THE WORST REVIEWS EVER?

Imagine writing a thousand page novel which everybody hates.

Having a long-standing interest in German art and literature, I decided to see what had been going on in the German novel lately. There are a number of lists around so I cruised through a few looking for something that piqued my interest. I chose and ordered a few from Book Depository which has a great European language selection. Being hasty and lazy, I based my choice on review comments and catalogue descriptions without looking carefully into details. I can read in German, but slowly. I came across one which was highly praised – by the publishers, as it turned out. It won the German Book Prize in 2008. Der Turm (The Tower) by Uwe Tellkamp offers a “monumental panorama” of the former DDR (East Germany) across three generations in decaying Dresden. Sounded good to me, if a bit intense. I put it with the order, which will arrive in a week or so. I discovered that there is an English translation, published by Penguin in 2014, but I wanted to do the German thing. Why not?

Der Turm Germ cover
Cover of the German edition of Der Turm

Well, one reason might be that the book is around 1000 pages long, and that’s in paperback. I hadn’t realized that when I bought it. Since I read mostly in bed, this is exactly the kind of book I vowed and declared I would never buy again, once the miracle of Kindle turned up. (German books aren’t available on Kindle, or if they are I can’t work out how to buy them). I can’t even imagine how to physically manage reading a book of this size in bed. I realized I had made a stupid and expensive mistake, but by then it was too late.

Dresden Gasometer
Decaying Dresden: the Gasometer

A day or so later I realized this simple purchasing episode seemed to clarify all the things about myself which make me so annoying as a contemporary human being, the things that pile up in my auto-critique basket. Lack of careful attention to what I am doing. Impulsiveness. Ordering things online at midnight. Ignoring my own resolutions. And because I have been reading obsessively in the genre of subjective non- or semi-fiction (Knausgaard and now Carrère) I kept finding myself composing paragraphs about how everything which had happened around this book was actually a kind of signal to me about myself, something I really should pay attention to, like a message from the Great Beyond or maybe it’s the Deep Inside, the Unconscious which Carrère is constantly forcing himself to become conscious of. Even when he does, he turns round and ignores what he’s just discovered. Yes, partner, I know how it is.

Finally, though, I realized that my biggest mistake was not reading any actual reviews before I bought the damn thing. Cripes! It seems to be the most incredibly boring book that anyone has ever come across. Although the publisher’s blurb and remarks by a few London-based literati suggested it was an “epic” exploration, on the English-language Goodreads site there were 56 reviews and all of them were one star, which is the lowest you can give. And several of these were in German. I have never before seen such revulsion and disdain. Here’s what some said: “I just can’t get past the ridiculous writing style and overblown descriptions in this book … spurious, convoluted and self-congratulatory”. “A thousand-page cringe fest, arid scenes from the lives of the lifeless”. “Absolutely terrible!” Lots of people left no comment, only their voluble single star. One reviewer on Amazon gave it four stars, but the comments were pretty tepid.

How would you feel, writing a book so unbelievably long, which all your readers seemingly hate? I mean it’s hard enough to get people to review your books in the first place, but what if they’re all totally negative? Is it better to be ignored or condemned? Then again, how does such a book even get published? There are thousands of writers all over the world, struggling along day after day, approaching agents and publishers with panting enthusiasm, only to be rejected time and again, consigned to the slush pile and thence to the Kindle quagmire, if they can even get that far. And here is someone who writes and writes and writes in a turgid prose with achingly dull detail and not only is he published in both English and German but he wins a prize. Go figure!

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Uwe Tellkamp

 

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More DDR decay: abandoned Leipzig factory

My new Kindle! Reading, writing and the transitional object (a brief diversion into psychoanalysis).

Well it took six long days but I finally unpacked my new Kindle Fire HD 2016 8 inch and after the usual struggles with passwords and buttons and chargers it lit up,  and what a pretty ***** it is.  Actually I am not sure what it is –  a thing? a device?  a machine?  Just another object? Yes, it is an object, but an object which reaches into the very depths of a writer’s being – this one’s, anyway.

