The Quiet Revolution: Literary Life Online and a Favourite Book

While the print media is so terrified of the internet that it takes every opportunity, however illogical or irrelevant, for an attack on the evils of the internet, a quiet revolution, lead by the tapping of computer keyboard keys, is taking place as writers migrate to cyberspace. Day by day, word by word, writers around the globe are building literary communities and now we have them in Australia. Ironically, I have found them through Facebook, the internet’s currently most successful social network, and therefore the most vilified as Mephistophelean, by the daily press.

What surprises me is how effective the print media’s blackballing of the internet has been in keeping highly intelligent and educated people away from anything but email, ebay – my euphemism for all commercial transactions – and some googling of fact. They will tell you how busy they are, how their lives are too full already but if you push them hard enough, you will discover that they do not “get” how it all works. Partly, it is the intimidating technology with its incomprehensible jargon, and partly, it’s the age demographic. Most of the people in question are over 40 years old. They do not understand how they can use it easily, quickly and safely to pursue their interests, cultivate new ones and participate in this mind-boggling technology, undreamt of by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and more recently, even the creators of Dr Who.

Now, thanks to this cyberphobia, we are also facing the possibility of having the internet censored because that is a much easier gesture towards controlling child abuse (especially through pornography) and other seriously undesirable impacts on the young, than doing this with tools that already exist and, alternately, devising new, more user-friendly ones.

Ironically again, my introduction to using cyberspace was courtesy of the daily press, when I was able to file overnight copy by modem, instead of reading material over the phone to copytakers at 6 am, after writing a review of a performance that I saw just hours before. Luckily, I had a lot of help and although I did not start sending copy on my own until the advent of everyday email, I have always understood the value of trying to use the digital/cyberspace technology as it evolved. I was painfully aware that mere children seemed right at home with computers and the internet. I waded into cyberspace, cussing and hissing, “Every moron can do this!” and thereby implying, “Why can’t I?” Little by little, menu by menu – and as I write this, I finally realise what a “pop-up” menu might be – I got somewhere. Here, in fact.

Never before has the written word had such a life. From carving text in stone and laboriously writing by hand, from primitive printing and the Chinese invention of moveable type, to Gutenberg and the advent of what we know as the printed book, to digital technology and automated presses, we have arrived at the currently and rapidly evolving, printless, paperless digital media. While hardcopy publishers scramble about trying to work out how they can transfer their business – and most hard copy publishing is, first and foremost, about business because, if you can’t sell, you can’t survive – many writers are posting and publishing online.

Those of us for whom writing and serious involvement in creative pursuits is an intrinsic part of our lives, have nothing to lose. Depending on the kind of writing you do, financial considerations can be a very low priority because it’s not something you do primarily for the money and it is true that many writers will write and creative people will create, whether they are paid or not. And, while some writers, especially those with a journalistic background are even managing to make money from cyber publishing, poets, for example, are yet to crack the secrets of making money anywhere, let alone cyberspace.

The arrival of the Group Online Magazine, known as “Groupmag,” last year, was a boon for anyone interested in Australian literary art today. Using the free technology offered by Facebook, this quarterly magazine is organised, edited and published by a diverse group of very active writers. It uses a public blog site as its home and offers the magazine as an introductory index page, with an editorial forward, that in turn links the reader to the contents, which lives on the sites of the individual contributors.

While many online publications just attempt to replicate hardcopy, with rigid formats and print-style word limits, Groupmag format is simple, ingenious and excitingly flexible, allowing for text and visual matter of all kinds. The practical constraints of the physical world do not apply. A poem, a video, a poem on video, an interview, a report, fiction, fact, photograph, visual art and everything in between can come together in one edition of Groupmag, which is now in its fifth issue. Groupmag is free and, while it can be read by anyone, membership of The Group is only through Facebook because it relies on the technology offered by that platform, not just as a way of putting the magazine together as an online entity but also for recruiting membership, generating readership and soliciting submissions.

