Gail Jones

If you can say immediately what you think a novel is ‘about’, then the chances are that it may not be a very good novel. Fiction as a genre gives writers and readers imaginative room to move, to work on a vertical axis of layers of meaning as well as along the horizontal forward movement of narrative development ...

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In a recent feature article in the Guardian Review, William Boyd proposed a new system for the classification of short stories. He constructed seven stringently categorical descriptions and ended his article with a somewhat predictable – that is to say, canonical – list of ‘ten truly great stories’, among which were James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Spring at Fialta’ and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’. Most of the writers cited were male, and the classifications were confident demarcations in terms of genre and mode (‘modernist’, ‘biographical’). It is difficult to know, and no doubt presumptuous to speculate, what Boyd would make of Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection The Best Australian Stories 2004. Garnering them ‘at large’ by advertisement and word of mouth, Moorhouse received one thousand stories, from which he selected ‘intriguing and venturesome’ texts, many of which display ‘innovations’ of form. Of the twenty-seven included, six are by first-time published writers and twenty are by women. This is thus an open, heterodox and explorative volume, unlike its four predecessors in this series in reach and inclusiveness. It is also, perhaps, more uneven in quality: a few stories in this selection are rather slight; and the decision to include two stories by two of the writers may seem problematic, given the large number of submissions and the fact that the editor claims there were fifty works fine enough to warrant publication. A character in one of the stories favourably esteems the fiction of Frank Moorhouse over that of David Malouf: this too may be regarded as a partisan inclusion.

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Susan Sontag has identified in contemporary fiction what she calls an ‘impatient, ardent and elliptical’ drive. These are features, above all, of the well-wrought story, and they are also adjectives that well describe its inherent paradox: the story is contained but somehow urgent, intensified but working in a system of concision, suggestive but employing referential exorbitance. Four pages might betoken an entire world.

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And the fourteen are: Brian Castro, Sara Dowse, Joan London, Gillian Mears, Kim Scott, Brenda Walker, Marele Day, Tom Flood, Gail Jones, Beverley Farmer, David Brooks, John A Scott, Simone Lazaroo, and Carmel Bird, in the order anthologised. In summary: no contribution is less than satisfying, many are gripping, most are distinguished. It’s just that I have a problem with ‘risks’ as the postulated organising principle, though editor Brenda Walker might indeed take comfort in this exchange from Carmel Bird’s contribution, which might serve as epigraph to this review.

Too bad; I’ll risk it. This is a weird sort of writing, I have been told. It isn’t fiction; it isn’t essay; it isn’t poetry. What is it?

Ken wonders about this too. What do you actually think you’re doing here, writing this stuff! he says.

It is a slow search with words for the point where consciousness and understanding intersect with unconsciousness and confusion ...

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