Ten Authors I Love to Hate

If I’m listening to old people’s radio and they start playing John Williamson I switch automatically to another station, ditto for Johnny Farnham who as far as I’m concerned will never get over Sadie the Cleaning Lady no matter how often he works himself up to sing tenor for I’m the Voice. And so it is with some authors – I’ve tried them, or haven’t been able to avoid them, and they’ve let me down, and now I can’t stand them.

As for what I mean by ‘authors’ let me be clear: an Author is a name to which is attached a body of work, or to quote Foucault, “an author’s name … performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others.” (What is an Author? (1969), translated by Joseph Harari, (1979)).

I don’t hate these writers, just some (or even all) of the stuff they have written. A distinction which may have been lost on the obituary writer in the Australian who caused a storm when he wrote of the late Colleen McCullough, “Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.” But let’s get on with it, starting with the author who annoys me most and working down to number ten.

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1. Clive James (1939- ) was born in Sydney and moved to London in 1962 where, like his contemporaries Germaine Greer and Rolf Harris, he has been a professional Australian ever since. He is fabulously knowledgeable about History and the Arts, is a minor poet, and has written criticism and fiction. His three volumes of autobiography, starting with Unreliable Memoirs, for which he is best known (as a writer) are mildly amusing and of course by understating, serve only to underline, his considerable intellect. During my M.Litt I had to study his novel The Remake (1987) which he wrote to demonstrate how clever he was about postmodernism. It too is mildly amusing. Leaving aside the embarrassing “Clive James on Television” (1982-88), his borderline racist show about bad television, my big disappointment with James is that he chose not to be a serious author. And he might have been.

2. George Johnston (1912-1970) was born in Melbourne, moved up from lithographer to journalist, and became a well-known war correspondent during WWII. After the war he gave up a prestigious posting in London to live in the Greek islands with his second wife Charmian Clift as full-time novelists. He wasn’t a particularly good writer and in the novels he co-wrote with Clift he supplied the plots and she did the writing. His career finally took off in 1964 with the publication of his fictionalized memoir My Brother Jack, which like its sequel Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) took out the Miles Franklin. It’s a long time since I read them, but I recall them as blokey, boastfull books, and Johnston as a braggart and a loudmouth.

3. Colleen McCullough (1937-2015) was a woman of intelligence – she was a neuroscientist at Yale before ‘retiring’ to full-time writing – and wit. When quizzed one time about her size, she was 5’10”, she quipped at least she had a nice waist and big knockers. What she wasn’t, and I have no idea if she wished to be, was a writer of Literary Fiction. I bought her The Song of Troy (1998) for geology daughter and found it astonishingly badly written – The Illiad meets Mills & Boon. I see she also wrote a Pride and Prejudice spin-off, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, the reviews are so bad I might try and find a copy.

4. Peter Carey (1943- ) is a very good writer, and he has two Bookers and four Miles Franklins to prove it. Up till I was nearly 30 I read only SF and Mad Magazine (which kept me surprisingly up to date with popular film culture). After that I started catching up on what was around me, which was of course the renaissance in Australian film making and a new, post-war generation of Australian writers. And if David Ireland was at the top of that list, then Carey was next. I read his short stories The Fat Man in History (1974), and his novels Bliss (1981) – and saw the movie – Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector and Illywhacker, in that order. These are probably all the books he wrote in Australia. Illywhacker with its second half descent into magic realism and the fantastical Oscar and Lucinda probably demonstrate the direction of Carey’s thinking, but his move to New York in 1990 seems to have coincided with an ambition to become a ‘world’ writer, which has led to his writing becoming increasingly pretentious, less relevant to Australia, and of little impact in the wider world of literary fiction.

5. Geraldine Brooks (1955- )is a writer of historical fiction, so that’s one strike; while I understand her wish to provide positive representations of women I do not agree with plonking 21st century women in 16th or 17th century situations, so that’s two strikes; and she’s an American who happened to be born in Australia, so that’s three.