In a country like Australia, with its physical vastness and tiny, widely-dispersed population, a literary publishing venture that can overcome the problems of distance and financially nonviable per capita markets, is something that has never been possible before. That in itself is exciting. It’s local, it’s new, and uncontaminated by the fiddling of fiscal fingers. Money might make the world go round but as a criterion or condition for creative endeavour, it is a carcinogen. The renegade nature of Groupmag, with its inclusiveness and freeform structure is very appealing. The current issue leads with Pioneers in the Digital Snow, an essay by Mark Mordue, based on a speech he made at the Sydney Writers Festival last May, where he was announced the winner of the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. Mordue argues that “great critics are among the pioneers of ‘content’ out there in the digital snow.” His article illustrates that the internet is an ideal medium for extended, serious writing.

Meeting other creative and literary people through a venture like Groupmag and enjoying exchanges with them, is a fantastic and inspiring luxury. A comment or a shared link can lead to new intellectual and creative adventures.

Just last week, one of my literary Facebook friends put up a link, to be shared, for The Australian Literature Review. I took a look at the linked material and on the About page, it said:

The Australian Literature Review is dedicated to revitalising Australian literature and promoting vibrant and original Australian literary writing. Literature is used here as an inclusive term which embraces fictional writing in general.”

This struck me as a very worthy aim, so I posted the link to my profile, with the intention of trawling through the site later, when I had more time. I paid little attention to the small, pale grey text accompanying the link:

Facebook Share or Tweet a link to this post before 2pm today for a chance to win a copy of After America by John Birmingham or Silk Chaser by Peter Klein.”

Then I win. Me, who never gambles or enters competitions in the hope of winning prizes. This calls for some jubilant status update posts. “Un – flamin’-real. I’ve just won a contest through Australian Literature Review and hope to receive John Birmingham’s After America as my prize.”

Literary FBFs are warmly congratulatory; we all agree a book is a good prize.

On a coin toss, I get the John Birmingham book, my first preference. One of the FBFs is keen to know about which book I wrote to win the prize. Puzzled by her comment, I soon discover that there were several competitions going and one had asked entrants to write 300-500 words on a favourite book. The FBF had found it too hard to choose which book to write about, after producing 500 words just trying to narrow down the choice.

As soon as you ponder this, you can see the problem. First, which book do you select from what would inevitably be a long list of favourites and secondly, what and how do you write about it in so few words? Even when you eliminate most of the books that are closest to your deepest, word-addled self – the ones that made you: the Grendel’s mothers and Dr Frankensteins of the writer that you have become – you still need to set up some parameters to enable a workable choice. Since it was the Australian Literature Review running the competition, and given the Review’s aim to revitalise Australian literature, it would be appropriate to narrow the field to an Australian book.

With my preference for first-person narratives – on my bookshelves they stand, spine to spine: Conrad, Defoe, Dickens…Gorky, Grass, Greene…Hemingway, Hesse, Huxley…Melville, Nabokov, Oakley…Proust on its own with the poetry – and multi-layered ironies, I can choose no other than My Brother Jack by George Johnston.

It’s a moving tale of a boy called David Meredith, born into a pre-WW1 Melbourne working class family, who squirms in the shadow of his tough, magnificent older brother. Enduring unprovoked beatings from a brutal, war-battered father, he manages to build himself a career as a writer and become a celebrated WW2 correspondent. Along the way, as he rises in the world, he sees his brother diminish into insignificance, in a sort of “good guys come last” vein. That’s the essence of the key points of the storyline, the surface.

A little below it is a thick layer of Australian history, from the descriptions of vernacular architecture, embracing the Edwardian and Between the Wars periods, to the recording of daily life in particular social and geographic settings of that era. My favourite part of the book deals with David’s time at The National Gallery School, housed in the Melbourne Museum. Nearly half a century later, in the Melbourne of my youth, much of that world still existed. Subsequently when it vanished, it was doubly heartening to know that it survived in Johnston’s book.

For me, the arts have always been the most engaging and significant record of history, from the paintings on the pyramid walls and Australian outback caves to the contemporary output of visual artists across the globe, and from the anonymous Peasant’s Song of prehistoric China to the disaffected pulsation of latter day western rap.

Scrape away a little more at My Brother Jack and you get a morality tale of human frailty, enough data for a text book on the psychology of families and a profound study of the nature of individual success as it came to be known in the 20th century.

But I like it for the plaintive irony under the swagger of the prose, whether in decrying the monotony of Melbourne’s flatness and attacking the city’s social fabric, or in the exploration of the narrator’s relationships with the different people, including love interests, in his life. While David Meredith tells us his story, I am not convinced that Johnston, the author, really knows what that is, which in itself fascinates me.

It is heartening to think that a book like this is a long term best seller and that it often makes it into “Australia’s favourite novel” lists. Another novel, whose prose I admire even more, that regularly appears in these lists is Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. My huge problem with it is that Stead set it in America, when the storyline is drawn from her childhood in Sydney and, valuing verisimilitude, I find the transposition deeply unconvincing. That, of course, brings us to all the vexing and fascinating questions about the nature of autobiographical novels, of which Australian literature has plenty.

And any venture that wants to promote vibrant and original Australian literary writing has my full support because literature is the best part of our rich, local artistic culture. That the venture is online, shows a serious interest in the future.

Blazenka Brysha


Crowning Glory Blindly Assassinated

In 2009, I finally got around to two novels, from this decade, that I had been putting off reading. One justified my tardy reluctance while the other astounded with its depth and originality.

When Karen van Ulzen’s novel, Crowning Glory (Harper Collins, 2002), was billed as ‘revenge fiction,’ and promoted as he done her wrong, she gonna get the bastard back, I had no intention of reading it because genre fiction is not for me. The fact that the author is a colleague, who has been editor of Dance Australia magazine for many years, was not enough to induce me to read the book, billed on its cover as: ‘A quirky tale of love, revenge and hairdressing.’

Then, by chance, I came across an old review of the novel, which referred to the inclusion of ‘unnecessary asides’ about hairdressing history and the author’s ‘spare style.’ From this I deduced that the novel was more than a story about hairdressing and revenge, despite the pair of scissors depicted on the cover, and that it was cleanly written. Straight away I knew I had to read Crowning Glory.

According to the back cover blurb, Crowning Glory was about the ill-fated romantic attachment that the central character, Kathleen Lindley, a hairdresser, forms with a chef who lives in the flat next door. At 32, she has finally left home although she cannot escape her mother’s overbearing selfishness or the pall that her father’s death cast over their lives while she was still only a schoolgirl.

When I read the novel, I found, above all, a moving account of a mother-daughter relationship. That is at the centre of Kathleen’s tale, colouring her relationships with both her boyfriend and the memory of her father. The narrative, set in early 1990s Melbourne, is a present tense, first-person account with memories of the past streaked through it, like a complex, subtle, multi-tone single colour hair-dye job. It is serious, literary fiction, in style, content and broader artistic and critical ramifications. It is also a gripping read.

Recounting a terrible fight between her parents, while her mother was plaiting her hair with crooked results because of the volatile situation, Kathleen states:

That same evening I cut my hair…My mother kept one of those plaits – the best, straight one – in the same wicker basket with my baby curls. The plait is noticeably darker than the curls. Though still fair, it has definitely lost that inner sunlight, that untarnished sheen, that distinguishes the really blond from the merely light brown – Hazelnut Haze, say, compared with Purely Platinum. The plait is bristling now, like old soft twine. The baby hair curls around my finger like a child’s trusting hand.

She has a lock of Dad’s hair in the basket, too. It seems laughable, given how little he had of it. The lock is short and brown. It’s not a brown you would give a name.

It might seem odd, even ghoulish, keeping hair as tokens of others. Yet as a custom it has long existed…Hair is both a part of the body and an ornament; it can be severed without pain or harm and lasts for thousands of years without decaying, still in good condition long after the body has rotted into the earth…

Kathleen knows many facts because she found comfort in books at the State Library after her father died:

The library was my escape from the shop. I would tell Mum that I had some research to do for a school project. I’d inform her in the morning, just before I left for school, so it was too late for her to raise any objections…I could never look her in the face, knowing I was leaving her to an extra hour’s imprisonment. Sometimes she would begin to protest, but would usually stop herself. ‘Of course you must go. I’ll be fine, she’d say. ‘You must do your study.’ The thrill of my freedom was always soured by the memory of her brave face.

