Blazing Twilight, Steve Toltz and 10 books I intend to read soon…

So this post is primarily about the Melbourne Writers Festival, and the all too limited amount of time that I spent there. It did lead me to thinking about the books that sit forever unread on my bedside table, important enough to stay there, but not current enough to be a priority for work so I’ll wrap up with a list of what they are and why I think I need to read them at the end for anyone who cares.

This year I had the very exciting pleasure of being asked to be on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

A photo of me, mid rant, courtesy of the MWF site. Van Badham is at the front here with Kate Forsyth a little lost in the middle.

The panel was part of the schools program and was a friendly debate addressing theTwilight phenomenon and discussing whether or not it was fading.

Now, intentional or not, the teams had been divided into men and women. On the negative side, that is, thatTwilight is NOT fading were myself, Van Badham and Kate Forsyth. On the positive were our esteemed male counterparts; Ben Chandler, Jeff Sparrow and Glen (whose last name I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall and which does not actually appear on the program, but who is pictured below).

From the left: Jeff Sparrow, Glen (sorry!), and Ben Chandler

Now I do have to be honest here and say something a little controversial. I don’t love Twilight. I know. Sorry everyone.
I did read the first book and found the story generally compelling and addictive in the same way that most pop songs are. You know, you wouldn’t buy the album, but if the song comes on in the car you can’t help singing along. However, by the fourth book I was fed up, skipping forward just to find out what happened so that I could have some closure, but not really interested in what was going on in the story.
Having said that, the phenomenon surrounding the books is something that I couldn’t support more. What I love about books like Twilight is that they have boosted the once solitary activity of reading into the mainstream, into the popular culture, into the hands of the ‘cool’ crowd. Like never before, young adults are devouring series, talking about books and interacting with their favourite authors. And you know what? Even hating Twilight is a good thing. Because if you read it and thought it was rubbish, then you are that much more inspired to find something to read that is not.
People are reading on trams, at busstops, in sneaky coffee breaks at work. And although I did seem to push a few buttons when I suggested that younger readers were reading Twilight, it’s true. It certainly isn’t intended  for an audience of 8-10 year olds, but if they’re reading it, and talking about it, then surely they’re connecting with the very purpose of reading, which is to gain new experiences, to help us grow, and to transport us to another land.
For those of you who read my very first post on this blog, you will already know all the reasons that I thinkTwilight is worthwhile. And I don’t want to get off track in this post, which is really about the session overall.
I did love the debate that we had. It was heated and interesting and raised many valid points of view, as well as a few eyebrows. I would like to say that the boys were funny and charming and congratulate them on their win. For me, losing was entirely acceptable, because like any good debate, the point was to start a discussion, and judging from the heated audience responses, I think we can safely say that on that note, we were a massive success.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time, the money or the headspace to get to as many sessions as I would have liked at this years MWF. Recently though, I lent a good friend of mine my (as yet unread) copy of A Fraction of the Whole and she loved it so much that when I saw that Steve Toltz was going to be doing an in conversationsession at MWF I knew that we couldn’t miss it. For the record, I am now well into the book, and it is deserving of every bit of praise that it has received.

Steve Toltz was wonderfully candid. For someone who has skyrocketed from anonymity to the Booker shortlist and all of the attached fame, he was so warm and genuine, that I think I could have listened to him talk all night. Which explains why people are so willing to read such an epic book.

If you haven’t read A Fraction of the Whole do. You can read some samples here:

and I’m afraid if that doesn’t convince you to read it, then there is no hope for you.

Now again, there was no name for the lady who conducted the conversation on the MWF site. I know that she was an editor, but I was so enchanted by Steve that her name completely escaped my attention. She asked all the questions that I wanted to know though, and quite rightly describes the book as ‘relentlessly funny’ a description that I couldn’t agree with more. And for a book that weighs in at over 800 pages that amount of humour woven in to every page with such skill is quite a feat.

As a writer about to embark into the fairly daunting world of pitches and query letters, it was both reassuring and terrifying to hear that someone like Steve Toltz had received sixteen rejections before landing a publishing deal. And one of the things that really stayed with me from his conversation was the reminder that to write, you need to soak up as much knowledge as you can. Steve shared a wonderful quote which was that the only character that an author cannot write is an author better than himself. As writers, we can write fiction, but the more knowledge that we have behind us, the more expansive our writing will be.

So, the reason that this brings me to the pile of unread books on my bedside table is this. I have had an ARC of A Fraction of the Whole since before its publication. I knew it was good, I knew I wanted to read it. But I need to read so many books a week to stay up to date with my own reviews, and to keep my knowledge current for work, that all too often, the books that aren’t brand new, that I just want to read for my own enjoyment, get left by the wayside.

I’m trying to fix that. Starting with A Fraction of the Whole, these are the ten books that I will endeavor to read by this time next year. By then of course, I’m sure that fifty more will have taken their place, but it’s a start.

1. A Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz, (as above)
2. The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood (I need to shamefully admit here that I haven’t gotten to any Atwood yet, and I am quite desperate to honestly, plus I need to return this copy to the friend who lent it to me)
3. Perdido St Station China Mieville (and congratulations to China on winning the Hugo at this years World Con. I have read plenty of his work, but not to have read this seems like a gross oversight on my part, especially given my love of steam punk)
4.The Corrections Jonathan Franzen (I actually have a signed first edition of this. Aside from the fact that I know it will be good, it would be almost rude to own that and not have even read it.)
5. A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry
6. Dog Boy Eva Hornung (one of the new releases recently (ish) that has really grabbed my attention. I don’t know why, I’ll tell you when I’ve read it.)
7.The Maggot John Fowles
8. The Vintner’s Luck Elizabeth Knox (I’m told that it’s beautiful and a must read. I’ve been carrying around a copy in my handbag for about a month now, and I WILL get to it soon.)
9. Carter Beats the Devil Glen David Gold
10. A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole

There are no YA novels on there because I generally get to them pretty quickly because of work. Also, they are quicker to read. On that note, I will be posting a review of White Crow, Marcus Sedgwick’s new novel soon, and some brief thoughts on the 2010 Inky’s longlist.

