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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Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

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There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*

There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write shit pretentious nonsense.

The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.

De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.

The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.

We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.

On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …

Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.

The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.

 

Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)

The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.


*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.