You’ve got to wonder why anyone would want to be a Jazz musician in today’s music scene. If someone you loved, told you that’s what they wanted to do, you might try persuade them to play something that hadn’t peaked thirty years ago. A short story writer can only look back to the days of Borges, Hemingway or Chekhov, and feel those were the days where the world was really paying attention to their kind of prose. Yet some of us persist and I was wondering why we can’t persuade ourselves that there’s a different kind of music people want to hear. Could you entertain my analogy and tell me whether it’s about the instrument or the sound. Why do we insist the best days of Jazz are still to come?
I wouldn’t insist anything of the sort. I’d like to believe that my own best fiction is yet to be written, but the new belle epoch will have to take care of itself… Something compels me to tell stories, and shorter form narrative suits the kinds of explorations I want to make. Do I need to worry that the form I choose to tell the stories in – like virtually all the dominant art forms of the last century – would seem to be in serious need of revitalisation? No, there are people who can worry about that on my behalf. In the meantime, I’ll bring a few loosely related ideas into collision to produce outcomes and imperatives that surprise me. All that I’m doing when I start drafting is trying to find a true place within that material, and serve the narrative as best I can. While seeking to do that, I’m not giving a moment’s thought to whether what I’m doing is innovative, fashionable, or unfashionable, or whether the story in question will contribute to the revival of a jaded genre or mode. I just want to discover that thing within the material which will make it necessary in some way. There are a million ways for writers to double-guess themselves to death: Will this story be impressive? Is this subject matter sufficiently serious to identify me as a serious writer? Will my arse look big in this? … Just tell the story in a way that best reveals its truths, that best speaks in a voice that’s distinctively yours.
A deepening engagement with craft and voice is commendable but we fall in love with the stories and we want them to be read by more than a scattering of short fiction aficionados. You say the new belle epoch can take care of itself and that there are other people who can worry about the state of short stories on your behalf. Who are these people? Perhaps you mean publishers, but given the current state of the industry, I don’t think they’re able to do much more than struggle to stay afloat. Collections of stories don’t get much of their publicity dollars. Do you mean journalists? The newspapers have tiny literary sections and devote most of the allocated space to the international authors or local novelists. You’ve spent years working on the stories in your new collection, but it seems as though now you’re done with it and are ready to return to other stories. I’m wondering how you think Thought Crimes will generate a readership.
Ultimately, any revitalisation of the literary scene has to be led by the publishers. They have to commit to the work that they believe in, and endeavour to shape tastes. On a couple of occasions in the past ten years, I’ve sent out collections, and the fiction publishers have told me that they’ve loved them, but they have to wait for readers’ reports, and when those reports came in luke-warm, they passed on the project. Your first reaction (after kicking something) is to say, What’s the fucking point in calling yourself a publisher if you don’t go with your gut? If it’s going to be about pulling the three oranges on the slot machine, then all you are going to get is blandness; the works that will get published are the least rejectable. So now you are tempted to call publishers who back story collections ‘brave’, but what would they be if they weren’t brave? Why be in publishing? Would there be any satisfaction to be had from telling an author, I didn’t particularly like your book, but the people in marketing are confident there are five or ten thousand people out there who will think this bland burger tastes wonderful if we tell them it tastes wonderful? … But, ultimately, that’s not my business. My business is to ask, Would I like to read this story? Would reading this story be an exciting experience, or, at very least, time well spent? How can I best shape and balance the collection to keep the reader wanting to continue, to give them a sense of momentum and unity? For Thought Crimes, I had fifty stories to choose from, and the best fifteen were always going to make the cut, but then you’re looking for stories that are pace-shifters, and palate-cleansers. I imagine that it’s very like selecting and organising an album of songs. Yes, you need two or three ‘hit singles’ in the first five, and you want to finish strongly, but all the time you are thinking, How am I best going to hold the reader? Where is the ideal place for this story? I spent a full year doing that, and continually re-writing and editing the stories that were excluded to make sure that I’d given them their best chance.