6. C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was a popular poet. The Sentimental Bloke (1916), which I like, sold 65,000 copies in its first year. The first problem I have with Dennis is not with him specifically, but with the nature of ‘poetry’ at the turn of the century. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and others wrote doggerel to illustrate current stories in newspapers and magazines. Poetry it wasn’t. The second problem is that Dennis filled a spot analogous to that later filled by the cartoonist Pickering, providing daily commentary that was sometimes amusing but always right-wing. The third problem is that in primary school I had to learn the poem that begins “Hey Ho, Hey Ho, the circus is coming to town” and it haunts me still.

7. Linda Jaivin (1955- ) is an American who became an Australian. For that I commend her. She is seriously knowledgeable about China and that is reflected in some of her later fiction. Another tick. What really gets up my nose is that when I was studying Australian Grunge – literature by young writers in the mid to late 1990s – there she was with Eat Me (not a grunge novel at all really) and Rock’n’Roll Babes from Outer Space and yet her bio had her taking part in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. She’s bloody nearly my age! A generation older than the other (reluctant) grungers like Tsialkos, McGahan, Ettler, and carrying on as though she’s one of them.

8. Kate Grenville (1950- ) is probably a good writer who attempted with The Secret River (2005) to reframe the way white Australians think about First Contact. And for that she was drawn into a whirlpool of controversy. Grenville argues furiously against the accusation that she regards herself as a writer of history but I’m afraid I side with Inga Clendinnen who argued that Grenville introduces C21st sensibilities into her account of the early settlement of the Hawkesbury River region.

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9. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is best known these days for Brideshead Revisited (1945), the enormously snobbish story of a gawky university undergraduate in love with his best friend and his best friend’s English Catholic aristocratic family, which I read and was of course tremendously impressed by at the end of my first and only year at Trinity College (Melb.). Strangely, my first Waugh was the biography of English saint, Edmund Campion, given to me at the end of primary school, and probably the first grown-up book I ever read. I’ve since purchased all his fiction, but only Put Out More Flags is any good, the rest is the ravings of a right-wing social climber.

10. Joseph Heller (1923-1999) wrote Catch 22 (1961) for which he will live in our hearts forever. His next novel, Something Happened (1974) is a dark view of life as a successful office worker, containing a shocking twist which I have thought about off and on for 30 or 40 years. I own those two and the next, Good as Gold (1979), which is ok, and his last two Closing Time (1994) and Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (2000). Sadly, whatever it was that he had, he has lost. Closing Time which reprises some of the characters from Catch 22 is derivative and not worth reading. Sad.

There are many others whom I considered for inclusion. Barry Humphries is a snob and a misogynist. I have his ‘comic novel’ Women in the Background (1995) but really, he doesn’t belong in a post about writers. Then there are Australian ‘action thriller writer’, Matthew Reilly, Robert G Barrett, and all those ‘John Williamsons’ of the Akubra romance genre – Judy Nunn, Joy Dettman, … And Ruth Park gets up my nose too, but I’d better stop before I get carried away.

 

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16 thoughts on “Ten Authors I Love to Hate

  1. Ouch!

    But a part of me also understands exactly where you’re coming from with, well, all of the above.

    However, I’m sure I will still enjoy the next Brooks & Grenville, because I do enjoy historical fiction and I will still belt out You’re the Voice at the top of my lungs after a drunken dinner party (because that’s what I do and I was of a certain age when that particular song came out)!

    I’ve never understood the point of Heller – I’ve tried to finish Catch 22 three times, but got sooooooo tired of the joke each time, I just couldn’t go on. I have one fav McCullough – but it’s the one she has been accused of plagarising from LM Montgomery….The Ladies of Missalonghi is my rainy Sunday afternoon comfort romance read.

    I’m with you all the way with Carey (but don’t tell my boss! He used to live locally & my boss helped him out during his early publishing years….actually Brooks & Grenville also lived locally & my boss was a big supporter of their early endeavours too….)

    I will finish with one of my love to hates – Bryce Courtenay. I’ve been unable to finish any of his books, except for The Power of One and Tandia.

    I have an ARC of the new Alex MIller tempting me this weekend….if the beautiful winter weather doesn’t distract me 🙂

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    • I didn’t think about Bryce Courtenay. To be honest I don’t read him because he’s an advertising exec., but then so was Peter Carey. Love the image of you drunk and singing – I don’t unfortunately, sing that is, not even when my most exuberant sister in law has a karaoke night. In Catch 22 Heller has Yossarian tell a few stories over and over, slowly working our way towards the fact that the (upper, I think) gunner was shot and his guts are coming out. The ‘joke’ plays a very small part in the general message that war is hell. But we all have different favourite books.