Ridiculous, I know, but the whole time I didn’t have a  Kindle I couldn’t seem to write a word.  I carried around the print-out of latest version of Suburban Gigolo wherever I went, thinking I could start the next round of edits, but there was just something wrong. Didn’t even take it out of its brown paper bag. Night after night I re-tilted my bedside lamp and focussed my eyes on the printed pages of Emmanuel Carrere’s Liminov. I am really enjoying this book, in a strange abstract way, but the process of reading doesn’t feel the same. And if I can’t read, it seems I can’t write.

While I was recently in hospital I couldn’t read either, not because I didn’t have my Kindle – I did, it goes everywhere with me – but because I was so knocked out by the drugs and the pain and the numbing routine and the astonishing reality of having a metal knee now embedded and growing  in my bones and flesh there seemed no mind-space left over for reading books.

knee in hospital
New right knee is under there somewhere.

However  I became addicted to that enlightening TV show “Diagnosis Murder” about how a doctor (a spritely white-haired Dick van Dyke) helps his detective son (played by Dick van Dyke’s own real-life son Barry) solve strange criminal cases which embrace medical issues.

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Dick and Barry in Diagnosis Murder, 1994-5

This was on every afternoon and I lay on my back gazing at the TV screen up on the wall and felt both cheered and reassured by the ability of doctors and detectives to solve all human problems, as they were still able to do in the early 1990s, unlike today where the crimes are so much more hideous and the main role for the medical specialists is scraping up samples from torn fingernails and cutting cadavers open with wryly humorous remarks.

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Dick van Dyke falls victim to poison in his own hospital!

But TV in the end is no substitute for reading, and now I have a Kindle again I can read all the books I recently downloaded just before it finally died. These include the only book by Carrere which I can find on Kindle, The Kingdom, yet another excursus into the world of the first Christians, a theme which seems to have been trending recently, no doubt due to the near universal perception of imminent apocalypse. I even started watching A.D. the Bible Continues (2015)  on Stan but that otherworldly gleam in Peter’s eyes is really getting me down. Actually I thought the first three episodes were excellent, but it became a bit repetitive after that.

Peter in AD Bible
Adam Levy as Peter

The thing is,  you live with stories, and it matters how they reach you. TV has become a wonderful medium now that you can watch series the same way you read a book … you don’t have to wait until next week’s broadcast, you can just keep on and on and on until you absolutely have to get up and go to Aldi or clean up the cat vomit. Then the clever TV knows exactly where you got up to, and takes you directly back there. Just like the Kindle does.

I can feel myself falling in love with my new Kindle, even though I’ve hardly even turned it on yet. What creates this powerful attraction? A lot of people have it with their mobile phones, almost unable to be diverted from them even by great moments in the Real World such as picking up your children from school. The recent campaign in Britain to get parents to actually look at their child when they pick the poor little thing up at the school gate marks just one moment in the process of human alienation we are in the midst of.

Greet child

How to think about these object-obsessions? To cut a long psychoanalytic story short, it is a kind of transitional object. You know, the blanket the child carries around until it decays, the beaten up teddy bear, the Thing your little one just can’t be without. Some clever evil genius worked out that we never grow up, we humans, we go on looking for the comforts of childhood, and these days they’ve given us an electronic item instead of Blanky. I’m not the first to think of this, although I did feel disappointed when I found this quote:

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The thing about electronic objects though is that they just don’t feel the same . How about making Kindle or phone cases out of woven feathers? I had a kind of feathered scarf when I was a small child and yes, obviously it came from my mother, and I needed it in the same way I seem to need my Kindle now. I just can’t go to bed without it, and if that happens then I can’t seem to write anything the next day. What The ????

