The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes

Emigration, Identity, The Commitments and Me

The commitments

I watched The Commitments for the first time when I was 16. What first grabbed me was the world it roddy doylebrought me into: Dublin in the 1980s. Grimy and gritty rain slicked streets, graphited and run down. The slow tumble towards decay. No money. No jobs. No hope. Then it became about something else. The simple act of just watching the film seemed to fill a void in me. And over the next couple of years, I filled that void at least once a week with a dose of the characters from Barrystown Alan Parker brought to life from the novel written by Roddy Doyle.

When I was 11, my family emigrated to Australia. The move was tough for me. I dublin in the 1980swas at an age where I was beginning to understand what it meant to be Irish. A sense of national identity was stirring within me. A youthful fascination with our country’s long and dramatic history has begun to fill my head with wonderful notions. I had been born into a country of rebels and poets, martyrs and musicians. My country’s identity was shaping my identity. I am who I am because my country made me this way. Our history. Our struggle. Our triumphs and our tears.

On 31st December 1987 my dad got me out of bed at around 10.30pm. Dad drove me into the centre of Dublin wheremansion house we stood, at the stroke of midnight, outside Dublin’s Mansion House to watch the Lord Mayor ring in, not only the new year, but the beginning of Dublin’s Millennium year. People cheered and hugged each other. Perched on my dad’s shoulders, I remember getting sprayed with champagne from the bottle the Lord Mayor aimed over the gathered revellers.

In March 1988 all that was taken away (at least, that’s how I felt for more than 10 years). It was something I struggled with and harboured a lot of anger because of. As a pale and freckled lad with an odd accent trying to adjust to suburban life in Sydney in the late ‘80s the seeds of being an outsider were planted. I had come from Dublin, a city celebrating 1000 years to a country celebrating its 200th birthday. Something about this didn’t sit well with me.

I was enrolled in a local school within a week of arriving and life went on. For all intensive purposes, I neighbourslooked like what Neighbours had led me to believe Australians looked like. The reality in school was different. There were white Australians, of course, but also Filipinos, Egyptians, Iranians, Chileans, Chinese, South Africans and more. There were Catholics, like myself, Anglicans, Muslims, Jehovahs and people who practiced no religion at all. The spectrum of differences was overwhelming. And as soon as I opened my mouth I was found out and my difference exposed. I had never felt so different before. So I worked on my accent, turning my U’s to A’s, my R’s to Ah’s, my Ah’s to A’s. I was blending in, assimilating.

For 5 years, I had been starved of anything Irish, be it on the telly or in magazines or newspapers. Other than on St Patricks day or when classmates blitzed me with a round of Irish Jokes (‘Paddy Irishman walks into a bar…’ or ‘Have you heard the latest Irish invention…’) there was almost nothing for me to hang onto that connected with who I felt I was in my deepest self. Other than an elusive idea of Irishness, I had nothing concrete to grasp onto.

When my parents brought The Commitments home on VHS one day for us to watch on the VCR, I had no idea how much it would affect me. It began with the scenery of Dublin. Streets and places I knew and grew up around. Landmarks, names, references that were not so much learnt as they were part of my DNA. The character’s accents, that strong North Dublin brogue, filled with angst and sarcasm. The accent I had, overtime, left behind.

Before my parents had to return the video the next day, I’d watched the film twice more, staying up late and getting up early before school to do so. I didn’t know what it was – it was too soon to really understand what was drawing me to it. A few months later when the local video store was selling off ex-rental copies of the movie, I bought my own. By then, I knew what it was. This film was my link to Ireland. It was my connection to my Irishness. When I watched this film, the part of me that yearned for ‘home’ was fed. It was my portal, my bridge.

jimmy

It wasn’t long before I could quote verbatim from any part in the film. It had become my identity card. And at the centre of this film was it’s main protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte. Jimmy was an entrepreneur, a chancer, a man witj vision. The manager of The Commitments, but not a performer in the band. He was friends with the musicians but not a musician himself. He was a dreamer and he was a doer. A man who was a once on the outside and on the inside of events in his life.

