Partly because I think, as an Australian, I should read more Australian literature and partly because of the gender bias in publishing and reviewing, I thought I would look at a few (I may even get through the whole longlist) books longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.
The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and championing diversity and cultural change.
The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, and was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry.
The Stella Prize seeks to:
- recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
- bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
- provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
- reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing
“Panthers and the Museum of Fire” is a short novel that suits my eclectic tastes. It starts with our narrator (Jen Craig) walking to a café, holding a manuscript, it was written by her only childhood friend who has recently died, the manuscript is titled “Panthers and the Museum of Fire”, so named after a brown and white “tourist” sign on the main highway to the Blue Mountains, directing you to the Penrith Panthers Leagues Club (a Rugby League Team) or the Museum of Fire also in Penrith. The reading of this manuscript has impacted our protagonist greatly, as a reader we are intrigued as to the contents:
You have to imagine a book, I should have told my friend – a book but not a book – the fact that it was a manuscript made a difference. The whole time you were reading this manuscript that was not yet a book, you would have found the experience of reading just an experience of waiting; the whole time that you were reading, you were also waiting. As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking – not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same – and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feeling of needed to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact, the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part – when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there was never a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another, the words being everything, the storyline nothing – you continued to read, I should have told Raf last night, although I was still jet-lagged, if I could call it that, from the experience of reading and writing. It was the most idiotic thing, but you continued to read.
On pages 5-6 of this book you have been warned, this is a book about a book (“not yet a book”) that has no plot, does our book have a plot? It is a book about reading, about writing, a book that is written in long meandering paragraphs, rantings, random thoughts interrupting the train of thought or “plot”, that takes place in the time it takes to walk from home to a café, although the meanderings and thoughts covers years of our narrator’s existence.
This is a unique voice, an infuriating, annoying voice, a young self-centred voice that never shuts up, but that doesn’t mean it is a voice that shouldn’t be heard. The basic premise of the book and the reflections upon a past friendship of somebody who has recently died, as well as the consistent referral to her only true friend, Raf, who she had around for dinner the previous evening, all radiate from this voice, a voice that looks inward at all times, but it is also a voice of somebody who recognises here failings, “it was not so much a friendship as an exploitation”.
We have youthful anorexia, a religious interlude, and all the insecurities and self-doubt of a young person moving towards adulthood. The observations of writing, reading, publishing are scathing in their revelation of best sellers, of struggling to write…
Every time I pass a bookshop that has the latest releases and the latest promotions of fiction in the window, I am never curious about anything that lies inside the pages whose thick white tongues have been spread just a little so that it is plain for all to see that the type has been spaced too much and the book made thicker and heavier than it might have been, and certainly more than what the book – as it appears to me – has necessarily warranted. All the new novels that are published these days are thicker and heavier that the novels themselves would usually warrant. Each of them is thicker and heavier, by virtue of the fact that the pages are thicker than they should have been and the type spaced further apart than it should have been and the cover made thicker than it should have been in the mistaken belief that the worth of a novel is always only equivalent to its thickness and weight and that the more of it you have when you buy it, the more likely you have bought something worthwhile or at least worth the excessive thickness and heaviness that the publisher has made of it.
Our writer is actually addressing herself throughout, not you the reader, as she loops back and forth from the funeral, the wake, her dinner with Raf, her walk to the café, you become more and more engrossed in this part memoir (is it? The character is Jen Craig – previously known as Jenny Craig before a well-known dieting company ruined her life). There is even a dig at the title of the book itself (as we know it also happens to be the title of the mysterious manuscript) it is described as being “rich and suggestive” even though it is simply “the wording of a roadsign that anybody in Sydney would recognize”.
A very clever novel that visits modern media, modern issues, and the everyday mundane, it is also a musing on the art of writing and the pleasure of writing;
This was the way to write, I could see: just cutting to the quick. Sarah’s manuscript was nothing at all – nothing, yes nothing at all, I could have told Raf – but the quick of it was visible everywhere on its pages. There was nothing but quick in the manuscript: quick and quick and quick. This was how I began to write yesterday. And I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember the quick.
A book that Debra Adelaide (also longlisted for the Stella Prize for her book “The Women’s Pages”) describes on the back cover “Jen Craig has the astonishing ability to make us believe she has held every word of the story in her head, then delivered it onto the page in a seamless whole.”
A refreshing change from the standard Australian fiction I have become used to, a unique voice, a style you don’t see too often in this country and a thoroughly enjoyable work. Having said that, it would be some bold judges to award the Prize to this book….