Tag Archives: editing

Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)

IMG_1330I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.

For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.

Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:

The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.

In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.

He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.

There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)

The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:

a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’

Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:

The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.

After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.

This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

1nwAlain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Scary sign

Seen in the Marrickville Metro:

True, that’s what I saw! Nicabate supporting someone’s suicide pledge! What I saw when I looked again, and what was in this photo before I took to it with the eraser tool, was ‘STOP SMOKING DAY’ after ‘WORLD’. How useful a comma would have been after “QUIT’!



LoSoRhyMo #7: Easier than citrus fruit

mccardey asked for a sonnet about feral apostrophes. What mccardey asks for, mccardey sometimes gets.

Sonnet 7: Lines 5 & 10 dont need any more punctuation to make sense, nor does this title
O hail, thou blithe apostrophe
perhaps the most dispensable
of punctuation marks. To thee
I sing, no ode, but sensible
to commenters demand, a sonnet.
What blackboard hath not thee upon it?
Bean’s, tangerine’s and door alarm’s!
I’ll never live down at The Arm’s.
My not-so-smart phone changes its
to it’s. Oh, what I learned at schools
now shrunk to arbitrary rules.
It must be time to call it quits:
though I have loved you, dearest punct-
-uation mark, please go defunct.

LoSoRhyMo #2: I couldn’t find a way to include navel in the sonnet itself

Encouraged by my commenters, I’m taking a break from work to write about work and keep up my sonnet quota, though I suspect that beyond the rhyme scheme and the correct number of lines this hardly qualifies as a sonnet:

Sonnet 2: How many A’s in ‘nav*l’?
Oh spare line editors a thought
who wield blue pencils for a crust
(though, since our kind have mostly bought
PCs or Macs on which we must
track changes, spellcheck, search/replace,
and plumb the depths of cyberspace
to verify a quote’s complete,
blue pencils are now obsolete).
We catch apostrophes that stray,
keep minuscule to just one I.
Two Cs in ‘practised’ make us cry
(unless we’re from the USA).
We care for commas, fix each error,
then make new ones – our greatest terror.

For Nicola

What better way to acknowledge and welcome editorabbit, cranky pedant and rabbit lover, to the blogosphere than to share a couple of images from the World That Gets By Without Editors.

This is from King Street South in Newtown. It repeats its two-A’d message in an endless animated loop.20111019-122443.jpg

And I have wanted to take a photo of this sign for a long time. It’s one of three at the corner of Salisbury Road and Australia Street in Camperdown. Two have this charming variant spelling.

SO welcome, editorabbit. The world is so full of a number of such things. I look forward to seeing many more on your site.

By Swapna Dutta

Swapna Dutta and Geeta Vadhera, The Sun Fairies (National Book Trust, India 1994, 2001)
Swapna Dutta, Plays from India, illustrated by Baraan Ijlal (Rupa & Co 2003)
Swapna Dutta, Folk Tales of West Bengal , illustrated by Neeta Gangopadhya (Children’s Book Trust 2009)
Sucitrā Bhaṭṭācārya, The Arakiel Diamond, translated by Swapna Dutta and illustrated by Agantuk (Ponytale Books 2011)

My friend Swapna Dutta is a writer, translator and editor, mainly of children’s literature, who lives in Bangalore, in southern India. The School Magazine published some of her stories when I was editor, and she and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. Swapna mentioned in a recent email that she had translated a children’s book, The Arakiel Diamond, from Bengali into English, and asked if I’d like a copy. Of course I was interested, and a couple of days later it arrived in my letter box, with three other books. It’s been a treat and an education to read all four.

The Sun Fairies is a tiny picture book that plays around with science and fantasy. That is to say, it’s a fanciful account of the origin of clouds – some fairies who live in the sun build castles in the sky so it won’t be so bare and empty – that ends up being a decorative but accurate account of how the water cycle works: the cloud castles are made from water, air and dust, and when they get too heavy they fall to the earth as water. The fairies have discovered ‘a never-ending game’. The illustrations, by Geeta Vadhera, are fabulous. I see from the Internet that Ms Vadhera has gone on to international renown. This may be her only children’s book.

In some ways each of the other books is a work of translation. In Plays from India three episodes from Indian history are shaped into dramas suitable for performance by school students. In my ignorance I don’t know whether the stories would be familiar to most Indian students, so I can’t tell whether the history or the theatre is the main point. I was interested in both.

Folk Tales of West Bengal retells sixteen tales. Swapna has an article at papertigers from which I learned that what the Grimms were for Germany, and Moe & Asbjørnsen for Norway, the imposingly named Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar was for what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. At least some of the tales here were collected by him in the first decades of last century. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has entered the woods of Re-enchantment, there’s a lot in these stories that’s familiar to a reader brought up on European-origin fairy stories: kings and princesses, talking animals, metamorphoses, riddles, lost and found children, supernatural beings who reward the humble and punish the greedy. There’s also a lot that’s different: the heroine of the first story, for instance, is not a seventh child but a seventh wife. This blending of familiar and unfamiliar makes for a delightful read.