As a 16/17 year old I came to identify so deeply with this character that his fingerprint is permanently imprinted upon me. At once, I had someone who I could look to to model myself after, but also, the deeper realisation of how powerful fiction, storytelling, was as a means of connecting. I had lived my whole live having imaginary conversations in my head. With friends, family, famous people, historical people, completely made up people. It’s how I passed my time. And here on the screen in front of me was Jimmy, talking to himself in front of the mirror, in the bath, in bed, being interviewed by Terry Wogan. He lived and expressed this inner monologue that I thought was something only I did.

jimmy in bath

Jimmy Rabbitte had reached out over the oceans and through the TV screen to connect with me. He seemed to be saying, ‘This is what it is to be Irish. This is what it is to go after your dreams.’

My favourite quote from the film, and maybe one of my favourite ideas of all time, is one that is not said by Jimmy, but to Jimmy by  The Commitments troubadour, Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan. At the moment when the band might reach dizzying heights, it all falls apart, irrevocably. As Jimmy and Joey walk away from the choatic scenes of the band imploding, Joey tries to offer Jimmy the wisdom of his years:

jimmy and joey

Joey: Look, I know you’re hurtin’ now, but in time you’ll realize what you’ve achieved.

Jimmy Rabbitte: I’ve achieved nothing!

Joey: You’re missin’ the point. The success of the band was irrelevant – you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.

The struggle and the poetic. To me, what being Irish is all about. And as I’ve developed as a writer, it’s unconsciously, instinctively shaped my work. Struggle and revelation. Life and realisation. The inner me always reaching out, looking to connect with someone. Can me being who I am connected with you being who you are? Can this sharing of experiences and understanding bring us together, open doors, unite us, or untether us from whatever holds us back?

I’ll only find out if I keep writing, keeping myself open to experiences, open to wonder. The path is never always straight or flat. The journey never without incident or trial. But this way there lies discovery. I’ll let my friend Jimmy have the last word:

Jimmy Rabbitte: [pretending to be Terry Wogan] So, lookin’ back Jimmy, what have you learned from your experience with The Commitments?

Jimmy Rabbitte: Well, that’s a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say, we skipped the light fandango, turned cartweels ‘cross the floor. I was feelin’ kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more.

On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.

Spec what now?

44251

Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.

The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.

Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.

But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’

Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.

Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.

ursula-le-guinAt last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:

“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.

So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

A Family Of Wolves

My family is loud. They’re the ones you hear howling across the restaurant, spilling drinks and laughing at their own jokes. They’re the ones who growl in movie theatres, and feel the need to yell during phone calls. No emotions are held back in my family. If you are upset you explain why and crying is done in waves, not ripples.

My mother is the loudest of them all. Her laugh can be heard through oceans, her voice strong, not shrill. But by some strange fate I was born an introvert into this family. My heart grew in a box, and my voice slid through my throat like a rusty piece of wire. In large crowds I would shake and stammer while my feet sunk into the dirt.

When I was young with a stutter my mother was my guide. She would finish my struggling sentences with a confident string of elegant words. She wouldn’t consider herself a poet yet in my young eyes she was.

But shame crawled under my skin when I was forced to speak on my own. I was not one to pull words together quickly, and when I struggled I could see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of the time my silence and short sentences were mistaken for idiocy.

I still have rust in my stomach. I still can’t howl. Where did this weak blood come from?

My dad is not the loudest of the pack, but when he talks, people listen. He knew mum couldn’t be my poet forever, but he didn’t want me to learn to howl the way she had learned.

So dad told me a story.

When he was growing up he saw a man get stabbed outside a coffee house in broad daylight. Dad was 15 and had never ridden his bike so fast home in his life. But he said that still wasn’t as bad as what my mum had been through.

Your mother wasn’t always loud, dad said, she wasn’t always a poet. Her voice, too, was once confined by vines, and other voices had choked her own words in her throat.

Animal-Black-Wolf-Extinct-Pennsylvania-AnimalsDad said while mum never saw a man brandish a knife, she knew a man that was similar in character. At the time she had called the relationship complicated, like oil and water. She loved to preserve peaches and cherries and artichoke hearts in mason jars, but she hadn’t known how to preserve herself. She would tiptoe over eggshells to be the Rose for this man, but this man only offered up thorns. My mum was lost in a pit of despair and false love but it was not my father who pulled her out of it. Dad said there was only one other in our family who had smelt the oncoming storm. She was the only one who had intervened.

