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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Chinese Gold: Mo Yan’s Nobel Win

Some of the names thrown around were Haruki Murakami from Japan – author of Norwegian Wood and, most recently, 1Q84, a novel about a woman who slips into an alternate reality; Margaret Atwood or better yet Alice Munro from Canada; Syrian poet, Adonis; and Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, best known for his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in Africa. Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets – all Nobel laureates – Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR. Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.

Some of the names thrown around were Haruki Murakami from Japan – author of Norwegian Wood and, most recently, 1Q84, a novel about a woman who slips into an alternate reality; Margaret Atwood or better yet Alice Munro from Canada; Syrian poet, Adonis; and Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, best known for his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in Africa.

Australia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in literature remains Les Murray. Widely acknowledged as one of the best poets writing in English today, his name is perennially linked to three postcolonial poets – all Nobel laureates – Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia, Seamus Heaney from Northern Ireland and the late Joseph Brodsky who hailed from the USSR.

Each year America hopes, however unlikely, Bob Dylan might be their winner, but novelist Philip Roth is a more serious contender. In European eyes, contemporary American authors, it must be said, are considered too insular and unworldly to be strong contenders.

The 105th Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to novelist Mo Yan from China for his many works, the Swedish academy said, of “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

The announcement was made at 10 pm (Australian time) on Thursday evening. When the academy phoned him at home to inform about the prize, Mo said he was “overjoyed and scared”.

Born Guan Moey, Mo assumed his non de plume – meaning “don’t speak” – to remind himself to hold his tongue and avoid trouble. He is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Gao Xingjian won in 2000 but by then he was residing in Paris).

Mo admits that early on his novels were fuelled by a desire to escape poverty. But these days, as one of China’s bestselling authors, money is no longer the motivator.

Mo came to fame with Red Sorghum, a novel set during the Japanese occupation which was made into a film directed by Yimou Zhang in 1987.

His other books include his masterwork, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and the more accessible Garlic Ballads, a beautiful yet brutal novel about the suffering of farmers ordered to grow garlic crops in Revolutionary China.

Following the Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry earlier this week, the literature prize is the fourth and one of the most anticipated announcements the Nobel season. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced today at noon, followed by the Economics Prize on Monday.

Following tradition, laureates will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of the death of the prizes’ eponymous benefactor, Alfred Nobel, in 1896.

Interestingly two authors have declined the Nobel Prize in literature: Boris Pasternak in 1958 and Jean Paul Sartre in 1964.

As a result of the economic crisis, the Nobel Foundation has cut the prize money to eight million Swedish kronor ($A1.18 million) per award, down from the 10 million kronor awarded since 2001.

Last year, the literature prize went to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströemer.

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New Queensland literary award

Campbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website. But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title.

QLD-Literary-AwardsCampbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website.

But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title. Short on lead time and with no funding in place, the group led by Matthew Condon, Krissy Kneen and Stuart Glover assembled in April to create a website and Facebook page which attracted more than 1000 fans in under a week.

The Copyright Agency Cultural Fund injected $20,000 into the kitty, and a fundraising campaign on www.pozible.com raised more than $30,000 for author prizes and associated costs. Avid Reader bookshop offered its premises to house and distribute the 600-plus book and manuscript submissions the campaign received.

The inaugural Queensland Literary Awards, announced last night in Brisbane, were described by Frank Moorhouse – winner of the QLA Fiction Book Award for his novel Cold Light – as “the noblest prize this year.”

“It has some cache because it’s a citizen’s prize,” he said, “not the Premier’s prize.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Anna Funder in her Miles Franklin acceptance speech earlier this year, Moorhouse expounded: “Governments are not only there to legislate, but to affirm civilised values.”

But if citizens are going to have to fund it with two dollars here and five dollars there,” Moorhouse continued, “it is rather a shameful situation. It sends a very sad message to kids who want to get into the creative arts.

From a shortlist of 68 titles, the winners in each category of the Queensland Literary Awards received $1000, with Queensland novelist Simon Cleary, winner of the inaugural Courier-Mail’s People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, snapping up $5,000 for his novel, Closer to Stone.

Premier Campbell Newman and Ros Bates, Minister for Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts, so far have not offered their congratulations.

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End of empire: vale gore vidal

6a00d83452403c69e2017743d3b90f970d-800wi“Style,” Gore Vidal defined, “is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” And that is precisely how Vidal – daring, bawdy, an intellectual swashbuckler – lived his life, which ended in the Hollywood Hills on the evening of 31 July 2012.

