The link below is to an article reporting on rare stolen books that were found under a house in Romania.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction in the United Kingdom, Namwali Serpell, for ‘The Old Drift.’
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A highlight for Australian children’s literature is the announcements of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year award winners. This year’s winners will be announced on Friday October 16 — right before the start of CBCA’s Book Week on October 19.
Making the shortlist brings great exposure for the books and their creators. The shortlisted books are put on special display in public school libraries and supermarket shelves. They are even made into teaching resources, suggesting an exploration of the book’s themes, for instance.
Crucially, award lists contribute to the “canon” of literary works that become widely read. This canon is distributed through libraries, schools and homes. Sometimes, benevolent relatives give them as gifts.
We investigated the diversity — including ethnicity, gender and sexuality — of the 118 shortlisted books in the early childhood category of Book of the Year between 2001 and 2020. We also examined diversity among the 103 authors and illustrators who have made the shortlist over the past 20 years.
Our yet unpublished study found most (88%) human main characters in the shortlisted books were white; none of the main characters were Asian, Black or Middle Eastern.
Why diversity matters
The CBCA was formed in 1945, as a national not-for-profit organisation promoting children’s literary experiences and supporting Australian writers and illustrators. The first awards began in 1946.
There were originally three categories for Book of the Year: older readers, younger readers and picture book.
In 2001, “early childhood” was added as a category. This was for picture books for children up to six years old.
Picture books are significant for not only developing early literacy skills, but also for the messages and values they convey about society. They help children learn about their world.
The diversity children see represented in that world affects their sense of belonging and inclusion. At this age, cultural values and bias settle in and become the foundation for how we develop. These values and biases have a profound influence on our successes and struggles in our adult lives.
A positive for gender diversity, but not ethnicity
We used visual content analysis to examine ethnic diversity, we well as gender, disability, sexuality and linguistic variation in the 118 early childhood category shortlisted books — between 2001 and 2020.
We also examined diversity among the 103 authors and illustrators who have made the shortlist over the past 20 years. Only one person — Alywarr illustrator Dion Beasley, from the Northern Territory, and winner in 2017 for Go Home Cheeky Animals — identifies as Indigenous.
Female authors and illustrators, however, were more represented (66%) than male (34%).
Looking at the picture books, we first identified four major types of characters: human (52.5%), animal (41.5%), object (4.4%) and imaginary (1.4%).
We then distinguished between main characters and those in supporting roles that make up the story world in which the main characters act.
One of the most encouraging findings was the gender parity among main characters. We identified 52 solo human main characters across all 118 books. Fifty-one of these are children, with 25 boy and 24 girl main characters (two main characters were not identified by gender).
This placed boys and girls equally in the role of the protagonist, which stands in contrast to previous research looking at best-selling picture books.
But in terms of ethnicity, the human main characters are overwhelmingly white (88%). There are just two Indigenous main characters and one who is multiracial. There have been no Asian, Black or Middle Eastern main characters.
Looking at the wider story world, supporting characters are still overwhelmingly white. But this world does marginally include characters of Asian, Black and Middle Eastern heritage. Overall, human characters appear in 85 (72%) of the 118 books.
White characters appear in 74 of these books, and only nine books have no white characters. Non-white characters appear in a total of 18 books (21%).
Our results for ethnic diversity don’t correlate well with the latest Australian census data (from 2016). The cultural heritage of Australia’s population is described as: 76.8% white, 10% East and Southeast Asian, 4.6% South Asian, 3.1% West Asian and Arabic, 2.8% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, 1.5% Maori and Pacific Islander, 0.7% African, 0.6% Latin American.
The CBCA early childhood shortlist minimally represents other forms of diversity. We see only two main characters living with a disability and no characters who are sexually and gender diverse.
Other types of diversity
Linguistic variation is also minimal, in only four books, which does not reflect the linguistic diversity of the wider Australian population.
In response to our queries regarding their judging criteria, the CBCA said:
we do not select books for entry into our awards. It is the publishers and creators who select the books for entry. Our main criterion is literary merit, we do not actively exclude diversity, themes or genre.
Only two of the six 2020 shortlisted books in the early childhood category have human main characters. And these are both white.
The age of zero to six years is a crucial stage of development. It is important for young readers to see people and surroundings that are like their own to cultivate a sense of belonging. It is equally important to see a different world they are not familiar with.
If award-winning books sit at the top of reading lists, these books also need to embrace and reflect the full and rich diversity that makes up our country.
Who is Shakespeare’s greatest villain? Richard III? Iago? Macbeth? They all have a claim to the title; however, the correct answer is Hamlet.
Hamlet not only behaves villainously throughout his eponymous play, but has somehow persuaded generations of audiences and critics that he is actually its hero. That is what takes his villainy to the next level.
Look at the roll call of Hamlet’s crimes.
First he kills Polonius – chief counsellor to the King and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Hamlet skewers him when he discovers him eavesdropping from behind a tapestry. Polonius may be an “intruding fool,” as Hamlet dismissively calls him on discovering his body; but Hamlet is in no position to feel superior, having “intruded” on Claudius’s private meditations in just the previous scene. Double standards are, however, a hallmark of this play.