Kindle Interruptus

Regarding Kindle, I was a very early adopter. In spite of the endless anti-e-book raves from all sides in Australia when the first Kindles came on the market I couldn’t wait to get one. Even those old clunky grey things with weird counter-intuitive buttons here and there were just great. oldkindle 1I could take big chunks of my library anywhere. I was never without a book. I could buy something at 3.00 am in a steamy Bangkok hotel-room where the reading light was 30 watts or didn’t exist at all. I could read on a plane or in a restaurant. So what if every new and important “real” book didn’t exist on Kindle. It meant I would read things I otherwise would never even know about.

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And so it has been. Kindle #4  died and Kindle #5 has just arrived. All I have to do is set it up. I was really p****d off at the death of #4. It was still relatively new and in perfect condition but that stupid battery thing happened and after all kinds of different recommendations it was clear that the battery just wasn’t taking any new charges thank you very much. It had had it. Everything else is perfect, there isn’t a mark on it, and I just don’t know what to do with it – such a waste to just throw it away. Maybe there is a Kindle Re-Purposing program somewhere.

I dithered about what to replace it with. There are so many choices now and the latest and best seems to be incredibly expensive and it is a read-only device, it doesn’t operate as a tablet, which the Fire HD did perfectly well. What to do? The 2016 Fire model seems to be pretty much exactly the same as the old one which no doubt means it too will have the dead battery problem in no time. But if you get the read-only device you have to go to bed with an I-pad or use your I-phone to connect to the internet every time you want to find out what year some book by the same author was written, or whether or not some historical detail in your tartan romance is in fact true or even vaguely so. This is the kind of thing I do at 3.00 am most days.

bed book and kindle

And in my indecision I didn’t order anything and next thing I was ordering real actual books. In my Kindle Interruptus phase I bought a collector’s edition hardback of Marilla North’s Yarn Spinners (gorgeous, but big and fat and so heavy) and two paperbacks from new darling French literary figure, creative nonfiction writer Emmanuel Carrere. Had to order these from Book Depository, they got here in no time. Of course none of these books are available on Kindle. I probably would have ordered Carrere’s books anyway since he is said to be a pareil with Michel Houellebecq, supposedly a fiction writer, although the line between them is pretty fine. Started reading Limonov by the pale and feeble bed lamp and then I couldn’t put it down and finished up with a big headache and not enough sleep. This reminded me why I can’t stand “real” books. They are so hard to manage in bed and that is where I do all my reading.  But I’m glad I found Carrere. I’ll write something about his stuff shortly.

Meanwhile I ordered a 2016 Kindle Fire HD. Am about to set it up. It’s like the start of a whole new intimate relationship, and I feel quite scared about it. Not just because I hate setting up electronic gizmos anyway but mainly because I fear this might be my last Fire and soon ahead of me lies an even more bizarre tangle of chargers and wires as I go to bed each night with a read-only Kindle, a mobile phone and some kind of I-Pad device. Just as well I have a large bed!

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Snobs, the Canape Set and the Dummy Spit

Cindy Fazzi’s recent post “Six Signs of a Literary Snob” here reminded me of the vehement debate around the effects of cliques formed around creative writing courses and literary journals in Australia which erupted in 2016 and resulted in a wild outburst from a young Australian author in that revered Melbourne literary journal Meanjin. Luke Carman has runs on the board. He has published short fiction in local journals (HEAT, Westside, Cultural Studies Review) and has been on the shortlist for a few recent prizes. He has published a book of short stories (An Elegant Young Man) and tutors in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney… but there are two strikes straight away. Short stories are considered somehow mildly deplorable and definitely not a mark of “real” literature, and Western Sydney – which means anywhere between Ashfield and Wentworth Falls – is by definition not a site from which worthwhile literary forms could possibly emerge.

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Luke spat the dummy in a big way. He said that Australian literary endeavour had been infiltrated by “wannabes” who were “dictating terms for an artform to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence”. Luke was taking on the prevalent literary snobbery in Australia which seems to be flourishing more vigorously than ever, especially regarding the books that agents and publishers are permitting past the starting gate, and in the award of literary prizes and other marks of distinction.

