Thought of the day: Reading as Empathy Training

I firmly believe that compassion is a choice; it’s not necessarily something that we feel instinctively; rather we arrive at compassion after due consideration. When an individual decides to step inside the world of a novel, he is making a choice to look at life from another perspective, and I think that experience nurtures the ability to empathize. I wonder if prolific readers are generally more compassionate. I wonder?

I’m not into hot-housing my kids academically, but I’m all about instilling values. I think there’s nothing more important than kindness; making the choice to be kind. So I’ll continue to hot-house Thom and Lewis with every book I can get my hands on.

In other news:

9781921361920_THELASTSKY_NEWEDITION

I’ve nearly finished The Last Sky by Alice Nelson. The prose is damn beautiful; I can barely fault it. But the plot is meandering and meditative; it is a dreamy contemplation of storytelling. I can’t say that it’s a novel I’m desperate to return to after each sitting, but maybe that’s because I’ve had a very busy couple of weeks and I’ve read it intermittently; it’s only a short novel, so maybe it would be better read in one session. So far, (and I have about 50 pages left), I’ve found some of the characters (Victor Kadoorie and Ken Tiger in particular) quite thinly drawn. Maybe that’s because the narrator, Maya, is making Victor’s story her own; dissatisfied with the mere facts she seeks to fill in the gaps with her own details. Maya longs for a ‘cohesive narrative‘ and creates her own fictions when the facts are but a ‘dry outline‘.

With those very brief nuggets, I bid you adieu. I’m off to Disneyland tomorrow and I intend to have a bit of a break from the internet. Maybe I’ll pop in with a picture of Goofy…

hkgap_phototour48

Advertisements

Australian faux pas and Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists

Well, hasn’t it been a week for women in Australia? I hardly need to count the ways in which misogyny has reared its ugly head, but, for future reference, I will: our PM, Julia, faced a barrage of media-driven nonsense; there was the vile Liberal party dinner menu where rich men poked fun at her body; her breasts, her thighs, and her vagina. Then of course, Mr Sattler pursued a line of questioning about Julia’s partner’s sexuality. She was calm and graceful in her response; I can tell she has bigger things on her mind than the insinuations of a twerp like Sattler. I’m lucky: I don’t think I know many men of the ‘back-slapping’ variety; the men I know and love are mortified by this crap.

I saw this picture in my Facebook feed yesterday and I love it:

1003103_10151403436151455_636387599_n

But how does all this pertain to the writing life? There was a lot of noise on Twitter and in the blogosphere about the Stella Prize a few weeks ago. The question raised: do we need a prize for women? I say yes, in the hope that any male reader worth their salt will pick up the shortlisted novels.  Today I discovered a whole website that encourages just this: http://guysreadgals.wordpress.com .

Women are writing some great stories, as evidenced here:

944592_583479745018935_1093722336_n

Barry Divola’s tongue in cheek ‘sausage’ comment made me smile. If you don’t know about the background, look up ‘Miles Franklin’ and ‘sausage fest’. We’re all about the faux pas here in Oz.

I’ve been thinking about George Eliot quite a bit since my post about Elemental and The Mill on the Floss. I went back and read parts of her essay, Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists. I laughed aloud at some of the observations; observations that would ring true today.

It made me laugh, but here’s the thing: I think that, at least in today’s social milieu, these are intellectually elitist observations. Let’s be honest, not everyone in Australia can read the highest calibre of literary fiction. Some novels would read like Chinese characters to people who merely function at a late decoding or early comprehension stage of reading. Heck, some literary fiction is incomprehensible for me and I have an English degree. What I’m saying, is that I’m glad there are silly novels out there (by silly males and silly females- actually, sales might suggest their authors are not so silly!); maybe they’re a stepping stone on the journey to better fiction. Or they just provide vacuous entertainment for a few hours. Either way, who are we to judge?

Eliot’s major concern was that certain histrionic rantings typical of a particular genre would perpetuate feminine stereotypes. I sympathize with that sentiment.  Still, I’m going to make a case for contemporary commercial fiction here, because I have a bit of ‘underdog complex’ happening. What one reads shouldn’t be a value statement, because we’re all valuable. If melodrama and frothy prose are your thing, no probs. Vampires and misogyny? Go for it. At least you’re reading. I know plenty of well-educated women who read crap and not-so-crap commercial fiction for pleasure. And some of us (ahem) are known for our histrionic rantings.