3 thoughts on “Blazing Twilight, Steve Toltz and 10 books I intend to read soon…

  1. Bec, thanks so much for your blog. I’m glad I found it. I just read your review of Peggy Frew’s House of Sticks and searched for more “Australian female authors” via your tag but couldn’t find any.

    I started backtracking, read your piece on “genre”, then stopped at this one when I saw your “to be read” list.

    I’ve recently become involved in trying to find Australian women writers whose work I’ve overlooked, and am slowly becoming aware how reviews, festival appearances and publishers’ promotions are continuing to define what appears visible and available to someone like me on the look for what to read. The selection for next year’s Love2Read initiative is a case in point. What I’ve seen so far suggests that the lists are heavily dominated by male writers. Is that because there isn’t exceptional work by Australian woman writers out there? Or are they simply not getting the attention they deserve?

    When I continued my search by trawling through Australian publishers’ newsfeed on Facebook earlier this week, I found a similar gender bias. I wrote a rather cranky rant on the subject to which Sleepers editor Louise Swinn replied (Nov 4). I learned she actually put forward work by women for the Love2Read initiative that wasn’t selected: that was the reasons for the Sleepers’ newsfeed bias. I’m starting to wonder. Is this going to shape the reading prefernces of yet another generation, a list of “must reads” dominated by male writers? Let alone making it harder for women like myself just on the hunt for a good read by an Australian woman author we can relate to.

    When I saw your review of House of Sticks, I was thrilled, thinking here I might have found a talented, connected reviewer whose reviews I could feed into the new Australian Women’s Writers Facebook page… Then I saw that review was the only one – worse, that your “must read” list, too, was dominated by men. (Some of my favourite authors are male, by the way: this isn’t about being exclusive, just not favouring them.) You have one Australian woman author (and one Kiwi) on you list of eleven, if you include Sedgwick. I guess in your work you’re constrained by what the publishers give you, and I was happy to follow your links to the Penguin Teachers’ Corner and discover two YA authors, Nicole Muss and Alison Stewart, but what about your “must read” pile?

    I see you are also an aspiring writer, and you, too, are open-minded when it comes to genre – at least, perhaps, when it comes to fantasy and crime. Have you thought about the part gender and genre bias might play in your own prefernces when it comes to what you think you really ought to read? If your list of must reads is at all shaped by the books put forward by publishers’ promotions, existing reviews (or their lack) and the authors invited to festivals you attend, what are the implications if this sample is skewed from the start? And where will the readers who read your work go for their reading list?

    In this light, if I can persuade you to put Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy – or Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck: I’m not trying to make trans-Tasman distinctions – at the top of your list to be read and reviewed when you get the chance, I’d be very grateful. I myself haven’t read them and would love to know what you think. And I’d be very happy to link any of your reviews to the new Facebook page. A Handmaid’s Tale is brilliant, especially when you’re into genre bending, and it’s certainly worth reading for your own enjoyment and for what you can learn of the craft of writing. But Atwood has made her reputation. She isn’t being overlooked. It’s my suspicion that there are are a significant number of talented Australian women authors who are.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      You’re not alone in your feelings that the book industry, especially in Australia, is dominated by male authors. This issue, which has become prevalent this year, has been picked up by local female author Sophie Cunningham through her development of the Stella Prize (the Australian equivalent to the Orange). This prize will (hopefully) start to encourage female writers to sneak out from behind their curtains and perhaps begin to rebalance this gender inequality. You should also have a look at their committee page, as among the women involved are several other Australian authors and leaders in the publishing and literary fields. The prize itself has spawned a lot of debate about the necessity of a prize solely for women, and if you do a google seach on it you should find a multitude of articles worth reading. It is also worth having a look at the Meanjin Tournament of Books which pits Australian female authors against each other in a literary smackdown.

      In terms of my own reviewing, I should tell you that this blog (which I began over at blogspot in 2010) has been pretty neglected. I have spent the weekend shifting it to its current home at wordpress and moving over some of my more substantial reviews from the old blog. I’m open to any genre and any author and inspired by your post, am about to write a list of 10 must read Australian female authors, which I hope you will enjoy. At the time I put up my ‘must read’ list, it was dominated by men. And that will happen occasionally, but I looking at the (ever growing) pile next to my bedside now, I can see that the majority of books are actually female, so for me, for now the balance has shifted. It does depend sometimes on whats out there, but I agree that it’s necessary to develop a culture that is accepting of work by women so that in turn women feel that writing fiction is viable. I don’t think this gender balance exists as much in YA fiction, so although my work on that particular article for the Penguin teachers corner mentions only a few women, the majority of YA fiction that I read and review by Australians over at is by women.

      I actually did end up reading “Dog Boy”! And it was divine. As I said, my old blog became shamefully neglected and unfortunately it seems that “Dog Boy” got left behind. I’ll be blogging much more regularly now, so I’ll try to find my notes from that to write a review for you soon.

  2. Pingback: Australian Women who Write | first impressions

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