Genius?

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has [recently] raved about.

I have a few quick thoughts on this year’s MacArthur Fellowships over at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

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Putting a Finger on the Problem

At Spike: The Meanjin Blog, Jessica Au has some harsh words for the recent film adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began. Nostalgia for Marsden’s original series of books was what prompted her to see the film, she says, “despite my qualms about the trailer, which seemed stuck somewhere between Summer Bay and a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza.” After noting some of the key differences between the books and the film, she goes on to take issue with the differing degrees of violence displayed by the obscure forces that invade Australia on the page and the pan-Asian army that invades Australia on the screen: Continue reading Putting a Finger on the Problem

Critical Failure, Redux

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory. Continue reading Critical Failure, Redux

Critical Failure, Indeed

Last night, I spent some time at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to listen to a panel discussion about the current state of literary criticism in Australia. The discussion was part of the Centre’s ‘Critical Failure’ series of events, and, of course, the series name clearly gives away the drift of the conversation: the panellists unanimously concluded that the state of literary criticism in Australia is currently pretty dire. On the panel were the publishers Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford as well as the critics Peter Craven and Gideon Haigh. To some extent, the need for such a discussion was identified by Haigh earlier this year, when he published a brief but powerful opinion piece on the failure of Australian literary criticism in the upstart journal Kill Your DarlingsContinue reading Critical Failure, Indeed

A Writer’s Writer Speaks

In my estimation, Gerald Murnane is arguably Australia’s greatest living writer of fiction and probably one of the greatest currently at work anywhere in the world. Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of listening to Murnane speak at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Ordinarily, I would avoid such an event; I dislike the often superficial and self-congratulatory atmosphere of literary festivals. Late last year, however, I caught an ABC Radio interview with Murnane in which he discussed his most recent work of fiction, Barley Patch, and I was so struck by the unhesitating, unashamed, and yet entirely amiable way in which he discussed the nature of his fiction that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him speak in person. At the outset of that 2009 interview, the interviewer, Peter Mares, noted that Murnane has often been called “a writer’s writer” and he opened the interview by asking Murnane how he reacts to that designation. To his credit, Murnane took the opportunity to respond to that rather insipid question as a means of opening up a more sophisticated discussion of what he actually writes: Continue reading A Writer’s Writer Speaks