One of the great pleasures / responsibilities of being a lit critic is that you are asked to review countless debut novels. When I first began reviewing, I remember this feeling unusual to me – coming as I did from a background in academia, where you generally don’t read anything without an almost infuriating knowledge of every critical perspective, every last theoretical interpretation, every minute biographical detail.
What struck me about latest release debuts is how pure, almost virginal the experience of reading them is. How free I am from anything that might sway me one way or another in my interpretation of the text.
With established authors, however, it appears that any new novel is judged though the prism of their previous works. It’s the Faustian contract writers enter into when they publish their first novel: if granted any level of success, you’ll never be free of your earlier works, and everything you do will be inescapably judged against it.
And so it was with the release of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, consigned in almost every review I read to a comparison with the Harry Potter books – Pagford is said to be populated with Muggles, one of the principal families described as pale imitations of the Dursleys, the book retitled (admittedly rather brilliantly) Mugglemarch.
Guest Post by Sam van Zweden
I read once about a philosophical theory that says that everything we accumulate or achieve is assimilated into our everyday lives, and we naturally re-assess and raise the bar so that we want more, to conquer higher heights. This is something like how I approach the world of books and literature.
The aim is total immersion – but the idea of ‘immersion’ is tricky. When talking about physical items it’s not so bad, but the immersion I’m aiming for is of lifestyle, of head-space, of soul. This makes it hard for me to tell you if I’m fully immersed or not. Perhaps this is it. Perhaps I’m already immersed. Or perhaps it’s one of my many works in progress.
What might total immersion look like? An extra book shelf? A completed novel? Words, more words! My own publishing house. The whole of Harold Bloom’s Western cannon under my belt. By 2015, I hope to be a book. By 2027, I will be a lexicon.
It has been a gradual process. As a kid, I inhaled books. They offered refuge from an awkward childhood, and provided an idyllic script for the perfect life. Later I was content to read a cult classic here and there, following that up with a few weeks with the spirit of Dean Moriarty in me, all spontaneity and jazz, or getting my Holden Caulfield on, hating on the phonies. This was fun, but the insight I gained from reading was just too great to let the thing be. I needed to up the pace. My occasional journal-scribbling became more urgent; an impulse to chronicle everything lest I forget. I absorbed words and I put out words. There was also a lot of really bad poetry.
Feb 7, 2012
Guest Post by Laurie Steed
Guest Post by Laurie Steed
2012 marks my ten-year anniversary of being a writer. When I began I had many idols, including Peter Goldsworthy, Lorrie Moore, Roald Dahl and Nick Hornby. I also craved a mentor, someone to show me how. I craved it so much I befriended an established writer more insecure than I was. I craved it enough to send Peter Goldsworthy an email asking him to help me take my writing to the next level.
Really, it has been a mostly lonely journey. Thankfully, I’ve found friends (mostly other writers) to make it less lonely. Some are already on their way to literary greatness; some are now teachers, travel agents and retail managers; the rest are toiling away, writing and reading, learning every day and hoping for the big break that might make them into a literary superstar.
Having recently resigned myself to the fact that the pursuit of literary excellence would be a lifelong journey, I received David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself as a Christmas present. The book recounts five days Lipsky spent with David Foster Wallace during the latter’s Infinite Jest tour in 1996. At the time, Infinite Jest was a huge literary success. Lipsky had visited Wallace to interview him for Rolling Stone, but in the end the story was never published. Perhaps the editors realised they’d sell far more copies if they talked to Madonna or Bob Dylan instead.
At the moment I’m house-sitting in an apartment in Clifton Hill in Melbourne. It’s a cute little deco building and there are apartments below and above me, and all around are the windows and balconies of other brick buildings. I sit on the balcony to write, looking up at the chimney tops and out at all the other apartments across from me. In the morning I watch the suited corporate people leave, striding down the long driveway, and then it’s just myself and the day dwellers.
The sound of the guy downstairs playing his guitar keeps me company. Sometimes he stops and I know that we’re both procrastinating at the same time. There’s the couple who both read their iPads over late breakfast at the kitchen table, and the man with a life-size anatomical skeleton hanging at the window – possibly a med student, or just someone who has a rather macabre taste in interior design. Their daily routines give structure to my days. At night, I love to sit out there and see the different shades of light glowing from their windows.
Writing is such an incredibly solitary activity – a passive, quiet, often lonely thing, and so I’ve always needed to write by a window, to gaze out at something, without ever really looking, while I’m trying to order my thoughts or gain some sort of inspiration. A blank wall cannot provide the same effect, nor can a desk facing inwards to a room or an office – the writer’s block that strikes me is crippling.
Perhaps because of this, my favourite film has always been Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Weirdly, for a plot that involves a rather horrific murder, I’ve always found something comforting about it. The sort of film you put on when you’re sick or lonely or heartbroken. It’s the set-up: the wide bay windows of Jeff’s apartment that look out into a constellation of windows – like little worlds into which you can gaze for a while. Yes, the film is incredibly voyeuristic, but the comfort of the film – and of living in this house for the next few weeks – is not voyeurism, but rather the feeling of having company while being captive (in Jeff’s case because of a broken leg, in mine a looming PhD deadline).
Growing up, in my house in the suburbs, there was little activity going on outside my window, just the swaying of the green leaves of the giant oak tree. We lived opposite a railway line, and when I would be awake all night finishing uni assignments, powered by little more than coffee and terror, I would long for the trains to recommence at 5am to make me feel as though I wasn’t the only person alive in the world at that time. At 5am even your own cat has given up on you – a desertion I remember feeling keenly.
But it’s interesting to think about how important the ways we write are, as much as what it is we write. The little rituals or habits, the strange superstitions we have about composing, the things that must occur if we are to have any success. For me, it’s just the presence of a window, preferably high up.