I had an interesting chat with a good friend of mine the other day. She told me that she’s not a huge fan of my writing style; in fact, she only read half of Solomon’s Baby because she wasn’t wholly engaged. She feels that my sentences are too long; they require re-reading. I love this friend, I love her candour. I admire her for her insane intellect and her unwavering honesty. We’ve developed a sister-like relationship so we’re honest about our feelings, even when it hurts. Of course, feedback like this always stings a little bit; I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t.  But I’d also be stupid if I thought everyone should like my style. Goodness, I’m a writer; rejection comes with the territory!

What was most interesting about our conversation was that old chestnut, ‘What’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction?’
Is commercial fiction vacuous and populist? Most of the time, not always.  Does it sell better? Yes. Is serious fiction more obscure? Does it require more of the reader? Yes, I think so. Is serious fiction as entertaining, as pleasurable, as a light romp? Yes, indeed: it’s like the Kama Sutra for ten days straight when good literary fiction hits the mark.

It’s such a subjective thing though, isn’t it? The gatekeepers of the literary world, the publishers, the critics, seem to decide. In saying that, for me, serious fiction is about brilliant prose, complex characters, imagined worlds that I can sense in a visceral way. Most of the time, as I read literary work, I wonder if the author is a bit of a genius. I felt that way when I read Elemental. I feel that way at the moment, as I read The Last Sky by Alice Nelson (I believe she was in her early twenties when she wrote it??!! Genius.). Nelson and Curtin’s work is the real deal. Reading this kind of writing is part of my apprenticeship and the experience of good fiction can be transcendental; goosebumps, heightened senses, an ache in my throat, tears all a-prickle. That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for commercial fiction in my life. I read the Twilight series in two days; NOT transcendental, but it definitely served a purpose at that particular time: escapism and relaxation (except for when I bristled at awkward turns of phrase or creepy gender interplay!).

You see, when asked to pigeonhole my work, I’ve been hesitant to call it literary fiction or serious fiction, because I’m full of doubt, and, like most writers I know, quite self-deprecating when it comes to my work. I’m just not sure that it’s good enough to be called literary fiction. Actually, right now, I know it isn’t of Curtin’s or Nelson’s calibre. I met an insightful woman in Margaret River who suggested that my work might be ‘commercial fiction with integrity’. I’m intending to purloin that phrase forevermore. At least until the doubt disappears…yeah, probably never.

My bedside table…

What’s on yours?

books

I’m off to Hong Kong next week so I’m reading Alice Nelson’s The Last Sky as a taster.

Annabel Smith recommended Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple as a great holiday read; I’m saving that one for the plane.

 

My thoughts on Gatsby, ‘Whisky Charlie Foxtrot’ and boys…

I saw Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby the other night. Part of me wants to launch into a great tirade and say he defecated glitter all over one of my favourite books…but the truth is, he’s a wonderful auteur and I knew what I was getting myself into. Baz’s Gatsby is not my Gatsby, but it’s a rather beautiful film nonetheless. My version of Gatsby was never, ever, remotely camp: definitely decadent, hedonistic in parts, but never camp. I read the novel at high school, then again at university and while my recollections are faded, I remember the prose as spare, the tone wistful.

I’ll read The Great Gatsby again soon I imagine, as an adult. There aren’t too many broken dreams for me at the moment; the green light is still flashing on the horizon. But I was reflecting after the film and I realised that one of my green lights has fallen away, only to give way to others. You see, I wanted a daughter in a truly irrational way. As a woman with great relationships with her own mother and grandmother, I saw my imagined daughter as an integral part in my future life. I won’t bore you with the psychoanalysis and flawed thinking, but I’m embarrassed to say that I grieved a little bit when the dream faded to black; when I realized that I didn’t want any more children.

This is where I’ll segue to the subject matter I intended to write about this morning: I didn’t come here to talk about Gatsby; I wanted to write some thoughts on boys, wonderful boys, after reading Annabel Smith’s most recent novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. You see, I have met some lovely Perth writers recently and I’m keen to read their work. Annabel has also kindly offered to mentor me in a two hour session next week. I’m most excited (and of course, a little terrified!).

9781922089144_WHISKYCHARLIEFOXTROT_WEB

I want to be plain: I will always write my genuine thoughts on a text; I won’t mince my words.

