A gift adrift: what the loss of RN’s Poetica means to poets

Australia’s long-running literary flagship program – Poetica on Radio National (RN) – is slated for axing in 2015. It’s one more casualty of the cuts to the ABC budget, announced last week.

For the first time since 1946, ABC Radio will be without a dedicated poetry program.

Barry Hill, a poet and radio critic for The Age from 1978 to 1990, placed the blame not with the Government but squarely on the broadcaster’s shoulders: “Shamelessly,” he wrote in The Age, “the Australian Broadcasting Corporation beheaded poetry”.

Hill points beyond the budget to what he sees as the “mega culprits”. These include the ABC’s “managerial corporate ethos” and its “insipid grasp of what might be called a critical culture”.

Even if true, it hasn’t always been the case.

Poetry has had a safe home on radio since the ABC’s inception on July 1 1932 – as Mike Ladd details in his 75th anniversary of ABC Radio – when the bells of Sydney’s General Post Office first were broadcast to the nation.

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons issued the station with a charter to “provide information and entertainment, culture and gaiety” while serving “all sections and to satisfy the diversified tastes of the public”.

Early on, as Ladd recounts, poetry appeared on ABC radio in the form of (usually Shakespearean) dramas. Douglas Stewart was the first Australian author to have his verse dramas broadcast – beginning with The Fire on the Snow in 1941 and Ned Kelly in 1942 – followed by Colin Thiele, Rosemary Dobson and others.

In 1946 John Thompson – poet, editor and moreover the father of actor Jack Thompson – founded Australia’s first weekly program dedicated to poetry. Quality Street ran for an impressive 27 years before being replaced by Sunday Night Radio 2 in 1973.

Founded by Richard Connelly, Julie Anne Ford, and Rodney Wetherell, Sunday Night Radio 2 ran regular, full-length features on poetry, as did its 1981 successor, Radio Helicon, whose executive producer was at one time the poet John Tranter.

Another long-running program, The Poet’s Tongue, appeared in 1957 and ran until 1986. In the early days the producers drew on actors, Judy Davis among them, to perform the poems. Soon the program employed the more contemporary idea of featuring the poets themselves to read and discuss their work.

In 1986 the Poet’s Tongue was replaced by Richard Buckham’s The Poetry Feature, a 30-minute segment slotted into the Sunday Fictions, which ran until 1994. After a brief poetry-free stint following the axing of Sunday Fictions, a program called Box Seat ran for a couple of years before morphing into Poetica in 1997.

Airing every Saturday afternoon since 1997, Poetica has produced more than 900 programs, 60% of which have featured Australian poets. At its peak it reached 90,000 listeners per week. According to some sources it currently attracts as many as 60,000 listeners per week, with more on the internet.

Produced by Mike Ladd, Poetica draws on live readings, studio-based poetry features and on-location recordings. It is admired in the English-speaking world for the way it presents poetry, embedded in rich soundscapes, carefully crafted to enhance comprehension and heighten the listener’s experience of the poem.

Not only has Poetica brought poetry to a broad audience, it has also amassed a free online archive from which past programs can be downloaded by researchers and the general public. And not to be overstated, it has provided much-needed exposure for poetry publishers and a source of income for poets in the form of copyright fees.

A freelance radio producer, Prithvi Varatharajan, described the axing of Poetica to me as “a huge loss to Australian audiences”. He elaborates:

George Orwell, in his essay Poetry and the Microphone, spoke about the ‘possibilities of the radio as a means of popularising poetry’. Poetica was doing just this in Australia, and the overwhelming majority of online feedback shows just how appreciative audiences have been of the program. We can only hope that there is some room for poetry on the ABC in the future, after Poetica is gone.

It has been suggested that RN will replace Poetica – along with its axed cousins, Bush Telegraph, Into the Music, Hindsight and 360 Documentaries – with a multi-purpose, weekday feature-slot that will run commissioned 28-minute radio documentaries from freelance producers.

Certainly a new program offers consolation, but in its contraction of scope and expertise the successor looks to be far from commensurate with the cultural gift that was Poetica.The Conversation

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Booker-Prize-winner Eleanor Catton and male critics aging badly

73.Eleanor Catton-The LuminariesYou could forgive a reader for thinking that journalists were writing about 16 year-old Lorde who topped the US charts last week with her song Royals, not a 28-year-old writer who already has an award-winning book under her belt, as well as a degree in English from the University of Canterbury, a Masters from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

That’s the extent to which journalists around the world made a fuss of Eleanor Catton’s “tender age” – which anyone reading the book pages must know by now is 28 (I can even quote her birthday without Googling: 24 September, which makes her a Libran) – when her 832-page novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Until Catton displaced him, Ben Okri held the record for youngest Booker winner when he won for The Famished Road (1991) at age 32. Before him it was Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, who were both 34 at the time of their respective wins for Remains of the Day (1989) and Midnight’s Children (1981).