The Arakiel Diamond is the only book in my swag that is not Swapna’s original work. It’s a detective story for young readers, one of a series featuring a Bengali housewife and her niece. A wealthy man dies. His most precious possession, the eponymous diamond, has gone missing, and almost everyone in his household – and there are many – has had motive and opportunity to steal it. The plot has exactly the twists you’d expect, but the detectives’ relationship and the details of their domestic life are well captured, and I learned a lot about the Armenian community in Calcutta, in a way that reminds me of grown-up detective writers (Sarah Paretsky comes to mind) who take us to a new subculture in each novel.

The four books had me reflecting on multiculturalism in children’s literature. We used to make fun of the way US children’s publishers, apparently believing that their intended readers would shrink from anything not immediately recognisable as of the US, would re-edit books from elsewhere in the English-speaking world to remove unsightly exotica. They weren’t just wanting a world where British characters spend dollars and cents, or Australians walk on a pavement, weird as such a world might be. I remember hearing of a New Zealand novel whose publisher suggested the book’s Maori issues might be more accessible to US children if the setting was changed to California – that author held firm and the book still found readers, even got made into a movie.

I wish now to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a kettle to the US publishers’ pot. Though I enjoyed the slight cultural disorientation I felt as I read these books, I caught myself thinking young readers would be put off by it. To make the books accessible to Australian 11-year olds, the unexamined internal argument went, you’d have to do something about lakh and crorelunghi, salwar shameez and rakhi, not to mention the nitty-gritties of the game of chess or a casual use of thrice in conversation. On reflection, I think that argument profoundly misunderstands how young people read. The only thing that universally distinguishes young from adult readers is that the young ones are younger. One result of this is that they know they don’t know everything about the world, and mostly when they read there are words they don’t recognise but have to guess from the context. (I loved and understood pulverise and invulnerable in Superman comics long before I could define them.) So you might not know what a lunghi is, but the context tells you it’s an article of clothing, and there’s even an illustration to help. Likewise, lakh and crore are obviously big numbers, and that’s all you need to know. As I remember back to my own childhood reading, I think such things would have added spice to the book: if I was young now, I might even have fun googling them. As for nitty-gritties and thrice, I do think we can trust young readers to recognise when a word or a turn of phrase belongs to a different place. (Both my sons say zed in spite of seeing quite a lot of Sesame Street when young.)

Heat death … resurrection not ruled out *UPDATED*

Ivor Indyk (ed.), Heat 24: That’s it, for now … (Giramondo January 2011)

After 14 years, Heat is to appear no more in book form. In this final issue Ivor Indyk, the editor and publisher, departs from his usual practice and speaks to us, explaining the reasons for his decision and sketching some possibilities for an electronic afterlife. (He spoke again to Ramona Koval on the Book Show.) The sad economic reality is that as a 240 page book, Heat is a monster to produce several times a year and then to distribute and warehouse. The community of people who are glad of its existence is much larger than the journal’s market – the people who buy it, and so contribute to its viability. As I’ve subscribed for ten years and written blog entries (I don’t really think of them as reviews), I have a twinge of smug virtue mixed with my sorrow: like, ‘It’s not my fault!’ I don’t know that I’ve ever felt part of a Heat community – too middlebrow, too whitebread, too shy – but it hasn’t been a purely economic relationship. I’ll miss this regular dose of austere high culture, and emergent/experimental/cosmopolitan writing.

Some of the culture in this final issue is incontestably high. Adrian Martin’s article, ‘Devastation’, after a wonderful anecdote about a working class man’s response to Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, goes on to discuss the films of Maurice Pialat. I’m a keen and frequent filmgoer, but I had to check with Google to be sure the article wasn’t a spoof and Pialat a comic invention – an archetypally grim French auteur whom Martin praises for daring to have sitting and standing characters in the same shot, and compares to a number of other auteurs I hadn’t heard of. It’s not a spoof: it’s the kind of article that sheds enough light on its subject to reveal the dark vastness of its reader’s ignorance. By way of  contrast, Andrew Riemer’s brilliantly erudite ‘Four Glimpses of the Zeitgeist’ takes one gently by the hand and illuminates a web of connections joining Freud, Mahler, Riemer’s ancestors, conductor Bruno Walter, His Master’s Voice records, Hitler, playwright Thomas Bernhard and others, all converging in a Viennese theatre in 2010. Jeffrey Poacher’s reflection on the poetry of Peter Porter , who died last year, is likewise kind to general readers without, I hope, boring those who know Porter’s poetry well.

Cosmopolitanism is alive and well, particularly n Andreas Campomar’s ‘Uruguay Made Me’, a discussion of Eduardo Galeano in the context of his native Uruguay that makes me want – need – to read Galeano.

