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Text Publishing

Transformation is one thing. Conversion is another. With its Latin roots con (with or together) and vertere (to turn or bend), conversion is haunted by a sense of coercion, the imposition of one will over another. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, conversion comes in the form of Clarissa Dalloway’s daughter’s evangelistic tutor, Doris Kilman, the violence of colonialism, and brutish attempts by psychologist Sir William Bradshaw to instil ‘a sense of proportion’ into his vulnerable patients. Sir William gets what he wants. He ‘shuts people up’ under the auspices of ‘the twin goddesses of conversion and proportion’. Converting, for Woolf, means ‘to override opposition’. 

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Megalodon, the famed prehistoric shark, is the stuff of legends. Their huge teeth – as big as the palm of a hand – fuel unquenchable rumours of their continued survival, a plethora of implausible YouTube videos, and the devoted fascination of a legion of children.

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The best literary short fiction gives the author an opportunity to stretch their limbs from poetry into abstraction, painting emotion in words without the need to make figurative or even internal sense. The story does not need to be a medium for delivering ‘story’, as such, but can become a container of emotion, for the feelings the artist intends to deliver. The emotion delivered by literary fiction teaches us to feel empathy for the characters, making the short form an effective empathy delivery vehicle.

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In her short life, Lesbia Harford (1891–1927) created a body of poems which have become increasingly important to scholars and poets in understanding both the impact of poetic modernism in Australia and shifting concepts of gender, class, and the tensions between a personal and a collective politics. While Oliver Dennis’s 2014 Collected Poems of Lesbia Harford presents Harford’s full oeuvre, the new Text Classics edition, selected and introduced by Gerald Murnane, brings a sharp and accessible focus on this seminal Australian poet, highlighting her key themes and demonstrating a literary style that straddled worlds: from the formal structures and decorous themes of late nineteenth-century poetry to the challenges to form, voice, and subject matter that characterised the emerging revolutions of literary modernism.

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Early in Stephen Daisley’s novel about World War II and postwar years, A Better Place, a New Zealand soldier called Roy Mitchell tells a lieutenant they must do something terrible: ‘C’mon boss, we got no choice here.’ This sentiment of compulsion – and this acceptance of the unacceptable – is symptomatic of many of the circumstances Roy endures and of the way he fights, survives, and keeps going across several theatres of war and into the peaceful future he must navigate with his head full of memories.

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In Restless Dolly Maunder, Kate Grenville weaves a fictional narrative around her grandmother, a woman she remembers as ‘aloof, thin, frowning, cranky’, and knew through her mother’s stories as ‘uncaring, selfish, unloving. Even a bit mad.’

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Did I Ever Tell You This? by Sam Neill & Everything and Nothing by Heather Mitchell

by
August 2023, no. 456

Despite their proliferation, celebrity memoirs often seem incapable of justifying their own existence: a string of carefully curated anecdotes woven together to approximate a life already lived in the glare of the media. Perhaps because actors are on the one hand concealed by the roles they play, and on the other exposed to the prying eyes of the public, their autobiographies tend to inhabit a paradoxical netherworld of disclosure and obfuscation, cautious oscillations on a back off/come hither axis. Both Sam Neill’s and Heather Mitchell’s recent memoirs traverse this uneasy ground, feeding us sometimes incredibly intimate details while remaining stubbornly mute on the larger questions of their careers.

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Where I Slept opens with an ending. The nameless narrator, a twenty-something woman, is leaving her rural hometown and the boarding house where she lived, for new adventures in the big smoke – but not before daubing ‘sentimentality is the enemy of truth’ on the front gate of her soon-to-be former university. That proverb proves prophetic as the narrator establishes a new life in Melbourne’s inner city. This is the 1990s, just before gentrification had gained ascendance, when the area still had a ‘bohemian’ feel. The narrator drifts through sharehouses where rent goes unpaid and housemates are replaced frequently. She frequents seedy bars where strangers shout her drinks, and exhibitions where free booze flows.

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The aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg likened reviews to ‘a kind of childhood illness to which newborn books are subject to a greater or lesser degree’, like measles or mumps, which kill a few but leave the rest only mildly marked. But how should we consider reviews of books that come late in an author’s career? In instances such as these, the reviewer is tempted to avoid any chance of career-ending pneumonia, applying a nurse’s gentling touch to the text. Often the result is career summation, a soft peddle at indications of decline.

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In an exuberant essay anticipating the publication of Eleven Letters to You, the critic and editor Helen Elliott describes the deep pleasure of working on the book: ‘The satisfaction of writing this book, of making it as good as I can has been unlike anything I’ve ever known. A necessary joy, the deepest new, an entirely selfish pleasure. A small and ravishing bomb inside me’ (The Monthly, May 2023). After this introduction, it was a relief to read the book and find that it doesn’t disappoint. The exuberance of the writing process filters through to the finished pages, populated with ostensibly ‘ordinary people’ – Elliott’s highly provisional term – who have made a deep impression on the writer.

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