Yet not one of these authors were framed by their youth. Nor were they described as looking “remarkably self-possessed”, as Nick Clark kindly but nonetheless patronizingly described Catton’s demeanor “the morning after the night that changed her life.”

There are a number of reasons why Catton’s age might have become the headline: the Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize and to win at all is a colossal achievement. And she did break the decade barrier. The profiles of Booker Prize winners shows that most of them have their first success at around 30, peak in their 40s, then die twenty-odd years later.

Historically, some literary giants are late bloomers, yet many others burn bright from an early age. Alexander Pope wrote his much-anthologised “Ode on Solitude” when he was 12 and published The Rape of the Lock (1712) when he was 24. By 24 Shakespeare had written Henry VI (1591).

By age 20 Jane Austen had written Sense and Sensibility, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein – both books were published a few years later in 1811 and 1818 respectively – and Rimbaud had retired from writing.

Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther (1786) when he was 25 and Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights (1847) when she was 28 – by that age John Keates was already three-years buried.

Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises (1926) at age 27, but F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t publish The Great Gatsby (1925) until he was 29 – in fairness he already had published two books before he composed his Jazz Age classic. Likewise Bret Easton Ellis published two novels before American Psycho (1991) appeared when he was 27.

But authorial precocity is not quarantined to centuries past: Zadie Smith published White Teeth (2000) when she was 25 – the same age Jonathan Safran Foer was when Everything Is Illuminated (2002) came out.

Of course none of these writers won the Booker: it didn’t exist until 1969; and American authors, until last month, have been barred from entering.

Though The Luminaries was generally well-received in Britain, Catton said in an interview in the Guardian that it was “subject to a ‘bullying’ reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation – particularly in New Zealand.”

“People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” she says.

London-based, New Zealand author and critic CK Stead got stuck on what he called the novel’s “chintzy upholstered tone”. He also became an antagonist in a particularly apoplectic review by Michael Morrissey, a 71-year old novelist and poet from Auckland, who writes:

“Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well?”

Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, so Morrissey informs us, was “written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so)” and “set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so.”

The Rehearsal, Morrissey concedes – published in 17 territories and 12 languages – was “an impressive achievement for one barely out of school uniform.”

But before he can find his way to the text, Morrissey has more to say about Catton’s person: “The pensive-featured, marginally beautiful Ms Catton was made an adjunct professor at Iowa University.”

[At this point in the review, I scrolled to the masthead to see if I had stumbled onto The Onion or some other satirical site.]

He also offered Catton some grandfatherly advice, inside which is a wonderfully wrong prediction: “she must not let potential Man Booker (which will probably go to Jhumpa Lahiri) go to her thought-crowded head.”

O, these damned scribbling women!

At least Nicholas Lezard had the grace to wrap his envy in humour: “Failure is good for the soul,” he writes. “At least that’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the successful young.”

But Catton has better things to do than to contemplate the not-as-successful-as-they’d-like-to-be old.

“One of those things that you learn in school about any kind of bullying is that it’s always more to do with them than it is to do with you,” she says. “I don’t see that my age has anything to do with what is between the covers of my book, any more than the fact that I am right-handed. It’s a fact of my biography, but it’s uninteresting.”

Eleanor Catton has already sold the rights to The Luminaries, which she hopes will become a boxed set television show, rather than film. If she succeeds, which I’m betting she will, it will be a bucket of water in the face for “select male reviewers over 45”.

“I’m melting,” they will cry as they fall in a puddle, but no one will be listening.

Bronwyn Lea does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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The roy davids collection: poem manuscripts I covet

“There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world, and for a short while they manage it, but only as long as they are there to defend their collection, because when the day comes when it must be dispersed, and that day always comes, either with their death or when the collector grows weary, everything goes back to its beginnings, everything returns to chaos”― José Saramago, All the Names

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The roy davids collection: portraits of poets

My wish list of photographs I’d like to buy at Bonham’s The Roy Davids Collection. Part III. Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets. Estimated cost AU$18,050 = Stein: $800; Millay: $2,000; Dylan: $3,200; Moore: $3,200; Sitwell: $1,200; Jeffers: $2,400; Betjeman: $1,800; Baldwin: $700; Beckett: $2,750

My wish list of photographs I’d like to buy at Bonham’s The Roy Davids Collection. Part III. Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets.