There’s plenty of emerging/experimental work too, mainly in the poetry. I was happy to see two typographically adventurous poems by Patrick Jones, who commented critically on this blog a while back.

But I don’t want to get hung up on classification. There’s a terrific poem by Adam Aitken dedicated to Susan Schultz – both Adam and Susan have graced my comments section recently. Ali Alizadeh and Jennifer Maiden are in fine form. Alan Wearne does some Gilbertian editorialising on the current move to form an Australian peak industry body for poetry. Amanda Simons interviews Antigone Kefala on her writing practice: Kefala says that, for her, writing and speaking are two completely different forms, and it’s delightful to encounter the conversational Antigone here alongside two characteristically non-conversational poems (there’s that austere high culture again).

I was struck by two examples of things a book you hold in your hand can do that a boundless (the word is from Ivor Indyk’s editorial) electronic creation can’t. In Nicholas Jose’s ‘What Love Tells Me’ a recently widowed man and his young son attend a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony where the ‘blasting and pummelling and smashing’ music opens them up to emotional resolution and communication. The story is moving in its own right, but it gains an extra fizz from the fact that 150 pages earlier Andrew Riemer has been telling us something of what Mahler’s music (though not this precise symphony) meant at the time it was written. In my mind at least, that mental connection is made possible by the weight of the book in my hand

The other moment is a theatrical coup in Gillian Mears’ ‘Fairy Death’. This memoir begins with a title page: a right-hand page that’s blank except for the title and a brief note on the author. When you turn over, expecting the story to begin on the verso, you find instead a striking image of what seems to be a dress-shop mannequin with a crack or join around its middle, arranged on a bed and photographed from above. The figure’s face makes you realise that it’s actually a live, extraordinarily thin woman, that what looked like a join is a string tied around her waist and attached to what you now recognise as a red balloon in the photo’s foreground. The photo, taken by Vincent Lord Long, is of the author, and her mannequin-like thinness is the result of advanced multiple sclerosis. The article is in part an account of how it came to be taken. Though the memoir is astonishingly powerful, addressing (with what in another context would be Way Too Much Information) the effects of MS on the author’s sexuality, the act of turning the first page onto that image creates extraordinary poignancy – which I don’t believe could happen in an electronic form.

One perhaps minor advantage of ceasing to exist as a physical object is that proofreading and even copy editing can continue after publication. Heat 24 is far from egregious in that department – apart from a miniscule (which is a special case as the Microsoft spellchecker ignorantly allows it), I was plunged into confusion and irritation by only one editing error, which I won’t bore you with. It looks as if the presumably underpaid copy editor had enough time and/or other resource to do an excellent job on this issue, so he can go out with his head held high.

Just to be half clever, here’s the last stanza of John Shaw Neilson’s ‘The Poor Poor Country’, slightly altered:

The New Year came with Heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

Update 1 March 2011:

Over at Adam in (), Adam Aitken was kind enough to link to this page, and he asked me a question. I tried three times to respond in his comments section but for some reason my comments wouldn’t stick, so I’ll have go here.


Jonathan, I don’t know why you see yourself as “whitebread”. Are HEAT writers “brownbread”? I won’t miss the so-called austerity of HEAT, as I feel on the contrary that HEAT would sometimes verge on the too rich, too dense side of things (by virtue of each issue being such a fat book).

Well, Adam, I’m not sure where I picked up the term ‘whitebread’, but my (now former) suburb, Annandale, got described that way by some of my more hip friends. They meant that the people of the suburb were the kind who ate only white, preferably sliced and packaged bread, remaining ignorant of or uninterested in the existence of pumpernickel, sourdough, ciabatta and challah, let alone pita, roti and naan. So my implication was Heat writers (and anyone else who belongs to its community) can come from anywhere in that vast world of different breads (quite a few of which are actually white, come to think of it).  I have never read an issue of Heat without having my horizons extended, and I was amusing myself by saying that in a self-deprecatory way.

I agree with you on the richness and density of Heat. It’s been admirably austere in the sense that it would never have given us a review of the latest Oprah recommendation or blockbuster movie, and in a different way I’ve thought of Ivor Indyk’s editorial silence as austere. In this final issue he speaks to us, but presents it as asking our indulgence. I for one would have happily indulged him in this way many times over.

End of update

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ […] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.

Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954,carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).


Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Not a grocer’s apostrophe in sight

Have a look at this sign in a cake shop in Norton Street Plaza, Leichhardt. Sam Cavallaro probably feels he has crafted a memorable slogan. Clearly he has saved quite a bit of money by not employing a copy writer or an editor. What I love is the way it refuses to yield up a clear meaning. The dollar may lose its value with inflation, but these cakes are good even when they’re stale? No, that can’t be it. Perhaps: our cakes may seem expensive, but you’ll stop worrying about the cost when you actually eat them? But surely that isn’t it either. I know we’re not meant to scrutinise it like this, but honestly it’s not derision I feel but a kind of awe at its koan-ishness.