The Best Australian Essays 2011
Edited by Ramona Koval
Black Inc, $29.95, pp 299
The Best Australian Stories 2011
Edited by Cate Kennedy
Black Inc, $29.95, pp 256
The Best Australian Poems 2011
Edited by John Tranter
Black Inc, $24.95 pp 206
First a commercial question, as befits the present publishing environment: why are the poems $5 cheaper than the stories and the essays? I suppose it’s a business decision based on the truth that poetry is difficult to sell. Then again, short fiction is hardly flying off the shelves. No wonder the five-year-old Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the most lucrative in the nation, only now include a poetry prize, with the first to be handed out next year.
So let’s start with the poetry, which is full of riches. Indeed, each of these anthologies from Melbourne-based Black Inc, which have become an annual publishing event, point to a disconnect between the anaemic condition of the books business and the blooming health of Australian writing. If people are buying fewer books, it’s not because writers aren’t writing well. They are writing brilliantly, and this is true across genres and along the spectrum, from beginners to old hands:
I can think of half a dozen Australian novels published in 2011 that deserve to be candidates for next year’s Booker Prize.
The Best Australian Poems 2011, edited by well-known Sydney poet John Tranter, most obviously blends that mix of youth and experience that runs through these three volumes. Les Murray, still Australia’s best chance for a second Nobel Prize in Literature, is there, as he must be, and so is Bruce Dawe, perhaps our best-loved living poet. (I loved his poems as a schoolboy and — disclaimer time — was thrilled to be the first publisher of the poem selected here, ‘Mini-Series’, in the literary pages of the Australian.) Robert Gray and Robert Adamson are represented, as are Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Thomas Shapcott, Geoff Page, Gig Ryan, Diane Fahey, Geoffrey Lehmann, Peter Rose and most of the others you would expect to get a guernsey.
This older guard stands protectively (one hopes!) alongside an emerging cadre of exciting young Australian poets, many of them women under 30. To name a few: Ali Alizadeh, Kate Fagan, Jane Gibian, Sarah Holland-Batt, Rhyll McMaster, Felicity Plunkett, Jaya Savige.
The poems collected here engage with current affairs: Jennifer Maiden pins Julia Gillard as ‘Welshly stiff in a little uniform, Welsh-mam bossy’, while Philip Salom chides the architects of the GFC, ‘… their features unremarkable/as if money erases them, and indifference keeps/them young’.
The other main engagement, as one expects from poetry, is with the niggling, nagging questions of life and death and ageing, and especially what to do with decaying parents, a boomer obsession that rivals property prices.
The funniest poem is Alan Wearne’s ‘Freely and with the appropriate sense of space’, in which many of his colleagues in this collection have walk-on parts, as do, less expectedly, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg and Alexander Pope.
Humour is harder to find in The Best Australian Essays 2011, which is unsurprising given the events of the past 12 months — though the always stimulating Peter Conrad does have a fine piece on the comedian Chris Lilley.
This volume opens with Gillian Mears’ remarkable ‘Fairy Death’, a moving memoir about riding the ‘slow road to death’ (the author, an acclaimed novelist, has multiple sclerosis). This is a humidly sexy story about the premature fading of sensual pleasure: Mears juxtaposes her dismay at what she is losing with memories of what she once had, beginning with ‘the orgasms of childhood … like very ripe raspberries bursting open under your finger’.
Several people had advised me to read this essay, first published in HEAT, but it was only here that I got around to doing so, and that is one of the beauties of these anthologies: they are one-stop shops for the good writing you may have missed during the year.
That Mears’ earthy essay is followed by David Malouf’s ‘Happiness in the Flesh’, in which the great novelist and poet considers sex in the paintings of Rubens and Rembrandt, is a lovely bit of editing by Ramona Koval.
Julian Assange looms large over this volume, courtesy of Robert Manne’s 8,000-word essay on the WikiLeaks founder. It’s worth the wade: still the best thing written on this intriguing man.
The standout piece, for me, is novelist M.J. Hyland on the strange case of Mary Bale, a professional woman from Coventry, England, who inexplicably (even allowing for the stress she was under) put a cat in a wheelie bin, and was caught doing so on the cat owner’s private security camera.
The CCTV footage — at 37 seconds ‘perfect YouTube length’ — went viral, ‘vigilante internauts’ quickly identified the culprit and revealed her address and ‘her trial by internet and social media’ began. Soon there was a ‘Death to Mary Bale’ Facebook page. (The cat, by the way, was rescued after 15 hours in the bin.)
Hyland rightly worries at what happened to Mary Bale, and how and why it happened. ‘The power of the internet to prosecute within hours somebody being caught “red-handed” seems to have weakened our ability to respond with proportion and compassion,’ she writes. ‘Online and anonymous … We behave as though we think the pain caused in the virtual world isn’t real pain.’
Doctor and author Karen Hitchcock takes a scalpel to the online world, particularly Facebook (‘my library of friends’) and eBay (‘No one is selling their shit because it’s shit’), in ‘Forging Friendship’, a piece that’s typical of the smart and stylish writing in The Best Australian Stories 2011. There’s a lot of real-world pain here, too, as in Rebecca Giggs’s ‘Blow In’, a tale of domestic and natural catastrophes that stuns with a searing image of cows ablaze: ‘You wouldn’t know that cows can make that sound. But they can.’
Michael Sala’s take on ambivalent parenthood, ‘The Men Outside My Room’, is heartbreaking and hilarious. Nicholas Jose’s beautiful ‘What Love Tells Me’ is just heartbreaking. In the jailbird story ‘Visitor’s Day’, hard man Mark Dapin provides further evidence that he’s a romantic at heart.
Cate Kennedy, a mean short story writer herself, has chosen this collection so well that it’s unfair to single out one or two, as I just have. So get the book, read them all. Indeed, get all three books; you won’t regret having them on the bedside table.
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at www.theaustralian.com.au/thearts.