Thursday, August 25, 2011

Literary Critics - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid?

The theme of today's post is "demystifying the scary book reviewer". Many novelists are petrified of those who can make or break our book on the pages of literary magazines. I'm no exception.

And so it may come as a surprise to you to see with us in the virtual studio today, an acclaimed literary critic, Nicholas Reid.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Nicholas. You read for a living. How did you land such a prestigious and pleasurable job?

It’s certainly true that I spend much of my life reading, but it’s not quite true to say that I read for a living. In the last ten years, I have written and had published five substantial books including biography (James Michael Liston – a Life, Victoria University Press 2006) and institutional history (The University of Auckland – The First 125 Years, Auckland University Press 2008), as well as writing the poems that make up my first, and forthcoming, collection ( The Little Enemy, Steele-Roberts 2011). I have also had one stint as a Research Fellow at a New Zealand university, and three stints as a short-term contracted lecturer in History at three other New Zealand universities (so I’ve done teaching time at Vic in Wellington, and at Otago, Auckland and Waikato.)

So much of the reading I do is for historical research and in order to prepare lectures and write articles.

Having said that, I also do an immense amount of reading for pleasure and I certainly do enjoy getting as much book-reviewing work as I can.

I do not wish to disillusion anybody, but I have to point out that there’s not a great deal that is “prestigious” about book-reviewing. I think most reviewers like me get what work they can; but (unless one is a books pages editor for some publication), it is not really possible to make a living in New Zealand as a book-reviewer. The work is freelance and while what I or any other reviewer is paid is generally reasonable, it certainly isn’t enough to live on. To the best of my knowledge, everybody in New Zealand who does book-reviewing does it as well as a day job. (Apart from a few who might have a wealthy spouse of partner to support them.)

As for ‘landing’ the reviewing job, I suppose it was simply a matter of asking editors if they would take me on to their roster of reviewers and then showing that I could write a competent review. It really is one of those jobs where you get work only by daring to make the personal contact. Nobody ever advertises for books reviewers. However, I already did have a reasonable media profile before I took to book-reviewing, because for quite a few years I had been a film reviewer, and had written the first book-length study of the revived New Zealand cinema (A Decade of New Zealand Film, John Mcindoe publisher 1985). So I already had contacts in the media and publishing world.


Q: << Swallowing disillusionment>> Who are your favourite contemporary authors?

Oh dear! One of those questions that I always hope nobody will ask me. I am constantly reading new works of fiction and non-fiction, but I am also a frequent reader of older and even “classic” works. If you were to ask me my favourite novelists of all time, I would easily make up a long list that included Balzac, Conrad, Cervantes, Nadine Gordimer, Dickens, Zola, George Eliot and so on and so on through many illustrious names. But when you ask me about contemporary authors I freeze up, because committing yourself to one always seems to pigeon-hole you. Let me say that I admire the wit of David Lodge, and I think that Philip Hensher writes prose as good as any in English at the present day. (In a review I warmly recommended Hensher’s King of the Badgers this year, but I did warn that it had explicit sexual content.) I am impressed by China Mieville’s weird fantasies, which have a real adult intelligence running them (unlike most books that are listed as “fantasy”). Among New Zealand writers, I like the close, humane observation of Owen Marshall, the tart, acerbic irony of Charlotte Grimshaw, the bold experiments in narration of Charlotte Randall, and a number of up-and-coming younger writers who have shown they can write about the past without patronizing it. But I won’t say any more or I’ll hang myself on my own recommendations.


Q: I'll look out for China Mieville’s work, "weird" is enough of a recommendation for me. Many people's view of today's literature is that it's dreary and depressing. The language may be beautiful, but we don't want to read about war atrocities, rape or SIDS. What is your personal take on the topic?

I am never depressed by a well-written book, even if it is on atrocities, rape etc. If it is well-written and thoughtful, then I am heartened to know that there are other people in the world perceptive and articulate enough to consider these matters without sensationalism. I am depressed only by sensational trash and by genre-writing that shows neither originality nor flair. (Nothing wrong with a good thriller or police procedural or fantasy or love story – but most of the ones that are published look as if the were written by computer programme).