I needed to write that disclaimer because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m brownnosing. I’ll begin…

I grew up in Perth in the eighties and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is set in a familiar place: there are the requisite walkie-talkies and Scaletrix; the recognizable playground chatter. The narrative revolves around the relationship between two brothers, identical twins, Charlie and William (aka Whisky) Fern. I have two sons so I’m very invested in the themes explored in the novel. My personal sense of nostalgia and interest in boys and ‘boyhood’ meant that I was hooked pretty quickly.

I’m always delighted by books in which my sympathies shift; where the unreliable nature of any narration comes to the fore. I’m reminded of a line from Elemental by Amanda Curtin (I can’t check it because my grandmother is reading it now!), ‘there’s no one can tell a story true.’ Charlie is flawed, but I developed a deep affection for him and his loved ones. It was a sad goodbye as I turned the final page.

I learnt something that bothered me in this novel; the term ‘puerile’ comes from the latin word puer, meaning ‘boy’. What is striking, of course, is the word’s negative connotations within our current vernacular. Think: Slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails. Like exclamation marks and instant coffee, poor children of the male variety get a seriously bad rap.

Now, I have a lot to do with young boys aged between three and ten. Honestly, I am surrounded by them; my mothers’ group produced only boys- first, second and third generation. That’s twelve boys- we could probably go off the grid or provide power for Synergy. I work at a Language Development Centre where boys are our main clientele. I have an older brother who tormented me with his puerile behaviour during our youth (we’re great friends now). I can say, hand on heart: boys are different. By god, they are different to girls. But they are different, not worse. Obviously, there is a spectrum- from your most puerile (and by that, I’ll go with the current understanding of the term: immature, foolish) to more restrained or effeminate boys, but anyone who wants to launch into a nature/nurture debate, please, come and spend a day in my classroom.

Sometimes women find boys difficult to manage; hard to understand. But boys are wonderful. They can be energetic and boisterous but equally thoughtful and kind. Their sense of humour tends towards the gross but sometimes their jokes are so sophisticated that they have me laughing out loud. They sometimes show they love each other with jibes and endearing name calling (if you can call ‘Snot Face’ a term of endearment- there’s rarely any offence taken); sometimes they cuddle and kiss and declare their enduring love for one another. They wrestle and nearly kill each other; they sometimes show off, they occasionally lash out in a retaliatory moment of rage at some perceived injustice…I could write a whole blog post entitled, ‘In Defence of the Boy Child’, but I won’t, I promise. You’re wise folk out there; you know about boys.

I had goose bumps on page 268, where I read a passage that echoes some of my own sentiments; a recent epiphany, if you will. I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just be choosy about my quote:

‘love him for who he was… I wouldn’t change a hair on his head’

You see, as mothers and fathers, we have to learn pretty quickly that we can’t pin our hopes and dreams on our children. We have to recognise that they have their own ‘green lights’ and we have to respect them. My two boys have very different temperaments and I have learnt that there are things I cannot change; that no amount of behaviour modification is going to sedate an exuberant personality or make an extrovert an introvert (or vice-versa). And why on earth would anyone want to? Human nature and ego, that’s why. But, as in Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, parents have to learn an important lesson: we have to let our children be who they are, or there will be inevitable ramifications.

I read this novel in two sittings and it would have been one if I hadn’t started at 11pm on the first night. There are so many astute and quaint observations about sibling rivalry, jealousy, parenting and love in this novel. I’m going to end on something that made me smile: I felt immediate recognition during the ballroom dancing scenes; like me, the girls of Smith’s book were probably raised on a steady diet of Dirty Dancing and Grease, and have thus developed a liking for guys of Swayze and Travolta’s ilk who have ‘the moves like Jagger’. Go Charlie Fern with your fabulous foxtrot!

IMG_0845

Is it just me, or did autumn arrive late this year? It’s my favourite time of the year; when the air turns crisp and the leaves turn red but the sky stays brilliant blue. Autumn restores my cooking mojo and makes me feel like nesting, makes me want to prepare for winter. I love the rituals when the seasons turn; I love my non-work days, when I can bathe my boys in bubbles and then pull out the onesies and make them all cosy; when I can make slow cooker meals in the morning and catch a whiff of the hearty aroma all day long…Oh Perth, how I love thee.