Cindy’s go-to list for the literary snob:

  1. Reads only literary fiction; absolutely no commercial genres for this reader.
  2. Refuses to read self-published books.
  3. Refuses to read any best seller, even if it’s literary.
  4. Doesn’t like to read feel-good books or happy endings. The more depressing a book, the better for this reader.
  5. Doesn’t like to read “easy” books. The more incomprehensible, the better.
  6. Won’t read a novel published after a certain decade or period (e.g., nothing after the 1960s or after 19th century, etc.)

This fits the Australian scene perfectly, except for #6. The literary world here is mainly devoted to recently published works from authors who have already made their mark on the Ozlit scene. Debut authors need to have come through a Creative Writing program in one of the main universities and consequently enjoyed Fellowships and residencies in prestigious programs. They are usually championed by an important figure, preferably a famous writer, who refers them on to agents and publishers. Agents and publishers want books whose themes resonate with the current cultural obsessions – indigenous dispossession, gender-based suffering, migrant disaffection, the struggles of the repentant drug addict – and have no interest in books which engage the general popular audience, those which sell well because of their exciting plots and “easy” writing. As for the happy ending, who could take that seriously?

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A great example is the spectacular but largely culturally invisible writing career of Sydney author Liane Moriarty, recently dubbed “the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of”. I came across her work entirely by accident, wandering about on Kindle as I do most nights, exploring new things to read. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman writer, offering great fiction about a Sydney I knew, so recognisable, real places and real (often horrible) Sydney people! I loved the first of her books and then bought and read all of them in quick succession. Now she can’t write fast enough to meet her reader’s demands. This is a writer who has sold six million books around the world. Her books are hardly light-weight. They address the dark side of Sydney suburban life in a way never written about before. Her endings aren’t “happy” although they aren’t necessarily tragic either. They are well-written, lovingly crafted and you can’t put them down. Now Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are starring in the movie adaptation of her smash-hit “Big Little Lies”. Oh, OK, there’s the problem right there! She is successful! People want to read her books! She’s sold the film rights! And she’s writing about Sydney suburbia. Not good among the Melbourne establishment which pretty much dominates the literary scene these days, or so everyone seems to agree.

 

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Meek and mild Luke Carman

So what about Luke Carman? He’s writing about Sydney too, but it’s a Sydney even Liane Moriarty’s fans won’t know much about. Set largely in his home-suburb of Liverpool, the characters in his stories reflect the turbulent and sometimes bizarre reality of contemporary life for the young in Western Sydney. They are addicts, poets, people who see ghosts, Lebbos, Grubby Boys, scumbag Aussies. His alter-ego writer loves Whitman and Kerouac and Leonard Cohen. The book is full of energy, edgy street-scenes and local voices, really INTENSE as the younger generation say. I loved his book, published by Giramondo, which  is a pretty respectable local publisher, and wondered what had led to his “spray” in Meanjin here. It’s a wonderful but complicated essay, full of rage and bile. Many would join me in saying, “Luke, I feel you”.

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Luke Carman in full flight

Without doubt the Australian literary scene is self-referential and highly conservative. Obsessed with its own preservation, denying the validity of the e-book, loathing self-publishing, there seems to be in a kind of retro-neo-colonial suspension going on here. New forms of expression and new kinds of stories are ignored or, more accurately, not even recognised.

The overlap and interplay between visual and written culture is at an exciting place. As long-form television is replacing the standard movie, new strategies of writing (the long-form literary equivalent, as practiced by Knausgaard for example) opens up a new trajectory reminiscent of Proust. Screen-writers write fiction and turn their fictions back into television series – thinking here of that fabulous 2016 series Good Behaviour – and “books” can be as long or as short as writers like and readers enjoy.

good behaviour 1

It’s become a terrible struggle for the conventional author trying to get “the book” published in print. The e-alternative is terrible as well, especially trying to find a market with the five million books now available online. But writers can’t help themselves, they like to write, and readers like to read, it’s a question of finding new ways for them to get together. The canapés and champagne Harbourside set may still be seeking their Bourdieuan distinction, but there is a lot more to the writing scene now, thank goodness!