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Estimated cost AU$18,050

Stein: $800; Millay: $2,000; Dylan: $3,200; Moore: $3,200; Sitwell: $1,200; Jeffers: $2,400; Betjeman: $1,800; Baldwin: $700; Beckett: $2,750

This year’s miles franklin is all woman

Well this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female. The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

milesWell this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female:

The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

But any point of distinction the Stella Prize sought to make has not eventuated. In fact the 2013 Stella and Franklin shortlists look remarkably similar.

Not only are both lists composed entirely of women, but Tiffany and de Krester appear on both. And while first-time novelist Romy Ash fell off the Stella shortlist, she has held her ground in the Miles Franklin.

But in what appears to be a blatant – but not unwelcome – effort to muscle its way back to Australia’s top dog literary prize, this year the Miles Franklin has increased its cash prize by $10,000 to $60,000.

And Miles Franklin shortlisted authors needn’t feel pressured to follow Carrie Tiffany’s generous lead in returning $10,000 of her Stella Prize win to share equally among her shortlisted comrades.

In another new initiative, Miles Franklin shortlisted authors will be awarded $5,000 in prize money by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, a long term partner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s a win-win situation, for Australian women authors at least.

Speaking on behalf of The Trust Company, which manages the estate of the late Miles Franklin, Simon Lewis congratulated all the shortlisted authors:

The shortlist demonstrates how strong Australia’s pipeline of female literary talent really is, as witnessed with last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder, as well as by the growing number of first time female authors included in the long and shortlists in recent years.

“We look forward to announcing yet another outstanding Australian female literary talent on the 19 June as the 2013 Miles Franklin Award winner,” Mr Lewis said.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. This year the count creeps up to 15.

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Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast. Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

laurence_binyonOn an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading.

Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.

Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza – lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” – is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.

Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen – who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice – provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

the handwritten “ode”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams. The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.

Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front – many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.

controversies

Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” – meaning to despise or treat with disregard – or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.

Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”

The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.

But that’s not the only anomaly. In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” – in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.

the sale

Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.

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Carrie tiffany wins a stella prize of her own

The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000.

stella-logo-largeThe Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.

It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany – who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds – looks set to do.

Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award – a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” – which is yet to release a shortlist.

It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.

Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.

When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:

  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

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Nancy huston scoops a bad sex award

I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth: “He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”. But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered. At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

31299_3I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth:

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”.

But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered.

At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

The judges were impressed by Huston’s alliterative descriptions of the human body, such as ‘flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ or ‘my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water’ or this passage which reminds readers (or not) that the brain is the largest sex organ:

When our bodies unite for the third time we leave all theatres behind. What happens then has as little to do with the libertinage prized by the French (oh the blasphemers, the precious precocious ejaculators, the nasty naughty boys, the cruel fouteurs and fouetteurs) as with the healthy, egalitarian intercourse championed by Americans (who hand out bachelors degrees in G-points, masters in masturbation and Ph.Ds in endorphines).

The undaunted might like to read a more graphic excerpt at the Guardian. Huston, who now lives in Paris, did not cross the channel to collect her award, but she did send a brief acceptance speech:

I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.

The plural possessive apostrophe, I’m told, is not an error.

Huston – whose accolades include France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, and a shortlisting for the 2010 Orange Prize – is only the third woman to win the Bad Sex prize since its inception in 1993.

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My money’s on Paul Mason for Bad Sex Award

Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals. “Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

tumblr_lqpkxxZNUL1ql3umeo1_1280Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals.

“Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

It could also be that very creative types lead a Bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would. Moreover, it’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated in creative people. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.

Maybe so, but as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award – Britain’s most dreaded literary prize – has underscored since its inception twenty years ago: quantity can be a poor substitute for quality. The literati may well be getting more sex than the rest of the population, but if the hairy, wubbering, nosh-inspired sex of contemporary novels is anything to go by we should all settle down with accountants.

Literary Review journal, which hosts the Bad Sex Awards, claims that “the purpose of the prize is to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature: “In a year in which the country’s obsession with mummy porn, red rooms of pain and Christian Grey has reached fever pitch,” the judges reassure, “Literary Review is proud to continue its gentle chastisement of the worst excesses of the literary novel”.

In other words, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was deemed not eligible, nor in any need of further attention.

past glories

Last year Australia saw a favourite son, Christos Tsiolkas, slapped with a Bad Sex shortlisting for his bloodthirsty passages in Dead Europe, of which these sentences, paeans to the abject, are emblematic:

It’s okay, I whispered … I was immersed in the slush of her moist meat … Her body stiffened but I forced her legs apart and pushed my face into her groin. The smell was overpowering. It was as if her cunt was a cellar filled with a heady store of wines and spirits, all emitting wafts of gaseous bouquets that recalled all the possible eruptions of the body. She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.

