Essay collection

Once, during a teaching exchange in Germany, I found myself learning as much from my students as I was trying to teaching them. This is not unusual. Delivering my thoughts to others, and then having them modified during discussions, helps me to understand what I want to say. By the end of the class, I begin to see what I probably should have known from the start.

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In The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, the photographer–artist Sarah Walker brings into focus ideas about anxiety, control, bodily functions, and the uses of breached boundaries. The essays of this book are personal, and readers of confessional non-fiction will delight in their tone: equal parts jocose and sincere.

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Gerard Windsor had a rocky start to his writing life. Out of the Jesuits after seven years, he scored a contract with his old school, Riverview, in Sydney, to write its centennial history. I was one of the alumni he interviewed; I remember suggesting that he take steps to guarantee the publication of his text. After all, I argued, a school run by a religious order was like a family commissioning its history: it would have tender feelings towards its dead and be wary of any diminution of their legends.

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‘Land isn’t always meant to be grasped any more than art is, or dust,’ writes Michael Farrell in the arresting opening sentence of the first essay of Kate Leah Rendell’s Randolph Stow: Critical essays. Stow’s writing shows just how provisional meaning and territoriality can be, and the statement is a fitting beginning to a new book about his work.

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‘Experimental writing’ can sometimes seem like a wastebasket diagnosis for any text that defies categorisation. Even when used precisely, it begs certain questions. Isn’t all creative writing ‘experimental’ to some degree? Isn’t the trick to conceal the experimentation? And what relationship does it bear to the ‘avant-garde’? If avant-gardism implies a radical philosophy of art, where does ‘experimentalism’ fit today? Is it not part of the valorisation of novelty, of innovation for innovation’s sake, which has gripped the literary establishment in recent decades? (When books like Milkman [2018] and Ducks, Newburyport [2019] fall victim to the cosiest of literary prizes, where have the real radicals gone?)

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Liz Byrski’s introduction to Women of a Certain Rage is, among other things, a homage to second-wave feminism and a lament that feminism, ‘originally a radical countercultural movement’, has been ‘distorted into a tool of neoliberalism’. While there is no doubt that strains of feminism have been co-opted by neoliberalism to debilitating effect, this narrative – that feminism has become ineffectual since the 1970s – is one that erases many contemporary feminisms, as well as broader feminism-informed political movements and the work that they have done and continue to do.

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In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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The cultural critic, poet, and musician Wayne Koestenbaum is pooped. He is ready for his writing to assume its ‘corpse pose’, to expire and become obsolete. Over the course of a thirty-year writing career marked by a lively enthusiasm for culture and celebrity, the author has often shown his attraction to acts of disappearance – his admiration, for example, of artists who retire relatively young (e.g. Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, or poets Arthur Rimbaud and pre-comeback George Oppen). Perhaps more compelling to Koestenbaum, though, are those cultural figures who retire into careers; those who make work of indolence.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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