Self-Sourcing Literary Pudding

on Thursday, May 30, 2013
Some time down the track we will be able to pinpoint the very moment artistic enterprise fundamentally changed. I'm willing to suggest it was when Amanda Palmer managed to raise 400 bazillion dollars on Kickstarter to fund her spectacularly mediocre new album. Having listened to it, I'm guessing she spent about seventy bucks recording and the rest building an underground torture kingdom for her and hubby Neil Gaiman to frolic in with their manufactured gold robot minions. Not gold plated. Or gold leaf. Solid effing gold!

Whatever the future common consensus, there is no doubt that crowd sourcing has become a viable model for cutting out the old world gatekeepers and giving people what they want. It doesn't matter how shitty your band/film/interpretive dance project is; if people are dumb enough to want it they can now pay to make it a reality. That's not to say there hasn't already been some great crowd funded art. There's just been much, much more crap.

The idea has yet to properly take root in book land, though I imagine it is only a matter of time. And while my natural inclination is to mock it in advance - I can already see all the Stephenie Meyer/E.L. James/J.K. Rowling wannabes pitching tacky clones to the gullible masses and retiring to the Bahamas on the proceeds - I can't help but feel a small tinge of excitement. Writer, comedian and hardcore Yiddishist Michael Wex recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the translation and publication of a lost classic, Joseph Opatoshu's In Poylishe Velde. That is a good thing. Whereas such works would never have been brought to the English speaking world and, let's face it, would have been consigned to the dustbins of history, people like Wex will be able to breathe new life into them, making our cultural environment far richer.

Crowd sourcing might just be publishing's white knight. For years we've heard about the shrinking advances, the decline in royalties, authors forced to survived on mulched paper and sour milk to survive. Moreover, many good books struggle to find a publisher willing to take a risk in these dire times. With sites like Kickstarter and Pozible, I dare say it will not be impossible for authors to raise more than they might otherwise have received as an advance in the off chance they could even convince a publisher to take the book in the first place. Crowd sourcing might also force more equitable contracts between authors and publishers, lest those that already have a name jump ship and just put their hands out to fans to fund their next project. I don't know. My head is in a bit of a spin at the prospect. It scares me to think that the industry will be overrun by Justin Biebers (or James Pattersons or Dan Browns) but Wex's project gives me hope that technology might yet be used for good. It certainly gives self-publishing the potential for a much more credible future in that it allows for those who choose (or are forced to choose) that path to finally afford editors and designers and layout people so their books won't be so darn shit. The again, a part of me longs for the old days of literary gatekeepers; those who are discerning enough to sift through the dross and present me with the cream of the crop. If a balance can't be struck, what will be left with? More American Idol rip offs? More bloody cooking shows? Another album from Amanda Palmer and Her Solid Gold Robot Orchestra?

Spare me...

Microviews Vol. 32: E.T. Goes To Zanzibar

on Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
I'm a sucker for post-colonial lit, and this richly textured novel was a great introduction to the world of Zanzibarian (is that a word?) writing. Naive young Yusuf is sold into slavery to pay his father's debts, but dreams big as he is dragged from town to town by his merchant owner. The biblical allusions are laid on thick, and anyone familiar with the Potiphar story can see what's going to happen a mile away. Didn't stop me rooting for the poor kid. A marvellous work from a greatly underrepresented corner of the world.
4 Out Of 5 Coats of Many Colours

The Humans by Matt Haig
Haig maintains his quirky edge with this entertaining tale of an alien inhabiting the body of a mathematical genius and wreaking destruction on other puny humans. Sure, we're sitting ducks, and some of Haig's gags are as old as Pythagoras, but it's still fun to have the disintegration ray pointed at our crotches every now and then. Even the slightly cringeworthy Jeff Bridges in Starman ending doesn't ruin the ride.
3.5 Out Of 5 Sonic Transducers

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
There are many ways to read this beautifully drawn graphic novel: surreal black comedy, new twist on classic horror, satire on the terrorist paranoia, a poke in the eye to those who fear the mysterious "other", a middle finger response to bald people (and those with alopecia). I chose to read it as an indictment on the awful beard rock that has taken over my beloved punk world. Probably wasn't intended that way but, hey, it worked for me!
4 Out Of 5 Safety Razors

