The link below is to an online archive of ‘Nickels and Dimes’ novels from the United States (1860 to 1930).
For more visit:
The link below is to an online archive of ‘Nickels and Dimes’ novels from the United States (1860 to 1930).
For more visit:
In this confusing and often conflicted world, children’s author Gillian Cross has summed up what it is about reading fiction that is so important: “Good stories help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like being someone completely different.”
As the author of a children’s novel myself, I’m going to double down on this and say that if this is important for adults, it’s 100 times more important for children.
Children passionately want to understand what’s going on – and fiction is a potent way for them to do this. A study by education professor Maria Nikolajeva found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
In the wealth of recent fiction for children and young adults, here are ten powerful stories for young people, addressing some of the most important, and troubling, questions we face today.
1. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion)
Imagine being imprisoned for your whole life. Imagine growing up like Subhi.
The nine-year-old’s world ends at the diamond-shaped fence – the outer edge of the detention centre he is detained in with his Rohingya family in Australia.
Fraillon draws a vivid picture of life inside the fence – vulnerable people fleeing persecution, only to find – instead of the peace and sanctuary they so desperately need – indifference and hostility.
But Subhi finds hope in his friendship with an Australian girl from outside the fence. (Age: 11+)
2. The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Red Ink)
What if Germany had won World War II and the UK was now part of a Third German Reich? This is a coming-of-age story with a difference – 16-year-old Jessika is a talented ice-skater in a high-ranking REICH?family.
But her friendship with subversive, courageous and desirable Clem threatens everything: her family, her future, and her very life. This is a story that paints the dangers of totalitarianism in vivid language. (Age: 12+)
3. Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)
Fourteen-year-old Shif lives in a country that conscripts its children into the army. The country isn’t named, but may be in Africa. He wants to play chess with his best friend Bini and race him home from school. But the army comes calling and the two must flee.
Shif experiences at first hand the brutality of a totalitarian government, then the trauma of migration and trafficking. Despite this, the story manages to be hopeful. (Age: 12 +)
4. The Jungle by Pooja Puri (Ink Road)
Sixteen-year-old Mico is surviving his life in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Without anyone to look out for him, he must look out for himself, living on his wits and his luck. Using careful research, Puri shows us what life is like as a refugee, owning nothing, not even the clothes on your back or the blanket you sleep beneath.
She shows us the desperation and terrible lengths refugees will go to, to try to find a home. But when Mico meets Leila, we see, too, the hope – and the risk – that friendship brings. (Age: 12+)
5. After the Fire by Will Hill (Usborne)
Moonbeam has lost her mother and she only knows life inside The Fence – it’s a life controlled by cult leader Father John.
But one night a devastating fire burns that life to the ground – the buildings, the people, the leader are all gone and only Moonbeam and a handful of children survive. Moonbeam and the others must now discover the world beyond the fence.
Can she do this when Father John has told her to trust no one outside? Using the WACO siege as his source material, Hill explores the power of brainwashing and cult identity.
Moonbeam’s search is for a truth she can stand by now, and for the mother she thinks must be dead. (Age: 12+)
6. I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (Macmillan)
Written in the voice of its smart and self-deprecating heroine, British Muslim Pakistani teenager Muzna, this is both a coming-of-age novel and a thriller. Muzna navigates her life at home and at school, working out how to have her own identity and her own ambitions, not those imposed by her parents, religion, school or friends.
And, as her relationship with Arif develops, the story becomes a thriller, and the stakes become very high. (Age: 13+)
7. The Territory trilogy by Sarah Govett (Firefly Press)
What happens when the sea levels rise? Govett imagines a flooded world with dwindling resources and not enough dry land for everyone. Choices have to be made, about who stays on the dry territory, and who is banished beyond the fence, to the dreaded Wetlands. But when 15-year-old Noa finds herself beyond the fence, she discovers that not everything the adults have been telling her is true. (Age: 13+)
8. Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias (Scholastic)
Following Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, a far-right Nationalist party has come to power.
Only those born in Britain (or BB as they are known) are allowed to live legally – everyone born outside the country is subject to immediate arrest and deportation and failing to report illegals is a crime.
Mathias has set her thriller in a British dystopia that is more scarily plausible than ever.
The young protagonist Zara is an illegal living in this scary new Britain – and falling in love with Ash might be the most dangerous thing she could do. (Age: 13+)
9. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
It’s ten years since Joe saw his brother Ed – and now Ed is on death row, facing execution for the murder of a police officer. What do they know of each other now? Ed says he’s innocent of the murder, but everyone else believes he’s guilty.