Vidal knew that to write well an inner daemon must be allowed to break free. He could always be counted on for a wicked aphorism (“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”), a devastating put down – necessarily unfair but not necessarily untrue – or a contemptuous critique of the day: “As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days”.

Or: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half”.

But Vidal could also hold a mirror – fleetingly at least – to his own shortcomings: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise”. He also called himself “the gentleman bitch” of American letters.

I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.

Vidal’s oeuvre showcases, if barely contains, his dessicated humour and freewheeling intellect – few topics were beneath him – as well as his prodigious knowledge of politics and history and his will to live as he pleased.

Born in 1925 at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, Vidal wrote his first novel, Williwaw, when he was 19 years old and serving in the Army.

He went on to write more than 20 novels, notably the Narratives of Empire series – a heptology of historical novels, Lincoln: A Novel being the most distinguished – that chronicles the dawn of the “American Empire” to, in Vidal’s eyes, its decay.

But Vidal is most admired – and will likely be remembered into the future – for his essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for the collection United States: Essays 1952–1992. “Whatever his subject,” the judges extolled, “he addresses it with an artist’s resonant appreciation, a scholar’s conscience and the persuasive powers of a great essayist.”

In 1997 Vidal visited Australia as a guest of (then NSW Premier) Bob Carr, whom Vidal described in interview with Richard Glover “as terribly intelligent, and he reads a great deal”.

Similarly Vidal met Gough Whitlam in 1974 and considered him – in contrast to the “smooth lawyers with blow-dried hair who look wonderful on TV and don’t know anything except how to take orders from the corporations” – “far too well read for his position in life”.

Carr farewelled Vidal, describing him as a great polymath: “a thoughtful, ideologically consistent, extremely committed and an American isolationist”.

“Gore Vidal’s passing at age 86 is a loss to his country, to literature and to history,” Carr said. “There won’t be another mind like his”.

Vidal will be buried in a plot he will share with his life partner of more than 30 years, Howard Austen, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.

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The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

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The poetry bestseller

At first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Khalil GibranAt first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Certainly if one looks at the life of a contemporary book of poems it would appear so. Poetry publishing in Australia (and indeed in most Western countries) has been relegated in the main to boutique presses and self-publishing outfits that run on the good will and thankless efforts of poetry enthusiasts. Outfits that stay afloat often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Their books are inadequately reviewed or not reviewed at all. Those that do find a buyer do so mostly at poetry readings to fellow poets – thereby flying under the radar of Neilsen BookScan which makes official sales look even worse. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

But all this bellyaching conceals an interesting fact: some poetry books actually do sell. Some sell very well indeed. Some poetry books are even bestsellers.

It’s widely agreed that Australia’s best bet for a second Nobel Laureate in Literature is not a novelist but, astonishing to some, a poet: Les Murray. Murray’s books, critically acclaimed at home and overseas, have garnered a plethora of prestigious awards, including Britain’s coveted TS Eliot Poetry Prize. His publicity frequently affirms him as one of the best poets writing in English today, and Murray is regularly grouped with a trinity of recent Laureate poets: Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, Russian–American Joseph Brodsky, and the Caribbean’s Derek Walcott. With domestic sales buoyed by his international sales (in English and in translation), Murray’s reputation as a poetry heavy–hitter translates into healthy book sales by the standards of contemporary poetry. Nevertheless, and relevant to this conversation, even Murray has been left on several occasions in his career without a publisher due to the aforementioned vagaries of the sector. But more on Murray later.

Poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries. Whereas a typical US poetry title runs to about 1500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number.

But not all Australian poets enjoying relatively healthy sales have a profile to match Murray’s. In fact some lesser–known poets might sell even more copies of their books. Poets lucky enough to have their books set on high school English curricula can often compete with sales figures of fiction authors. One poet in this enviable position, Peter Skrzynecki, whose book Immigrant Chronicle has remained in print for 30 years. Another favourite on the HSC curricula, Bruce Dawe, is – at least according to his Sometimes Gladness book jacket – Australia’s bestselling living poet. While sales figures have yet to be verified in a full-scale study, it is fair to say that Dawe and Skrzynecki, and a handful of others, have bypassed the imperative of the marketplace and been turned into poetry bestsellers by the education sector.

But it is still difficult to find these books in bookshops. And it is difficult to mount the case that these books, their success aside, have entered the realm of popular culture. So which poetry books, if any, have?