Kathleen responds to her mother’s domineering ways with passive aggression, mostly expressed only in her thoughts. Describing her mother’s favourite cookbook, she says: Mum likes this book not because the recipes are particularly good but because of its war-time frugality. Sometimes I think she regrets the war is over. She was born before the Second World War and, though she was only a young child then, the deprivation she briefly experienced seems to have a nostalgic pull on her. At the mention of war-time hardship her face softens and she gives a shiver of pleasure, as if at the sound of rain on a tin roof.

When Kathleen and her mother try to move an old washing copper, the mother suggests they need a man:

What about your boyfriend?” she asks. ‘Couldn’t you have asked him?’
‘He’s busy.’
‘I’ll bet. Lazy, more like it’
‘Yes that’s right. A lazy pig.’
‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ She looks at me more closely. ‘Don ‘t tell me it’s over already.’
I try to turn away but she grabs my face and holds it still, as she has ever since I was a child trying to hide my lies from her. There’s no way to avoid her penetrating gaze. I pull myself free and stand with my back to her.
‘I knew it,’ she says.
‘What do you know?’
‘I knew it wouldn’t last. I could tell from the beginning.’
‘How?’ My voice is sarcastic.
It was obvious. For one thing, you never introduced him. What sort of behaviour is that. It’s unnatural.’
I say nothing.
‘Anyway, men will never be interested in you. You’re too much of a mouse.’
‘Glad you think so highly of me.’
I have my back to her but I can tell she’s folded her arms in that I-told-you-so way. ‘You’ve got no gumption,’ she adds. ‘Look at you.’

This is the relationship at its most brittle and destructive but through the self-contained universe of Kathleen’s inner life, we are also allowed to see the outer reality and learn why things are as they are, not just with her mother but all the other people impacting on her life. In an era when people are still living with their parents and staying single longer than ever before in history, the novel also reflects one face of that social phenomenon. Kathleen is very different to the Biff and Happys of Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the Olives of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She belongs to our world and that interests me. The fact that it’s local is a big bonus; yes, there’s a big world out there but some fascinating things are going on in our immediate surroundings and I’d hate to miss them.

I have quoted at length, to give a taste of the novel’s quality. The work was published after van Ulzen submitted a portion to the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development and won, a fact also acknowledged in a gold seal on the novel’s cover. So, its publication genesis was in the realm of literary fiction and it bothers me deeply to think that with today’s publishing modus operandi of print, profit and pulp, works like Crowning Glory, which managed to sell 4,000 copies, possibly to annoyed and disappointed readers who expected those scissors on the cover to be used for cutting more than hair, just vanish. But, thanks to the internet, not entirely without a trace, and for that I’m grateful. It certainly raises many big questions that the literary community should be addressing in an era ruled by that ruthless overlord, the marketing monster.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 and has gathered dust on my shelf since it was a hot best seller. The multi award-winning novel was passed on to me by a reader who was not familiar with Atwood’s poetry, just as I was not acquainted with her prose, which, for me, is tarred by science fiction genre associations. Furthermore, the tome’s 650 page thickness, together with the back cover blurb describing a mysterious death and “an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal” covering 50 years, set against “the backdrop of twentieth-century history,” spelt potboiler to me. That smothered some of my curiosity about the quality of Atwood’s prose, because content has always been more important than form, to me, both in art and in life.

The novel is structured as two parallel narratives. One is the first-person account of her life’s story by the main character, Iris Chase, whose sister killed herself by driving her car of a bridge, just after World War II ended, leaving a manuscript of a novel that she had secretly penned. Iris has the work, called The Blind Assassin, published and it becomes a bestseller thanks to the fact that the family is from a socially-prominent Toronto background. This narrative also includes extracts of journalism, some real, some fabricated, both intended to support the story’s chronology and historic background.

The other narrative is portions of the sister’s novel. This reads like a diary in which yet other narratives, offered as fiction that could be categorised as fantasy/science fiction, are embedded. The layering is that of a story within a story within a story.

You are never in doubt that you are reading the writing of a master. It’s all clever enough and mildly intriguing because there is so much elaborately and obviously concocted story-line. Furthermore, you want to know what the plot upshot will be, since you have invested so much time wading through the clutter of distracting detail, as Atwood piles on the paragraphs as if the book will be sold by weight and she needs the money to pay off a massive debt to an underworld financier. You do find out, among other revelations, why the sister killed herself and even why the real novel is also called The Blind Assassin. It was, in the end, only a potboiler and in hindsight, for me, the most fascinating revelation came after the novel’s conclusion, where Atwood acknowledges the help of 17 researchers, apart from her “invaluable assistant”, and five “early readers”, among others.

The work is far removed from Atwood’s collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto OUP 1970), which was my introduction to her writing. This 64-page book, also offers a life story, set against a historic backdrop but it is produced by the poet on her own, not only writing the poems, but also designing the cover and making the collage illustrations. Aside from the poems, the only other text, an afterword, is a detailed account by Atwood of how the poems were ‘generated by a dream. I dreamt I was watching an opera I had written about Susanna Moodie…’ Atwood had heard of this 19th C Canadian pioneer but had never read her books; subsequently, when she did, they disappointed with their ‘discursive, ornamental’ anecdotal style.

Atwood connects with Moodie’s personality and creates a new account of her life and experiences, charting them through the speaker’s observations. We follow Moodie’s troubled relationship with the harsh frontier landscape, more menacing to the European immigrants than the bear that frightens their cattle. Moodie, the omni-sentient oracle, leads us through her history:

I, who had been erased

by fire, was crept in

upon by green


lucid a season)

In time the animals

arrived to inhabit me…
(from Departure from the Bush)

Atwood’s Moodie absorbs her physical environment, finally merging with it as an interred corps. Moodie reflects on her impending death:


I will prowl and slink

in crystal darkness among the stalactite roots, with new

formed plumage


gold and

Fiery green, my fingers

curved and scaled, my



eyes glowing
(from Wish: Metamorphosis to Heraldic Emblem)

Moodie’s cosmology of a powerful, all-embracing fecundity is offered as plainly as possible in poetry (perhaps it is possible because it is poetry?) in the concluding two poems:

god is not

the voice in the whirlwind

god is the whirlwind

at the last

judgement we will all be trees
(from Resurrection)

I am the old woman

sitting across from you on the bus,

Her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;

out of her eyes come secret

hatpins, destroying

the walls, the ceiling

Turn, look down:

there is no city;

this is the centre of a forest

your place is empty
(from A Bus Along St Clair: December)

The Journals of Susanna Moodie can be read in one easy sitting but gives you something to mull over for 35 years. The Blind Assassin takes days to read but it leaves you after 35 minutes. Only one snippet of the novel has stayed with me and that is the description of a woman’s garment frothing like billowing steam on hot tomato soup. The fabric must have been a warm-red chiffon. There were other bon mots moments, but most of them contrived aside from some pleasing descriptions of nature. The most engaging thing for me was the realism of Atwood’s depiction of her central character’s elderly self. It was old-age as felt from the inside. Atwood’s Moodie talks about the pull of gravity, about ‘balancing’ herself inside her ‘shrinking body.’ Her Iris Chase knows she is the shrinking body:

I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect – a stink of stale flesh and clouded, ageing pee. /Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step of a cliff. Each time I put a foot out, I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way under me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place./ Getting my clothes on helped. I am not at my best without scaffolding.

If only Atwood would write a novel about old age, that is something I would love to read.

Blazenka Brysha

Review of Crowning Glory: An old rock pig and a prim hairdresser grow up Rachel Buchanan

Something special from the master – Atwood reflects on the nature of being a literary writer today. A must read.