Monthly Archives: October 2009

Children’s literature is not a genre

Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything (2004; Translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, Allen & Unwin 2006)
David Greenberg & Victoria Chess, Slugs (Pepper Press 1983)

There’s a way of talking about children’s literature as if it’s a genre, like detective stories or police procedurals or thrillers or vampire stories or fantasy novels. I think this is quite wrong. A genre has acknowledged conventions, that can be followed flexibly or even violated in any particular specimen of the genre. The conventions change and grow with time. But they still rule. It’s not a vampire movie if no one sucks blood. It’s not a detective story if there’s no major crime in the first quarter of the book. Children’s literature isn’t like that. It’s defined entirely by the imagined readership. I like Margaret Mahy’s definition, which I remember as: Children’s literature is literature that you can start enjoying while a child. The two books I’ve just read illustrate my point.

0316326593 I read Slugs for the first time in years the other night. My five year old great-niece was staying with her father. At bedtime, having scoured our bookshelves, she emerged with this unpleasant little book and asked me in her sweet, shy way to read it to her. Evidently she’d fallen in love with the book earlier in the year when they stayed here in our absence. I complied with as much gusto as I could muster. I find the book profoundly unattractive. It has rudimentary rhymes, describing a huge variety of slugs, many being subjected to would-be comic indignities, tortured and murdered in hideous ways, all with images showing the brown creatures impassively accepting their fates, until in the last pages they come and wreak a horrible revenge on a child (known in the book as ‘you’), ending:

And after how you’ve treated Slugs
It surely serves you right!

My great-niece seemed to enjoy having this horror read to her, and when I’d finished she sat for maybe half an hour studying the pages intently.

Clearly she is the reader the creators had in mind – she and my sons twenty or so years ago. I am not that reader.

1kuijerThe Book of Everything is definitely a children’s book, but it couldn’t be more different. It has more in common with J M Coetzee’s Boyhood (which I’ll blog about during the week), in subject matter, point of view, even tone, than it does with Slugs. A lonely boy, helped by apparitions of Jesus and an old woman who is almost certainly a witch, finds a way to free himself and his family from the dominion of his harsh, violent, religiously extreme father. It speaks in particular to literate children. The hero,Thomas, finds inspiration in Emil and the Detectives, Joanna Spyri’s All Alone in the World and the Book of Genesis. The narrative assumes familiarity with literary conventions (OK, there are some conventions!), particularly those about witches in children’s literature. I found my adult-reader self wanting explanations of Thomas’s visions: ‘Please be clear about this. Is the poor child hallucinating from terror, or is this a world where such things really happen?’ Such questions are just plain irrelevant to the book’s imagined reader, and once I moved over to occupy that position the book opened up to me – or I opened up to it.

It occurred to me that just as Pixar animations, among other children’s movies, tend to wink knowingly over the heads of the children in their audience, both these books are winking at the children – ‘Don’t tell the adults.’ If we have to talk genre, the first is something like Perversely Cautionary Verse (which may be a genre found only in children’s literature), the second Domestic Magic Realism (and I doubt if that is limited to any age readers).

I read The Book of Everything on Richard Tulloch‘s recommendation. His dramatisation of it will be playing at Belvoir Street at the end of the year. It seems to me that one of his challenges is to take the story away from the children and give it to the adults who will presumably make up the bulk of the Belvoir audience.

Revolver: the paper battle

As regular readers will know, I’ve considered the progress of our corner shop from sad dereliction to rebirth as Revolver, the coolest cafe on the block, to be a Very Good Thing. It’s rare these days to see the cafe empty, so I’m guessing that my sentiment is widely shared, and when Rod put in a DA to add four more four-seat outside tables to the one that’s currently allowed, I wished him well and sent an email to Council in support.