Contentiously to some, Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe lost to the novel Ed King, a retelling of Oedipal Rex, by David Guterson of Snow-Falling-on-Cedars fame. The narrator promises the reader big things:

Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn’t be blamed for having skipped forward to – “flipped forward to” if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise “scrolled to” or “used the ‘find’ feature” to locate the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and at the same time, for shuddering at the prospect of it?

but won the 2011 Bad Sex Award for awkward jobs like this:

He was waiting for a display of need. So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her “front parlor” and “back door” (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighbouring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried). She gave him this particular sign, this clear permission, and he began a careful prodding of her perineum, which was as good a starting place as any for Diane, because it instigated those processes of memory her sexuality required. It triggered memories with the uncanny force of déjà vu, and what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse thick with green tomatoes.

But just as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was judged the Booker of Bookers in 1993, Rowan Somerville’s second novel, The Shape of Her, wins (in my opinion) the BSA of BSAs. He could have won for this lurid but deadly sentence alone: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. But the judges were also impressed by his field notes – as typified by pubic hair “like desert vegetation following an underground stream” – and highlighted a passage that should caution writers against employing a sniffing possum as vehicle in a breast metaphor, especially if one intends to sup on it:

He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.

In 2010 Somerville had the good humour and courage to man up to accept the honour in person: “There is nothing more English than bad sex”, he said, “so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you”.

shortlist juicy bits

The Yips by Nicola Barker

She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.

The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge

In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter’, he commanded. “Lay it on with all your might”.

Infrared by Nancy Huston

This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film – capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.

Noughties by Ben Masters

We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.

The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine

And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.

my hot pick

Rare Earth by Paul Mason

He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down. ‘The cartel, sells, to the global market’, he panted. ‘The price is inflated because production has been capped!’ She began to pant in unison with him… ‘Cartel evades export controls. Market capitalisation of western miners stays low. Massive, one-way, bet’… He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London next month.

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Another Man Booker for Hilary Mantel

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize. Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies. Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer.

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize.

Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies.

Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer’.

Mantel has recast the most essential period of our modern English history. We have the greatest modern English prose writer reviving possibly one of the best known pieces of English history.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second instalment in Mantel’s historical trilogy, following Wolf Hall, which itself won a Booker in 2009.

‘Nobody, including me’, Mantel said, ‘expects a writer to do it twice. But it would not be human to not want to win’.

Mantel’s triumph makes her only the third person in history to win a double Booker and catapults her into the literary empyrean – along with Australian author Peter Carey, who lives in New York, and South African Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee, who lives in Australia.

But in the end Mantel’s win came down to firsts: she became the first British author to win the Booker twice; the first author to win Bookers for back-to-back books; the first author to win for a sequel; and the first woman author in history to win two Man Booker prizes.

Mantel told reporters that Bring Up the Bodies was ‘a more fully achieved book than Wolf Hall. Formally, it probably has the edge.’

At her win three years ago Mantel, 60, said she would be spending the £50,000 ($AU 78,000) prize money on ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’. Today she joked it would be spent on rehab. After a brief reappraisal she added: ‘my pension, probably’.

Mantel now faces the daunting task of completely the filnal instalment in the trilogy, to be called The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell’s story until his execution in 1540.

According to How to win the Booker prize, Will Self was best placed – statistically speaking – to take home this year’s prize for the bravura achievement of Umbrella. But luckily for him, Self didn’t really want to win.

‘Personally’, he said in the Huffington Post, ‘it means very little to me’ because, he admits, ‘I am a miserable person. And I can’t suspend disbelief in social constructs of any kind, as you might be able to tell from my fiction’.

Nevertheless, the boon to sales for a Man Booker winner is considerable. According to the BBC since 1996 every winning book has grossed more than $AU 1.5 million. Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, which won in 2002 and has since been made into a film directed by Ang Lee, made just under $AU 10 million. Last year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, has sold more than 300,000 print editions in the UK alone.

According to the latest figures, Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies has sold more than a hundred-thousand copies, which is more than the other 11 Man Booker longlisted novels combined.

The 44th Man Booker shortlist comprised six authors: here are the other five:

Tan Twan EngThe Garden of Evening Mists
Deborah LevySwimming Home
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
Will Self, Umbrella
Jeet ThayilNarcopolis

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