we follow clues and find out snippets of information. But Morton goes one step further and allows us into the heads of characters in the past so, for example, we see how Percy Blythe feels and acts in the present (through Edie’s eyes) and also how she thinks, feels and acts in the past (although the whole is referred through the modern protagonist of Edie).

I wonder about the extraordinary popularity of these books. Readers don’t merely want to read about a fiction occurring in the past, they want it resolved in the present ie they want total control and everything has to be meaningful to a character, today.

But who am I to quibble? Morton is hugely popular, and readers seem to like the plethora of twists and turns in her plots; and even, it appears, are prepared to overlook the dead ends and the boring, irrelevant bits.

SWF too much of a good thing

Does anyone else think the Sydney Writers’ Festival has grown just too big? Perhaps it was ever thus, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, so when did writers become celebrities? Or is it that our voracious media has latched on to the easy copy of authors on tap and publicists on overdrive?

I just can’t be bothered going anymore and facing the bumping, grinding, tripping crowds. When I check out the SWF website and see “choose your author by letter of the alphabet” I give up. It takes the discipline of a military campaign to navigate your way through the hundreds of “acts” on offer and make your choice.

Gone are the days of serendipity when you wandered around and stumbled upon interesting panels quite by chance. Basically it’s hard to know what’s going to be good so pot luck has advantages. This was before they started charging as a way of dealing with the burgeoning numbers, not to mention including the Opera House and the Sydney Town Hall as venues. Hey, what about the Entertainment Centre? I think the charm has gone. No wonder smaller writers’ festivals are popping up all over the place.

Women and literary awards

There has been a brouhaha about the three-book short list for the Miles Franklin Award – the list being all male. The year before last, there was also a controversy when the long list was all male, so the judges would have been well aware of what they were doing, in this case. I’m sure the three books on the list are worthy – they are high-end literary and  dealing (at least with Bereft and the That Deadman Dance) with pretty serious issues (When Colts Ran is an outback, male-centred story). But as many other people have said: are male writers really that much better than female writers? Or do men choose what our culture still regards as more weighty, serious, important subjects and treatments, and thus these works are more suited to a culturally prestigious award?

Of the novels that have won the Miles Franklin for the last 10 years, only two are by women – Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (Hazzard is a very intellectual serious novelist of the old school) and the other was Carpentaria by indigenous writer Alexis Wright – a big and highly ambitious work.

The ten all up are:

* 2010 Peter Temple Truth
* 2009 Tim Winton Breath
* 2008 Steven Carroll The Time We Have Taken
* 2007 Alexis Wright Carpentaria
* 2006 Roger McDonald The Ballad of Desmond Kale
* 2005 Andrew McGahan The White Earth
* 2004 Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
* 2003 Alex Miller Journey to the Stone Country
* 2002 Tim Winton Dirt Music
* 2001 Frank Moorhouse Dark Palace.

Barbara Jefferis

I have to admit to not having read a single one of the above. I started Dark Palace but hated it. I also started Dirt Music and didn’t get very far with that either. Now I come to think of it, a certain masculine outlook in both books turned me off. I also avoided Truth , after trying to read The Broken Shore, and again not being able to get onto the wavelength of the writer (I know I’m in a minority here).

So perhaps reading the Miles Franklin winner is like eating your greens – you know it’s good for you even if it’s not to your taste. If it’s any consolation to the women who perpetually miss out on the award, I think women writers have a bigger readership than male writers (Tim Winton excepted).

The whole issue of women missing out on major literary prizes was the impetus behind the Orange Prize in the UK and, ironically, there have been rumblings over the last few years over whether there should be a prize based on gender at all (the playing field being so flat now, after all!!) There is a women-only prize in Australia, the Kibble Literary Award (for novels and life writing), and it is quite lucrative at $30,000, but who has heard of it?

There is also the Barbara Jefferis Award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. This definition means that male authors can also enter (only one brave male did so last time). G L Osborne won the most recent award with Come Inside. But, sad to say, this award hardly rates national media attention (although the Orange prize is quite high profile). So I guess you could say having such prizes doesn’t really address the problem of womens’ writing being regarded as less culturally significant than mens’.

Google Books get your hands off our tax payer-funded tomes

Hands off!

The behemoth Google Books is impacting on your local NSW government agency. Who might be interested in erosion in the Upper Lachlan catchment, or vector maps from the Plague Locust Board? Never mind, they’re not going to be able to rip off the NSW taxpayers and get away with it.

In Circular C2011-10 Google Books Settlement – Whole of Government Policy, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, advises its agencies to “carefully consider whether their commercially published books should be “removed” from the Google Books databases or ‘excluded’ from one or more of the uses proposed in the Amended Settlement”.

As, under the settlement, Google can upload a “wide range of material including all material published in hard copy in NSW prior to 5 January 2009”, the government had to decide whether to “make a comprehensive claim” for all Crown copyright publications.

In the end, they left it up to individual agencies to decide whether to get their books removed by 5 April, and, if they did so, to make a compensation claim.

“NSW Government agencies should not enter a ‘revenue sharing’ agreement with Google under the terms of the Amended Settlement,” the circular said.

Aurealis Awards finalists

YOUNG ADULT Novel

  • Merrow, Ananda Braxton-Smith, black dog books
  • Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
  • The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett, Penguin
  • The Life of a Teenage BodySnatcher, Doug MacLeod, Penguin
  • Behemoth (Leviathan Trilogy Book Two), Scott Westerfeld, Penguin 

FANTASY Novel

  • The Silence of Medair, Andrea K Höst, self-published
  • Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Stormlord Rising, Glenda Larke, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)
  • Heart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier, Pan Macmillan
  • Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)

 

SCIENCE FICTION Novel

  • Song of Scarabaeous, Sara Creasy, EOS Books
  • Mirror Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)

You can see the full list in all categories here. It’s interesting to look through the categories and the publishers. One finalist, Andrea K Höst’s, novel was self-published. It seems that in the world of speculative fiction, the mainstream publishers – Penguin and HarperVoyager, mostly, stick to YA and to fantasy. The horror and science fiction publishing goes mostly to niche publishers.

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.