Thursday, 6 February 2014

Thoughts on Fiction, Moving and Cats

Now that I’m settled ( in a manner of speaking) I’m beginning to focus on other things besides where to put the bed and buying a smaller fridge, and direct my attention to more creative endeavours.  For instance: a blogger friend of mine has set me thinking about fiction again – why we read it and even more mysteriously perhaps why we try to write it.  In two recent posts, Whispering Gums has reviewed last year’s Man Booker prizewinner, the hefty and challenging The Luminaries, the second novel by Eleanor Catton, a young New Zealand writer.  The book is huge, complex, lavish with description, and informed throughout by fulsome, old-fashioned, nineteenth-century prose.  All of which suggests she might have had trouble even getting it published, but the fact is she did.  And though I haven’t yet read it, I’m thrilled to learn that Catton seems to have broken so many rules.   

My approach to writing and teaching it has been fairly open-minded.  Having struggled myself with words, I try when reviewing to take the writer’s side, to dig out her meaning and method and explicate these for her prospective readers.  In a way, then, I’m a deficient critic, indisposed to either skewering or slavering.  Nor can I see why a 700-800 word review shouldn’t convey at least some of the insight that comes with a more extensive critique, instead of serving as a puff for the author and publisher.  There are some excellent reviewers about, but there’s also a lot of pretension and downright ignorance on display, and that I find sad.  So much cant is on offer about what a book should or shouldn’t do.  Same with a story, or any piece of art.

My two biggest bugbears seem to have emerged from formalised writing courses.  These are the insistence on ‘showing not telling’ and the doctrine that ‘less is more’.  There’s merit in both of them, but they’re not the last words.  Some admirable fictions do a fair bit of telling, and while smooth, pared-back prose can be beautiful, more exuberant styles can be too.  The thing about art is that there are no rules, only expectations.  Audiences, readers, viewers get used to certain approaches, and when something different comes along it can be a challenge.  And now that publishing is more commerce than passion, there’s far less tolerance for risk-taking.  It’s possible, too, that the very reason why so many writers have taken to historical fiction is that it’s freed them from the prescriptions, and given them the chance to revel in the richness of our language.  The publishers of The Luminaries (Victoria University Press and Granta) were willing to risk its transgressions and look at the result - it’s won the English-reading world’s most prestigious literary prize and will be making them heaps of money.  Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend, not for archaic prose particularly, but greater stylistic, structural and thematic diversity. 

I began this post by suggesting that, having gone through the downsizing, then the relocation, life for me has more or less calmed down.  Physically this may be; mentally it’s different.  My concentration has vanished.  I seem to have the attention span of a two-year-old.  Having nibbled a bit on one topic, I buzz like a bee to the next.  So here are my thoughts on Facebook, which puzzles me still, though I’m more than happy to credit it for getting me through these grueling past months.  My Friends comprise a varied, informative, and passionate cybernetic community, and they’ve done a great job of dragging me out of myself and into the world again, keeping me abreast of politics and ideas, and afloat with art and humour.  I thank them one and all.  But there’s one funny thing about them, and that's their infatuation with cats.  Some are truly besotted and fill the news feed with lovely images of old cats, young cats, sleek ones, fluffy ones, sleeping cats and cats in splendid motion, and the inevitable basketfuls of kittens.  Though there’s the occasional dog, the pet of choice is overwhelmingly feline. 

The association of cats with wise women is a long and proud tradition, and think too of all those literary cats - Poe’s Pluto, Carroll’s Dinah, Marquis’s Mehitabel, to name just a few.  I’d even had a couple of cats in one of the books I’d written.  But I haven't had a relationship with a real cat for close on twenty years.  Then, oddly enough, it was when I was preparing for the move that I finally uncovered a set of photographs of my last cat, Horace.  I’d been hunting them out for years because I wanted to paint a portrait of him.  I had had many cats but Horace is the one I remember best, and here is how I came to have him.  My then teenage son Sam had a crush on a girl in his class and had maintained a febrile contact with her by engaging in long conversations about the kittens her cat was poised to deliver.  He promised to take one and she gave him the pick of the litter.  When the time came and the kittens were old enough we chose the prettiest one, a decision based in part on my atavistic, shockingly pre-feminist conviction that females of any species are easier to handle.  Sam, though, was commendably more clued up about our essential subversiveness and thus named the kitten Delilah.  But when we took Delilah to the vet for her injections he informed us she was a male, and the kitten was henceforth Horace.

Horace indeed was a beautiful kitten, with his glossy black coat and snowy white bib and paws, but, unknown to me, he was in for a troubled childhood.  Sam and his yobbo mates took to hurling him back and forth, treating him as the perfect softball, using overarm serves no less and laughing their fool heads off, while he prepared himself for these flights by curling himself up and hoping for the best.  Unsurprisingly, he grew into a damaged adult, digging his teeth and claws into anyone who came near him, and we started to call him Horrible Horace.  But he was, I believe to this day, an amazingly intelligent cat, his intelligence commensurate with his neuroticism, much as it is with many humans I’ve known.

