why would anyone be a novelist?
WHEN Glenda Adams died in July last year there were many reasons for sorrow over the loss — far too early at 67 — of a warm, generous, self- deprecating woman, a gifted and inspiring teacher of writing and a wonderful writer.
But there was sadness, too, about the way the world of words treated Adams. Much has been made recently of the short shelf life of even the best literary fiction: of the fact that a great Australian book such as The Tree of Man is out of print and that it is difficult to find material that is still reliably available to furnish the reading lists of Australian literature courses, but sometimes it takes a particular instance to bring the problem home.
Adams was the author of two collections of short stories, four novels, a play ( The Monkey Trap ) and some television scripts: notably two episodes, Pride and Wrath , of the 1993 ABC- TV drama series Seven Deadly Sins . Her novels were popular and critically acclaimed. Dancing on Coral , a fabulously funny, playful, deeply political book, an exuberant and sophisticated satire that subverts masculinist and neoimperialist attitudes, won the 1987 Miles Franklin Award and a NSW Premier ’ s Award. Longleg , with its poignant exploration of complex issues of identity and meaning, won the 1990 Age Book of the Year Award, shared the 1991 NBC Banjo Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 1991 Miles Franklin.
Only 1996 ’ s The Tempest of Clemenza , Adams ’ s last novel, left the critics at a loss, missing much of its irony and deploring its use of gothic tropes: this in spite of the fact that Adams had publicly declared that her particular intention in writing the novel was rigorously to conform to an elaborate and complex set of rules for writing gothic fiction.
My personal impression is that the book sank with barely a ripple, appearing on remainder tables depressingly soon after publication; a new hardcover copy is presently on offer on Amazon for US49c.
Adams died just too soon to know that she had won the 2007 Australian Society of Authors Medal for her significant contribution to the
‘‘ Australian community or Australian public life ’’ through her writing and her development of the creative writing program at the University of Technology, Sydney. The society ’ s chairwoman, Georgia Blain, commented that she had recently picked up Adams’ s early and often dazzlingly
The Hottest Night experimental book of stories, of the Century , nervous that it might not be as good as she remembered. It was. She was lucky to have the chance to find out; the book has been out of print for years.
By the time of Adams ’ s comparatively early death, the only work of hers that was still in print was the Miles Franklin winner Dancing on Coral , and that was not winking tantalisingly from the bookshop shelf: your bookseller can
get it in for you ’’ , but obviously only if you ‘‘ know enough to ask for it, and with that kind of exposure to the reading public one can imagine that it too will soon be unavailable.
Shelf life for literary fiction gets shorter and shorter: last year Angus & Robertson made history by demanding shelf rental for books that don ’ t make a quick enough turnover. There is no time for a slow, word- of- mouth rise to popularity ( such as that afforded Salley Vickers ’ s first novel Miss Garnet s Angel , the eventual success of
’ which she ascribes to the enthusiasm of independent booksellers in Britain), no time for reappraisal by initially dismissive reviewers ( if the book was lucky enough to be reviewed in the first place): the book is gone.
Publishing is an industry that must maintain financial viability like any other. In a world in which there are already too many publications for any bookseller or literary editor to keep up with, publishers reputedly ignore their slush piles and commission to fill what they perceive as gaps in the market. Editing allowances have only too obviously been sacrificed to increase publicity budgets, but when even award winners have only a few years of shelf life there must surely be books that barely make it through the bookshop door before they are consigned to the motley remainder collections that travel hopefully around to everyone ’ s workplace.
At least all Adams ’ s work is available in local libraries, but that too is unlikely to last as old stock is sold to make room for the ever- increasing new. Novelists tend to think of themselves as writing for posterity, but in fact their books are predeceasing them. Who, indeed, would be a novelist?
Well, apparently most people, and perhaps there ’ s the rub. Creative writing courses at tertiary institutions are burgeoning; the internet is bursting at the seams with literary activity; the current first choice of things to do after retirement is travel, the second is to write a novel ( so you can imagine how the imminent retirement of the baby- boomer bulge is going to overburden our bookshelves). It seems we have re- entered the age of the amateur: an increasing number of people would rather do it themselves than make an audience for so- called experts or professionals.
Despite the advice to the would- be writer laid out in every how- to manual, by their lecturers and by every established author on a writers ’ festival platform to read, read, read, an astounding percentage of creative writing students read very little and in a very narrow and often populist vein. On the web there is a blogjam of readerwriters committed to the exchange of personal creativity, ideas, opinions and experiences — often, admittedly, including those concerning books — at literary levels that range from the brilliant to the banal. Google Adams and you will find the homepage of another Glenda: a transgender Texas woman who works in IT, does triathlons and cross- stitch and writes the occasional poem: there is a voyeuristic fascination in such chance meetings that can keep you wandering the web for time- wasting hours.
It is, in a way, like the world before publishing in which communities shared their stories around campfires or passed their work from hand to hand, except that these personal communities, perhaps no bigger in membership than the old ones, may now span the globe.
I have no way of knowing whether Adams was saddened or disillusioned by the disappearance of her work, but I am sad on her behalf and on behalf of all those readers who will never get the chance to read her. Grab Dancing on Coral while you can and revel in it.