How To Be More Open-Minded And Read Comic Books

My last contract has finished and now I’m unemployed for the first time in forever. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS?! Yep. I can fill my days with literally anything that takes my fancy. A person with that amount of free time learns a thing or two about themselves pretty quick. Here’s mine:

1. If I am not contractually obligated to be somewhere before 1pm, I am incapable of getting out of bed before 1pm.

2. I am a huge geek.

The reason for point two is simple. In all this spare time, I’ve done nothing that you would consider especially productive. Except realise I’ve ignored the comic book medium for far too long.

So I’ve done my research, the clerks at every comic book store in my fair city are starting to recognise me, and the good news is this:

There is literally a whole world of new, engaging and amazing stories out there waiting for you, if you’re prepared to leave all of your preconceptions behind.

Pile them all up in the centre of a square blanket, add a few bricks for weight, tie the corners of the blanket together and toss the whole bundle in the nearest body of water. Being narrow-minded never did anybody any favours.

There, doesn’t that feel better? You should be excited, really, you should be. There are a lot of incredible narratives and characters and worlds at your fingertips now, just waiting for you to dive in.

But it’s a slippery slope, a winding labyrinth, a deep and dark rabbit hole. Most DC or Marvel comics have a thousand (not quite) incarnations and almost as many story arcs within each, and they often overlap, so you need to read one before you read the other, or maybe you don’t, and what if you don’t like it, can you pick a different starting point or are there spoilers in the one you’ve already chosen? What’s the difference between Ultimate Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man? Does it matter?

You’d be forgiven for quitting while you’re ahead, except you won’t, because now you’re more open-minded, right? Now you know that this will be worth it. Besides, there are rules to this. None more important than the Golden Rule.

Comic books aren’t all about superheroes.

If there’s a Silver Rule, it would have to be: The comics publishing industry is infinitely wider that DC and Marvel.

I can’t stress this enough. Not that it matters, because there are a slew of terrific narratives within the decades of superhero comic volumes lining shelves (and we’re being open-minded, remember?), but the days of buying a comic book meaning a choice between The Phantom and Superman are long gone. They’re so far gone it’s embarrassing.

Some of these, most people would’ve heard of. The Walking Dead, Neil Gaiman’s SandmanHellboy. But there’s more to it than that. A lot more.

Here’s an important third point (the Bronze Rule?): DC and Marvel aren’t just making superhero comics these days. They’re trying to get in on the markets cornered by top-quality indie publishers like Image or IDW by publishing more original content.

Before you decide you “don’t do” comics, here are five you need to read:

1. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (art).

It’s not fair of me to start here, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for setting you up for disappointment, because after you read the first issue of Image Comics and you realise comic books are incredible because they’re like a movie had a baby with a book, and you can’t believe it took you this long to give reading them a try, you’ll go out and look for more just like Saga. And you’re not going to find anything, because Saga is well and truly in a league of its own.

saga parents meet

It’s an epic space opera about Marko and Alana, who live on opposite sides of a wartorn part of the galaxy – she’s a soldier of the Landfall Caolition, on the universe’s largest planet, while he serves the forces of its only satellite moon, Wreath. When they have a baby together, the various powers that be are appalled at the unprecedented coupling and its potential for troop morale. Wreath hires various contract “freelancers” and Landfall charges Prince Robot IV, who has only just returned home from the war front, to track down and eliminate the young family. Narrating the whole affair is their daughter, Hazel.

The story sounds obvious enough, but Vaughan – an industry legend akin to The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman – is second to none when it comes to writing three-dimensional characters we can sympathise and empathise with. Plus, it’s hilarious. I laugh harder reading Saga than I do with any given episode of television. Oh, and there’s Fiona Staples’ beautiful art, which is beyond the limitations of my vocabulary.

2. Chew, by John Layman (writer/letterer) and Rob Guillory (art/colours)

chew cover

“Meet Tony Chu. Tony Chu is almost always hungry, and almost never eats. Here’s why:

Tony Chu is Cibopathic. That means he can take a bite of an apple, and get a feeling in his head about what tree it grew from […] Or he could eat a hamburger, and flash onto something else entirely.

Strangely enough, the only food Tony Chu can eat and not get a psychic sensation from is beets. Consequently, Tony Chu eats a lot of beets.”

