Thursday, March 27, 2008

Carn Michelle

I see from the current Sydney PEN newsletter that Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog has been shortlisted for the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award, and the winner will be announced tomorrow.

(This is the prize that caused such a fuss last year when first announced, mainly because it's for women writers only. [UPDATE: My bad, my very bad, for this is completely wrong: it is open to novelists of either or indeed any sex whose book represents women and girls in a positive light; see comments thread.] Oh noes! What about Teh Menz Liberation, huh? Huh? Etc.)

As you can see if you read the link, this is a very handsome prize. Quite apart from the $35,000, there is the warm glow of winning an award named in honour and memory of a woman who contributed so much for so long to Australian literature -- and associated also with her husband John Hinde, long-standing and much-loved ABC film critic, whose will provided for the establishment of the award in his wife's name.

Peace and all to the current Miles Franklin judges, some of whom are mates of mine, but it's a matter of absolute gobsmackedness to me that The Lost Dog didn't even make the longlist for the 2008 Miles F award. It fits the award's criteria (which de Kretser's previous novel, The Hamilton Case, did not), and it's one of the best Australian novels I've read not just over the last year but for a very long time. I've got nothing against the other books that made the Miles F longlist; I just think The Lost Dog is better than most if not all of them -- for all kinds of reasons, but mostly, I think, for its delicate balance of intellectual sophistication and genuine, intense, beautifully realised feeling. That, and the fact that by about three pages in you find yourself thinking 'Oh my, this book was written by a grown-up.'

This is the review of it that I wrote last year for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Lost Dog
By Michelle de Kretser
Allen & Unwin, 364 pp, $35 (hb)

Tom Loxley is on a kind of rural retreat when his beloved dog goes missing in the bush. Over the course of the story his search for the dog is interspersed with episodes of back-story: the story of his early childhood in India, his cramped teenage years in Australia, his unlucky and thwarted parents, and most of all his strange, tender relationship with the mysterious Nelly Zhang.

Tom is an academic working on a book about Henry James; he has anchored his racially complicated heritage in English literature. This novel is haunted by James in all kinds of ways, not least by a preoccupation with the idea of haunting itself, as well by the idea of yearning. On the surface Tom’s yearning is for the lost dog, and for the beloved who refuses to become a lover, but these things are situational and remediable; what can’t be changed is Tom’s family history and geography, the complex fate of the post-colonial.

This book is so engaging and thought-provoking, and its subject matter so substantial, that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is. At one point Tom goes to ask the neighbour Corrigan to keep an eye out for the dog, whereupon the narrator produces a sentence worthy of Patrick White: ‘When the Australian desire to provide assistance meshed with the Australian dread of appearing unmanly, it produced the bluff menace that was Mick Corrigan’s default setting.’

Michelle de Kretser is one of those rare writers whose work balances substance with style. Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence. She is still winning prizes for her 2003 novel The Hamilton Case and she is certain to win a few more for The Lost Dog. Publishers Allen and Unwin have shown their faith in her by publishing this novel as a beautifully-designed hardback.

But I only had a 320-word space and they're meant to be brief, lively, accessible shorts; if you want a good, serious, insightful, detailed critical response, go and have a read of James Ley's full-length review in the Age. (Whenever I hear someone say 'Oh but Peter Craven is the best critic in the country', I have a little smile to myself, because while there are things about Craven's writing (not his criticism, so much) that I do admire very much, it's quite obvious to me that the best critic in the country is in fact James Ley.)

And just as an added bonus, that beautiful cover and design are courtesy of the lovely and talented Ampersand Duck. What more could any reader possibly want? Here is A. Duck's fabulous post about working on this novel; give yourself time (a cup of coffee, say) to read and savour this lovely detailed post.

Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary


ocky said...

That's a great cover. And thanks for the tip: I'm off to the nearest bookshop.

Do you really think we need special lit'ry prizes for women? Good books (or paintings, or whatever) stand on their own merits, regardless of whether they were done by Arthur or Martha. I don't think the 'lady writer' is particularly oppressed these days. From A.M. Homes to Z.Z. Packer, there seems to be mainstream success.

ThirdCat said...


Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh Thirdcat, you are so funny. Me, I've just written this huge long earnest comment addressing ocky's question, and there you are summarising my whole screed in but a single word.

But ocky seems to be a good bloke so I am going to address the question seriously and then send him over to At Last A Feminism 101 Blog, as soon as I can find and paste in the address.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ocky: I would frame the question differently; I don't think it's a matter of needing or not needing. I don't even think it's a matter of 'we', unless it's public money (which this isn't) -- I don't think any government would dare institute a gender-specific literary prize, for fear of the screams of outrage. But if Kerry Packer wants to leave his millions to masculinist projects (which in real terms, let's face it, he so did), then I am not going to complain.

