Archive

Relations between the public arena and the private are what the novel is all about. This loose, generous prose form was developed in early-modern Europe to enable a vigorous bourgeois imagination to ask the question: what is public, in fact, and what is private ...

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You can’t escape the black square with the ominous slit: it’s about as familiar and inevitable in Australia as the icon for male or female. Ned’s iron mask now directs you to the National Library’s website of Australian images. There it is, black on red ochre, an importunate camera, staring back as we look through it ...

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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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Horror. It’s a word you are forced to utter emphatically, almost to expel. On the page, it seems to contain a form of typographical echo – it looks as if it is repeating itself. The term has tactile, physical associations; it once meant roughness or ruggedness, and it also describes a shuddering or a shivering movement. (There’s a wonderful word, horripilation, a synonym for the phenomenon also known as gooseflesh.)

Corporeal sensations, outward and internal – the frisson of creeping flesh, the visceral clutch or contraction of the bowels. Horror is the response and that which causes it, the emotion of disgust or repugnance which provokes a shudder or a shiver. Instinctive, immediate, something that can’t be moderated or regulated. But there is also a dynamic of attraction and repulsion in and around horror: it is both what you cannot bear to contemplate and cannot bear to look away from.

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Henry Handel Richardson: The letters edited by Clive Probyn and Bruce Steele

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October 2000, no. 225

The status of Henry Handel Richardson as a writer in Australia has always been somewhat problematic. Some people put that down to the fact that she was an expatriate. Leaving Australia at the age of eighteen, she returned only once, very briefly, in 1912. Expatriates, however, have often been paranoid about their reputation in this country and inclined to imagine that the Australian public is punishing them for leaving whereas in most cases it is indifferent to or even ignorant of that fact.

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I recently took part in a forum on contemporary Australian fiction, a discussion during which the publisher on the panel talked about popular and/or ‘middlebrow’ fiction, and about her ire with reviewers who either simply trashed such novels, or else insisted on emphasising their status as ‘popular fiction’, and on discussing them within the context of its generic expectations and limitations.

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If Gerald Stone had gone to a publisher with a proposal for a book about Channel Seven or Channel Ten, it is doubtful whether it would ever have seen the light of day. But Stone – who would have endured more than a few pitches in his time as a television executive – had the sense to propose a book about his former employer, Channel Nine, and Compulsive Viewing is the result.

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The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham & Black Hearts by Arlene J. Chai

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October 2000, no. 225

Set in the 1950s in a tiny Australian country town called Dungatar, Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker explores the rippling effects of chaos when a woman returns home after twenty years of exile in Europe. Tilly Dunnage was expelled from Australia in a fog of hate and recrimination; her neighbours have never forgiven her for an act Tilly thought was predicated upon self-preservation, but others chose to see as manslaughter. Returning to look after her senile mother, Tilly sits in a ramshackle house atop a hill while the town people below bitch and snipe at her with rancorous glee. This is a story about loose lips and herd mentality bullying in a town where everybody knows your past. The dressmaking title refers to Tilly’s fabulous seamstress skills (she learnt the trade overseas). But even her ability to transform the frumpiest shapes into figures of grace does not mellow the unforgiving hearts of her neighbours.

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Blackout is a poem written (deliberately, I think) in transition – or even perhaps in transit. Structured such that it lacks a singular, personal voice, it could be read as a response to the question: What is a poem in the era of digital media? Or more particularly, more precisely –Where does such a poem start? What’s its language, how does it end? Blackout, for example, is left unfinished: after the ninth section it just breaks off with a colophon indicating that there could be more words one day, or perhaps not. It’s left unfinished too in the sense of being a work which never resolves into a coherent narrative or even a coherent thought-structure. The polyphony of the text is left jagged and juxtapositional, much in the manner of block music. Or more likely in the manner of a downloaded text where many voices have criss-crossed in a many-timed, interactive way.

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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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