A personal note... ~ theatre notes

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A personal note...

Daniel Keene must be in the zeitgeist this weekend. He turns up in two newspaper articles - one an interview in the Financial Review with Chris Boyd, and in a John McCallum essay on Brecht and Beckett in The Australian. To wit:

The great inheritor of Beckett's tradition in Australia is playwright Daniel Keene, now based partly in Europe. Keene writes similarly minimalist, formal poetic pieces that richly evoke a depth of lived experience that the naturalistic drama - now transferred to film and television and therefore unnecessary in the theatre - cannot begin to represent.

As in Beckett, Keene's short plays are powerfully condensed but are haunted by sometimes terrible experiences in which a kind of tenderness is found in the most abject situations. The text of one of them, The First Train, is on the web at www.danielkeene.com.

In it, an old cobbler works on children's shoes as he tells the story of a boy hidden by his mother and told not to come out until she returns, during what we assume to be the first round-up of Jews by the Nazis in his home town. He hears the departing train go past his hiding place. His mother never comes back, but the old man we are watching at his gentle craft must be him.

Which is all very nice. But: "now based partly in Europe"...? And in the Financial Review, which talks about his French popularity, the intro says: "Despite now living in France, the prolific playwright hasn't forgotten his roots".

May I be permitted a little puzzlement? As a quick reconnoitre of my sidebar will confirm, Mr Keene is my husband, and is most usually seen haunting Coles Supermarket in downtown Williamstown; the photo adorning the interview is, ahem, of our front verandah. It may be that I am unusually obtuse, but I hadn't noticed that he wasn't here. (It's ok, Chris, I know it's a sub-editor's error and nowhere hinted in the actual article...and here let me point to the much more in-depth interview on Chris's blog.)

As for me, I guess I'll be moving to the States as soon as I hit bestsellerdom. Any day now - my first fantasy novel, released in the US in hardback last July, came out in paperback last month and has already sold out its first print run. If it continues to sell like that, my financial future will look a little brighter than it does at present.

I did some adding up and figured that The Gift (The Naming in the US) must have sold almost 50,000 copies altogether so far in Australia, the UK and the US. And that's only Book One...! (Book Three is out here next month, you closet fantasy fans...) Obviously, it's New York, New York for me and Paris in the Spring for Daniel...but maybe we'll just settle for Williamstown.


Anonymous said...

Having just read the Amazon.com reviews of The Naming, I'm attuned to the fantasy wavelength, and I can see something vaguely mystical in these reports on your husband's whereabouts. Maybe an unseen order explains it, an intersection of worlds; maybe it's one of your husband's avatars that is "based partly in Europe" and "now living in France."

Since it appears that the names of things has some bearing on the story in that novel, two questions occur to me. One, have you read Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books? A factor in that series is the power one acquires by learning the true name of a thing; this is a deeply satisfying notion to anyone who works with words (I'm wary of blanket statements, but surely that's true). Two, have you read William Gibson's novel Neuromancer? A single word possesses a liberating power in that book; that too is deeply satisfying, and it has stuck with me in the years since I read it, even though I've forgotten many of the details.

As for working as a writer and living in New York, those two things may be more compatible in fantasy, as I can see you're aware.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm not certain what those reviews might attune you to, John, but enthusiastic and uncertain spelling has its own charm. I have always meant to read Gibson (who is more cyberpunk) and am very familiar with Le Guin, a major influence on my own books. The fact is that much of SFF makes a fetish of the Book and the Word.

There is much that is fantastic about my life, not just the persistent rumours of Daniel living in Paris (or, as we heard the other day, London). Making money out of writing is a straight-out fantasy, let's face it. At this point I start thinking of Heiner Muller's statement that "poets must be stupid". But that's another question...

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison

Couldn't resist commenting how wondrously comical it is to read that Daniel is now allegedly based in Europe, given that it's Sunday, 5.10am in London and I'm at work for the sixth night in a row, analysing (mostly crappy, ill-conceived) copy written to fill today's papers...soon to line dustbins in this smoky machine of a city.



DL said...

Heh heh, too funny.
This only gives you a glimpse of why people like Bjork end up punching journalists in the face.

Anonymous said...

If much of SFF "makes a fetish of the Book and the Word" (nicely put), that helps explain why I'm drawn to that realm. My problem is that I'm drawn to too many realms. I've read some of Le Guin, who's a master in many ways; among other things, she could be called a priestess of speculative anthropology. But I haven't read much else in her/your area. Considering your confession of her influence, I hope to read one of your novels someday, when I finish the long process of research and writing that I'm in the middle of.

As for Gibson, I think he too is a master, good at more things than an easy summary can name. The early works certainly count as cyberpunk and have a strong techno-geek appeal; beyond that, there's a mystical element I couldn't quite digest, but there are also questions of art and consciousness (see the art-making machine in what I think is his second novel, e.g.--the ghost of Joseph Cornell hovers there). Since his first three novels, he's been moving away from possible futures and closer to the lived present; he's also gotten better at creating characters. Pattern Recognition failed to please a young techie friend of mine, but I think it has a delicate strength, some poetic truth.