It may be possible that current novels are somewhat split between high-end ‘literary novels’ that repel a broad readership; and lower-ed genre and airport lounge stuff, which is fairly unreadable if you respect your own intelligence. If some readers are discontented with the modern scene it may be because, on the whole, we no longer have those long, capacious novels that had both high literary AND broad mass appeal. (I’m thinking of Dickens, of course.) But then maybe such novels were always the minority.


Q: Never depressed by a well-written book? That's a challenge for me, having been depressed by a number of award-winning novels. To change the subject a fraction, what do book critics do when not reviewing? Tell us about Nicholas Reid, the writer.

My wife and I are fully aware that we are demographic freaks for our generation. We have eight children, the three youngest of whom still live at home with us. Also, although we are both still in our ‘50s, we already have ten grandchildren. We are both active parents and grandparents. So as you may imagine, much of my life is taken up with family (which also includes one pet cat and one pet rabbit. I seem to be the only one who feeds them!).

Family matters are the main things I do when not book-reviewing. However – as well as the commissioned writing and teaching that I’ve already mentioned - I also have a number of hobbies that are important to me. My wife is a music teacher, all our children have received or are receiving a musical education. I myself cannot read music and have never played an instrument. But I love many varieties of music, especially jazz, what is loosely called ‘classical’ music, and opera. On Sunday afternoon you will usually find me glued to Concert FM listening to the weekly opera broadcast, and as often as I can I write programme notes for Opera New Zealand productions.

I also aspire to be a poet, and have twice guest-edited the magazine Poetry New Zealand, as well as getting a least some of my own poems published, including the forthcoming volume. I like being part of that culture, but have been part of public readings only a few times.

Then there are walks on the beach, walks around the block, idling, socializing, and lobbying or whatever commissioned work I can get. It’s a full life. Reviewing is part of it.

I also take pleasure in producing my blog, on top of all the reviewing I do. Check it out at http://reidsreader.blogspot.com/.

(From the interviewer: Do check it out. A few posts down you'll see a fascinating discussion on the etymology of the word "utopia".)





Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Too Gutted To Speak Myself

This guest post is by Jane Beckenham:

It is my great sadness to advise our writers (particularly those in
Auckland) who would have known her, that Norah Hansen-Hil, has passed away.
Norah has suffered an illness for many years and has fought an extremely
brave battle with courage and determination and a resilience and always a
smile. I considered Norah an exteremely good friend, one I cherish and will
sorely miss. I am devastated. Yvonne Walus and I would meet up monthly
with Norah, talking writing and books and men! Norah and I would talk
daily, often 2 or 3 times a day.

For those that may want to pay their
respects, here is the notice.

Go with my love, sweet Norah
Jane Bekenham



Thursday, August 18, 2011

RWNZ Annual Conference - Love and Other Crimes

The conference is upon us. This year, it's my privilege to help organise the raffles, and the prizes are fan-ta-bulous! I'm almost ready, too:
  • cold reads, check
  • money for the raffle tickets, check
  • credit card for new books, check
  • black V to keep me awake driving to the conference at 6.30AM, check
  • pitches to editors... er... I guess I'll have to wing it
Weekend of writing, here I come!



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ghost-hosting Nicholas Reid

I haven't interviewed Nicholas Reid yet. For the time being, I'm circling around him. Not a vulture. More like a cat gauging the safety levels of the encounter. His columns in The (prestigious) Listener impress. His blog amuses. But who is he, really?

Writer, reviewer, poet, historian. A connoisseur of literature and wine. Somebody who can see the value of reading a Perry Mason novel sandwiched between Joyce and Akhmatova (as you can read in his delightful blog, THE USES OF WHITE BREAD AND WATER). Somebody whose views I can readily adopt (DO WE REALLY TEACH LITERATURE?). Somebody I'd like to get to know better as a colleague.