Crossan’s verse novel explores a single summer, perhaps Ed’s last, as 17-year-old Joe struggles to understand what has been done to his brother – and to himself. (Age: 13+)
10. The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (David Fickling Books)
The only picture book in the list, McIntyre’s delightfully illustrated story explores how intolerance and scaremongering can run like a mad fever through a community. When new neighbours move in to the tower block, hysteria builds quickly, until finally the other animals discover the truth about their newest neighbours. (Age: 2+)
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 2018 *Book Shimmy* Awards, for young adult novels published in the USA in 2018.
The links below are to articles that take a look at novels on Instagram.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 100 of the best horror novels.
In 1790, Watkin Tench, the first officer with the First Fleet and a member of the fledgling British colony, stood on what we now know to be “The Heads” of Sydney, hungry and pining for news of England:
Here on the summit of the hill, every morning from daylight until sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon in hope of seeing a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the heart pounded and a telescope lifted to the eye…
Tench’s palpable yearning for the mother country is an early account of British despair upon first settlement in Australia. One hundred years later, the sentiment remained. Many settlers were still unhappy with their surrounds, as evidenced in Edward Dyson’s musings in his 1898 short story The Conquering Bush:
The bush is sad, heavy, desparing; delightful for a month, perhaps, but terrible for a year.
In Barbara Baynton’s works, meanwhile, tales of harsh female experiences were set against even harsher Australian landscapes, devoid of respite or pleasure. In her 1896 short story The Chosen Vessel, a young wife and mother left alone in her bush home is stalked, raped and murdered by a swagman:
More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband.
But in the past, when she had dared to speak of the dangers to which
her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her.
For over 200 years, the white sentiment of desolation and anxiety about this “untamed” land has pervaded much of Australian literature. Children went missing, men went mad, and women suffered what writer Henry Lawson called the “maddening sameness” in The Drover’s Wife and Others Stories. “Oh, if only I could go away from the bush!” wails Lawson’s central character in The Selector’s Daughter.
The works of these early writers did much to reveal the challenging realities of the bush. Those eking out an existence in a land where soil and weather disagreed with European sensibilities and practices were met with hard work. And what a place to work! There was little room for bucolic tranquillity in a land of drought, flood and searing heat.
But, in the 21st century, there has been a change in how Australians read and write about the bush. Author and ecologist Tim Flannery, for one, urged his fellow country men and women to “develop deep, sustaining roots in the land” in his address as Australian of the Year in 2002 – which is what many of our contemporary writers seek to do. Unlike their predecessors, they’re increasingly likely to write about the bush as a destination for escape, rather than a place from which to flee.
Author Tim Winton’s Dirt Music does exactly that, as told through the tribulations of protagonist Luther Fox. After being forced out of his small south-west Australian town White Point for the crime of theft, he does not flee to the city; instead he journeys to a more remote region: the Kimberley.
Lost, injured and starving, Fox does not curse the land for his fate. Rather, he accepts his minor place in the universe and begins to come to terms with his family history through listening to and appreciating the powerful land:
He knows he lives and that the world lives in him. And for him and because of him. Because and despite and regardless of him.
Others, like Peter Temple in the The Broken Shore, highlight the beauteous potential of working with the land, as opposed to fighting it.
When the novel’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, leaves the city to return to his home town on the cold, south-west coast of Victoria, he does so a shattered man. With only the battering winds, shrieking cold and his dogs as company, Joe attempts to rebuild the home of his ancestors. He does not curse the sea for the death of his father or bemoan the land or its conditions. Rather, he finds a way to live in it alongside the people he grew up with:
Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquid ambers and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness…
Other authors such as Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville, Cate Kennedy, Murray Bail and Jenny Spence also create plots that entail leaving the city and finding refuge and peace in the Australian bush. This is a markedly different trajectory from that of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife or even the doomed schoolgirls in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, who journey through the scrub and rock to never return.
This sentiment toward the land does not aim to romanticise one’s “return” to nature. Rather, it’s as much concerned with exploring the cultural practices intrinsic to Australian land.
This is most apparent in literary interpretations of farming, or “pastoral” literature (writing that idealises country life). UK scholar Terry Gifford has coined a key term to consider here: “post-pastoral”, which is a “discourse that can both celebrate and take responsibility for nature without false consciousness”.
Gifford’s view is that post-pastoral is provisional and can be adapted to different regions. It does not idealise rural life. Nor does it exist only to highlight the harsh realities of life on the land. Rather, it seeks new ways of looking at the pastoral in all its forms.