Ben Ellis said...

Re: victim of bad subediting and wrongful attribution of details - I can guess how you both feel. I have read the following untrue things about myself: that I'm Sydney-based; that I was part of the 1970s New Wave; that I'm the son of Bob Ellis; that I hate baby-boomers en masse; and that I called a certain famous playwright Mr David "Dinner Party" Williamson. None of these things have ever been true, but they made it into print, and when I've asked for full corrections editors tend to shrug as if it's "only the arts". For all the comedy of this, the mistakes reveals much about mainstream media attitudes towards theatre-makers, writers, playwrights, artists and what-have-you.

For some reason, arts editors are more concerned with making 'interesting' stories about the arts than writing news and features which have verity. I detect a desire of many arts journalists to match it with the fiction makers, to force their subjects into predetermined shapes (the enfant terrible; the controversial loudmouth; the enigmatic waif; the next big thing...) They are seldom content simply to let us be.

If this syndrome is bad enough in print, it's worse in broadcast reporting, where anything with a whiff of the arts gets one of two treatments: the "gee whizz" treatment or the "gee wankers" treatment. Believe it or not, I prefer the latter to the breathless "what's it like to paint/write a poem/write a novel" treatment. It's a faked engagement with the arts and about as interesting as watching or listening to people talking to strangers' dogs.

So I think you're entitled to be pissed off when this kind of thing happens - it's not just the details of you and your husband which are being treated with carelessness, it's our artists' relationship to a culture being held in contempt. And I fear that I may not be exaggerating.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - Daniel doesn't give a toss, but I admit I've got a bit tired of hearing that he's permanently in Paris. To see it confirmed in print was rather irritating. I suppose one could take refuge in Wilde: "I don't care what they say about me, as long as it isn't true".

And I fear you're correct about what that means about general editorial attitudes to the arts in Australia. When I was a cadet, the arts was where they sent the zomboids who couldn't do anything else. There are smart MSM commentators, who should be noted and respected: the Australian's dance critic Lee Christophis, for example (I'd say The Australian's art coverage, if limited, isn't bad at all, because arts editor Miriam Cosic thinks it ought to be thoughtful), or Philippa Hawker or the SMH's Angela Bennie (to name a few names) but they are seldom given the respect or space they deserve. Or look at the losing struggle of ABC's Arts National. In journalism, as elsewhere, the arts are not really a good career move. Anyone committed to decent arts coverage in our newspapers or other media faces a long, hard, bitter, uneven struggle...

John : I hope one day you do reach for The Naming (The Gift is its original title; changed for the US, in fact, because Le Guin's most recent book, out in the US the same year, was called Gifts); if you like Le Guin, you would probably enjoy it. And I know exactly what you mean about being attracted to too many realms.

Chris Boyd said...

This only gives you a glimpse of why people like Bjork end up punching journalists in the face.

This is why I do phone interviews.

Hey, what a pleasant surprise I got when my phone bill arrived. An hour to Daniel in Paris, only 25 cents. How about that. :P

Seriously tho... Congrats, Alison, on the sell-out... of the nice variety!

Anonymous said...

The most perceptive comment on journalism that I've found came from Lincoln Kirstein, who was one of the founders of the New York City Ballet. In his history of the company, he said (while complaining about reviews), "The temptation of journalism is always to say something for the way words sound, rather than analyzing what actually happens." Notice he didn't limit his remark to arts journalism.

So, Ben, I'm not surprised that you've found arts editors to be more concerned with "'interesting' stories" and arts writers to be unduly reliant on easy, intriguing categories. Journalists in other fields do the same. I work as a copy editor at a large American magazine that takes writing pretty seriously, but I frequently find cases where (at least as I see it) the writer has fallen back on that temptation to go for the impressive sound.

Fortunately, my job gives me a chance to challenge such things and propose a better wording before the magazine goes to press. But even when a story is already in print, after we've finished laughing or shaking our head or tearing our hair, there's some value in challenging exaggerated and incorrect statements. You may open someone's eyes; they may do better next time.

I don't deny that arts coverage is often a neglected stepchild in contemporary journalism. I just wanted to look at a bigger picture.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - Lincoln Kirstein was too right. John Pilger calls it the ideology of "news value" in the intro to his book Heroes, and I still think that is a most useful description of how newspaper offices work. Coverage isn't a conspiracy of bias, as people often think: most journalists in fact react very badly to being told baldly what to say. Instead, there is a more insidious means of control, which assigns news value to some things and not to others, an unwritten hierarchy of what's considered important in which journalists are soaked as soon as they begin to work. The crude version of that is the "beat up", making a non-news story into a front page screamer, but in more subtle ways this principle operates through all news coverage. The only good thing that can be said about it is that it is amoral and can be turned against those who exploit it.

So one has to assume that the arts are not considered interesting for their own sake. The arts only hit the news when there's a scandal (Helen Demidenko) or some conflict, which then can be written about in a polarised way. This is, I believe deeply, erroneous, but it's what many editors think (here, anyway), and it's an assumption utterly confirmed by most Australian arts coverage. But I'll get down off my hobby horse now...