This blog will be in two parts. Part One: a rant about how bloody important literature (and thus Overland) is to life, the universe and everything. Part Two (at the request of Rjurik Davidson): a short Choose Your Own Adventure tale in which you, the protagonist, take the future of Australian literature in your own hands.
I don’t come from a literary family. I wasn’t reading Proust at fourteen and my parents did not indulge in long conversations about Kafka at the dinner table. This isn’t to say that I came from a bookless house, though. My brother and I were read to everyday since we were babies and by the age of twelve I owned just about everything Ann The Babysitters Club M Martin ever wrote. (My childhood dream was to change my name to Claudia and move to Connecticut.) My dad read books about the history of pure mathematics and biographies of sixteenth-century astronomers. My mum read crime fiction.
Once I had grown too old for Kristy’s tales of babysitting high jinks, I moved on to theology with Judy Blume and lessons in the perils of drug addiction with Robin Klein. When those ran out, I turned to Ruth Rendell because that’s what happened to be on the bookshelf in my house. Pretty soon I would enter senior high school, where I would be forced to read that stuff called literature. (Cue lively debate about whether Rendell, Blume and Klein should be considered literature.) First up, Joseph Conrad. I dreaded it.
Let’s face it, the story of an ivory trader whose idea of garden ornaments is human heads on sticks wasn’t exactly my subject of choice as a sixteen-year-old. (Had Kurtz never seen a tyre swan?) I wrote it off before I even started. Yet the text, and the accompanying commentary delivered by my English teacher as he stomped around on our desks (yes, on our desks) ended up having a powerful effect on me. It still resonates today, still impacts my own writing. I can see those heads on sticks and hear Mr Ghezzi hissing at the class: ‘Who are you really? What would you do if you thought no one would ever know about it? If you thought no one was watching?’
Conrad is largely responsible for the way I view humanity. His book also taught me about myself, and thus Literature and I were introduced.
Maybe that’s what distinguishes literature from prose that is simply entertaining – it reaches across the gaps of race and gender, time and circumstance and slaps us across the face.
Speaking of being slapped, Christos Tsiolkas recently wandered into dangerous territory when he said that women ‘have got to become better readers. There has been too much writing that has played up to the comfort zone of bourgeois women in the world.’
I would have to disagree with Tsiolkas here and suggest, sweeping generalisations aside, that it isn’t what is being written that is the problem, it is what is being published. It’s no secret that the portion of literary fiction being published every year is shrinking. Trade publishers are businesses and are driven by profit; why take a risk with an edgy new-comer when you could just trot out a few more celebrity cook books? Or even better, cookbooks by celebrity vampires.
Which brings us to the point of all this incessant rambling: the importance of literary journals. (That was originally a typo that read ‘the impotence of literary journals’. Get behind me Satan!) They take risks, they aren’t driven by markets or profits. Where would our man Tsiolkas be if it weren’t for good ole rags like Overland? Dead probably. (Then what would bourgeois women have to rant about between Chanel charity auctions? Nothing. They’d all be at home cooking recipes from their celebrity-vampire cookbooks.)
Without literary journals, especially our dear Overland, there would be no new literature. Without literature, I might still believe that the biggest problem the world faces is caused by the way Dawn’s mom forbade Babysitters’ Club meetings in her house. (This is a stretch I know, but work with me here.) We are faced with the possibility that the next generation of high school students will be studying Guy Sebastian’s Australian Idol journey instead of anything with a worthwhile narrative. Take a look around any bookstore and you will recognise that pretty soon commercial publishers will only be accepting manuscripts by celebrities – How Junior MasterChef Led Me to Drug Addiction, that sort of thing. The signs are there, people. So, if you don’t want future generations’ view of humanity to be shaped by Guy Sebastian’s memoirs you need to support Australian literature.
Choose Your Own Adventure
You are on holiday at the lake with Becky and her mysterious cousin Chip. You find a treasure map in an old sock. If you choose to follow the map, go to option A. If you choose not to, go to B.
A. You choose to follow the map. It leads you to an old house on a hill. It’s spooky but you go inside anyway. There’s a human skeleton holding a gold box. If you choose to scream and run back to the lake house, go to C. If you choose to look in the box, go to D.
B. You go back to the lake house and play Connect Four with Chip. Chip kisses you, you contract glandular fever and die.
C. You scream and run back to the lake house. In a fit of post-trauma passion, Chip kisses you. You contract glandular fever and die.
D. You open the box. You can’t believe your eyes! Inside is more money than you’ve ever seen before – fifty-four bucks! If you choose to blow it on mixed lollies, go to E. If you choose to take out an Overland subscription and free yourself from the tyranny of cheap, gimmicky prose, go here.
E. You choose to spend the money on mixed lollies. You choke on a gob-stopper. Chip resuscitates you with mouth-to-mouth. You contract glandular fever and die.