I used to hide at the very end of tables at big family gatherings. But there was another who hid at the other end. My grandma was always under a shadow. My proud Welsh grandpa would always growl a comment on everything in the conversation. My grandma would just nod and sit in silence. I didn’t know that she had a howling bone in her at all.

But my grandma snapped when she saw the bruises on my mums face. So my grandma began to hunt at dusk, stalking the man through the back streets and searching for weaknesses in his house of thorns. She spent many nights creeping in her familiar shadows. She was the one of the best, dad said.

One night with a full moon above her head, my grandma crept out of her shadows. The man was limping home and smelt all bloody and bitter. Although my grandma’s howl was quiet, she was efficient in snapping bones, slashing tendons, and tearing flesh. She torched the house of thorns and growled at my grandpa until they moved across the country.

Even though my mother was safe, she still had thorns in her. It took a long time for her to heal. But my grandma never let her forget that she was a wolf and that she should howl like one.

Your blood’s not weak, my dad said. You can howl loudly or you can howl quietly, but you always have the choice. He said, don’t ever forget you’re a wolf too.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

The Cringe welcomes writer Ashlee Poeppmann to the team! Look for more of Ashlee’s short fiction in the coming months.

The Elusive Australian Film Festival

The Palace Cinemas recently hosted a German Film Festival at their locations around Australia. The full program consisted of a staggering amount of films, almost fifty, all of which were produced within the last few years and demonstrated a vast range of genre and narrative. While I expected to be impressed I was nevertheless genuinely surprised at the quality and diversity of the films on offer, featuring remarkable performances, tight scripts, and exceptional production quality.

These days it’s difficult to have a conversation about national cultural capital without reference to native screen productions. And while Germany has never lost the glory of its musical, artistic, dramatic and literary legacy, it is now firmly establishing a platform on the world film stage as well.

who_am_i1Each film on offer was unique and seemed to revel in Germanic culture of the present and the past, representing national roots in subtle yet distinct threads without the usual pedantry or self-consciousness that one associates with non-Hollywood movies. Even the references to Hitler and the holocaust were charmingly unaffected: they seem to be able to acknowledge the best and worst of their identity without attaching any unnecessary gloating or guilt. In other words, these films made me feel that perhaps Germany is one of the most self-aware, successful, advanced, and emotionally secure nations of the modern age.

Naturally this got me to thinking about the Australian film industry and what kind of festival we would produce in similar circumstances. I was interested to discover that while the Palace’s German Film Festival is in it’s fourteenth year, the Australian Film Festival began in 2012, just three years ago. And while the GFF screened in eight locations around Australia, the AFF is only available to those privileged enough to live in Sydney.

Germany has a population of roughly 80 million, about four times that of Australia, which while significant is not as vast a difference as that between our respective artistic outputs. Yes, Germany has an impressive cultural history stretching back centuries at least, and including some of the most notable advances in Art music, visual arts, theatre and literature, but considering the impact the two world wars had on their economy and industry they are producing a remarkable amount of viable artistic product. Researching further I found this rather detailed description of the German arts funding model, which demonstrates the immense value they place on local cultural institutions.

While Australia has a fairly respectable artistic scene in terms of music and theatre, our film culture, like our literature, is still trying to free itself from a strange sort of identity crisis. Ask one of your friends to name just ten good Australian films made in the last three years. Chances are they can’t. That’s not because ten great films don’t exist, but mainly because no one has seen them. They aren’t promoted in film festivals. They aren’t screened four times a day in your local cinema. They are barely advertised at all.

Now ask your friend to name ten movies set in the Marvel Universe. Exactly. That might be a somewhat vulgar comparison but at the very least it demonstrates the shockingly low value we place on our own screen industry.

australia_nicole_kidmanAnd if you find someone who can name ten good Australian movies, I guarantee almost all of them take place in the outback or deal with an aspect of bogan culture or some gory true-crime event. Or star Hugo Weaving. I saw only three German films and was immersed in three completely different yet symbiotic representations of German culture: a cyber-thriller complete with native trance music and Europol agents; a period drama featuring stunning landscapes and historical literary figures; and a schoolyard comedy with ironic references to youth culture and modern generational identities.