In a way, I feel a little like a student writing an essay on contemporary New Zealand writers. I've done the Google thing. Now it's time for the inter-personal thing. Watch this space for the interview.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Arranged Marriages - an interview with novelist Shobhan Bantwal


Award-winning author Shobhan Bantwal calls her writing “Bollywood in a Book”—romantic, colorful, action-packed tales, rich with elements of Indian culture—stories that entertain and educate. Her latest novel, "The Full Moon Bride", is a compelling story that explores the fascinating subject of arranged marriage, as young Indian-American attorney Soorya Giri navigates the gulf between desire and tradition.



I'm privileged to host Shobhan on my blog this week, as she answers questions about love, romance and marriage.

Q: The book's blurb starts with "What makes a marriage-love or compatibility? Passion or pragmatism?" Shobhan, what is your own view about the foundation blocks of a good marriage? Do romance books mislead us about true love and the happy ever-after?

My latest book, The Full Moon Bride, revolves around the conflict in a young Indian-American woman's mind about choosing between arranged marriage and finding a mate on her own.

Having had a happy arranged marriage that is now in its 38th year, I have faith in the old-fashioned belief that love, passion, pragmatism and compatibility can and do co-exist simultaneously and harmoniously within a good marriage. In fact, they are the foundation blocks of a solid marriage along with mutual respect, compromise, and sacrifice.

I am a hopeless romantic, so I honestly can't say that romance books mislead us about true love and the happily-ever-after. We all need romance in our lives and romance books give us that much-needed break from the mundane nature of daily life. This is one of the reasons I write books with romantic elements, what I call "Bollywood in a Book". However, some of the more formulaic romance novels tend to romanticize physical love to the point that impressionable readers like teenagers and young adults can mistake sex for love. While sexual desire is a vital component of love between a man and a woman, true love transcends the physical.

The commercialization of Valentine's Day and other holidays, flowers, jewelry, chocolate, wine, and candlelight as symbols of love by the retail industry further impact upon man-woman relationships. To me, true love is about two people being there for each other through the worst of circumstances as well as the best. All the above-mentioned tokens, although cute and touching, are merely that: tokens.

Q: What are some advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriages?

The most significant advantage of arranged marriage is the discreet but intense research done by both the bride and the groom's families before an alliance is made, making sure that both partners come from similar social, economic, and religious backgrounds (caste in India). This makes for minimal adjustment, a fact that is often overlooked in non-arranged marriages, and can be the major factor in many divorces. Falling in love sometimes makes couples blind to the more mundane yet significant aspects of marriage and family, something that arranged marriage pays serious attention to.

The disadvantage obviously is two strangers coming together in a life-long relationship that is a bigger gamble than the average American-style marriage, where two people have known each other and come to love, before tying the knot. Also, in arranged marriages in conservative cultures like India, family and honor always come first, which places undue amount of pressure on a couple to stay together even when the marriage is unhappy or abusive.

Q: And the question you've been dreading: what made you choose this topic?

By its very nature arranged marriage is an intriguing and sometimes controversial topic that can trigger interesting debates. The subject matter is great fodder for a juicy storyline and therefore ideal for book clubs and women's fiction with romantic elements. I enjoy bringing more awareness to this custom, which still flourishes in India and other Asian cultures.

Besides, having raised a daughter in this American culture, and observed her dealing with the challenges of fitting into two diverse cultures in her youth, I was compelled to write a story about second-generation immigrant life. Most young men and women whose families have settled in the U.S. for generations are unaware of the unique cultural conflicts that their immigrant counterparts experience. I felt this story would bring to light some of those rare experiences.

Readers can find my books, events, contests, photos, recipes, and contact information on my website: www.shobhanbantwal.com/ or visit my facebook page: www.facebook.com/ShobhanBantwal.author

Thank you for a great interview.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?

1. Who is Yvonne Eve Walus and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?

2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?

8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read ‘Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What is your philosophy of life?

To read this interview with Yvonne Walus, do the deed.