To answer this question, it is necessary to cast one’s vision temporarily beyond the realm of Australian poets and, further, beyond the realm of the living. Immediately Shakespeare struts upon the stage. And in fact Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet in English of all time. The author of – at least as we are able to count his works today – 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a handful of others, Shakespeare has been generating sales in a proliferation of editions for the past 400 years.

But what about poetry sales not mounted over time, but poetry titles that sell well in a given year? Well, things get interesting.

Figures out of the United Sates – a significant market for literature in English – do not rank Shakespeare as number one on their bestseller list for poetry. The best-selling poet in America today is not only dead but he – let gender be no surprise – also did not write in English. He’s not an American. Some might even say he is un-American.

The prize for best-selling poet in America goes to a poet in translation: Jalal al-Din Molavi Rumi. A Sufi poet known to Iranians as Mawlana. Or, to Westerners, simply as Rumi.

Rumi was born in Balkh, which is now in Afghanistan, in 1207 on the shores of the Persian Empire, but he lived most of his life in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Rumi’s major work is a six-volume poem, Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur’an. The general theme of Rumi’s thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is essentially the concept of tawhid – union with his beloved – and his longing and desire to restore it. He writes:

There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?

Rumi sought god everywhere and in everybody. He encouraged others to experience the ecstatic union: “It doesn’t matter that you’ve broken your vow / a thousand times. Still come, / and yet again, come”.

Rumi’s voice still resonates. It touches, if we are to judge by sales, the contemporary reader with the same fervour as it did 700 ago. It touches celebrities too: Madonna set his poems to music on Deepak Chopra’s 1998 CD, A Gift of Love. Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; Philip Glass has written an opera – Monsters of Grace – around his poems; and Oliver Stone apparently wants to make a film of his life.

American poet Coleman Barks, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for bringing Rumi’s poetry to the English-speaking masses. Barks is not a scholar – and he doesn’t speak a word of Persian. But this didn’t stop his book, The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins 1995), from being the most successful poetry book published in the West in recent years. Coleman has come out with a new book of Rumi translations every September for the past decade.

Even the 9/11 attacks didn’t subdue the public’s interest in mystical Islamic verse: Coleman’s The Soul of Rumi, released days after the Trade Centre bombings, went on to become a bestseller. Barks himself seems surprised by sales of his Rumi translations. In the preface to his 2003 book, Rumi: The Book of Love, he confesses:

I have sold too many books. I once calculated that Rumi books sell at least a hundred a day right through weekends and holidays, while my own writing goes at about twelve copies a month, worldwide. In other words, Rumi’s work sells at about 365,000 copies a year; Barks sells 144. Those numbers keep me humble.

Rumi is popular not only in America but also in Australia. Nevertheless his book sales – Barks’s translations as well as other scholarly editions – fall short of granting him primacy. Neilsen BookScan, which records book sales in Australia since 2002, reveals two poets neck and neck: the Greek poet Homer (which is not his name, scholars tell us, but the name he goes by), author of The Odyssey and The Iliad; and twentieth-century Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, whose book The Prophet made him a household name.

Homer’s epic poems – second in antiquity only to (what-is-now) Iraq’s Gilgamesh – are about war, gods and mortality. Although a steady favourite on education lists, Homer enjoyed a surge of popularity when The Iliad was morphed in a 2004 film called Troy starring Brad Pitt.

But Gibran, who writes on ‘spiritual’ themes, is never studied in institutions. And yet he is considered the third-best selling poet in history after Shakespeare and sixth-century BC Chinese poet, Lao Tzu. In Australia – adding his book sales across all edition of The Prophet – Gibran is the clear favourite.

Born in 1883 in Bsharii in modern-day northern Lebanon, Gibran died of liver failure at the age of 48 in New York. The Prophet, his first book, was published in 1923, and incredibly it sold over 1000 copies in three months. Its fame spread by word of mouth. By 1931 it had been translated into 20 languages. By the 60s it was a favourite with American youth culture. It’s been popular ever since.

The fictional set up for The Prophet parallels the legendary story of Lao Tzu’s writing of the Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching (on his way to Tibet he is stopped by a border guard and made to record his teachings before leaving). In Gibran’s book, however, the prophet Almustafa has lived for 12 years in the foreign city of Orphalese and is heading home when a group of people stop him and he offers to share his wisdom on an array of issues pertaining to life and the human condition: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, crime and punishment, reason and passion, self-knowledge, beauty, death and so on. The chapter on marriage is perhaps the best known, as it’s a regular in wedding ceremonies. A testament to love (and an argument against codependence), it concludes:

Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran might be one of the best-selling poets in Australia over the past five years, but what is the best-selling individual poetry title during this time?

