Archive | July 2005

ABC fiction award

Another award for ’emerging writers’ has been announced: the ABC Fiction Award.

The competition seeks the best, original, unpublished, quality fiction manuscript, written by an Australian resident over the age of 18. The submitted manuscript cannot be under consideration by any other publisher or award.

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Theory for beginners

The big books story in the Sydney/Oz weekend papers is in the Australian, indeed, it made the front page. Luke Slattery writes on the use of post-modernist forms of criticism in high schools. (The front page story, linked above, leads into a longer piece which I can not locate on the Oz website. If anyone else can, let me know).

The Oz dives in with usual Murdoch style by trying to scare the shit out of readers by picking perhaps the most extreme postmodern readings of picture books:

For a generation of young readers, Mem Fox’s Feathers and Fools is an enchanting story about peacocks, swans and the ugliness of war. In the eyes of the postmodernist critics, however, it is a skilful piece of propaganda for the cause of male supremacy.

Indeed. While some of the quotations may be extreme, generally the article raises a good point. High school, or if picture books are included, primary school, is not the place to learn about postmodern theory. When you are supposed to be attaining a basic level of literacy applying theory of this sort only serves to muddy the waters. As Catherine Runcie from Sydney Uni points out:

School teachers and students have much more important things to do… They have basic learning and grammar to master. At university we’re still marking grammar and we shouldn’t be marking grammar after the age of 15.

I agree. If you can’t write there’s no use trying to apply Foucault’s theories to texts you can barely read. I do though have some reservations: just how widespread is this ‘postmodernising’ of our children? Is every English teacher in Australia being forced to teach in this manner? I find this hard to believe. As the beneficiary of some basic grammar teaching from stickler nuns when grammar was out of fashion, I can vouch for the fact that sometimes teachers will teach what they see fit, they will ignore some parts of the curriculum if they see fit. Sometimes they get it right. Having not spoken to a high school English teacher for some years I can not make comment on the penetration of theory. If anyone would like to enlighten me it would be greatfully appreciated.

My other reservation is that this attack on teaching relative readings of texts, of looking for subtexts, could be used in a similar manner to ‘politically correct’. We all know some people use the term politically correct negatively and as a way to say that things have got out of hand, that the looney left has gone beyond reason. What this kind of use often says is that the user couldn’t be arsed and is looking for a way to dress up their prejudices as acceptable and rational, as opposed to those language-manglers who have taken the neutralisation of some terms to ridiculous extremes.

There is some benefit in asking students to look for other meanings, to look at context and not isolate the text. This is particularly pertinent when our mainstream media can not be read at face value. When some daily papers would make history’s best propaganda proponents proud (oops, sorry about the alliteration there) an open mind and a general scepticism is required. Though for some people, just such scepticism is postmodern and thus dangerous. I don’t believe this. I think a little questioning is good but I don’t think we need to harangue 16 year olds with Derrida. To critique a book, or indeed any text (showing my p-m pedigree there), intelligently requires a love of reading, a love of the language and a belief that books can do things.

How is this love achieved? By reading far and wide, for pleasure as much as personal gain. In Brazil, where world-class footballers are a dime a dozen, they allow their kids to play football. They allow them to have fun, to show-off, to learn tricks and to love the ball. In England, where world-class footballers (as opposed to over-hyped pretty-boys) are rather more sparse, football has traditionally been taught rather seriously from a young age, with an emphasis on fitness and strength. The ball was something to get away from, not to love and nurture. I think about books the same way. If you are forced to have suspicions about every book you read, to question its relation to ideology, you are in danger of never developing that love which can lead to skillful criticism.

Down with it

The Catholic Church has decided to get all hip and happening, or as a spokesperson said: “This is an attempt to engage in something that is popular in modern culture.” Whatever.

They’ve launched a website about Mary Magdalen in an effort to circumvent those horrible things Dan Brown has been saying about her.

Potter pirate

Why is it, the more they sell, the more paranoid they are about being ripped-off? Too late honey.

Last night a poet saved my life

Last night I had an almost spiritual experience while reading a volume of poetry and today I found this: Writing poetry was the balm that kept Guantanamo prisoners from going mad: Former inmates say they wrote thousands of lines.

Do yourself a favour, read yourself some poetry, preferably some Australian stuff, I’m feeling patriotic (to our literature, not to anything political, mind).

A summer of Faulkner? Oh, Oprah.

Jonathon Franzen may have been a little “sheepish” about being included in Oprah’s bookclub, claiming he was from a “high art” tradition, but Oprah has pulled a swifty this northern summer and proclaimed it the Summer of Faulkner. Yes, that’s right, William Faulkner.

By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience’s attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people–that is, anybody besides her millions of fans–reckoned.

Another library rant

Stacks’ appeal says Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle. Indeed they do. I am pointing to this for no other reason than pure stack lust.

For the record, I have never had sex in the stacks, and — even after many years of lurking in several major collections — I have never had to discreetly avoid anyone else in flagrante delicto. But I have had many moments in stacks of great libraries that were almost erotic in their intellectual intensity.

And for the record, neither have I. Not literally anyway.