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Forty years ago next Christmas, a cyclone devastated Australia’s northernmost city, Darwin. It is a disaster still clear in the living memory of most Australians over fifty, but it also belongs to the past, the time before we had become aware of climate change. At the time, it was the kind of natural disaster to be expected in summer in the Top End, even if its festive timing appeared ominous in some mysterious way. There have been government reports, memoirs, books, and documentaries about Cyclone Tracy. Forty years appears long enough for an event to become history, but the cyclone has not yet become integrated into a significant national narrative.

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Shy is a strange beast – part memoir, part journalistic investigation, part cri de coeur. Reading it, you are immersed in the interior life of an intelligent and sensitive woman. The experience is unsettling, almost voyeuristic. You wonder whether you should be sharing such an intense and honest self-scrutiny, and often feel as if you were breaching the sanctity of the confessional. But discomfort is Sian Prior’s aim: she wants the reader to feel the unease and embarrassment she has had to cope with all her life. For Prior suffers from a common but crippling social anxiety: she is painfully shy.

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Garry Disher’s World War II novel Past the Headlands (2001) was inspired in part by his discovery of the diary of an army surgeon in Sumatra, who wrote of how his best friend was trying to arrange passage on a ship or plane that could take them back to Australia before the advancing Japanese army arrived. But one morning the surgeon woke to find that his friend had departed during the night. Mateship in a time of adversity, that most vaunted of masculine Australian virtues, had turned out to be a sham. The elusiveness of real friendship and love, and the difficulty of discerning what is true and what is false in human conduct, are recurring themes in Disher’s writing, and he visits them again in his latest book, Bitter Wash Road.

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Authentically owning a character’s experience is one of the great challenges faced by fiction writers, especially when it is something as intensely felt as living with terminal illness. It is testimony to A.J. Betts’s talent that she does so in Zac & Mia without lapsing into melodrama, rather, maintaining a voice that is youthful, contemporary, ...

When Mark Twain arrived in Watsons Bay in 1895, he called out from his ship that he was going to write a book about Australia. ‘I think I ought to start now. You know so much more of a country when you haven’t seen it than when you have. Besides, you don’t get your mind strengthened by contact with ...

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Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

by
March 2013, no. 349

Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as Well makes us question why we read. Is it something we do to escape reality, or are we drawn to other realms that may contain deeply unsettling experiences very different from our own?

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As a reader, teacher, and scholar of Australian literature, I applaud any initiative directed towards increasing readers’ understanding of, and engagement with, Australian writing. Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library sets out to achieve that goal. Through a mix of biography and literary review, Williamson seeks to recuperate the work and reputation of fifteen Australian writers whom he judges to have been underappreciated or sidelined by academics, publishers, and, consequently, the reading public. His stable of writers includes Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Xavier Herbert, Christina Stead, Dal Stivens, Patrick White, Jessica Anderson, Sumner Locke Elliott, Amy Witting, Olga Masters, David Ireland, Elizabeth Harrower, Thomas Keneally, Randolph Stow, and Gerald Murnane.

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This year’s annual fiction edition of Griffith Review – a collection of six stories chosen by competition – is dedicated to reviving the novella. In the golden age of print, the novella was mostly considered a literary misfit, too long for magazines, too short to publish profitably in a single book. It is a fair assumption that with new infrastructure provided by digital technology the novella might at last reach its market. Some hypothesise that it might even become popular; a story that can be read in one sitting might stand a chance of squeezing into the daily gavage of online ‘content’. True to these ideas, each piece published in Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project is available for individual digital purchase.

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In 2013, Asperger’s Syndrome will no longer officially exist – according to the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American psychiatric manual used as a diagnostic bible around the world. Ironically, just as it begins its slow fade from the cultural landscape, Asperger’s attracts its own romantic comedy. The Rosie Project joins Toni Jordan’s Addition in this fledgling genre – the (screwball) romance of difference. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the heroine knows that she has found her man when he declares that he likes her ‘just as you are’. Addition, with its obsessive-compulsive counting heroine, expanded the boundary of what that essential, loveable self can encompass; so does The Rosie Project, with its self-described ‘differently wired’ hero, Professor Don Tillman.

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‘Too many vampires,’ wrote Patrick White. The year was 1980; the document was a letter to Shirley Hazzard; the subject was their friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who had published nothing but a handful of uncollected short stories since 1966. ‘Elizabeth keeps her principles,’ he wrote. ‘Whether she is also writing, I have given up asking in case I get the wrong answer. Too many vampires make too many demands on her …’

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