So begins Chapter One of this multi-award-winning, extremely weird and super wonderful story about Philly PD cop-turned-FDA agent Chu, and his unlikely non-superpower. It’s absurd and awesome, one-third gritty cop drama, one-third satire, one-third horror flick. And there’s a laugh on every page.

chew funny

3. Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (art)y the last man

If you’ve read the above two and you still don’t think comic books can be taken seriously, at least read vol. 1 of the series that won Vaughan an Eisner Award for Best Writer.

The premise is simple but rich and involving. In the summer of 2002, a mysterious plague destroys everything with a Y chromosome – man, child and animal, erased from the planet in a so-called “gendercide”. Except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand, that is. The remaining 52 per cent of the world’s population – all female – are left in the catastrophic aftermath, while Yorick just wants to get to Australia and find his girlfriend, Beth. It sounds like the beginning of an awful sitcom, but Y: The Last Man is an intriguing and thought-provoking examination of society and politics, not to mention a fascinating feminist text.

The story concluded in 2008 after sixty critically-acclaimed issues released across six years.

4. Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction (writer) and David Aja (art)

hawkeye_2“WHAT?!” I hear you yell. “You said comic books weren’t all about superheroes!” Well cool your beans, because I did say that, and I’m sticking true to my word. You know why? Because Hawkeye? Not so super. And the team of Fraction and Aja have created the runaway hit nobody saw coming by revelling in that fact 100 per cent.

This is a bare-bones, laid-back and occasionally almost (almost) bland story about an imperfect, average Joe who can’t usually get through the day without pissing somebody off one way or another. The sticking point though is Clint Barton is a little more than ordinary. He’s an Avenger. Sometimes. But as we’re told in Issue #1, this is about what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. Specifically it’s about him trying to be a good guy to the public at large, and also about him trying to be a good mentor to Kate Bishop (who Marvel fans will know succeeds Barton as Hawkeye, eventually, in that part of the Marvel universe).

The only mission Barton’s concerned with is defending the tenants of his building from the Russian mobsters currently extorting them by, you know, buying it. Forcefully. The dynamic between the well-meaning Barton and infinitely more capable Bishop is reason alone to give this series a go, but this is also a solid lesson in how well the right minds can recreate a character you thought you knew from the ground up (starting to understand why there are so many versions of Spider-Man, now?).

 5. Maus, by Art Spiegelman (writer and art)

The other four are warm-ups; Maus is some serious territory. It’s probably a terrible introduction for somebody new to comics, in all fairness, but it’s also one of the most awarded, critically-acclaimed graphic novels of all time, and also one that demonstrates beautifully the power of the medium.

maus

Essentially, it’s Speigelman’s biography of his father, a Polish Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz by the Nazis. In Spiegelman’s rendering, the Nazis are depicted as cats and the Jews as mice. It’s a simple and devastating little book which in 1992 earned its creator an Eisner Award, Harvey Award, and Pulitzer Prize.

There you have it.

So what are you still here for? We both know you have some reading to catch up on…

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Six Degrees of (Book) Separation: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

We’ve all heard the expression “six degrees of separation” – the concept that any two people, places, things or events can be linked by just six steps.

I once watched an entertaining little indie documentary predicated on this phenomenon. In My Date With Drew, everyman Brian Herzlinger decides to pursue his lifelong Hollywood crush, none other than the wonderfully cool Drew Barrymore, for the sake of taking her out on one date. To do this, he has a little over $1,000, a handheld video camera and the convenience of living in Hollywood, where a surprising amount of people know – or know people or know – the object of his affection. The “six degrees” rule keeps him motivated; he’s always only four or five steps away from his goal, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. I won’t spoil the ending, but you definitely need to see this film.

Anyway, Mr Herzlinger’s not the only person to put this technique into use, and now Perth authors Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman have come up with a way for the thinkers and booklovers among us to put it to good use. And Annabel’s kindly brought myself and many other bloggers in on the action.

The idea’s simple, and author and fellow participant Natasha Lester explains it thusly on her blog:

“The first book they’ve chosen is Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. All you have to do is think about what other book Burial Rites reminds you of. There are no rules about what the link might be; it could be setting, character, title, where you were when you read the book, how the book made you feel etc. You have to do that 6 times, for each book you come up with along the chain. The fun of it is in seeing where you end up.”

I recently bought three new sets of bookshelves and reorganised about 80 per cent of my library, incorporating the many books I’ve amassed in recent months working for the Perth Writers Festival (an excellent job perk if ever there was one). So I have many titles swirling around in my head, which means this could go pretty much anywhere.

Here goes:

Burial Rites American1. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

It’s earned a slew of Australian and international awards, has recently landed on the Stella Prize shortlist, and earned the ridiculously young and talented author a record publishing deal for what is, if you can believe it, Hannah Kent’s debut novel.

I had the pleasure of working with Hannah in the lead-up to PWF (she was a guest and I, the program manager’s PA). She’ll probably be very embarrassed when I tell you she is legitimately one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Which leads me to the next book in the chain.

luminaries2. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

It’s impossible for me to not draw comparisons between Hannah and Ellie’s books (forgive the name-dropping snobbery – we’re not BFFs but it’s just weird to call people you’ve met/spoken with “Kent” and “Catton” in this context). Both are hugely successful works of historical fiction and both authors featured at PWF. Like Burial RitesThe Luminaries has a terrific jacket design and an incredibly evocative setting. Oh, and she wore the nicest freaking dress for her big speaking event.

3. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayowe need new names

I haven’t read this one yet but, as with The Luminaries, when I first cracked it open I was immediately sucked in until I’d made it to chapter two and realised I’d spent twenty minutes just… ahem… reading at my desk. The copy I have is an uncorrected bound proof of Bulawayo’s first draft and it’s dishearteningly amazing for something a professional editor hasn’t touched yet.

this_is_how_you_lose_her4. This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

Another book that’s been on my “to-read” list for an incredibly long time, and which I still regret leaving on the shelf after first reading the opening scenes in a bookstore and deciding I “already have enough to read at home” (I know, crazy talk). It’s a short story collection and I am in love with its title. (Bonus Book: The title reminds me of Jonathan Tropper’s hilarious and poignant family drama This Is Where I Leave You, in production as a film starring Jason Bateman and Tina Fey).

palo alto5. Palo Alto, by James Franco

A short story collection I have read, and which I liked infinitely more than I thought I would. I’ve only read it once, and it’s been a while, but I do remember there’s a high schooler having a relationship with a teacher, a slacker pothead carrying a gun around, drugs, sex, swearing, suicide, and a lot more drugs and sex. So, not my usual fare, and yet somehow I read it in one sitting. There was a vibrant immediacy to Franco’s style that appealed to me, and the momentum of each story was never breakneck, but enough to propel me into the next, and the next. And yes, it is that James Franco.

6. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornbyhigh fidelity

Here’s how my brain works: Palo Alto‘s being made into a movie (starring Franco, because that’s how he rolls), and in that movie is Emma Roberts, who’s pretty great and also stars in the recent release Adult World, alongside John Cusack. Cusack’s a favourite of mine also, and one of his best roles is as the protagonist of High Fidelity, the film adaptation of one of my Desert Island All-Time Top Five Favourite Books (people who’ve read it will know what I’m talking about). And here we are, in the hallowed halls of Hornby. HF is a frank and funny book about flawed humans, love and music, and I’ll never tire of it. It also contains one of my favourite quotes, “What came first, the music or the misery?… Am I miserable because I’m listening to pop music, or am I listening to pop music because I’m miserable?”

Which is how we get from Burial Rites to Nick Hornby. I never saw it coming. 

[While editing this post, I realised Junot Diaz’s praise for We Need New Names is quoted on the inside cover of my copy. Cue The X-Files theme.]

Everyone’s an expert: On taking (and giving) writing advice

Or, How I Named My Protagonist After One Week And Many Sleepless Nights.

Every writer living or dead has sought out advice, at some point or another, about their craft – the dos, the don’ts, the only-if-you-want-to-get-laughed-all-the-way-to-the-rejection-piles. I’m the first to admit I couldn’t be less experienced about writing and lord knows I’ve spent many an hour Googling things only writers will understand:

“how short is too short for a short story”

“are semicolons really the devil”

“what even is passive voice”

“famous rejection letters”

Etc.

But recently I’ve been especially prone to the myriad bloggers and webkeepers out there who each have their own take on things, from the pros and cons of unreliable narrators to the dos and don’ts of writing for a young adult audience (my conclusion on that last part is: let’s not patronise the world’s most patronised demographic by being stupid adults and assuming their preferences can be neatly defined in a grid, list, and/or template. Yep).

In my recent and slightly desperate traipses through writer blogs and pithy advice columns, I’ve learned something really important and stupidly obvious:

EVERYBODY HAS THEIR OWN THING THAT WORKS FOR THEM AND THAT’S FINE AND IF IT WORKS FOR YOU, TOO, THEN YIPPEE, BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH THEM COZ THEY’RE NOT AN EXPERT OR THE BOSS OF YOU.

(Except you, Chuck Wendig. You’re definitely my boss).

Example time.

What led me to my hair-pulling canvassing of what the blogosphere has to offer? I needed a name. For my character. And I couldn’t choose. So I Googled it.

Do you guys KNOW how many names there are in the universe? A freaking LOT. In no time, I had a list of possible candidates as long as my arm (this is not an exaggeration and my arms aren’t exactly short) and I was thinking of going all Layer Cake on this thing, because how on Earth am I supposed to choose just one?

The best part is, of all the many crises we neurotic writer-types can conjure up on a damn-near daily basis, the “choosing a name for my character” thing is definitely my most frequent dilemma.

My spiritual guide and much-maligned BFF, JB, will vouch for this. If that boy had a penny for every time I’ve thrown names at him to see which stick, he would’ve bought us dinner last night and not me. (Sidebar: his laptop, which he somehow kept alive for ten years, died last week. Go send him a follow or a kind comment to help ease his pain). I resumed my usual game last week when yet another protagonist I may or may not be developing for this (eek) had their own existential crisis. Is there a name for when a writer has to deal with a character’s existential crisis and reshape their identity? I feel like there ought to be.

In any case, to Google I went. I typed in “how to name your c…” and autofill did the rest:

Image

I love that “child” is fourth, after “car”. GOOD JOB HUMANS.

So I knew straight away that at least I’m not the first person to routinely beat their head against the unique identifier wall.

First Rule of Google: You’re not alone.

Then I proceeded to wade through the mire that is, well, the internet. Because:

Second Rule of Google: Everyone’s an expert.

The Wiki-How article wasn’t the first one to come up, thanks SEO, but I’m a sucker for a good (read: terrible) Wiki-How article, so that consumed my attention immediately. Here it is, and all things considered, you could be given worse advice. My favourite thing about it is the brackets: “(see also, the Desai family from Coronation Street)”. At which point I leapt out of my chair and declared, “British soap operas? How did I not think of these fountains of wisdom sooner?!”

But seriously, I started to suspect I was wasting my time with dodgy advice about halfway through (it’s Wikipedia, after all), but my tipping point was the ninth and final pearl of wisdom, in which we learn:

“If your character has a best friend, enemy, partner, sibling, etc who they spend a lot of time with, it is best not to have their names too similar, or the readers may confuse the names. Examples include Rachel/Robert, Mary/Martin, Sophie/Sam etc.”

I think my gut reaction was outrage. I’ve already had a little mini-rant about my feels on patronising a YA audience, but these feelings extend to any and every audience. Nobody likes to be patronised, to be talked-down to, to get the feeling Their Version and Your Version are different because one’s been filtered, edited, trimmed and neatly polished For Their Own Good. Screw that. You stick a kid in front of Adventure Time and they’ll love it just as much as an adult will (adults, you will) but for entirely different reasons, and isn’t that the awesome thing about what we do? That people will understand and interpret things at their own speed? Maybe one will hate it and the other like it but at least both have formed their own opinions based on the same version of the same thing. Better yet, maybe the kid will hate it now and love it in five year’s time. Scrubs, I’m looking at you.

Anyways, I’ve said before that I’m no expert (that’s the crux of this whole post, if I’m being too obtuse), but I like to go into a draft without thinking my audience might get confused if I give two completely different characters – of different genders – names beginning with the same letter. Maybe that’s just my pesky inexperience shining through again.

Also, it would be remiss of me not to include the ever-wonderful and hilarious Hank Green’s thoughts on How To Name Your Baby Properly, which obviously, is relevant. Hank is the brother of author John (who’s responsible for THIS) and they vlog to each other once a week since they live on different sides of the country. His post is in response to this post, in which I learned the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil was named Hymen Lipman. No, really.

Article number two the Google machine brought to my attention was the ever-reliable BabyNames.Com, weighing in on the topic of writers choosing character names as opposed to expectant mums looking for the perfect middle name – and this is actually perceptive of them, because:

Third Rule of Google: Baby name websites ARE character name websites. (My personal favourite is Nameberry).

So BabyNames.Com taught me that “exotic romance names are out”, which actually helped, because it meant I could nix Brittaeny Billingsley and Xander Humperdink and be two less in my list of candidates. I also learnt that the comments section on these kinds of websites are sometimes even better than the website itself, thanks to a lady who ended up naming her son Hildebrand because “Disney took Flynn” (that character’s real name turned out to be Eugene Fitzherbert, FYI. Clearly somebody didn’t watch the movie).

Third and last, and this is where my tipping point reached critical levels and I started thinking about writing this post, is this article, which suggested I name my character based on a certain theme. For example:

“A family with three sisters has the theme ‘spice.’ The girls’ names are Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon.”

I literally closed my laptop and walked away.

I’m not saying any of these articles (there are so many more) are full of bad advice. I’m saying, in a backwards kind of way, that when it comes to writing, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as Bad Advice, or Good Advice. You should probably employ common sense every once in a while, and I know I’ve heard many things from trusted friends and mentors that immediately strike me as an incredibly useful technique, but for the most part, I’d say there’s just Advice.

I’m grateful to have an internet and blogosphere chock full of writers with varying degrees of experience for me to turn to when I decide my character’s name no longer cuts the mustard and I get bogged down in pages of alternatives. I hope these people never stop posting about what they’ve learned so far, having done the hard yards I’m yet to do, knowing it might help their fellow writers to improve their game or crack that scene. But I also hope I, and every other writer out there, feels empowered enough to pick and choose which nuggets of wisdom they need to keep and treasure, and which they can safely let fall by the wayside without thinking it’s the difference between a million-dollar publishing deal and eternal obscurity.

I got my name decided in the end, but how? I did what I always do. Sweated over it, tried a thousand on that didn’t quite work, easily crossed off a few because I knew there was no way I’d be typing that twenty thousand times in a script, narrowed it down to ones I could think of nicknames for and paired a surname with a first name I wanted to use for reasons of metaphor, and voila. It wasn’t the most streamlined process in the world, but it worked.

The bottom line is, when it comes to writing, everyone’s an expert, and nobody is.

Oh, except Chuck Wendig. Chuck Wendig has something to say on the topic of characterisation, and I’m gonna go tattoo it all to my forehead.

————————————————————————–

Footnote: Here are some blogs by authors I have the good fortune of actually knowing, if vaguely. They’re all very talented women and writers, they do write ‘advice’ posts from time to time, and they are definitely worth listening to. That’s my advice.

Amanda Curtin

Annabel Smith

Natasha Lester

“Stitched together with good intentions”: Hello 2013. I’ve been expecting you.

One of my Facebook friends just posted this quote from Augusten Burroughs:

“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”

It struck me as appropriate.

After all, the start of a new year is all about good intentions, isn’t it?

I had them throughout 2012. They largely involved writing. Writing more of what I wanted to write, writing what I should try to write, writing not just for fun but for discipline. Making myself write even when I can’t think of anything I’d rather avoid more. On the whole, I can happily reflect that, at least for the last half of the year, I managed. The days when I can’t be bothered sitting at my laptop for a few hours in the evening – after a whole day in front of a computer screen at work – are few and far between anyway. But I’d gotten into the habit of letting the little voice in my head that reminds me how relaxing it is to watch TV win. Breaking the habit was almost impossible and I wasn’t completely successful, but I wasn’t a total failure, either.

I had more determination to submit pieces to various publications, too. I’d better not say how many because it corresponds with the amount of times I heard nothing or was stiffly rejected, but it was more frequently than ever before. Rejection sucks but it’s no worse than knowing you never gave yourself a chance in the first place.

With these two factors in mind – a slightly more disciplined approach to writing and a mildly more frequent rate of actually finishing small pieces to a submittable, if not perfect, standard – I now know where I fell short.

Reading.

Yep.

It amuses me how many people assume journalists and/or writers read anything and everything we can get our hands on.

WE DON’T.

Well, I certainly don’t.

The last book I read cover-to-cover was, I think, Simone Felice’s Black Jesus. It’s about a young soldier returned from Iraq after an accident rendered him blind, and how his story collides with that of a wayward, would-be ballerina named Gloria. I read it about a week after I read James Franco’s (yes, that James Franco) Palo Alto. I also loved that, in spite of myself. It’s a bloody awful and immensely concise collection of vaguely intertwined short stories about, mostly, a bunch of disturbed teenagers smoking a lot of pot and having a lot of weird sex. I couldn’t put it down and I still don’t know why; his writing style grabbed me by the throat and turned me into a gluttong for punishment.

See, I’m a picky reader.

I am also – and hear this on every level – incredibly slow. If you think you’re a slow reader, trust me, I’m worse.

It’s not because I’m totally thick (I think). I think it’s because I put too much emphasis on punctuation when I read, which I think is also the same reason I’m so picky with what I do read. I pause at commas and full stops and I never, ever skip words. If I’m reading a book, I commit. If it bores me – and I have a near-ADD certified attention span when it comes to books – I skim read. And the only thing I commit to more than reading is skim reading. It’s less like glancing over every other page and more like jumping to the last chapter and then working backwards to see what else I may or may not have missed.

My point is, I always have good intentions. I also have an insane amount of books cramming my shelves and a vast portion of them are unread. Every month or so I vow to not buy another tome until I’ve knocked a few off the To Read shelf. I last did that last week. And yesterday I bought the JRR Tolkien box set, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Life of Pi and The Great Gatsby (Books I Need To Read Before I See The Films, for those playing at home).

So 2013’s ridiculous resolutions feature, in top spot (right next to “Eat healthier”, AMIRIGHT), is “Read more”.

First order of business is joining the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ll probably write more about it soonish. On this blog, that is. Which I neglected last year. A lot. (Hi there, second New Year’s resolution).

The idea is to read at least six books by – GUESS – Australian women writers, and review four. There’s different options but that’s the one I went for. Six books in 12 months is ambitious for me. Six by female authors – I’ve realised I have a completely non-deliberate leaning to male authors – is going to take determination. The reviews though, if I get that far, will be fun.

Already on my list are these two:

– All That I Am, Anna Funder (of course)

– Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, Annabel Smith

Whether or not I manage it remains to be seen. But, you know, my intentions are pure.

Campbell Newman, $250,000, and the aspiring author

I’d like to begin with a hearty “DUDE, SERIOUSLY” that belies both my age and my complete inability to accurately express the level of outrage broiling up within me.

Come on, Campbell Newman. What were you thinking?

I realise you’re just one of I-don’t-kn0w-how-many politicians, advisors and such whose opinions and brow-furrowing would’ve influenced this decision, but I like to think you, and not some puppet master or non-existent concerned constituency, had the ability to make the final call. Hence, you and me have a problem.

For those fresh off the boat, Newman is Queensland’s brand-new Premier and one of his first acts of duty was canning the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Even as I write that, I realise I’ve conveyed the ludicrousness of this scenario – intended for a lengthy blog post – in one sentence.

Way to win hearts and minds, Cam! Can I get a “Hey-o!”?

 

^This guy.

 

Jibes aside, Newman’s actions come as a result of re-evaluating that pesky State budget and looking for areas in which to do some spring cleaning. The literature prize, totalling about $244,000 across 14 entry categories in 2011, was one of the first things to go. The collective sigh of aspiring and established Queensland – and Australian – authors can still be heard in the walkways of libraries and bookstores nationwide.

Open to novels published within the previous year (generally – and sometimes categories for unpublished writers feature), a State’s Premier’s awards are arguably its most prestigious annual literary event. It’s no Miles Franklin or Man Booker, but it certainly sees Australian writers celebrated and rewarded for their hard work. In 2002, Markus Zusak’s chronically under-appreciated novel When Dogs Cry won the YA category and Venero Armanno’s The volcano won the fiction category. Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Mark Tredinnick, Paul Jennings – all have taken home the Pineapple State’s prize for one work or another since its inception in 1999.

In a column in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Jane Sullivan vented her frustrations that Newman’s actions “legitimises the idea that not just literary prize funding but arts funding in general is a waste of government money”. She cited a depressing statistic from the Australian Society of Authors that indicated Aussie writers earn on average $11,000 a year from their pursuits. That $30,000 in prize money looks really good about now, and that’s the problem. Writers – the poor fools – have chosen to spend considerable time and energy on sitting at a desk, alone, in total silence, to stare at a computer screen and put words into sentences and mould those sentences into something someone actually cares about. I can’t say I’ve ever invested actual blood in any project, but there’s real sweat and tears involved. Unpublished as I am (except for you, dearest blog), I can still attest to the fact that writing is hard. Which is ironic, considering I’ve come to this particular field based on the realisation that I suck at everything else and writing is about the only thing left I can accomplish without having a hernia.

And writers rely on prizes, and grants.

Just think about that.

Writers love their craft so much they’re willing to stake an unreliable income on the chances of it succeeding. Willing to throw their work into the ring with hundreds of other, potentially much better or much worse pieces, on the really slim chance that they’ll then get paid a significant sum for their efforts. If they don’t – here’s the kicker – they keep going and try again.

I realise for every person holding a minute’s silence in memory of yet another piece of the arts sector thrown under a bus, there’s another who can’t believe the ridiculous funnelling of thousands of dollars into an elitist prize hadn’t been chopped off at the neck years ago. Like the money goes towards a bi-annual Tea Cosy knitting contest.

Well it doesn’t.

It’s more than that. It’s intellectual property. Expression. Creativity. Vibrant and tangible one second, subtle and fleeting the next, whether it’s being read to a classroom full of wide-eyed children or sought out by an aging scholar between dusty rows in a government building, a book is a tool. An investment, a weapon, a treasure, to be shared and loved and debated over and discarded and kept for years and years and years. The minute you start dissuading the people who create these precious things, make it less viable for them to  fund subsequent projects, is the minute their production slows. So you don’t get a state-of-the-art sports and recreation centre at the end of it. A hospital keeps on keeping on with a few hundred less rooms than it probably needs. Valid arguments, any sane person can admit that. But when we sacrifice books, we sacrifice more. Inspiration, wonder, laughter, satisfaction, compulsion, obsession and plain and simple joy. Forget Kindles and iPads; it’s people who think culling the expenditure of a mere $250,000 – small change in State budget terms – because it supports such a petty activity as writing who are bringing about the demise of the book.

If you become a writer for the money, you’re an idiot. Go study hard and be a lawyer. But if you get to the point where you feel you’re a writer enough to say you’re a writer, well, it’s too late for you. We lost causes can make ends meet somehow while chasing pipe dreams into the early hours of the morning, delusions of grandeur guiding the way.

Then a guy like Newman comes along and cuts off our arm by axing an avenue – a prestigious avenue, jam-packed with worthy contenders narrowing your chances of getting anything out of it, but an avenue nonetheless – of potential revenue. It sends a message. It tells me something. That I stay up until 1am weeknights bashing out the skeletal structure of a story I hope to one day share with at least a few hundred people, face the harsh reality that it will probably never see the light of day no matter what I do, maybe one day actually see the fruit of my loins end up on a shelf for someone to buy and then – ha! – end up on a revered State literature prize shortlist, and you don’t think I deserve to make a living out of it. 

I once read that in order to have a sufficient argument against something, you must be prepared to provide an alternative.

Well.

I DON’T HAVE ONE.

There’s plenty of funding bodies (the Australia Council for the Arts springs to mind) who are 100 per cent pro-creative endeavour, the heads of which probably think Campbell Newman is a fly in the ointment and his decision will go down as one of the stupidest and most unnecessary we’ve seen. But it doesn’t change the fact that Queensland’s cultural identity has a literature prize-shaped hole in its heart.

And between you, me, the recognised and unrecognised writers of Queensland and a nation of avid readers, thinkers and creatives, it’s undeniable that an alternative does exist. You have to want to find it, seek it, embrace it, Mr Newman. Or at least turn around and face the fact that you felled one hell of an inappropriate tree. If you don’t, you do something else. You set precedent. And a world without books isn’t one I want to live in any time soon.