Helen Daniel

You can’t write a review of millenarian ‘time-pieces’ without showing your hand. I hereby declare that the first thing I do on looking into such a collection is a simple calculation, to which the answer in this case is 16:25.

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An occasion like this teaches us that we each have our own Helen Daniel. I met my Helen nearly ten years ago, appropriately through writing. I had written a book on the Aztecs of Mexico. It was primarily an academic book, but because it was published by a university press with a branch here, and because Aztecs are Aztecs, it was widely reviewed in this country. The material was esoteric and its interpretation involved some complicated talk about theoretical issues in anthropology and history, so I was relieved when the local reviews were kind. Nevertheless, I read them with mixed feelings: how was it possible for people to understand the same printed pages so variously?

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Helen Daniel, the editor of Australian Book Review since 1995, died suddenly on Monday, 16 October 2000. Her death has sent waves of shock and sorrow throughout the Australian literary world. According to Andrew Riemer, at the Writers’ Week in Brisbane, held on the weekend after Helen’s death, session after session paid homage to this woman who, without vanity or arrogation, had made her name synonymous with the profession and apprehension of Australian literature.

Her death diminishes all of us. Its strange to reflect that Helen, who occupied her position so quietly (at times so stoically) was in fact far and away the greatest champion for Australian writing in her generation and that her time as a critic and editor coincided with the great efflorescence of Australian publishing that we now wonder at and ponder.

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Cosy was the word Cassandra Pybus preferred when asked if Australian reviewing is too bland – the topic of this month’s symposium. Something intimate and specially friendly. In identifying the cosiness of some Australian reviewing, Pybus makes a telling point, if droll, certainly not excluding ABR from the offenders. I have to say that among the other responses were some that were bland, in a way that made me feel I have proved my point.

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Recently I have had a number of enquiries from readers who want to submit books for review hand the enquiries came from people unfamiliar with the reviewing process. So for those readers who are unfamiliar with the reviewing process, a few words about it.

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Last month’s editorial on reviewing and its ailments in Australia seems to have touched a few raw nerves. Various reviewers have enquired nervously about whether I was referring to them, for instance. On the other hand, as a result of the editorial, I have held a number of valuable conversations about the state of reviewing in Australia. Alas this is not reflected in the Letters pages of this issue. It seems with such a long break between the December/January issue and the February/March issue, the letter writers think of other things. Letters in this issue are few, fewer than any issue for several years.

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Literary culture in Australia seems to me to be in state of some disorder, not least because of the state of reviewing. Many reviews are banal, slipshod, dull and as if written in a cultural vacuum.

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In an interview in this issue about his new novel, The Sitters, which is about a portrait painter, Alex Miller suggests the novel is almost

a continuous monologue. almost something he shouted to himself while he was working. The Sitters is this kind of shouted monologue: this man shouting at himself, to himself, listening while he is painting, listening to the sounds of himself painting.

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Helen Daniel: I find The Sitters very different from The Ancestor Game, which seems to me much more elaborate and complex. This new novel, which is about absence and silence, is an occasion of great economy and restraint.

Alex Miller: I think a couple of times in the book I actually say the story is my secret. In other words, I’m not going to tell you the story, I’m going to leave that out. Having left the story out, this is what’s left, which is always a kind of aim with me, and I think with any writer probably, to try to do as much as possible with as little. To leave it all out.

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Mad Meg by Sally Morrison

by
May 1994, no. 160

Midway through Sally Morrison’s new novel, Mad Meg, I began to develop the scissor twitch, an almost overwhelming urge to cut it up and reassemble it into a new structure. Not quite the vandalism it suggests – I read Mad Meg in galley pages, which encourages scissorly desires. It is a vast, kaleidoscopic novel, which opens with a wonderful mischievous energy, full of surprises and pleasures, and laconic wit. Yet it begins to teeter midway and, in my view, ends in unnecessary disarray. Hence the twitch.

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