Tag Archives: Richard Flanagan

SWF 2023: My fifth day

12–1 pm: Crime and Justice

This session demonstrated the strengths of a two-person panel. It was progressing quite nicely, as Sarah Krasnostein (my blog post about her Quarterly Essay Not Waving, Drowning here) introduced the talent, Helen Garner (my relevant blog post here) and Hedley Thomas (creator of the podcast Teacher’s Pet), and asked about their writing process.

When Helen Garner is embarking on a long project, she buys a spiral bound A4 notebook and keeps a kind of diary of everything related to the project: not transcripts of interviews, but odd details, what she did, and thought, and felt. When it came time to marshal the material she had accumulated for Joe Cinque’s Consolations she was at a loss where to start, looked to the notebooks for inspiration and discovered that they contained the skeleton of the book.

Hedley Thomas was in the middle of answering a similar procedural question, when Garner was visibly excited by something he said. With a quick look at Sarah Krasnostein, half asking permission and half apologising, she interrupted to take the conversation off in a whole new direction: the way footballers tend to have a degree of immunity from police investigation because of their almost hallowed status in Australian society. From then on we were treated to a lively conversation between two people who had deep appreciation for each other’s work and were swapping stories and genuine compliments.

Sarah Krasnosteiin made a couple of attempts to restore order, but I think she could tell things were going swimmingly. This session is sure to appear on the SWF podcast during the year.

5–6 pm Alexis Wright: Praiseworthy

Alexis Wright’s third massive novel, Praiseworthy, was published just a couple of months ago. Ivor Indyk, director of Giramondo Publishing, stepped in at short notice to discuss it with her, replacing Sisonke Msimang, who had been called home to Western Australia unexpectedly. So, in this session, an author discussed her novel with her publisher and editor – that is to say, with a reader who had some influence on how the book turned out.

I was one of the few people in the room to have read the book. I was keen to lap up any guidance from either Ivor or Alexis on how to make sense of the experience. I’m glad to report that I got plenty.

For a start, it was reassuring that Alexis mentioned some of the more bizarre plot developments with a wicked smile, and the audience laughed quite a lot as the two of them named odd characters and moments. Ivor said towards the end of the conversation that the comedy of her work was often overshadowed by its epic qualities. For me, the issue was more how seriously to take the epic qualities when, as summarised by their author in this conversation, they had such absurd qualities.

Asked about the original idea for the book, Alexis Wright said she didn’t remember – she’d have to look up her notebooks. Perhaps it had to do asking what Aboriginal people are to in the new era of global warming and climate change. She started writing it when she was working on her multivocal biography of Tracker Tilmouth in 2017 (my blog post here), and the visionary at the heart of the novel ‘Cause Man Steel, Widespread or Planet, whatever you want to call him’) is in part based on Tracker. Widespread’s plan for a global transport conglomerate using Australia’s five million feral donkeys, though, is all hers: it’s absurd to the point of surrealism, but there’s something true in the way it leads to a cycle of vision and disappointment.

The book is in part a celebration of Aboriginal people’s will to survive, manifested in many ways, tainted by 240 years of living in the coloniser’s world. The enemy in this book is the project of assimilation.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the exchange about music. Referring to the Ice Queens – grotesque, larger-than-life women who appear toward the end of the book – Ivor wondered about the influence of opera. Alexis agreed that she loved opera, but seemed nonplussed at Ivor’s suggestion that these characters are operatic. The music she listens to most while writing is classical Indian music and yidaki (didgeridoo). She tries to capture the tone and rhythm of that music – the pulse, the heartbeat: ‘We say that we’re of one heartbeat with the country.’

‘You hear what you’re writing,’ Wright said. ‘Then it gets recorded and you want it to be the voice you heard, but it can’t be that voice.’

There was a lot more. Ivor touched on the way Wright defies conventions, at times inventing words that look like mistakes, but which are anything but.

I’ll be attempting my own blog post about Praiseworthy in the next couple of days. Wish me luck!

We made a quick dash to a smaller venue for 6–7 pm State of the Art

Kate Evans of ABC’s The Bookshelf presided over another panel. This time it was Eleanor Catton, Richard Flanagan, Tracey Lien and Colson Whitehead invited to discuss the state of the novel and the future of fiction.

I haven’t read anything books by any of these authors, apart from one novel that I hated, which I’m told is completely unrepresentative of their work. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation, but didn’t have anything to ground myself in.