But it seems not everyone has cause to rejoice. People drive here now, especially since Revolver has been written up in Places People Read, and this has created parking problems for the immediate neighbours. Sometimes the clientele leave dogs tied up outside, and there are noisy encounters as local dogs go by. Yesterday we received a letter from the Council telling us that an Assessment Report was now available on the Council’s web site.


Kindness to smokers and dogs

If you visit the web page where the DA is tracked and click on the little ‘+’ sign next to the heading ‘Documents’, you get some idea of the agonising paper trail that must be followed to get a project like this up. Roughly 50 documents were generated – though admittedly many were pretty much duplicates (our today’s letter is there, along with the similar letter to others who put in a submission). The Assessment Report, once you get past the bureaucratese, is a fascinating documentation of democracy in action. Roughly half of it is taken up with responses to the objections, which are quoted and dealt with paragraph by paragraph. While I can see that people had grounds for unease, particularly in relation to the parking issue, I admit to being shocked by the tone of some of the objections, peppered as they are with words like ‘ludicrous’, ‘blatant’, ‘incomprehensible’, ‘disingenuous’, ‘unreasonable’. To have lodged an application at all is, in one person’s view, barely legal. Another seethes over the OH&S implications of Rod’s practice of putting a bowl of water out for passing dogs, asserting that it leads to ‘excessive, uncontrolled howling’. That smokers will throw their butts and cigarette packets into people’s front yards, as history demonstrates, is another cause for complaint. What’s more, ‘families accompanied by their children on bikes and scooters and a baby in the pram’ might congregate there in ‘large and inappropriate’ gatherings.

The case against the extra tables has not, so far, prevailed. The report recommends that the DA be approved with conditions about smoking, littering and so on. I’m glad of that, but sad to realise that this no longer an unalloyed feel-good story!

St Barry – ora pro nobis

This is on the White House blog, with no apparent comic intention:

St Barry

Two self-published poets

John Malone, Big Blue Mouth (johnlmalone at yahoo dot com dot au 2009)
Stephen Whiteside, The Paterson Parodies (self published 2009)

You know how US presidents retain the title of president until it’s prised from their cold stiff hands? Well, it’s not like that for magazine editors, but some of the perks of office do survive long after one loses the right to use the editorial ‘we’. One of these perks is free books. Mind you, in my days of wielding editorial power any free books were for the magazine, not for me personally, so maybe this is a perk of the afterlife. Both these little books arrived in my mail from poets who graced the pages of The School Magazine in my day.

big blue mouthBy no means all the poems in Big Blue Mouth were previously published in the magazine, but the collection benefits from monochrome versions of the illustrations that accompanied some of them there – by Kerry Millard, Andrew Joyner, Noela Young and Tohby Riddle on the cover (every one of those links leads to delightful things) [Correction: The cover is not by Tohby but was put together by John Malone and the printer].  They’re mostly short poems from a young boy’s point of view, many featuring a grandfather who must surely resemble the poet himself. If you’ve found this page by googling John’s name, hoping to find a collection of his poems for yourself or a young fan, or if you’re a regular here and ditto, you can buy a copy direct from him – his email address is johnlmalone at yahoo dot com dot au (notice that his second initial is in that address). Stocks, I’m told, are limited.


paterson parodiesAs far as I know, none of the poems in Stephen Whiteside’s book have been previously published, though he has recited them at folk festivals and to other audiences – as you read them you feel a building pressure to give them voice: they’re meant for performance. This is bush verse, not specifically for children, but I imagine that anyone of whatever age who enjoys the ballads of Banjo Paterson will enjoy them. In ‘Clancy of the Undertow’, Clancy is a surfie; the eponymous Son of Mulga Bill has trouble riding a horse, and is at ease on a bicycle; the likewise eponymous Man from Ironbark wreaks revenge in kind on the dapper barber. ‘The True Story of the Man from Snowy River’ isn’t really a parody – it’s a piece of serious revisionism, but it scans as impeccably as the rest. You can buy this book from the BookPOD bookstore. You can find out how to get hold of a copy at

I do have one complaint about both books. It’s that the economics of publishing are such that the only way for them to see the light of day was through self-publication: single-author Australian collections of children’s poetry are rare as hen’s teeth. Because they are self-published, these boooks are unlikely to reach a four-figure audience. And that’s a shame.