But in terms of ‘generating a readership’, there really isn’t a lot that I can do. I’m a writer, I’m not a song and dance man. One of the real traps that the book industry fell for was the Festival Circuit. That was a death-blow for literary fiction that does what literature fiction is meant to do; to shake readers, to challenge their core values, and their habitual ways of engaging with the world. I’d prefer to hear just about anyone talk about books than their authors. The writers have put their heart and soul into writing the thing, they’ve invented a voice through which to express the otherwise inexpressible – read the fucking book. I don’t need my favourite writers to be celebrities, or public intellectuals, or the kind of people you’d love to invite home to a dinner party. (So many of my favourite writers were three-quarters insane.) Critics should be there to discuss books and to gate-keep, and to provoke arguments, and what we really need is to foster a critical culture…
Alec, I can only attest to the value of what I do by continuing to do it, and to make that work as vital as I can. If people wiser than me insist that they need to publish my work as an e-book with an author’s commentary track over the top, so be it. The business is their business, and writing the stories is mine. I have plenty of opinions about how things could be done better, but it’s not my money. When you have a profile like Radiohead, then you can self-publish … As it happens, I’ve lucked-out with my publisher. Black Inc have poured a lot of faith and determination into this book. I can honestly say that I’m much more anxious for them and the commitment they’ve made than I am for myself.
Writers often have an abstract idea of the reader. I work in a bookstore so they are customers and often friends. Readers are not afraid of being shaken. They enjoy being challenged in how they look at the world and what they value. What they avoid is language that requires a combined degree in linguistics and literary history to be understood. There are multitudes of television zombies staring open-mouthed at broadcasted ‘reality’ but a reader buys a book and sits down to decipher the text. If writers believe the reader is just another kind of zombie, they begin writing for their own perceived genius and/or the literary intelligentsia. It’s a disease in literature and it’s the reason why the industry is moribund. The challenge for the writer has always been to take highly complex aspects of the world, the elements of existence we can barely understand, and make them understandable. To create with just paper and ink, objects that can thrill, that engage, that can change us. Would you agree with that? What kind of readers will enjoy Thought Crimes. How do you hope the collection will be understood and appreciated?
If you spend too much time worrying whether this or that reader in Eastern Sydney or an American university is going to appreciate your work, you’ll never free yourself to write. Ultimately, you’re writing to surprise yourself and to impress one or two specific people, and you have to hope that their enthusiasm will extrapolate to a broader enthusiasm. Your so-called ‘ideal reader’ is generally someone whose outlook is similar to your own, whose obsessions are in the same ballpark as your own, but if readers have to be learned in all the stuff that you’re learned in, or to speak the secret-handshake language of the literary academic, then you are in trouble. That said, you cannot go out there trying to be everything for everyone. If no one dislikes your work, the odds are that it has no flavour, that it’s effectively unnecessary. If everyone dislikes your work, you’re fucked.
Who is going to like Thought Crimes? … Most likely the people who enjoy energy and ideas in their fiction. These twenty tales are mainly speculative fictions; they’re subjective and expressionistic. The sensibilities they portray are uncommon and surprising. There will be people who find them pretty funny, and others that see no humour in them at all. The stories tend to focus on that point where the imagination ceases to be creative and constructive and becomes destructive … So maybe they’ll appeal to destructive people, who knows?
Publishers like Black Inc, Affirm Press and Spineless Wonders are making the kind of commitment to short fiction we haven’t seen before in Australian literature. I don’t know if there ever was a belle epoch but the entire literary landscape is changing and I think short, sharp, well made prose, will emerge as the preeminent, modern literary form. Small press publishing means that print media can grow from our culture’s grassroots upwards like never before and the internet has opened up a whole new dimension of discourse and dissemination.
You suggested that any revitalisation has to be led by publishers. A publisher can choose what they print, but have nothing more than the power of a press release when it comes to actually influencing tastes. The strength of the imprint used to be enough to generate an audience but electronic media is becoming the prime arena for cultivating and sustaining interest. You seem to have avoided having much to do with the e-world, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on the subject. Is involvement with literary culture beyond the actual production of stories superfluous?