The prize goes to Desiderata: A Survival Guide for Life (Random House 2002) which houses the inspirational prose poem, ‘Desiderata’, offering instruction for attaining happiness in life. The title in Latin for ‘desired things’ or ‘things that are yearned for’, but in the context of the poem ‘essential things’ is a more accurate translation. It opens with the following advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

The poem ends with the directive: ‘Strive to be happy’.

As with the ubiquitous ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem, whose authorship and copyright holding remains hotly contested (no fewer than four authors claim to have written it), questions of authorship have beset ‘Desiderata’. The poem was first copyrighted in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Indianna, inspired by an urge that he described in his diary: ‘I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods’.

But in the 1960s ‘Desiderata’ was widely circulated without attribution to Ehrmann. In face, a myth arose that the poem was written in 1692 by an unknown author. The slip came about when Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem for his congregation in 1959 on church letterhead which read: The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692. It was only a matter of time before a publisher interpreted this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St Paul’s Church, and that it had been written in 1692, and therefore took the poem to be in the public domain.

It was an unhappy error. Worse, law suits ensued. One court case held that the poem was forfeited to the public domain because Ehrmann had freely distributed it on Christmas cards to soldiers during WWII. But other cases have ruled that Crescendo Publishing Company – who bought the poem for an undisclosed amount in 1975 from Ehrmann’s heirs – holds copyright. It seems that the course cannot agree on the issue. There is no doubt, however, that the mistake in authorship added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem (despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin). It gives ‘Desiderata’ the aura of exoticism it might otherwise lack as a contemporary poem in English by an unheard of author.

So why are these particular poets popular with the reading public? It is surely not a matter of quality. Of the three poets discussed at length – Rumi, Gibran and Ehrmann – only Rumi is regarded as an important poet.

In his book, The History of Iran: Empires of the Mind, Michael Axworthy argues that the public’s choice of poet depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions:

So [Persian poet] Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khyyam with the Aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery.

It is true we live in an age where where spirituality-lite is a hot commodity in the marketplace. Rumi himself is not ‘lite’ – he was a devoted Muslim and a respected theologian – but Barks’s bestselling translations have bowdlerised almost every reference to Islam from his poems. Barks’s translations are Rumi-lite.

But the popularity of these poets might have something to do with their ‘spiritual themes’ more generally. Throughout history, the human relationship with the divine has often been described in verse.  Indeed, much of the literature of antiquity, when not merely factual or legislative, is poetic and sapiential:  the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Indian Vedas, the Old Testament, and the Qu’ran among others.

While much mystical poetry has been written in earlier epochs, a good number of contemporary poets continue the tradition. Murray – who has dedicated his poetry books since the 1980s to ‘the glory of god’ – upholds the need for belief:

Most people would agree, perhaps after some dispute about terminology, that something like a religious dimension exists in every human being. Some might want to call it a dimension of wonder, of quest, of value, of ultimate significance or the like. Some have denied its reality altogether, but I think the weight of human experience and…of perceived human behaviours is against them.

Although he describes himself as a poet who is religious (not a religious poet), Murray’s poems are increasingly infused with this dimension of religion, of wonder, regardless of denomination. In fart he has expressed a desire ‘to celebrate something, without giving it away. It may be a paradox, but I dream of someday reading, or writing, a richly secretive work’.

Poetry in the mystic tradition tends to be centred on paradox (an idea related to the word oxymoron that opened this essay). Empedocles (BC 495–435) writes: ‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere’; Meister Eckhardt (1260–1327) writes: ‘The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them’. And Murray: ‘The more I act, the stiller I become; the less I’m lit, the more spellbound my crowd’.

As Western culture has become increasingly secularised and a widespread suspicion of organised religion pervades, it seems many readers have turned to the mystical poem as a vehicle for contemplation, meditation, and to negotiate their relationship with what we might call divinity. In fact, the strong times between poetry and mysticism, or religion more broadly, has led to the argument that poetry can be a substitute for religion in secular culture.