To make his treatment of Polonius worse, once dead, Hamlet drags his corpse through the court, hiding it from his loved ones and leaving it to decay and rot without proper burial.
Such disrespect of Polonius in death, however, is no different from how the prince treated him in life. Using his rank, Hamlet continuously insults Polonious, ridiculing him for his age, calling him names and refusing to talk to him directly at times. Hamlet does so knowing Polonius can not answer back. Punching down is Hamlet’s usual style with social inferiors: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric all experience similar treatment.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know?
The most egregious crime is the death of Ophelia, whom Hamlet drives to madness and suicide with a campaign of misogyny, gaslighting and open sexual harassment, one moment condemning her for the crime of being female, the next degrading her in public with obscene puns.
Then there’s his casual proxy murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose only crime is to obey the king’s order to find out what is troubling their friend and then to escort him to England. Although Hamlet has no evidence that his friends know the fatal contents of the letter they carry, commanding the prince’s execution, he goes out of his way to ensure that they are not only killed but damned for eternity by being denied confession. By his own account, he never gives them another thought.
Laertes, like Hamlet, has a murdered father, as well as a sister driven to suicide. When he takes a few lines to mourn at her graveside, Hamlet (whose self-absorbed soliloquies have already filled many pages) is outraged that the focus of attention should be on anyone else even for eight lines (“What is he whose grief/ Bears such an emphasis?”) and declares, on the basis of no evidence that we have seen, that he loved Ophelia 40,000 times more than her brother. Despite this hyperbolic protestation, he never again mentions or alludes to Ophelia from that moment on, let alone expressing regret at her death.
The usual excuse made for Hamlet is that many of these deeds are committed when he is of unsound mind. Indeed, this is his explanation to Laertes for the death of Polonius (“Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet”). That excuse would carry more weight had Hamlet not persuasively told his mother the opposite within moments of the killing:
My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter’d: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from.
By the end of the play, Hamlet has not only ruined his own life and those of his family and friends, but freely given away his country to a foreign power – the very thing his admired father had struggled so hard to prevent.
In short, Hamlet is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, callous bully. However, he is also intensely charismatic, so much so that he has persuaded the world to share his Hamlet-centric view.
That is what makes him a villain of genius.
New on Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor is the latest in a long line of adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) that began in 1954 with Benjamin Britten’s opera. Since then, there have been more than 25 others. Adaptors’ enduring fascination with James’s “irresponsible little fiction” can be summed up in a word: ambiguity.
It is the story of a young governess who comes to suspect that her deceased predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the late valet Peter Quint, are exerting a continued influence over her orphaned charges, Miles and Flora. This influence is not only spectral but quite possibly sexual in nature.
As James’s opening line predicted, “the story … held us”, and its readers quickly fell into two main camps. Metaphysical readers chose to “believe the governess” and believe in the ghosts, while psychological readers – most famously American writer Edmund Wilson in his 1934 essay – maintained that “the ghosts are not real ghosts … but merely the hallucinations of the governess”. She, in turn, was a “neurotic case of sex repression”, possibly acting out of a sublimated desire for her employer, the children’s uncle.
Yet neither metaphysical nor psychological readings proved able to contain this story, whose details stubbornly refuse to be explained away. If the valet Quint is a hallucination, how is the housekeeper able to identify him from the governess’s description? But equally, if he has an independent existence, why, as the literature academic Sheila Teahan has noted, does the governess associate him with the act of writing? The governess suggests that Quint is only as real as “the letters I form on this page”, implying that he is her creative construct.
James’s novella thus demands a third approach, of which literary critic Shoshana Felman’s Turning the Screw of Interpretation (1977) is among the finest examples. Rather than attempting to scare the tale into consistency, this reading recognises that its ambiguity is fundamental to its effect.
With this in mind, The Turn of the Screw’s appeal to adaptors might seem paradoxical. How can the ghosts’ objective reality remain uncertain when we see them walk, talk, and, in Britten’s case, sing a 12-tone opera? Yet adaptors have used a range of innovative strategies to maintain the text’s ambiguity. The term is usefully defined in a cinematic context by director Alexander Mackendrick, not as “a lack of clarity” but as a contrast between “alternative meanings, each of them clear”.
Director Jack Clayton recruited Stanley Kubrick to rework the original script for The Innocents (1961) with one clear remit: to maximise the tale’s ambiguity. In the resultant film, the scene at the lake offers at least two alternative meanings for the appearance of Miss Jessel.
We see the governess (Deborah Kerr) react to a figure standing among the rushes, but a few frames later, Jessel has vanished. Has she appeared and then disappeared, or has the governess simply imagined her? Flora’s troubled face is inconclusive, reacting as much to her governess’s agitation as to any apparition.