This is an old and well-worn argument in feminism. It's all very well to invoke 'literary merit' -- and people do, all the time (and unlike many I would argue that yes, 'literary merit' does exist and yes I am prepared to go into great detail about what I think it is) -- but the point is this: 'literary merit' is not set in stone, nor is it measurable. By whose criteria are we judging this 'literary merit'? Until very recently those criteria were set by very gender-inflected values. I'm not sure, but there might be something on the subject at the truly, truly excellent Finally A Feminism 101 Blog, which is here:

For example: Barbara Hanrahan would not have got published until much later than she did if she'd not been picked up by that pioneering feminist publisher Carmen Callil, inventor of Virago Press which was a major force in second-wave feminism in its dissemination of both new and neglected women's writing. Helen Garner's first novel Monkey Grip was rejected by several male publishers for being too much about 'women's things' (love and domesticity, mainly) till it was picked up by those other pioneering feminist publishers, Di Gribble and Hilary McPhee. Elizabeth Jolley was getting rejection slips for over 20 years until the climate changed in the early 80s and publishers suddenly realised there was a huge market for writing about women’s lives that was grounded in women’s values and preoccupations.

Put it this way: Henry Handel Richardson, AKA Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, considered (rightly) that she was more likely to be taken seriously as a writer by publishers, critics and readers, if she had a masculine pseudonym. And she saw out most of World War 2.

Pavlov's Cat said...

... and yes, for the one or two people who may have been watching this circus, I have indeed just wasted half the morning trying to paste a link into a comment.


genevieve said...

AND, Ocky, HHR had a (padded) room of her own. AND dollars.
Fabulous post, PC. I have had this beautifully designed book for a few months now, it has just rocketed to the top of the reading pile.

ThirdCat said...

You see, I think your comment is, in the end, much more useful.

Mary Bennet said...

Thanks for including your review Pav. I finished reading "The Lost Dog" last week and it's still filling my head with story to the point that I'm voluntarily reading management texts on the bus so I can savour it a bit longer.

I couldn't work out if it really was marvellous or if my judgement was skewed by an overload of governance jargon.

Hope she wins!

ocky said...

Suitable chastened, I could almost hear the eyes rolling, from the far corners of the Blogosphere.

I appreciate the difficulties faced by HHR (or George Eliot, for that matter). Women from Austen to Frame have had a hell of a time fighting against a masculine world. And they had to be twice as clever as any man to be taken half as seriously.

But I am still wary of programs to promote equality when the ol' playing field seems fairly level these days. I am similarly doubtful of prizes for regional/rural writers. Why not a prize for redheads? Or short story writers over 6-foot-three?

Certainly, I don't want these prizes abandoned. Private money can pay for whatever it wants. And I do not suggest, not for a moment, that the feminist cause has been won. The field is not level everywhere. Lord, no. For instance, some newspapers seemed to be fretting a little that Gillard would be in charge for 18 whole days!

I take your point, Pav, about literary merit. I happen to think there is such a thing (it's slippery, but it's there) and it should be the criterion for a literary competition.

I am not trying to be flippant, and I will read the feminism 101 blog to learn more about the issue. Whenever one of the local idiots says: "International Women's Day? So when's International Men's Day?" I happily reply: "Every day of the year, you stupid old coot."

Thanks for your time.

ThirdCat said...

You see, now I've started writing a huge long earnest comment, because I feel just as strongly about programs for people living in rural/regional areas as I do about those for women.

But now I'm wondering where you live, ocky, because maybe you live in a regional area and I am jumping to conclusions about why you have that opinion.

ThirdCat said...

actually, not "just as strongly" but strongly nonetheless...

ocky said...

Thirdcat, yes, I do live in a regional area. And I'm a writer, so I might actually benefit from a geographically selective literary prize.

It just seems to diminish the effort somehow, as though it's a consolation prize -- here's your regional writers' prize (or your women's prize). Pity you can't make it in open competition.

It seems like a sop, like a backhanded way of not taking a group of people seriously. I know that's not entirely true: certain groups of people (women, regional writers) do need support or encouragement so they aren't swamped by the entrenched aesthetic (urban and male). And it's good that there are lots of writing programs, and some grant funding, in these areas.

But imagine if the Booker Prize had a Women's Section.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh now wait up just a minute. Error alert.

Ocky, your original question made me hare off in defence of women-only prizes and completely forget the actual terms of this one. It doesn't say anything about female authors. What it says is this (quote at the link there):

'The Barbara Jefferis Award is offered annually for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.'

So there you go. If Tim Winton or John Coetzee or David Malouf writes such a novel then he/they/whatever will be in the running. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, for example, would have had to be a hot contender if the award had been offered in the year it was eligible. The fact that all the shortlistees are women indicates to me only that no men this year have published a novel that depicts women and girls in a positive way. Sad.

As with the Miles Franklin Award and its 'must reflect Australian life in any of its phases' clause, this prize's criteria reflect the benefactor's beliefs. But it's actually not a women-writers-only prize at all. Not that I would not defend other prizes that are.

ocky said...

Ah.... you're right. It is sad.

Ampersand Duck said...

I'm blushing furiously here and just popping in to say 'tanks' in the old Oirish way. I'm a bit gobsmacked about the Franklin as well. Can't see the ends of their noses.