Not at all – I’m very happy for writers to be critics, academics, public intellectuals – but it shouldn’t be mandatory. I have opinions on a great many things, but it’s rare that I would choose to express them directly and in public. For a start, I’m not a verbally articulate person, which is one of the reasons why people are driven to write.
My first inclination is to divert any powerful need to express something into fiction – to dramatise the tensions around an issue or idea, and to draw out the complications and paradoxes. Like most ‘literary’ writers, I write in response to things that I’ve read and experienced, and I write into perceived gaps …
As for avoiding the e-world, I have poor eyesight, and struggle to read large-ish print on paper. I don’t want to read off screens for a second longer than I have to. While, I don’t profess to have any expertise, I think that publishers have it arse about with the e-book, especially with story collections, and that the print version should be augmenting audio or video versions rather than vice versa. Audio books and e-books definitely need to be integrated, otherwise you’re totally underselling the potential of the medium. And the author’s commentary track I mentioned earlier, I’d be up for that.
And I have to disagree with regard to the influence of the publisher. Choosing what to publish and how much time and energy should go into the production and promotion of the text is critical to shaping the literary future. It’s one thing for a writer to sometimes / often write texts that dare to be disliked in the home of subverting and renovating jaded literary modes, it’s quite another thing for someone to commit money to that end, risking a financial loss because they choose to prioritise literature’s needs, and identify themselves as a true literary publisher. Publishers have my sympathies. To some extent, they have to pretend that 25 years of movement from mainstream culture to ‘narrow-cast’, niche cultures and sub-cultures hasn’t happened, that it’s still possible for the margins to renovate the centre rather than for the centre to become increasingly marginal, dispersed, tribalised and fragmented. 25 years have passed since the end of the post-modern period, and what has replaced it? The genres have definitely become more commercially influential, but I don’t really see new genres, just the occasional gimmick like grunge in the mid-90s – mutton dressed up as mutton. To get the necessary transformations and renovations, you have to take risks, and Harry Potter can’t prop up the industry forever. I’m not pessimistic, I’m not optimistic, but shopping around photogenic, middle-of-the-road authors as literary celebrities at events that exist to celebrate the very dubious notion of literary celebrity is not the way forward. It actually denigrates what literary production is about.
I wish all those publishers who are committing to short-fiction well. I love reading short fiction, and writers like Gogol, Chekhov, Mansfield, Kafka, Borges, Cortezar, Nabokov, Barthelme, Calvino, Allen, Carver, Marquez, Carey, Murnane, Garner, Farmer, Gaitskill, Lahiri, July and so many more have helped transform my understanding and appreciation of the world. All power to the people who work to extend and transform our perceptions.
There are those who maintain that the principal aesthetic/moral aim of literature is ‘to hold a mirror up to reality’. Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes certainly does this, because a mirror can also invert or distort the object of its reflection. A transformation can take place; objects ‘may be closer than they appear’. Richards’ new collection of short stories is a looking glass presenting a world warped in this way, a reproduction further marred by cracks, clouding, and constellations of spat toothpaste.
Infants appear unannounced on the doorsteps of couples who desire them most. A school advocates the amputation of its students’ limbs. Tourists in a mysterious foreign country are forbidden to leave their train carriages. Charlie Brown appears as a guest on a chat show. At a country high school a boy arrives who may or may not be from the future… Almost without exception, the twenty-one stories of Thought Crimes (published by Black Inc.) feature events of varying absurdity, expressed with an ironic matter-of-factness that seemingly belies the content. Such a style is, of course, not uncommon, and is often referred to as ‘surrealist,’ in a slightly bastardised sense of the term, or as ‘Kafkaesque,’ with even less justification.