In The Others
(2001), an oblique adaptation, creator Alejandro Amenábar takes an innovative stance on the ghosts’ reality. Marooned in an isolated house in post-second-world-war Jersey, Grace (Nicole Kidman), a staunch Catholic, resists her children’s claims to hear ghosts. It transpires that they are actually hearing the house’s new owners and that it is the children and their mother who are the ghosts. Overwhelmed by grief at her husband’s death, Grace, we eventually learn, smothered the children before shooting herself.
The Others thus combines metaphysical and psychological readings of its source. The ghosts are, in a sense, “real” (though not what we are led to believe), while at the same time, the “governess” figure, Grace, is also established as untrustworthy.
In Tim Fywell’s 2009 BBC adaptation, the governess (Michelle Dockery) is a patient in a post-first-world-war mental institution, a frame narrative that invites viewers to question the legitimacy of her testimony. Yet when, having implicated herself in Miles’s death, she is taken away in a prison van to be executed, her psychologist briefly hallucinates that the guard is Peter Quint. Such details left me wondering, as the psychologist seemed to be, whether the governess was indeed guilty, or was being prematurely and irrevocably silenced.
The teaser for The Haunting of Bly Manor reprises the eerie O Willow Waly song from The Innocents, paying homage to this foundational adaptation. The line “we lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow”, sung in Flora’s (Amelia Bea Smith’s) treble, chillingly captures the novella’s preoccupation with childhood innocence exposed to adult sexuality. In many of the adaptations, these shivers are compounded by our inability to entirely trust what we see, generating unanswered questions that keep the adaptive wheel turning.
We are likely to see many more screen translations, and more of the literary appropriations I discuss in my book, of which AN Wilson’s A Jealous Ghost (2005) and John Harding’s Florence and Giles (2010) are examples. Viewers and readers will continue to find what Virginia Woolf found in 1921: this is a story that “can still make us afraid of the dark”.
In their preference for the muddiness of everyday life over explicit engagement with their political and social issues, you can see a broad link between Glück and Tranströmer. On the surface, though, Morrison and Glück couldn’t appear to be more different. Morrison’s work lays bare both the lasting scars and the perennial nature of American trauma, whereas Glück’s work is altogether quieter, more local and apparently lacking that broad, socially and politically engaged canvas.
But look past the surface and there are affinities between the two writers. Since her early poems, Glück has been concerned with charting what it means to live as an individual in America. It is a nuanced, controlled form of lyric poetry that is as interested in what it has not been possible to say as what has been said – and the ways the latter haunts and shapes the former.
“I dislike being herded into certainty”, Glück has written. We live in an age in which certainty is valued above almost anything else. We appear to want, for instance, the certainty of a vaccine against COVID-19, the certainty that the pandemic will be brought to heel, and the certainty that we will not die, at least not yet and not like this.
But there is something greatly important in remembering that life, in all its forms – social, political, personal – remains incomplete, uncertain, and endlessly revised.
In Parable of the Swans from the 1996 collection, Meadowlands, two swans live: “On a small lake off / the map of the world”. The two swans spend much of their time studying themselves, some of their time studying each other. Ten years later “they hit / slimy water”.
Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
It is a parable of domestic life, devastating in its directness, even more so in the way such dramas are repeated interminably behind closed doors only to be shoved aside when the door opens, replaced by a public face that projects only possession and assurance.
Individual becomes universal
The Nobel committee has heralded Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. It is a blanket phrase that might be applied to much lyric poetry.
But what has made Glück’s concern with individual experience resonate over the years is its quiet insistence that that even in the private sphere, everything is touched – and shaped – by the public sphere. No matter what we each might claim to the contrary, we are all the products of the world around us.
And it’s upon these affects and consequences that Glück shines such a clarifying light. It has done so, not by telling us this, but by showing us the ways it can be done.
It is a humble corrective to the discourses of power and authority – so often male – that colour and corrupt great swaths of what we are encouraged to view as important. We are each answerable to how we choose to live, or as the poet puts it in Parable of the Swans: “love was what one did.”
There is an argument that, after two years of self-inflicted controversies and incomprehensible decisions, the Nobel committee has elected to play it safe this year. Glück is not a polarising poet. In any case, there was an expectation that the prize would be awarded to a non-European female writer.
There is also an argument that in awarding the prize to a white American writer whose work is often characterised by critics as not having an explicit political dimension, the committee has deliberately chosen to sidestep what could have been an important and timely intervention into the necessary debates about diversity and inclusivity – debates which run the risk of being rendered invisible by politicians’ more explicit desire to be seen to be waging war against the pandemic.
No doubt there is something to these arguments. But to criticise the award on both of these fronts is also to neglect the very particular qualities and resonances of Glück’s work. Her preference for the discretion of lyric poetry has something very specific to say about the lives we choose to lead.
As the poet writes in the final lines of the 2008 poem Dawn:
You get home, that’s when you notice the mold.
Too late, in other words.
As though the sun blinded you for a moment.
By drawing back a veil, Glück lets us see what is often overlooked, and the consequences that arise from the recklessness of not paying attention to ourselves and the way we live in the world.
The link below is to an article that reports on the winners of the 2020 New Zealand Book Industry Awards.