In Australian writing, we appear to have an emerging “co-pastoral” discourse – a place where humans and the land co-exist. Humans do not, after all, always have to be the agents of disaster, and the land does not always have to be mundane and unforgiving.
This is the case for Winton’s follow-up play to Dirt Music, Signs of Life, where we learn that Luther Fox and his partner Georgie return from the Kimberley to live and work on the Fox family farm. At the end of the play, Georgie resolves to harvest olives on the land.
Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel, As Stars Fall, follows the story of a family stricken with grief after the death of a mother in a bushfire. The children and their new friend, a daughter of farmers, begin to heal by uniting to save an endangered bush stone-curlew – an injured bird whose chicks also perished in the flames. The farming father is an avid birdwatcher who, in the end, suggests building a native refuge for the stone-curlew on his property.
“Farmers aren’t what a lot of people think they are,” writes the mother who dies in the fire.
They care a lot about their land and the wild animals that live there. They really do want to know the best things to do, and how to help the natural environment in a way that doesn’t hurt their own livelihoods.
Here, Nieman attempts to cast new light on farm culture, as one deserved of respect rather than contempt.
Another key figure is Australian bush romance writer Rachael Treasure, whose work fits firmly in the co-pastoral lens. The bestselling author of five books and self-confessed “bushland babe” supports sustainable farming and partly uses her work for advocacy. Treasure says she “consciously writes for a wide audience, because storytelling is the most powerful vehicle to convey your message”.
Her message is that regenerative agricultural practices, such as pasture cropping, are the only way forward – not only to feed the country, but to heal a damaged land. If this needs to be told with a healthy mix of humour, tragedy and passion under the gum trees, then so be it.
“For the first time in her life, she saw the land with clear vision,” Treasure writes of her main character, Bec Saunders, in The Farmer’s Wife – who against the wishes of her husband and father, begins to farm without fertiliser, pasture crop, and build ground cover. Bec hopes that her children will “never see a sod turned again in their lifetime” and vows to “celebrate the seasons, not fight them”.
In this sense, Treasure’s work in The Farmer’s Wife is not environmentalist “green” literature. Farms mean clearing, crops, machinery, pesticides and animals whose hooves destroy the fragile landscape and whose methane contributes to greenhouse gases.
Co-pastoral literature does not dismiss the manufactured gardens, the introduced plants or the people who admit to wanting to work the land for profit. Nor does it forget the original Aboriginal landowners whose agricultural practices we now value. It does, however, seek to establish harmony between humans and the land.
Australian literature has long straddled this line between interpretations of bush life as harsh and incompatible, or of mutual benefit and interconnectedness.
But in fleeing to it, seeking refuge from it and working with it, our authors allow us, unlike the homesick Tench, to turn the telescope inward, toward the land and to ourselves.
There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism.
What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.
One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.
Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:
For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.
Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,
My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.
Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:
Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]
Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.
Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.
“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”
The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.
In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:
I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.
In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.
The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.
As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?
One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:
They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.
A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.
Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.
She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:
He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.
Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.
What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.
She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:
In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.
Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.
Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.
The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.
In his essay The Death of the Author, French literary theorist Roland Barthes proclaims that language is the origin of all texts. Authors then enter a “death” once their works are published, and the author’s interpretation of such work is of no more relevance than that of any other reader.
Barthes’ point is particularly relevant to the work and subsequent pronouncements of J.K. Rowling.
Since the publication of the final book in the Harry Potter series in 2007, Rowling – via Twitter as well as public talks and lectures – continues to illuminate apparent truisms within the fictional universe of her books. Her proclamations range from:
the way in which Voldemort’s name should be pronounced;
why Harry Potter named his son after Severus Snape; and
specifying the religious and sexual orientations of certain characters who inhabit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Through her pronouncements Rowling refuses her literary death and attempts to position her personal voice as indicative of an ultimate narrative.
The Huffington Post recently ran a piece which argues that Rowling’s continual disregard of her literary death only contaminates the beloved book series if readers allow it to.
The article suggests that one should refuse Rowling’s persistent tinkering and cast it as inconsequential. Although there is merit to this point, it does little to acknowledge Rowling’s failure at writing meaningful diversification into her books.
During her 2007 promotional book tour, Rowling attempted to “out” Albus Dumbledore, a lead character in the book series. Her response was met with the attending audience’s thunderous applause, causing her to respond:
I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.
There is an implication here that by telling us earlier – within the books themselves – the author would have made us unhappy. Herein lies a base fear of much authorship within the Global North to disrupt readers’ heteronormative literary assumptions. Such assumptions are to remain intact if readers are to be “happy”.