Pamela’s Full Circle

Pamela Freeman, Full Circle (Orbit 2009)

Did I mention in my post about James Tiptree Jr’s Meet Me at Infinity that it’s full of quotable bits? Here’s Tiptree on High Fantasy, in 1975, a year or so before she was outed as a woman:

I’ve been reading a mess of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Wm Morris, and T. H. White. And I find extraordinary the unspoken assumption that the greatest boon a people can achieve is – a king. The King Has Returned! Well, perhaps in the feudal state of things one can understand some of that. But I suspect it is largely a male contribution.

It led me on to think that women are supposed to be more dependent, to slide easily into and adjust gratefully to domination. […] But who are the real dependents? Who insist on a captain, a boss, a Great Leader? Who have evolved lunatic systems of authoritarianism in every known activity except maybe solo farming? Who gratefully accept being beaten up and then faithfully follow the bully?

Three guesses. And don’t say guppies.

Full CircleI don’t for a minute believe Pamela Freeman intended the Castings Trilogy, of which Full Circle is the final book, as a feminist tract; I’d be mildly surprised if she’s read that bit from Tiptree; I’m sure she shares Tiptree’s bemusement at the persistence of monarchist ideology in fantasy; and there are moments in the narrative where I found myself thinking subliminally of guppies – though some of the characters who inspired that response were able to grow beyond their grateful adjustment to domination.

I ought to declare that Pamela is a friend of mine, in the facebook sense as well as the english-language sense. So I’ll content myself with saying that this is a most satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy: there is an army of the dead, the living world as we know it is under threat of extermination, the web of comradeship and betrayal, love and loss, heroism and cowardice, filial piety well placed and misplaced, vengeance and forgiveness, violence and tenderness, epic sweep and intimate gesture is as complex as anyone could hope for. As an added fillip, things happen in the climactic scenes that make one want to go back to the start and graze one’s way through the whole 1000+ pages.

Satisfied though I am, I’m nevertheless pleased to know that a further, stand-alone novel set in this same world is nearing the end of its first draft.

Bob does Will

In my last two years of high school we studied Macbeth. I don’t think we actually saw a performance, but taking the copies of the bowdlerised edition our school had in stock and laboriously reinscribing the rude bits at Brother Claudius’s dictation, we read the text through collectively, stopping for discussion and explication, three times. All three times, when we reached the line about fortune showing ‘like a rebel’s whore’, one of my fellow students, a pious young man named Geoffrey, asked, ‘What’s a whore, Brother?’  and poor Brother Claudius’s answers had to get more explicit each time: a loose woman, a woman of poor morals, a prostitute, and eventually a woman who commit sins of impurity in return for money.

Apart from Geoffrey’s enlightenment about the shocking ways of the world, the main result of this approach to the play was that we got to know slabs of it off by heart — a line here and there, and one or two soliloquies: ‘Is this a dagger I see before me’ and of course ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’. To this day I love to recite the latter in a singsong rhythm, enjoying the feel of the words and not caring too much at all for the meaning.

Here, as a reward for reading that preamble, is Bob Dylan reciting the soliloquy, lifted from his Theme Time Radio Hour broadcast, number 24 of the first season.

I’m assuming that uploading a small clip like this is OK with those that control the rights.

Black Politics: behind the news

Sarah Maddison, Black Politics: inside the complexity of Aboriginal political culture (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Sarah Maddison is a non-Indigenous Australian academic. Over five years, she interviewed 30 Aboriginal leaders, activists and public intellectuals, ‘discussing their life histories, their political views, their worries and their aspirations’. Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Michael Mansell declined to be interviewed, but the actual cast of characters is very impressive, ranging over all mainland states and including household names as well as people who work at the community level, far from the limelight.