Kate Evans asked if ChatGPT and other AI content producers spelled the end of novelists. Tracey Lien, the youngest on the panel and the only one without a string of awards to her name (and not at all intimidated by that, she said smiling bravely), said she used ChatGPT as a research assistant, but it couldn’t do the writing. On the one hand, it doesn’t have a brain, but produces word after word by complex algorithms, and the act of reading is a back-and-forth between minds. On the other hand, ChatGPT lies.

Richard Flanagan, whose scowl occasionally gave to an appreciative grimace at another panellist’s point well made, said he didn’t care about AI. He’d just keep writing.

The subject of decent recompense for the work of writing, and of all creative work generally, provoked more interest. Digital publishing changes the landscape significantly. They all agreed they weren’t in it for the money, but money would be nice. Eleanor Catton said that working as a scriptwriter was hugely more remunerative. Responding to a question at the end about how to become a writer and also earn a living, Flanagan said he had decided to be a writer when he was very young and in order to achieve it he lived in poverty for years. There was no other way. Colson Whitehead said something similar: after a significant number of successful novels he was at least temporarily able to live on his earnings as a writer. He implied that this is precarious.

Whitehead, Flanagan and Catton spoke interestingly about not repeating themselves, each new novel being a whole new challenge.


Richard Flanagan, Wanting (Knopf 2008)

Even though I’m addicted to print, or perhaps because I am, I approach most books with a kind of resentful suspicion. It’s as if I’m projecting onto the book an anxious feeling that Schopenhauer might have been right when he said, in the essay ‘Thinking for Oneself’:

Reading is thinking with some one else’s head instead of one’s own. … Nothing is more harmful than, by dint of continual reading, to strengthen the current of other people’s thoughts. These thoughts, springing from different minds, belonging to different systems, bearing different colours, never flow together of themselves into a unity of thought, knowledge, insight, or conviction, but rather cram the head with a Babylonian confusion of tongues; consequently the mind becomes overcharged with them and is deprived of all clear insight and almost disorganised.

I came to Wanting with my normal ambivalence, plus an extra burden of suspicion, because the only other novel by Richard Flanagan to have entered the cram in my head was the abysmal Unknown Terrorist. I was willing to give this one a go because he writes compelling non-fiction, and the earlier, terrible novel was set a long way from his native Tasmania, in a place he clearly loathed and equally clearly didn’t know at all well, whereas this one is largely back in Van Diemen’s Land. Book Clubbers recommended it (that’s the Book Club, where we swap, not the Book Group, where we discuss). I took it home and eventually opened it up.

I wish I could say my suspicion evaporated within a couple of pages, but I can’t. A Protector of Aborigines, Charles Dickens, Lady Jane Franklin (widow of Sir John Franklin, Governor of Van Diemens Land and explorer) are introduced to us in a series of clunkily expository scenes. That would be all right, but the clunkiness comes with lashings of heavy irony – the narrative voice is unpleasantly insistent that it knows better than the Presbyterian Protector, and really really wants us to know it doesn’t share the genocidal racism of all the white characters. Maybe things would improve once the story got under way, I thought. But there were other discouraging signs. On page 14, to pick the most striking example, the Presbyterian Protector, in 1851, sings some lines from ‘Lead Kindly Light’. That’s unlikely, I thought, given that the hymn was written by high Anglican John Henry Newman, no friend of Presbyterians. Fifteen seconds with Google revealed that though Newman wrote the words of the hymn in 1833, it wasn’t until 1857 that someone put them to music. So it’s not only unlikely, it’s a straightforward anachronism. And I don’t think that’s just nitpicking. If the novel, having already repeatedly pronounced judgment on this character, doesn’t care enough about him to know what hymns he would or even could have sung, why should I trust anything it says about any of its characters?

I did read on. But by page 55 I realised I was motivated entirely by some weird sense of obligation. There was no pleasure. I didn’t believe a word. I put the book back on the shelf. It may be very good. It may fully deserve the awards and critical praise it has attracted. It may successfully mirror the terrible anguish that accompanied the belief that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were about to die out, as an author’s note says it aims to do. It probably is a moving meditation on the conflict between reason and desire or some other Significant Dichotomy. I’ll never know. And I probably won’t bore you ever again with blog entries on Richard Flanagan’s work.