Monday, November 17, 2003

Gloat of the Week

Christopher Pearson was a happy little vegemite on Saturday, and was all too willing to share his happiness with readers of the Weekend Oz. Recent events in the world of Oz Lit have brought him the sort of unalloyed happiness that demands to be shared with the whole world. After a brief historical survey of joyful literary events of the past, like the Ern Malley affair, Christopher starts his main story by introducing critic Peter Craven:

The most celebrated examples of the review as theatre-of-cruelty have come from Peter Craven. Craven is a former editor of Scripsi, a long standing rival of mine as a dispenser of literary patronage also a publisher/entrepreneur and a reviewer of distinction. He's feared and cultivated, by younger writers especially, bewcause at his best he's forensic, compelling in argument and capable of generosity to writers with whom one wouldn't expect him to have much sympathy.

If a first rate critic's aim is to be believed, loved and feared in roughly equal measure, Craven is one of our finest. There's no one I'd rather read on Martin Amis, Irish fiction ... He's often outstanding on film too ... and one of the few local poetry reviewers who doesn't have a tin ear.

Imagine falling from favour with such a protector ...

This is the ugly fate which has befallen writer Elliot Perlman:

The giddy rise in Perlman's stocks as a writer is hard for me to understand, except in terms of the author's attractive personality and oppressively politically correct views. Interviewed by the Good Weekend in August this year, he hesitated when asked if he missed Australia: "I'm not homesick but I have such an affection for the country, it's like a member of your family - no one can make you angrier."

Obviously, someone like Perlman, who can't make up his mind whether he misses his own country, isn't going to be much chop as a novelist. To add weight to his case that Perlman's success is due to his political correctness, rather than his writing style, Pearson quotes a passionate outburst from the same interview:

We had such promise, such great institutions. But I've seen terrible changes in the last 20 years, a rapid descent into inequality and insecurity barely known in the last 100 years. I've been saying in my fiction that Australia has undergone a profound social revolution. In a population of 20 million, 2.5 million are on social security, 1 million children come from homes where no one has work, 2 million people are precariously unemployed ...

And on it goes. As Pearson notes, with such impeccably politically correct opinions:

It was, I suppose, only to be expected that he'd win The Age short story award for The Reasons I Won't be Coming.

Pearson makes his opinion of that award clear by chiding Peter Goldsworthy, chairman of the Literary Board, for making the mistake of awarding Perlman's story his vote.

After his undeserved win in The Age short story award (which happened in 1994; no dates appear in Pearson's article), Perlman went on to write Three Dollars (1998):

... an exercise in social justice advocacy I couldn't bring myself to read. [It] won The Age Book of the Year. Craven described this as "against the odds and the heavyweights" but also said "Perlman's young, humorous, angst-ridden culture-vultures are raw and attractive ... Perlman is an engrossing writer who has such a tender sense of the place he comes from and produces a fierce denunciation of how economic rationalism can blight a nation's life."

Another undeserved award, for a book that no person of good taste could possibly bring himself to read. Although Pearson hasn't read Three Dollars, his opinion of Perlman's writing isn't entirley unsupported by evidence:

I met Perlman at a Goldsworthy Writers Week party some Adelaide festivals ago. He struck me as too nice to write outstanding fiction and probably better suited to law, his other profession ...

Pearson goes on to demonstrate, that on this score at least, he is much better qualified than Perlman to write fiction.

... I made the faux pas of criticising Craven in Perlman's hearing for engaging in heavy-handed boosterism of his proteges ... Perlman walked out of the function, declaring that he wasn't going to stand still and hear one of the great men of the culture defamed.

And finally, Pearson lets us in on why the cane-toad smirk in his by-line photograph looks a little wider today:

I wonder how he felt when he read the November edition of Australian Book Review, in which Craven dissects his new novel Seven Types of Ambiguity. The heading "A Blander Shade of Grey" must have made his heart sink, but there was worse to come:

"Everything seems to be issuing into the kind of varnished, epigrammatic sentences that aspire to the condition of wisdom ...
[Pearson's elision] Except that, in Perlman's case they don't. They're callow, they're silly, they have no generalising power of application and they seem to testify to nothing but the author's ignorance of life. Perlman's style filled me with such torpor that for many weeks I couldn't read on." And that was just for starters ... [my elision]

After some final speculation over what caused the "rupture" between Craven and Perlman, Pearson demonstrates his magnanimity by holding out this olive branch:

... When Perlman gets over "the novel as puppetry articulating an agenda phase", he and I might at last have a proper converstation.

Is it my imagination, or is Pearson hinting that he might be prepared to sling a little literary patronage Perlman's way, once Seven Types of Ambiguity has been given its just desserts and remaindered? A damn good remaindering might be just the incentive Perlman needs to get over "the novel as puppetry articulating an agenda phase".

No comments: