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.
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.
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.