Dossier K. by Imre Kertesz
Nobel laureate Kertesz built his reputation on heavily autobiographical novels. This time round, he throws the fiction thing out the window in favour of an intriguing piece of straight up self-interrogation. Basically, it's a book-long interview with himself, in conversational question/answer format. As he shades in between the lines of his previous work, we are given not only a greater understanding of his life, but also an excellent treatise on the relationship between fact and fiction. It's an odd endeavour, but fascinating nonetheless.
3.5 Out Of 5 Pierced Veils

The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer
At first I thought I was back in the warm embrace of a Mark Haddon-esque confection but, as this fantastic debut unfolded, I felt my chest tighten and throat close in the presence of a seriously disturbed mind. The Shock Of The Fall is the strongest first-person schizophrenia narrative I've ever read. The narrator, Matt, is a marvellously well-rounded creation, both loveable and infuriating on his path to self-destruction (and possible redemption). It's like have ringside seats at a wrestling match of the brain. Devastating, humane and well worth checking out.
4 Out Of 5 Little White Pills

Oops I Did It Again!

on Thursday, May 23, 2013
I really am the kiss of death.

Lydia Davis has just been named the winner of The Man Booker International Prize for 2013. Now, she is certainly a fine writer and I suspect Team Booker are trying to correct the anti-American Nobel bias in major literary award world (last time it was Philip Roth), but let's face it, she ain't no Aharon Appelfeld.

Perhaps I should have done my cheer routine for Yan Lianke. That would have bolstered the old Israeli's chances!

Independent Foreign Fiction Flop

on Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Lucky I'm no longer a betting man. Having lost on previous Bookers (and stupidly not betting on ones that I picked back at longlist stage), I was half tempted to drop a few dollars on Dasa Drndic or Ismail Kadare to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I couldn't fault my logic - if they wanted to be daring, they'd pick Drndic. I've made my feelings about Trieste abundantly clear on this blog before, so no need to rehash. If, on the other hand, they wanted a more traditional narrative work, Kadare is the go-to guy on the list. The Fall Of The Stone City was a great return to form and would have been a very deserving winner. Either way, my puppy can thank me that I can still afford his dinner because I would have lost big time. The prize was announced this morning and it went to Gerbrand Bakker for his novel, The Detour.

Personally, I think Drndic, Kadare and Enrique Vila-Matas were robbed. I don't mean to imply that The Detour is a bad book. Far from it. Bakker is a wonderful writer and this is one of his strongest novels. It's just that giving him the award seemed the easy option, the 'populist' choice. People who pay attention to prizes (are there many of us left these days?) would pick up The Detour and almost certainly enjoy it. They won't be challenged in the way they would have had they been directed to Trieste or Dublinesque. In the sense of lifting the prize's profile, and making sure people come back next year in the hope of finding another book to enjoy, it all makes perfect sense. It's just a shame that none of the more challenging novels on the shortlist got the ultimate gong.

There is some consolation to be had. The five that were passed over still beat superstars like Knausgaard, Pamuk and Binet to the final heat. That's got to count for something. Meanwhile, let's hope my love of, and support for, Aharon Appelfeld doesn't prove the kiss of death for him with the Man Booker International Prize.

Microviews Vol. 31: Just The Fax, Ma'am

on Tuesday, May 14, 2013
The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich
When a story collection kicks off with an unused condom reminiscing about the time it spent in a teenager's wallet, you know you're in for a fun ride (so to speak). Simon Rich continues his domination of all things chuckleworthy with this quick follow-up to last year's arse-kicking, What In God's Name. The stories are many and varied, taking in that essential human concern - love - and skewering it from all angles. There's the imaginary friend (a goat) that totally misunderstands the nature of his friendship and tries to bust a move. There's the scared-straight program for schmucks at risk of falling into a long term relationship. And I am still smirking at the scientist who turns to time travel in his desperate quest to figure out what would constitute a meaningful, personal present for his girlfriend. They're quick. They're punchy. They're a barrel of laughs. Or monkeys. Or monkeys laughing. On barrels. Just read it.
4 Out Of 5 Banana Peels

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
It's easy to look back on the hippy movement with smoke-tinged, rose coloured glasses. Free love, great music, lots and lots of drugs. If you weren't on board, man, you were either a prude or a nerd. In her debut novel, Lauren Groff picks apart the hippy mythos to reveal its sad, almost pathetic heart in this tale of one particular commune (read: cult) and the fractured lives of those who lived within it. Arcadia has much to offer - beautiful prose, a sober outlook, mild excoriation - and yet I couldn't quite lose myself in its pages. Not sure why. Bloody hippies.
3.5 Our Of 5 Calming Sutras

All That Is by James Salter
Believe the hype, and you'll think that Slater's first novel in 30 years is THE publishing event of 2013, the one that will save literature from all these hipster upstarts currently polluting the landscape. Using a returned veteran of the US's Pacific campaign in WW2 as a prism, All That Is charts the evolution (or is that devolution?) of American society in the post-war years. In many ways, the novel resembles a glacier - you are carried along by its slow power, but sit down with it too long and your nuts are likely to freeze.
3.5 Out of 5 Middle Americans

Here And Now by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee
Remember that old cartoon where the little yappy dog bounces around the older, cooler dog hoping to be his best friend? Yes? Then you'll pretty much know what to expect when you read this bushel of letters between the intermittently excellent Paul Auster and as-close-to-God-as-we're-likely-to-find, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. It's a scattergun smorgasbord touching on all sorts of blokey stuff (friendship, sport, ageing), literary stuff (the art of writing, criticism, James Wood and his hatred of all things Auster), political stuff (American, South African, Israeli, marital) and technological stuff (the cutting edge use of fax machines). As you might expect, it is a somewhat lopsided affair; for the most part we watch Auster playing straight man to Coetzee's sermons from the mount. A bigger problem is the flimsiness of the contrivance in the first place. I never really felt the depth of their friendship. Moreover, there was an ever-present sense of self-consciousness, as if they knew their correspondence would be published. Still worth a read, though
3.5 Out Of 5 David Schwimmers

Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Since The Infatuations, I have been languishing in a literary swamp of mediocrity, unable to find anything that even remotely excites me. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so I decided to do something I almost never do. Reread the last book I remember truly loving. I need not rabbit on about how great a novel Trieste is. If I haven't convinced you to read it yet, nothing I can do now will change your mind. You are dead inside. If you ever had a soul (which I seriously doubt), it is gone. Thankfully, others have joined in the fandom since my first reading. Indeed, much greater literary figures than me have been trumpeting its brilliance and now it is in the running for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. There is, however, one downside: now I'm in a post-Trieste slump. Damn it.
5 Out Of 5 Books Of The Year

The Siren Song of Science: Laborastory Melbourne

on Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Back in my university days, I was forced to be a guinea pig in some weird science experiments. It was a prerequisite to passing first year psychology. Although I don't think that they had any seriously deleterious effects, I do still cringe anytime someone says the word "science" within a three metre radius of wherever I'm standing. So it was with a certain degree of healthy scepticism that I ventured out last night to partake in a peculiar scientific endeavour that was not quite lecture, not quite story slam and not quite cocktail evening. Heck, I'm still not quite sure what it was.

To be fair, I was lured out under false pretences. I was told it would be an evening of storytelling. By scientists. Intriguing. I, of course, assumed that meant fictional tales. Nope. Melbourne's very first Laborastory was a gathering of off-the-scale brainiacs who had come together to watch five of their own rattle off sycophantic tributes to their scientific heroes. Just as I look to Kafka, Coetzee and Capek, these people of the petri dish worshipped at the shrines of Alan Turing, Marie Curie, George Papanicolaou, Bud Craig and Evariste Galois. On paper, kind of boring. However, Laborastory was a raging success, in as much as serious scientists can rage or, for that matter, have success without a controlled experiment from which to gauge it. To be fair, I was slightly won over by the halo of glitz brought to the event by the nerd world celebrity status of a couple of the presenters. One young woman had won a Fringe Festival award for reducing a Shakespeare play (I think it was Hamlet) to fifteen freeze frame moments. Then there was the guy who won Letters and Numbers. The queue for autographs was out the door (by which I mean if there was a queue, it wasn't inside*)! As for the storytelling itself, for the most part it was roll-on-the-floor funny. These guys and gals were naturals. Or, perhaps, they have inhaled, imbibed or injected so many weird chemicals that they are actually cracked. Either way, it was a great night.

I'm told the organisers intend Laborastory to become a regular event. The next one is planned for June 3 at The Uptown Jazz Cafe in Brunswick St, Fitzroy. Get there if you can. It will make you see serious scientists in a whole new light. Come to think of it, it is probably the only time you'll ever see them in anything other than cold, stark fluoresent light. You'll also get bragging rights. Some time in the future, you'll be able to say, "I knew them before they won a Nobel".

* Okay, so I was very tempted to get his autograph, but you'll never get me to admit it, let alone commit it to writing