The major pitfall of these sorts of stories is a tendency to substitute complexity with novelty, to emphasise originality of concept over originality of expression, structure or atmosphere, to otherwise pursue the unusual premises to their ‘logical conclusion,’ where said pursuit consists of all the same narrative clichés that can be found in ‘regular’ fiction, only in quirkier get-up. The problem, as ever, seems to be the handling of ambiguity; the question of how much strangeness is made explicit, or left brooding in the periphery.
Richards, for the most part, gets the balance right. A couple of the stories (‘Queue Jumping,’ ‘(Favoured by) Babies,’ ‘Astronauts’) suffer from what might be called unambiguous ambiguity, where the mystery, such as it is, seems a little too contrived, and ends on a deliberately atonal note that practically screeches THIS IS AMBIGUOUS; and others (‘The Grease,’ ‘Magnetic,’ ‘The Future Perfect’) are filler episodes, serving only as a breath between the longer stories, or as an outro; but the majority of Thought Crimes’ pieces are creepily-wrought slices-of-life: flayed victims of an avuncular serial killer.
Richards’ strongest writing is when the subject matter is less obviously bizarre, though admittedly in a collection like Thought Crimes, ‘less bizarre’ is strictly relative. ‘Club Selection’ is set in an apparently Japanese resort that caters to Australian tourists/refugees, whose homeland has been torn apart by unspecified violence/wars/terrorist activity. Employees of the resort are encouraged to act as ‘Australian’ as possible, which gives Richards the opportunity to wax satirical about our social mores as observed from a foreign viewpoint:
No one understands what it is to be Australian until they fully grasp the terms of Australian friendliness. For Australians, friendliness is a superstition; a way of defraying the fear of being considered selfish or mean-spirited. To refuse friendliness is much worse than refusing a gift, since refusal is likely to activate the tensions implicit in ‘the friendliness paradox’. The more you try to be sincere, the further you are from true sincerity. If inscrutability is the cliché one attaches to Asians, one ought to approach Australians with an appreciation of their paradoxicality.
The employees’ earnest yet ridiculous cultural imitation shifts, however, from comical to unsettling when it is hinted that they are covering up instances of radiation poisoning caused by the resort’s contaminated water supply. The gradation from innocent absurdity to subtle menace in ‘Club Selection’, is characteristic of some of the best stories in the collection, like the brush with the Kurtz-like missionaries in ‘The Darkest Heart.’ In this answer of sorts to Conrad’s novella, adolescent Ian Hall doesn’t so much go into the jungle as have the jungle come to him, in the form of the Watson family, whose experiences at an African mission have left them incapable of integrating back into ‘civilised’ society. Initially intrigued by these eccentrics staying at his family’s house, Ian becomes aware that their strangeness isn’t altogether wholesome, stemming from obliquely referenced ordeals in Africa, including possible sexual rituals and kidnapping. And while the Watsons only stay for a night, their corrupting influence remains like the lingering kiss Mrs Watson, a nymphomaniac, presses to Ian’s lips, irrevocably initiating him into a world his boyish innocence is unprepared for. Richards’ satire of religious fundamentalism is saved from heavy-handedness by the inferiority of Ian’s understanding of events to our own, allowing the critique to remain implicit and only half-suggested.
Richards’ strength lies in disturbing insinuation and hidden ironies; the less overt the strangeness, the better he is at making the story strange, as also shown by the troubled actions of a German student in ‘Foreign Exchange,’ and in other pieces like ‘Dog’s Life’ and ‘Swimming Across the Rip,’ where a simmering sense of threat is never entirely absent.
Thirteen years have passed since the release of Richards’ Duckness, a collection of short stories and concluding volume of Approximate Life (an ‘autobiographical trilogy’ that also included the collection Letters to Francesca (1996) and novella The Prince (1997).) Thirteen years is an inauspicious enough anniversary, but when considering the twisted pleasure evidenced in Thought Crimes for mischance and foreboding, it seems more than appropriate. So embrace the bad luck, Thought Crimes is a mirror of reality well worth breaking into.
288 pages, $27.95