Starting from these interviews and drawing on very wide reading (the bibliography runs to 30 pages), while ‘privileging’ the voices of the interviewed and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait people (emphatically including the three who declined to be interviewed), Maddison constructs a kind of map, mainly for whitefella readers, of the complexity of Aboriginal politics. A reading-while-walking conversation helped me to think a little more about the idea of the book as a map. A park friend commented knowingly, ‘I would have thought that was more for dipping into than reading straight through.’ She’s partly right: the book could serve as a reference. But it is a map, not a street directory, so it also makes good sense to get the whole picture by reading it straight through.

Maddison gives a lightning-quick survey of the history of government policy (violent dispossession, ‘protection’, ‘assimilation’, ‘self-determination’, ‘intervention’) and Aboriginal responses from the beginnings of the colonies, but the book is about living politics, and so deals mainly with the Howard years and their dark shadow, in which we still live. While there is some attention to personalities – Noel Pearson, for example, emerges as a man most people love to hate, or at least contend with – our attention is drawn to ten ‘key areas of tension’. Here they are, with a little taster from each chapter to give you a clue on how the tension plays out:

Autonomy and dependency

In every country where Indigenous people have been subjected to a colonial regime, precolonial autonomy has been eroded. In its place a range of damaging dependencies have manifested themselves. These postcolonial dependencies add complexity to Aboriginal political culture as individuals, families and communities struggle to regain their autonomy as self-determining peoples and as political actors. These struggles take place in political contexts that tend to necessitate at least some degree of dependence on non-Indigenous structures of government.

Sovereignty and citizenship

Are Aboriginal people citizens of Australia or members of sovereign Indigenous nations? The nation-state of Australia may have sovereign legitimacy in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of many of its Indigenous inhabitants it remains an illegitimate interloper on their territory, still trying after 220 years to usurp a sovereignty that they have never ceded.

Tradition and development

Without an economic base, Aboriginal people cannot be autonomous. Not surprisingly, however, there are complexities that get in the way of economic development for Aboriginal people. One is […] the tension between need for economic development and the importance of traditional connections to land.

Individualism and collectivism

Aboriginal value systems are often at odds with liberal democratic philosophy, creating tension between those committed to ideas of individual political equality and those who maintain that the foundational unit of society is the Aboriginal group or community.

Indigeneity and hybridity

The idea of “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” identity is a distinctly postcolonial construct invented to both name and contain the “natives” of terra australis. In light of this, there is immense complexity concerning questions of Aboriginal identity today. […] Both non-Aboriginal politicians and, at times, other Aboriginal people will question an Aboriginal leader’s racial credentials on the suspicion that they may not be “Indigenous enough”.

Unity and regionalism

Attempting to organise political representation at the national level thus risks obscuring the diversity of Aboriginal nations and community groups, leaving many feeling invisible or unrepresented. This emphasis on localism can make national unity seem fragile or even impossible. In the absence of a credible model of national political representation, however, there can be tension between Aboriginal groups and communities who may find themselves competing for recognition and entitlements.

Community and kin

[The] majority of Aboriginal communities are a fiction, or at least a creation, comprising a number of kinship groups that, prior to colonisation, would have occupied different territories and that in many cases still retain different languages and systems of law.

Elders and the next generation:

Aboriginal political culture is still based on a gerontocracy in which elders command the most potent authority and influence. elders are holders of special and sacred cultural knowledge, and it is their responsibility to hand this knowledge down to the younger generations. The breakdown of traditional authority structures, however, means that this transfer of knowledge can no longer be assumed In place of this hierarchy of cultural seniority, younger leaders now emerge from the ranks of political activists fro community organisations, and from the developing class of young, university-educated professionals.

