Essay collections

In 1985, the American poet and essayist Susan Howe deftly jettisoned any pretensions to objectivity in the field of literary analysis with her ground-breaking critical work My Emily Dickinson. The possessive pronoun in Howe’s title says it all: when a writer’s work goes out to its readers, it reignites in any number of imaginative and emotional contexts. What rich and varied screens we project onto everything we read.

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A Nation Apart edited by John McLaren

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September 1983, no. 54

A Nation Apart is the title of this book of essays on contemporary Australia and it’s a good title because it summarises the fragmentation, the sense of disparateness, which characterizes this nation at the moment – and characterises the book itself.

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In her introduction to Sydney Review of Book’s latest anthology, Open Secrets: Essays on the writing life, Catriona Menzies-Pike quickly establishes what readers should not expect. ‘There are no precious morning rituals here,’ the editor promises, ‘no magic tricks for aspiring writers.’ It’s true that these essays, each a mix of disarming honesty and polymathic intelligence, hover far above the glut of literary listicles clogging the internet. And thank goodness: if I have to suffer Hemingway mansplaining show-don’t-tell one more time, I may go out and shoot a lion myself.

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Eda Gunaydin’s collection of essays, Root & Branch, centres on migration, class, guilt, and legacy. It joins the surge of memoir-as-début by millennial writers, who interrogate the personal via the political. Gunaydin, whose family immigrated to Australia from Turkey, grew up in the outer suburbs of Western Sydney – home to a historically migrant and working-class demographic. We learn that her father, a bricklayer, has been the household’s sole income provider as the health of her mother, Besra, meant that she ‘never had a job in this country except cleaning’.

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Lessons from History is a big, ambitious book. Its twenty-two essays – amounting to some 400 pages of research, reflection, and references – seek to pin down, in accessible form, the combined expertise of thirty-three practitioners of history and related fields. Together they address a mélange of pressing issues facing Australia today, testament to the diversity of contemporary Australian history and its interdisciplinary reach. Political, social, economic, business, environmental, and oral historians are all represented, alongside authors whose institutional base is in strategic studies, economics, politics, or administration, but whose work is informed by a keen interest in the past and its lessons.

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Interventions 2020 by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Andrew Brown

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July 2022, no. 444

Michel Houellebecq has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. Since the publication of his second and best-known novel, Atomised, in 1998 (the same year some of the pieces included in Interventions 2020 were originally published in French), Houellebecq has established himself as the enfant terrible of French letters, primarily through his provocative and at times incendiary remarks. Indeed, there is a certain expectation that Houellebecq will live up to his reputation, something he notes in his reflections on paedophilia: ‘Through the wording of your questions, I feel I am subtly being asked to say something politically incorrect.’ Rarely does he disappoint.

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Earlier this year, while still much occupied with our works in progress, Drusilla Modjeska and I discussed what our next projects might be. We were both tempted to put together a collection of our shorter writings – essays, talks, reviews, articles – already written and just needing a touch up. ‘Money for nothing and your books for free,’ I said, echoing the old Dire Straits song – albeit in a much more acceptable form for these sensitive times. And that’s the gift with collected writings: little work is required to produce a book. But a gift for the writer can be a risky business for the reader. After all, one cannot hope that all the disparate pieces (sixty-two in Margaret Atwood’s latest collection) will be equally as compelling as one Handmaid’s Tale.

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In These Precious Days, her second essay collection (after This is the Story of a Happy Marriage in 2013), celebrated American writer Ann Patchett sets out to explore ‘what matter[s] most in this precarious and precious life’. Patchett is the author of seven novels, including Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction, and her most recent, the internationally acclaimed The Dutch House (2019). When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Patchett did not have a novel in progress and decided that 2020 was not the time to start one. Instead, she wrote essays, something she has always done when she doesn’t have a novel on the go.

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‘Wasn’t sexual expression a principal motivation of gay and queer dancefloors … Isn’t that the freedom we were fighting for? To be kinky dirty fuckers, without shame; to not sanitise ourselves in the bid for equality?’ So exhorts DJ Lanny K in 2013, reflecting on his time spinning discs at down-and-out pubs in ungentrified Surry Hills in the mid-1990s as part of Sydney’s fomenting queer subculture. Lanny K, Sydney-based Canadian immigrant, is one of a handful of artists – performance artists, dancers, even a tattooist – interviewed by Fiona McGregor in her collection of essays Buried Not Dead. Mostly written between 2013 and 2020, each essay is based on a rolling interview with an artist and draws out their recollections of early practices and careers, several united by reference to a specific time and place – Sydney’s emergent gay scene in the mid-1990s.

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This collection of Peter Ryan’s writings, Lines of Fire, is no grab-bag of oddments. The pieces included here are given an impressive unity by the author’s imposition of his presence, by his trenchancy, elegance of expression, a desire to honour the men and women of his younger days and to excoriate a present Australia in which too many people wallow in ‘an unwholesome masochistic guilt’. The finely designed cover shows a wry, ageing, wrinkled Ryan smiling benignly over his own shoulder, or rather that of his younger self, in uniform, in late teenage, during the Second World War. What happened in between is richly revealed in the elements of Lines of Fire.

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