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Short Story Collection

Glass by Adriana Ellis & Redfin by Anthony Lynch

June 2008, no. 302

Australian publishers rarely risk bringing out collections of short fiction from writers who haven’t already made their names with novels. Neither of these writers is unknown, of course: Adriana Ellis has long been admired for the comic insights and the spare power of her fiction, her previous collection Cleared Moments Clear Spaces having appeared with FACP in 1990; while Anthony Lynch enjoys an increasingly strong reputation as a poet, fiction writer, literary editor and publisher. The shame is that these collections, piquant in their stylish brevity, reverberative far beyond their modest slimness, have not attracted the notice they deserve.

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Story collections, especially ones that appear annually, hold out shimmering, Brigadoon-like hopes for their readers: that they will offer a snapshot of the times; capture the collective unconscious of a nation and its writers; and, if selected by a well-known writer, reveal something profound about that author’s tastes. Most editors will tell you that the reality is often different. Their wish-list of writers may have published little to select from that year, and have nothing in the bottom drawer when asked; well-known authors, approached on spec, may offer work that is sub-par but which the editor now feels obliged to take. Thus an anthology may end up as more of a compromise than an ideal selection. On the other hand, some anthologies, such as Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Australian Love Stories (1996), Drusilla Modjeska’s Sisters (1993) or the first two volumes of the long-defunct Picador New Writing (1993–94), have managed to pull off precisely this era-defining gathering of collective energy, showcasing our nation’s literature at a high-water mark. In such anthologies, there is a joyful sense of momentum and confidence: the pieces speak to one another with an almost predetermined charge.

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The Best Australian Stories 2003 edited by Peter Craven & Secret Lives edited by Barry Oakley

December 2003–January 2004, no. 257

At Adelaide Writer’s Week in 2002, Drusilla Modjeska spoke about the prevalence in contemporary Australian fiction of historical subjects and distant eras; she exhorted Australian writers to consider instead the importance of addressing our own times. Much of this speech subsequently found its way into the essay ‘The Present in Fiction’, published in Modjeska’s Timepieces later the same year.

Then, last March, David Marr took up this baton and ran with it in his address to the Australian Society of Authors, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’. Contemporary Australian writers, he argued, are in the same predicament as Patrick White was in the 1950s,

As the old philistine culture of Australian politics reasserts itself. And the same way out is available to those of us who want to take it – to explore this new old Australia through writing [and] start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching ... So few Australian novels – now I take my life in my hands – address in worldly, adult ways the country and the times in which we live.

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