Men, women and customary law:

Colonisation has interrupted the inevitable evolution of Aboriginal custom and belief, instead pushing Aboriginal people to defend their threatened culture. At the same time there has been an extensive but poorly informed public debate about the recognition of customary law that has done much to muddy the water and demonise Aboriginal men.

Mourning and reconciliation:

The traumas of colonisation, including massacre, rape, starvation and introduced diseases through to policies that justified the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, are not resolved.

The author doesn’t keep her own mind out of the telling. She has struggled to do more than simply present the variety of Aboriginal viewpoints, which might have been useful to dip into but very hard to read. In general she has done a hugely impressive job of shaping her vast material into a narrative / argument. Occasionally there’s a sentence that strikes a chill. For example, when one reads, ‘What is almost universally rejected by Aboriginal leaders and activists, however, is the use of customary law to defend violent and abusive behaviour, particularly that directed at women and children,’ one does wonder what unspoken murk hides behind that ‘almost’. And, as the endnotes acknowledge, some complexities are simply not discussed – Torres Strait Islanders are generally not present, for instance. But a book that tackled this subject and didn’t have loose threads or unaddressed areas would be a miracle, and very very big.

I heard Sarah Maddison on Radio National saying that she wrote this book largely because of her love for Australia. Though this statement may have been in part a preemptive defence against imagined attacks from the weirdly patriotic right, on the evidence of the book itself it was also the plain truth. The book is the labour of an engaged, committed mind, and I for one am grateful for it.

Why not to hold your mobile near your ear

This has been up on YouTube for a year, but maybe you haven’t seen it either.

Added later (not very much later): Snopes says it’s rubbish. Sorry!

Me and Larry

Several of my younger relatives insist that Larry David and I are lookalikes. You be the judge.



Herovit’s bygone world (with addition)

Barry N Malzberg, Herovit’s World (Pocket 1974)

HerovitI picked this out from my huge Science-Fiction-Books-To-Be-Read cache because it’s very thin, and because James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon mentioned Malzberg as one of her favourites (though she did characterise him somewhat deterringly as a writer ‘in overt pain’, so that ‘Everybody and everything hurts, for no known reason’).

This is almost certainly not a book that Barry Malzberg reputation rests on. It’s hardly science fiction at all, in fact, rather a grimly comic tale of a hack sf writer’s disintegration after writing 92 novels and 51 pages, plus innumerable magazine stories in little more than 22 years. It’s a prolonged self-hating in-joke, or possibly a prolonged in-joke about self-hatred. After much anguish, the writer, Jonathan Herovit allows his much more practical pseudonym to take over his own life, but when the latter fails miserably to deal with the real world, he is replaced by the even more man-of-action but even less cluey main character from Herovit/Poland’s SF series. It’s a book that has dated severely, as the science fiction world it satirises is (I imagine) no longer with us, and because its sexual politics are repulsive. Even allowing for irony, the portrayal of sex/sexism is strikingly unreconstructed. Herovit rapes his sleeping wife at one point; waking up, she makes it clear that she’s not a willing participant and that he’s hurting her. No one ever calls it rape: it seems to be just one of a series of terrible sexual experiences all round. A couple of days later Herovit’s wife leaves him. It’s not the rape that was the final straw, however, but an episode of impotence. Clearly, for the staunchly feminist Tiptree to have seen Malzberg as a favourite, his writing elsewhere must offer something extraordinary to offset this horror. It’s true, though, that in this book everybody and everything hurts, including the reader.

There is a lighter note. I’m notorious for failing to respect books as physical objects (Hi Judy!). But considered as an artifact, this cheap US paperback from the early 1970s is a thing that even I could appreciate. Look at this spread:


The narrow margins suggest that the publishers really want to give you maximum wordage for your dollar, and then the ad takes even less of the burden of cost from the reader’s shoulders. I’m grateful that there are only two ads altogether, both for the same brand of cigarettes. This one is clearly for the romantic, the one on the reverse page features an elegant model steam train, clearly for the man’s man.

Added later by request, the other ad: