The Australian Flannery O'Connor(s)
One of the many, many things I love about Flannery O’Connor was her way of downplaying everything using a blend of sardonic humour that shows a rare understanding of the world’s absurdities. Her wry, airily cynical statements read like something Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might utter as he contemplates the essential tedium of the Universe. I suspect O’Connor and Douglas Adams would have got along terrifically had they ever met. Sadly, O’Connor died of lupus in 1964, aged only thirty-nine, after struggling against the disease for fourteen years, a bad loss for literature.
At the age of six O’Connor appeared in a Pathé newsreel with her trained pet chicken, images that were shown all around the United States in movie theatres. ‘When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.’ Damn if that’s not exactly the sort of line Adams would write.
I was reminded of O’Connor three times this past week. An Australian publisher I know is currently in the United States and he had the chance to get an early read of Tony Birch’s upcoming McSweeney’s story, ‘The Promise’. He emailed me to say that he thought it was not only the best story Birch had ever written, but that it was the closest he had seen any male Australian writer come to Flannery O’Connor. To give a little context to this anecdote, McSweeney’s forty-first issue is due out on July 26th and is the first time the popular American quarterly has published fiction by Australian writers. Chloe Hooper has appeared twice already in Dave Eggers’s literary journal, with early chapters of The Tall Man, but no Australian fiction has ever made it into their pages. This will be remedied in the next issue, which has a portfolio of four stories written by Indigenous Australians—Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and newcomer Ellen van Neerven-Currie.
The stories are electric, representing the cutting edge of Australian fiction, and are certain to set the standard for contemporary Aussie writing that many young writers will be aspiring to. I’ll touch more on the issue in a later post (confession: I gathered submissions from Indigenous writers for the issue, presented them to McSweeney’s for consideration, sat back and enjoyed the effusive emails. I have also written a brief introduction to the chosen stories).
O’Connor came up again when another Australian writer I know was compared to her, in relation to a second American breakthrough. Josephine Rowe, whose short story collection Tarcutta Wake is due out through UQP in July, has just had a piece of short fiction accepted for publication by the Harvard Review, making her only the sixth Australian ever to appear in the journal (the others are David Francis, Les Murray, David Sornig, Chris Wallace-Crabb and Rohan Wilson—Nam Le is their fiction editor) and in a tremendous coup, the first Australian woman. This follows Rowe’s recent publication in the Iowa Review, a heartening sign that a new cadre of very talented Australian short fiction writers are making inroads on the American literary scene. The comparison to O’Connor is apt with Rowe—read O’Connor’s 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find then try Rowe’s How A Moth Becomes A Boat. It doesn’t take long to see the two writers are cut from the same cloth.
Incidentally, Birch and Rowe currently teach creative writing at Melbourne University. Future Australian talent would seem to be in the finest of hands.
The third reminder of O’Connor I had this week was thanks to Open Culture, who posted a link to audio of the writer reading the disturbing title story to A Good Man is Hard to Find aloud at Vanderbilt University in 1959. This is a wonder to listen to, if only to hear O’Connor read the killer closing lines.
[Editor’s note: It seems Cate Kennedy had a short story ‘Flexion’ published in the Harvard Review in 2008, meaning Josephine Rowe is the second Australian woman to be featured in their pages. Thanks to Aviva Tuffield for the tip.]
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
12 Jul 12 at 15:23
It’s always heartening to see writers enjoying success, but honestly, let’s have more discussion about why it means so much for Australians to ‘crack’ the US. It seems faint praise of Tony Birch indeed that he gets to be our nation’s ‘answer’ to an American writer.
I really recommend Sam Twyford-Moore’s terrific article about our cultural cringe in, ironically, the LA Review of Books. I LOLd when I read the line, “Like do you guys get how hard we are trying to impress you?”...
12 Jul 12 at 15:47
That’s a fairly negative response to a positive post, Mel. These writers aren’t exactly ‘cracking’ the US – their work is merely being recognised as good enough to find publication in the pages of US lit journals that are notoriously hard to get into, and that should be celebrated. The first Australian woman published in the Harvard Review? That deserves a cheer and a round of applause, doesn’t it? Would you rather they weren’t published overseas? Neither Tony Birch nor Josephine Rowe are trying super hard to impress anyone – they’re just very good at what they do.
As to what it means for an Australian writer to ‘crack’ the US – I imagine it means a shot at a successful career in the world beyond these shores, where book sales are very low and writers have to work lots of other jobs to survive. I wouldn’t begrudge that to anyone....
12 Jul 12 at 16:27
Sorry, second Australian woman in the Harvard Review. Still, yay!...
12 Jul 12 at 16:41
I don’t think Australian authors need to be validated by US publication, but I also don’t think being published in the States, being brought to a massive audience, receiving the financial rewards and career opportunities that such a publication brings, can really be a bad thing.
I don’t see it as a question of being validated by the US, so much as a chance for unquestionable Australian talent to be recognised by the broadest possible audience....
12 Jul 12 at 16:54
Oh, I’m totally not being negative or having a go at the writers mentioned, and I do get that the size of the US audience makes publication there both pragmatic and prestigious for writers.
But I think I can congratulate Tony, Josephine and anyone else while still critiquing a wider cultural cringe. The ‘we’ in Sam’s quote is Australian literary culture generally, which I really do think has an enormous amount invested in being noticed in America – not just economically, but also in terms of the praise and media coverage we offer local writers once they’ve been published or praised in the US....
12 Jul 12 at 17:20
Yes, I was baffled that Mischa Merz had to take her new boxing book to the US to secure publication, and now it’s finally coming out here, though that maybe speaks to the popularity of women’s boxing in America over its status here. Are there other examples apart from the ones Sam cites? To be fair, it’s a pretty small populace and scene here so good books will hit the ceiling pretty quickly and almost inevitably get noticed o/s. It’s when Aussies get published first in the US that matters turn a bit squiffy, you’re right....
12 Jul 12 at 18:34
Some good points made in this article, Chris. I’ve always been a bit surprised that more Australian writers (specifically, poets) don’t publish in US (and UK, and beyond) magazines and journals. Sure, there are very good publications in Australia (including some top shelf ezines), but once you’ve published in all or most of the major places a few times the pool starts to seem a little shallow. Seeing your work alongside a whole new range of writers is extremely satisfying. In addition, the ease of submitting to many overseas journals is a bonus – many accept emails and increasingly online submission managers are used.
I don’t think it’s a matter of cultural cringe at all – more a desire to expand your exposure and readership. I’d encourage writers to look beyond Iowa Review and Harvard Review, too – Jeff Barh’s comprehensive website is a great place to start. http://www.jefferybahr.com/Publications/PubRankings.asp...