Rowling’s posthumous stab at diversification was widely celebrated and caused her to assert the place of a LGBTI community within Hogwarts, as well as the presence of a number of Jewish characters. Neither were written into the books.
Rowling recently commended an interpretation of her work which reads Hermione Granger, a Hogwarts student, as black. This once again met with resounding approval from fans.
We should, for numerous reasons, encourage decolonising interpretations of popular literature. But we should condemn Rowling’s cowardice at not explicitly disrupting the heteronormative assumptions that are couched within her writing. As Barthes argues, such a disruption only carries credence if it is written into the work, rather than after the fact.
Many readers’ homogenous assumptions were confirmed by the Harry Potter film adaptations, two of which are co-produced by Rowling. An estimated 99.53% of the dialogue across the eight films was delivered by white cast members.
It may be argued that it is not mandatory for all fiction to disrupt heteronormative thinking. But it seems clear that Rowling’s novels are not averse to antagonising some readers. However, the larger project of antagonising or problematising Western literature appears beyond their agenda.
Had Dumbledore been written as gay, Granger as black, or Anthony Goldstein as Jewish – three interpretations which have been asserted or endorsed by Rowling since publication – she may have diversified her fiction with a legitimate and powerful literary voice.
It may also be asserted that Rowling’s later interpretations and commendations are a signal of her guilt for what she has since realised to be an evasion of diversification in her fiction; her post-publication attempts at transformation effectively being better late than never. But such an argument acts to divert focus from Rowling making no attempt to dismantle or even acknowledge the oppressive social structures that birthed her implicitly homogenous character creation.
Rowling’s repeated assertion in the public sphere of such diversity represents her negation of meaningful, difficult, and necessary personal reflexive engagement with the social and political reasons her fiction lacks explicit diversity.
With the death of her literacy voice, Rowling’s interpretative voice – albeit more prolific than most – remains as insignificant as those passionately asserting their own culturally prejudicial readings of her work. Rowling’s reflection, rather than her inconsequential interpretive reparations, would be a far more significant means of engaging with the lack of diversity in her novels.
What happens when novelists actively incorporate the idea of failure in their books?
We generally understand failure as a negative attribute, particularly when looking at politics, the economy – and, yes, art. As individuals, we are driven by thoughts of success and achievement, so it makes sense that failure might make us feel slightly uneasy.
Turning that unease into something aesthetically pleasing is no mean feat, and yet, that’s where we are with the work of several well-known contemporary authors.
the essence of poetry is […] of trying (and failing) to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing.
While this might not seem to relate to the novel, what they were setting up there was a relationship between “trying to speak” and “failing to speak”.
One of the pervading motifs in McCarthy’s novels is an emphasis on some form of failure. In his first novel, Remainder (2005), the narrator tries, and fails, to reenact a moment of perfection.
In Men in Space (2007), McCarthy’s character Ivan Manasek forges a stolen Byzantine painting in an attempt to perfectly recreate the original object. In McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island (2015), the narrator, U, is tasked with writing The Great Report of our age.
Long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this novel is, at its core, about the failure to write. The Great Report’s essential function is one of identification, one that “name[s] what’s taking place right now”.
U’s boss, Peyman, asks him to “[s]peak its secret name”. For U, this is rather like trying to name “Rumpelstilskin”, but it seems that McCarthy is directly engaging with the enduring aim of poetry to “speak to the thing”, even if he fails.
We don’t always feel pleased with artistic expressions of failure. In an article in June for the London Review of Books, American poet and novelist Ben Lerner suggested that the reason that we might “dislike or despise or hate poems” is because, in some way, “they are – every single one of them – failures”.
In Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the narrator, Adam, is obsessed with artistic and linguistic failures because they allow him to experience an almost transcendent ambiguity. While in 10:04 (2014), the narrator, Ben, often addresses the second person – “You have failed to reconcile the realism of my body with the ethereality of the trees” – despite never being heard.
For Lerner, the “you” occupies “a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed” – or, in other words, an audience that he will always fail to reach.
Indeed, it is a project that strives deliberately towards constructing “real” experience. In framing the work as a novel, Knausgaard has claimed that he was able to “use [him]self as a kind of raw material,” enacting “an existential search” of the self.
The “struggle” suggested in the title references, in part, the struggle to write without shame to create something of value.
Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His most recent novel, Seiobo There Below (2013), introduces the reader to failure in slightly different terms, through the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
Rooted in ancient Japanese tea ceremonies from the 15th century, wabi-sabi recognises beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion. To a Western eye, beauty is often equated with perfection, but for Krasznahorkai, fleeting moments are established as beautiful even if they go on to decay.