The minute I sat down, Horace jumped on my lap, extended his claws for a purchase on my flesh and started biting.  Because they were uncovered, he went mostly for my hands, and his teeth were agonisingly sharp.  But the amazing part of all this is how easy it was to stop him.  I’ve read about training cats and what he did had nothing to do with the recommended complex system of rewards.  He actually understood what I said, responding immediately to my one simple command: ‘Horace, licks no bites.Right on cue then he would stop gnawing.  His rough little tongue poked out and he began licking me instead.  He never failed to act on this instruction and it put to rest all my ideas about cats being resistant to training.  I had three other cats at the time, a fluffy grey Norwegian forest cat and another black-and-white Egyptian tom, both belonging to my daughter, and a tortoiseshell who wandered off not long after we moved house.  But Horace and Cooper and the Norwegian stayed put and got along just fine.  Horace was no longer horrible and lived up to his promise as a kitten – as beautiful a cat as they come.

Sorry to say, a man joined the household and he was allergic to cats.  We accommodated this by putting the cats’ beds in the laundry and eventually out in the shed.  Only Tiny, the lady Norwegian, would stand for this; both Cooper and Horace absconded, taking up residence somewhere in the bush on Black Mountain with Canberra North's other feral felines, wreaking havoc on the bird and frog populations.  I was heartbroken and guilty, of course, and should have never forgiven my housemate.  But reader, I married the man, and haven't had a cat, or a dog for that matter, since.  That was the better part of two decades ago, and may be the reason why I quickly pass over my Facebook Friends’ cats, and move on to their political posts as fast as I can.

That said, does anyone out there know if, the astrological Leo aside, there happens to be a cat or two prowling though The Luminaries' 834 pages? 


  1. Another terrific post, Sara. With regard to the freedoms offered by historical fiction, this is is exactly what a cross-section of British writers said when they were interviewed some time back - that historical fiction gave them the freedom to write in longer sentences and more complex prose. A blogger friend of mine has recently posted about 'Creative Writing Rules that we can do without'. You might like to check it out. (Gert Loveday is the name.) What puzzles me is how and why these rules came to be established in the first place. Like you, I've taught creative writing, and I wouldn't have dreamt of imposing, or even suggesting them.

  2. Can't pinpoint exactly the provenance of these rules but I've come across them in reviews and even in publishers' and agents' feedback. I sometimes feel quite the wimp when comparing myself (which I inevitably do) with other critics and reviewers who have such decided opinions and preferences. I do have my preferences in fiction - chick lit, for one, no matter how well written tends to bore me to near extinction - it could be an age thing, but I even had trouble with Austen when I was a girl because of it. And very little sci-fi excites me, although I did like Bradbury and Ursula Guin very much. But a reader or reviewer needs to be open about these prejudices I think, and be willing to transcend them when the quality of writing demands it.

  3. Great post Sara ... I do wish I could get email notification of your posting. I've had a busy start to the year and so haven't come to check up on you, but I thought you must surely have been settled by now! I like your point about there being no rules, only exceptions. The idea that historical fiction can free writers from modern rules is an interesting one. The question is, does it just mire them in old rules? It's an intriguing thing to see reviews of historical fiction and discussions of whether the writing has captured the era, or captured its style. Does it have to be in the era's style? I don't think so, but historical fiction sure gets people talking about whether they do or don't, do it well or badly, etc, none of which in the end are the important questions are they?

    But, how could you not like Jane Austen. She's not chicklit but a very cluey observer of humanity. I love her!

  4. Thanks, Sue. I'm trying to address how to upgrade the website so notifications can be sent out but at the moment it's slipped off the radar. Having settled after the move I'm now facing a hip replacement months before I'd expected. April 2 is the date and it's amazing all that has to be done. And the recovery time afterwards. So I'm glad I checked in and found this comment. But I'm also a little shell-shocked and forgot completely when I said I didn't like Jane Austen. It's true that when I first came here and was introduced to her at Sydney uni I found her concerns puzzling - I guess you could call them chicklit concerns. Maybe it's in an earlier blog? For me, once something's written down it tends to be consigned to oblivion but I do recall saying something along those lines in a SMH review. So, do I like her or don't I? I guess I do now but not I confess as much as the modernists. Will try to go back and read her. Too many people whose opinions I respect do adore her - one I know reads her again and again each year. Maybe something for the hospital and rehab afterwards!

  5. Poor you re hip replacement. Hope it all goes well Sara. Jane Austen could be good to read during your rehab. I'd love to hear whether you see her differently. For many of us her concerns are often feminist. Many of her heroines NEED to marry or they risk a difficult life. Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters is a good example but she refused marriage to a man she could not love or respect, taking a big risk. Her older friend Charlotte could not afford that risk so accepted that man. The characters in Sense and sensibility were in trouble financially after their father and husband died, pretty much as Jane, her mother and sister were. She barely wrote for several years and the suspicion is it was because their lives were precarious after her father died. She and her sister didn't marry and had little income. Her mother had a small income. They were pretty much at the mercy of family. Read Austen in the light of commentary on women and society, with an understanding of her society, and you might see her differently?? With apologies for the rant!