There are plenty of great Australian directors, screenwriters and artists making compelling and authentic narrative statements. But they should be more accessible and they should be better funded. Our film students should be encouraged to make modern crime thrillers as well as deep psychological portraits of the Australian bush. We should be able to investigate our own colonial history beyond just The Man from Snowy River. We should be able to represent all aspects of Australian life without drawing on the usual cringe-worthy stereotypes of outback hardship, beer-drinking ute drivers, crocodile hunters or chain-smoking teenage mothers.

Until our government finds some kind of artistic soul and makes the connection between cultural identity and actual funding, the survival of Australian films is really up to the Australian public. We need to make a choice to spend money and time on local talent instead of re-watching Captain America for the third time, and then maybe one day we’ll actually have a film industry that can afford to make huge studio blockbusters.

Try having your own Australian Film Festival one weekend. The local DVD store probably doesn’t stock anything beyond The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding, so you might even have to fork out and buy the movies (you’re not going to find them on Netflix or Apple TV). Try some new releases like Theses Final Hours, The Babadook, or The Rover. Then there’s Animal Kingdom, Red Dog, Felony, Paper Planes or The Proposition, and this great list of films from the 00’s.

Of course you’ll notice the afore-mentioned propensity toward bogans, horror, and the outback. If you do manage to find a modern thriller, urban drama, or even a comedy that doesn’t major on awkward Aussie stereotypes or self-satisfied quirkiness, please let me know. That would be a film miracle. In this age of ‘diversity’-mongering our narrow-minded oeuvre seems embarrassingly parochial.

It’s no Palace International Film Festival. But at least it’s a start.

 

Elise Janes

Cultural Soft Spot

The 2015 HARDCOPY* program began last week, with esteemed editor Nadine Davidoff directing a series of workshops with the successful non-fiction applicants for this year’s program.

In the same week, the e-journal Softcopy was launched, showcasing an anthology of fictional work from writers who participated in 2014’s inaugural HARDCOPY program.

The Cringe spoke to the editors of Softcopy about their vision for the e-journal and how both HARDCOPY and Softcopy are opening up further avenues for emerging Australian writers to develop and promote their work.

Softcopy picLiterary magazines have provided an outlet for Australian writing since 1821 when the Australian Magazine, printed by Robert Howe, debuted in Sydney. Today, publications such as Meanjin, Overland and Southerly are the bastions of this literary tradition, but increasingly, Australians are turning to digital offerings to satisfy their cultural curiosity.

The new e-journal, Softcopy, taps into this growing trend. With around 15 million Australians accessing the internet at home on a regular basis, creating an online opportunity for emerging writers to showcase their work seemed the natural choice for the creative team behind Softcopy.

Softcopy is the brainchild of founding editor, Christine McPaul, a Canberra-based writer/editor and participant in the HARDCOPY 2014 program conducted by the ACT Writers Centre, and funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Along with fellow HARDCOPIERS Lesley Boland (Blemish Publishing) and George Dunford (Canberra-based writer/editor) they saw an opportunity to harness and display the range of talent brought together by the program.

‘We are excited to launch Softcopy as a vehicle for emerging writers,’ said Christine. ‘The online option is an easy and cost effective way to provide readers access to new writing and to support cultural production in Australia.’

Lesley Boland agrees that the decision to make Softcopy an e-journal was a deliberate choice. ‘We wanted to be able to have our work available to the widest possible audience,’ Lesley said. ‘As emerging writers, being able to build an online profile is a prime consideration.’

Whether you are interested in Poland or parrots, bullies or blind dates, murder or mercy, coaching or cricket, torture or tumbling, diplomacy or dancing, fire or friendship, ambition or adultery, the first edition has something for you.

‘Our aim is to broaden the range of contributors for future editions,’ George said. ‘We hope that over time Softcopy will become a vibrant place where many emerging writers can present their work.’

Softcopy will be produced regularly. Keep an eye out for the next call for submissions when emerging writers will be invited to submit a previously unpublished 500-1000 piece.

Explore Softcopy

*HARDCOPY is a professional development program for emerging writers run by the ACT Writer’s Centre with support from the ACT Government and the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body.