The novel’s first vignette describes the magnificent beauty of a white heron hunting, in contrast to industrial Kyoto.
But it is wabi-sabi’s focus on “the now” that makes it interesting when thinking about contemporary writing. What might be expected from a novel that reflects on its own inability to say things successfully? Or, more pressingly, that constructs failure as an aesthetically-pleasing subject?
By focusing on failure, contemporary novelists might find they can wield surprisingly equal critical, ethical, political, and aesthetic power.
Perhaps failure is not so bad after all.
There’s a conversation gaining momentum in Australia about the lack of diversity in Young Adult (YA) and children’s literature. It’s been inspired in part by debate in the US, which many critics date back to a seminal essay by Nancy Larrick titled The All-White World of Children’s Books that was published in the Saturday Review in 1965.
The question of diversity has been raised periodically by critics, readers and writers alike – here and overseas – ever since. In the US, it was reinvigorated in May last year when a group of authors launched the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Its mission? To change the publishing industry so that it produced literature “that reflects and honours the lives of all young people”.
There is, of course, no single diverse experience. I am an Aboriginal author (Palyku people), but there are differences between my experiences and those of other Indigenous writers, and indeed those of diverse writers more broadly. We Need Diverse Books defines diversity as:
all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
But while there are many differences between diverse peoples and identities, there are also points of intersection, and one of them is the degree to which our young people are being failed by literature.
Why is diversity important? Author Malindo Lo, one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, gave this answer:
Diversity is not important. Diversity is reality … Let’s stop erasing that.
Many minority writers cite the experience of being erased from reality as the reason they began writing in the first place. As Lebanese Australian Sarah Ayoub recently said of her YA novel Hate is Such a Strong Word (2013):
I wrote this book to reconcile everything I felt as a teenager. When I go out and speak to schools with students from different cultures, I always say that you don’t have to change who you are to fit into the world and that your story is just as relevant as any white story.
A lack of diversity not only influences how diverse peoples see themselves, but how they are seen (or not seen) by those of the dominant culture. The situation is not helped by the fact there is often a long history of distortion of diverse identities in narratives written about the (so-called) “other”. In relation to Australian Indigenous peoples, Aboriginal writer Melissa Lucashenko has described this as “the great poisoned well of historic writing of Aboriginal people”.
The representation of diverse peoples, and especially of colonised or oppressed peoples by those who have inherited the benefits of colonisation or oppression, remains a fraught area. As Latino author Daniel Jose Older has commented:
Authors of colour struggle to get our voices heard, and publishing houses that espouse diversity publish more white authors writing characters of colour than anything else. Cultural appropriation matters in this context because it is about who has access and who gets paid, even beyond the problems of a poorly crafted, disrespectful representation.
As a diverse YA author I am often asked, usually by teens searching in vain for their own reflection in the novels they read, whether I think things will ever change. I do, mostly because I believe there is a limit to how long literature can peddle the fantasy of a non-diverse world to readers who are living in a diverse reality.
And in relation to cultural diversity, increasing minority populations will change readership and hence (eventually) world markets. In the US, the Census Bureau has forecast that by 2043 minorities will comprise a majority of the US population, while the 2015 UK Writing the Future report noted that predicted increases in minority groups meant the book trade would have to change to remain relevant:
[P]ublishers’ present concentration on People Like Us – White, aged 35 to 55 and female – will not reflect the society of the future, no matter how much that elides with their own current workforce […] the book industry risks becoming a 20th century throwback increasingly out of touch with a 21st century world.”
A country with as many voices as Australia has much to offer the children and teens of the globalised and pluralist 21st century. Except that, even within the Australian market, it can be difficult for Aussie voices to be heard (and correspondingly more difficult for diverse Australian voices to be heard).
LoveOzYA was started this year, partly in response to concerns that Australian titles were struggling to be noticed among the onslaught of US blockbusters, many of which had been the subject of big-screen adaptions. In the words of Australian author Ellie Marney:
When a book is promoted online, on screens, in films, in print ads and bookstores and toy stores and fast-food outlets ad infinitum – it’s kinda hard to ignore.
LoveOzYa is not suggesting teens should stop reading books they enjoy. Simply that there may well be other Australian books they’d enjoy as much (but that were published in the comparatively tiny Aussie market and hence do not have the benefit of the marketing resources behind the US titles dominating the shelves).
In short, the goal is that Australian literature receives the proverbial “fair go”. Perhaps in this sense, the end game of both weneeddiversebooksau and LoveOzYA converges upon a vision of a more equitable future: a world in which all voices have an equal chance to be heard, and all voices are heard equally.