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  2. I keep giggling at the expression “up my nose.” Where I come from, some people say, “That really honks my hooter!” I find it tremendously hilarious to say and teach it to everyone I meet, especially international folks, so they can take it back with them 😀

    So, based on my background and area of study, I was less devoted to an author so much as different presses. I studied small-press literature all throughout college, so there were certain publishers who were always “must-buy” for me, like Fiction Collective 2, Coffee House Press, Artistically Declined, FeatherProof Press, Aqueous Books, etc.

    But.

    As more years went on and I read more and more experimental books (for many of these presses do not publish traditional narratives) the more frustrated I became with this idea that something is confusing to me because I’m not smart enough. I slowly moved away from small-press authors whom I was told were amazing and went my own way.

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    • I think experimental writers are mostly unreadable because they’re up themselves (did you like that one?). There’s James Joyce and there’s William Burroughs but most of the rest are into self-pleasuring.

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      • I would sure they’re into trying new things and seeing what happens. The problem is when they sell their work as a “novel” or “fiction” and the reader doesn’t get what’s expected. I bought a book that did it was about hobo vampires in California riding the rails. Turns out the author wrote the book, cut it up, reassembled it, and sold it that way. It was a huge load of garbage and a waste of money.

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  3. Kate Grenville?! I like her work a lot, especially One Life. She has such a diverse oeuvre and writes with compassion and insight. There was a lot of mutual misunderstanding in her stoush with Clendinnen et al.

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    • The most indefensible of my selections probably, but she gets pretty self righteous when Secret River is attacked. I have a book of Clendinnen’s with me, which I’ll review in the next few weeks, with a more rational overview of the argument on my part I hope.

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      • Yes, I was going to pull you up on Grenville. Totally unreasonable I’d say to say you hate her on the basis of one book of a very many she’s written. Her Idea of perfection is one of my all time favourites. Have you read it? I bet you haven’t!!! Not all her books are historical fiction, you know.

        As for the rest, I’m not going to comment. Each to their own … and anyhow, I think you want to get up our noses so I’m not going to give you the satisfaction!!

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      • Blame Kate, it was she who gave me the idea. But I must say it was fun to write. I’m not sure I (or the library) have any Grenville’s outside the Secret River series, but I’ll find one to read/review with an open mind just for you.

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  4. Love this post Bill! Jury’s out for me on Carey and Brooks – some of their books I’ve liked, others not so much (bit like Ian McEwan, although my experience with him is more extreme – those I like I really, really love and the rest, meh).

    What I want to know is, why persist? How many chances (books) do you give an author before striking them off? I’m merciless and if I read one bad one, I don’t go back (Elizabeth Gilbert has been the once exception to this rule – I abandoned Eat, Pray, Love – it was beyond horrendous, but a year ago I listened to The Signature of All Things, on the recommendation of a well-trusted reading friend – turns out I loved it).

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    • Glad you like it, it was your idea really, though I must say I enjoyed myself writing it. I enjoy literary fiction even to the extent that I would listen to audio books of all these authors, bar McCullough, and construct my criticisms as I listened. Well maybe not James and Johnston who could easily make me angry enough to stop listening. Carey I think still has the potential to be an author I read, if only he chose subject matter that didn’t annoy me!

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  5. Love this! I agree with Kate W – why persist. I think it was Leo schofield who said the human body could only drink a finite number of bottles of wine, so if you find you’re not enjoying one, give it up and start another. Neither healthy nor economical by what the hell.
    On the one hand, I think we have to accept that there are books we don’t like – e.g. Grenville or Tim Winston, which I personally can’t finish, but appeal to others – but there are some books that really nobody likes, but they are too intimidated to admit it. And you’ve nailed it with a few of these.

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    • I’ve got some catching up to do of I’m going to drink as much wine as Leo Schofield. Unfortunately most days I have to be 0.000. But it must be the Calvinist in me , I feel as though there are some authors I must try and understand

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