why would any­one be a nov­el­ist?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - KATHARINE ENG­LAND

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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