American poet Denise Levertov takes this idea a step further: ‘the poet – when writing – is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it’. And indeed, on of the few unquestioned roles of the poem is its priestly function at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Certainly this function is on bright display in the poems of Rumi, Gibran, and Ehrman and their sales can be taken as endorsement for its need. But thinking about bestselling poetry, there’s one more quality worth mentioning.

Laughter. In terms of sales for an individual poetry title, the second ranked poetry title in Australia is Michael Leunig’s Poems (Viking 2004). Which goes to show that while Australian readers like thinking about god, they have retained a sense of humour.

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Study finds fiction ‘makes things happen’

auden“Poetry makes nothing happen”. It’s the most often quoted line of W.H. Auden’s famous elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” – it could even be the most quoted line of his career. People draw on it when they want to denigrate poetry: if one of last century’s great poets thinks poetry is more impotent than important, why should they have to read it?

But these readers tend to forget (or choose to ignore) what comes next: poetry survives, Auden asserts, “in the valley of its making”. It is “a way of happening”, he continues, “a mouth”. Auden was a realist and knew that poetry couldn’t stop the approaching machinery of war – the elegy was written in 1939 – nonetheless he upholds the human need to commune with other humans.

But might literature – novels, plays and, yes, even poetry – be more than a mouthpiece?

Literary aficionados and librarians have long argued the edifying effects of the literary arts, but until now they have been noticeably short on evidence. A recent study at Ohio State University, however, has confirmed that literature does in fact “make things happen”.

In the right situations, the researchers found, reading fiction can lead to measurable changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers. In jargon that Auden no doubt would have choked on, the researchers coined the term “experience-taking” to describe the phenomenon in which readers feel a character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs as their own.

“Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behaviour and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways,” said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

In one experiment, 70 heterosexual male college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions: in one the protagonist was revealed to be gay early in the narrative; in another the protagonist was identified as gay late in the narrative; and in a third the protagonist was identified as heterosexual.

Results showed that students who read the narrative in which the protagonist was identified as gay late in the story reported higher levels of experience-taking than those who read the narrative in which the protagonist’s homosexuality was announced early.

“If participants knew early on that the character was not like them – that he was gay – that prevented them from really experience-taking,” Libby said. “But if they learned late about the character’s homosexuality, they were just as likely to lose themselves in the character as were the people who read about a heterosexual student.”

Perhaps more importantly, the version of the story participants read affected how they thought about gays: those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.

Significantly, those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

Similar results were found when white students read about a black student who was identified as black early or late in the narrative.

Experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to empathise with another person’s experience – but without losing sight of their own identity. “Experience-taking is much more immersive”, Libby explains, “you’ve replaced yourself with the other”.

Interestingly, experience-taking only occurs when people are able to “forget” themselves – their self-concept and self-identity – while reading. In a fascinating experiment researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle that contained a mirror.

When people do undergo experience-taking, however, it can affect their behaviour for days afterwards.

In an experiment which took place several days before the last US presidential election, 82 undergraduates (who were registered and eligible to vote) read one of four versions of a short story about a student who overcomes a series of obstacles (car problems, rain, long lines) on Election Day before arriving at the booth to cast a vote.

After reading the story, the participants completed a questionnaire that measured their level of experience-taking. The results showed that participants who read a first-person narrative about a student at their own university had the highest level of experience-taking. And a full 65 percent of these participants later reported they voted on Election Day. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person narrative about a student from a different university.

But what are the practical applications of this research?

While the findings would seem to validate the librarian’s clarion call to get reading – for our higher good – other implications are not so heartening.

Might the findings, for example, be used to justify whitewashing, a disturbing practice in which publishers put white models on the covers of books featuring non-white protagonists?

In 2009 Australian author Justine Larbalestier was appalled to find her American publisher, Bloomsbury, had changed the cover model on her novel Liar from black to white in an effort to sell more books. Larbalestier was successful in her campaign to have her publisher to redo the cover, arguing that the perception that covers featuring non-white models do not sell is merely self-fulfilling prophecy. But what if a deeper psychology is at play?

And who is to say that a reader’s experience-taking of less virtuous characters is not an argument for censorship? Might the psychopathy of Patrick Bateman be contagious after all, as censors insist?

Recently fierce arguments have erupted in Germany over whether Hitler’s Mein Kampf has the power to make things happen. Some might argue that the diatribe is more fiction than fact, but this side of history, at least, it is hard to imagine anyone losing themselves in the character of Hitler.

Perhaps to be safe, though, it should be stipulated that the book only be read in cubicles containing a long mirror.

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